Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

April 28, 2015

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise, lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

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Book review: ‘Word Drops’, by Paul Anthony Jones

April 14, 2015

If linguistic trivia is your flavour of the month, there’s a treat in store for you. Speaking of which, did you know the first thing to be described as having a flavour of the month is ice cream? This inconsequential yet pleasing fact is one of many to be found in Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, aka Haggard Hawks.

The publishers of this diverting work, Elliott & Thompson (who kindly sent me a review copy), describe it as addictive – and it is certainly that. Each page contains a handful of intriguing word-related trivia, much of it etymological or semantic. Weird terms, old slang and surprising histories abound. But unlike most trivia books, which are structured thematically, Word Drops is arranged sequentially:

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Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

March 13, 2015

She be’s out on that bike every Sunday

They do be up late chatting

Everyone knows about grammatical tense – it involves placing a situation in time, using inflections and auxiliaries to mark temporal location in the past, present, future, etc. Aspect, though less familiar, also concerns time: specifically, how a speaker views the temporal structure or properties of an action or situation, such as whether it’s complete, habitual, or still in progress.

So for example, in the progressive aspect an action is, was, or will be in progress: am walking, was writing, will be singing. It pairs auxiliary be with a gerund-participle complement (__ing). The terminology can be forbidding, but the structure is familiar.

Then there’s habitual aspect for habitual or repeated events or states. In the past tense, English can use would (She would make tea when we called) or used to (We used to meet daily). In English present tense, habitual aspect is not marked, and is often indicated with adverbs or adverbials: We go there [regularly / all the time].

Irish English, also called Hiberno-English, can express habitual aspect in present tense by enlisting Irish (Gaelic) grammar. In Irish, tá mé (which can contract to táim) means ‘I am’, literally ‘is me’. But bíonn mé (→ bím) means ‘I (habitually) am’ – a different sense of be. The distinction is so intrinsic to Irish that our ancestors refashioned English to incorporate it.

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Book review: Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea

August 26, 2014

In his groundbreaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, with his customary insight, wrote:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

If the history of the English usage wars shows us anything, it’s how overpowering that temptation has proved, and still proves, to be. No special training is required to be an amateur grammarian, and so the annals of language commentary fill with unfounded peeves from those who like to tell other people they are Doing Language Wrong.

ammon shea - bad english -a history of linguistic aggravation - perigee book coverOf course, there has always been an opposing force from those who know the perils of setting usage advice in stone, of saying a certain word must mean this and never that and so it should be forevermore. Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.

Ammon Shea’s new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (a copy of which I received for review from its publisher Perigee Books), is a very welcome addition to the canon of usage commentary. It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.

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The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read The Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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Book review: ‘Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue’, by Jonathon Green

June 17, 2014

Just as culture has its counterculture, so language has its nonconformist, outsider self. Why it’s called slang is an enduring mystery to etymologists and lexicographers, but the elusiveness only adds to its intrigue.

Much of slang by its very nature goes unrecorded, or at least did so before the internet turned half the world into quasi-publishers. This makes tracking the history of slang a real challenge – how do you flesh out something that never had a proper skeleton to begin with?

Enter Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, whose new book Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue provides a sturdy history. (Its publisher, Atlantic Books, kindly sent me a copy for review.) Language! is a thoroughly engaging account of slang’s development from the early days of criminal cant to the broader current-day incarnations stemming from our cities’ subcultural and multicultural vernaculars.

Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.

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Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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