Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Have a sky at this language

February 14, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank (Bloomsbury, 2012), sub-subtitled Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew. It’s a sad and absorbing account, edited by Nic Compton, with about 70 ‘narrators’ plus a few outside experts (such as Ernest Shackleton) who gave evidence at the inquiries after the disaster.

It’s also of no little linguistic interest. One item that struck me was the evocative expression have a sky, meaning ‘have a look’. James Johnson, an English night watchman on the ship, reported:

I had no lifebelt then, so I went down for it after. I thought I might have made a mistake in the boat station list, and I went to look at it again. I said, ‘I will have a sky again.’

nic-compton-titanic-on-trial-the-night-the-titanic-sank-bloomsburyThe line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read. In his introduction, Compton refers to the idiom but changes the verb from have to take. Describing the witness testimonies, he writes:

Not only are they unfiltered by any author, but they are absolutely contemporaneous and are imbued with the character of the times – good and bad. There are wonderful turns of phrase which were once the norm but now sound impossibly poetic – such as ‘I will take a sky’, meaning ‘I will take a look’.

James Johnson was apparently English, aged 41, and his line is the only example of the expression that I found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. It doesn’t appear in the OED. So I’m not convinced that it was once commonplace, but I’d be interested to know if any readers have heard it.

It also prompted me to look up the etymology of sky, and I was rewarded with this lovely discovery:

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Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

February 7, 2017

Jargon and slang get a bad press. In the right contexts, though, they serve an important communicative purpose, at the same time allowing users to express their identity as part of a community – and to have fun with language while doing so.

Any specialised activity accumulates its own vocabulary, born of the particular actions, situations, equipment, and people involved. These lingos occasionally leak into other domains, or even the mainstream, but for the most part they remain more or less constrained or hidden, niche terminologies available only to the tribes in question.

susie-dent-dents-modern-tribes-the-secret-languages-of-britain-book-coverIn her new book Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, Susie Dent presents a host of these distinct lexicons for wider appreciation. As well as being a lifelong word lover, Dent is an unabashed eavesdropper, ear always poised for scraps of idiosyncratic interaction. That method, combined with straight-up interviews and chats, has yielded a wealth of material from a great variety of human professions and hobbies: cab drivers and cricketers, actors and anglers, soldiers and spies, roadies and ravers, firefighters and freemasons, teachers and (of course) trainspotters – dozens in all, each a rich source of verbal codes and curiosities.

These lexicons bundle history aplenty. For example, ever since Churchill, as UK home secretary, gave black-cab drivers the right to refuse a fare while eating, cabbies have referred to a meal as a Churchill. A slow period for taxis is called kipper season, ‘apparently from the days when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers’. Other terms are derived from more immediate sources: among cabin crew members a slam-clicker is, echoically, one who ‘goes straight to the hotel on landing and doesn’t emerge again until it’s time to leave’.

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Link love: language (68)

December 8, 2016

Before the year runs away from me – it’s about to sprint out of sight – I want to catch up here on the links I’ve been gathering (and in some cases tweeting) over the last few weeks. It’s the usual mix of articles, posts, podcasts, and pictures, all of a linguistic theme. Click at will.

Pseudo-anglicisms.

‘This is not your language.’

The etymology of slang – finally.

The art of editing (podcast, 39 min.).

The race to save Hawaii Sign Language.

What whistled speech tells us about the brain.

People with no language (hat tip to John Cowan).

Mr Slang – of GDoS fame – now has a podcast.

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Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.

*

As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


Up to your oxters in Gaelic expressions

June 4, 2016

Up to your oxters (or my oxters, etc.) is a phrase I often heard growing up in County Mayo in Ireland. Oxter means ‘armpit’, normally, so up to your oxters means ‘up to your armpits’ – whether literally or figuratively. You could be up to your oxters in a river or in housework.

The word is used in dialects in Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Isle of Man. As well as signifying the armpit, it can refer to the underside of the upper arm more generally, to the fold of the arm when bent against the body, and to the armhole of a coat or jacket.

Oxter also has various verb senses. The OED lists these as: ‘to support by the arm, walk arm in arm with; to take or carry under the arm; to embrace, put one’s arm around’. It dates the earliest example to Robert Burns in 1796: ‘The Priest he was oxter’d, the Clerk he was carried.’ The noun is centuries older.

stan carey - scariff Irish seed savers - tall grass up to your oxters

Tall grass up to your oxters, at Irish Seed Savers in Scariff, County Clare

The etymology of oxter is surprisingly complicated, but the word is of clearly Germanic cast. From the OED:

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