Dreaming about words and raccoons

January 10, 2016

A dream I had during the week may be of passing linguistic interest.

A small group of people were speaking informally to each other. I was both one of them and not, in that way dreams have of detuning subjectivity. It wasn’t a group conversation but something more loose and staged, and most of the verbal content escapes me. The curious thing is that whenever someone said the word chiefly – which they did in most utterances – they gently threw a raccoon to the person they were speaking to. The raccoon didn’t seem to mind.

That’s pretty much it. The dream didn’t last long, but its contents were so memorably silly (and explicitly linguistic) that I mentioned it on Twitter when I got up. Writer Melissa Harrison suggested that it might have been connected to the raccoon that lost its candy floss – a story currently doing the quirky-news rounds.

Continuing her dream-detective work, Melissa asked if I’d used or read the word chiefly the day before, and I realised that I had (in a post for Strong Language, which I’ll write separately about later), and that I’d lingered on it a moment to make sure it was the right adverb. These real-world prompts for the dreamt material can’t be definitive, but they seem likely, especially the raccoon.

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Due to Alice in Blenderland

December 16, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Due to general usage, this phrase is fine looks at the compound preposition due to, my use of which in the post title would be considered ungrammatical by some prescriptivists:

They say due must function as an adjective, which it commonly does after a linking verb. So they would accept a phrase like: ‘Our delay was due to traffic’, but not: ‘We were delayed due to traffic’. Fowler considered the latter usage ‘illiterate’ and ‘impossible’, while Eric Partridge said it was ‘not acceptable’.

These judgements, which have been inherited by some of today’s critics, may seem unnecessarily restrictive to you. They certainly do to me, and to the millions of English speakers who for centuries have ignored the ‘rule’. Writers, too.

The post goes on to show a change in attitudes in favour of the usage, and why there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it anyway.

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Humpty Dumpty and Alice through the looking-glass portmanteau - John TennielAlice in Blenderland completes my series of posts on Alice in Wonderland to mark the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication by Macmillan in 1865. It reviews the portmanteau words (aka blends) that Lewis Carroll coined:

Carroll’s famous nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which features in Through the Looking-Glass, supplies several examples. Some have entered general use: chortle, for instance, is an expressive term blending chuckle and snort; galumph (appearing in the poem as galumphing) may derive from gallop and triumphant; and burble combines bleat, murmur, and warble – though Carroll could not recall creating it this way, and burble has also been a variant spelling of bubble since the fourteenth century.

I then look at some of Carroll’s lesser known portmanteaus and some lesser liked ones that he had nothing to do with – at least not directly.

My older posts on words and language for Macmillan Dictionary can be viewed here.


Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.

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john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.

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john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.


A flitch of etymology

October 19, 2015

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

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Foostering around with an Irish word

September 30, 2015

Fooster is one of those words much loved in Hiberno-English but largely restricted to it, not having crossed to wider dialects as galore and smithereens did.* Derived from Irish fústar /’fuːst̪ər/, and alternatively spelt foosther to approximate Irish phonology, it has a meaning more easily described in general terms than precisely pinned down.

To fooster is to fiddle around or fuss with something. It’s a kind of agitated activity: busy but commonly aimless or inefficient. You can fooster with or over something, fooster around or about, or just fooster.

Curiously, there seems to be no associated Irish verb. Niall Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary translates fústar as ‘fuss, fidgetiness’ and fústaire as a ‘fussy, fidgety person’; fústráil is the act of fussing or fidgeting, while fústrach is the adjectival form.

Sometimes fooster has slightly pejorative connotations, implying mild disapproval: a parent or teacher might give out to a child for foostering. But the word is often emotionally neutral. It has broad appeal and is used in a wide range of ways (see below); Irish culture writer John Byrne called his blog Fústar in its honour.

Since being imported into Irish English – by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1847, says the OED – fooster has been inflected per English norms, giving rise for example to the adjective foostery. Fooster itself doubles as a noun form, but the gerund foostering is more usual in my experience. There’s a strong hint of phonaesthesia about all of these.

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