A fierce popular usage in Ireland

October 28, 2016

The adjective fierce has a range of overlapping meanings that convey aggression, savagery, intensity, and so on (fierce dog/battle/debate/storm), reflecting its origin in Latin ferus ‘wild, untamed’. In modern use its connotations are often negative or neutral, but it can also modify positive qualities (fierce loyalty/passion/strength).

Fierce leads a different sort of life in colloquial Irish English, where we put it to adverbial use as an intensifier, like very. I could say it’s fierce mild out, or that someone is fierce generous or fierce polite. The seeming paradox of these phrases is apparent to me only upon reflection; they come naturally to speakers of Hiberno-English.

Here are some examples from Twitter and boards.ie:

Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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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.


Weasel words

July 24, 2008

Bill Watterson once wrote in a Calvin and Hobbes strip: “I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.” One of the many ways this purpose is achieved — unconsciously or otherwise — is through the use of weasel words. The term was coined by Stewart Chaplin in a short story published by The Century Magazine in 1900. The character St. John says:

Why, weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it’s as light as a feather, and not very filling when you’re hungry, but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary.

The term was popularised in 1916 when Theodore Roosevelt used it in a speech; its profile has grown again recently, and some commentators have extended its original meaning to include clichés, euphemisms, non sequiturs, the passive voice, and vague speech or writing in general. Because several pages would be required to cover all these usages, and because I’m not convinced by the loosely extended definition, I’ll mention just a few prime culprits: clearly, obviously, patently, significantly, plainly, certainly, supposedly, actually, undoubtedly, wholly, and even the humble very.

It is a curious paradox that the use of such intensifiers (also called intensives) seems to have the opposite effect to what is intended. That is, intensifiers can compromise the point being made. A study of their use in appellate briefs (PDF, 334 KB) reports that “as things become less clear, judges tend to use ‘clearly,’ and ‘obviously’ more often.” It’s worth considering why. If a writer’s points are clear, plain and forceful, weasel words are superfluous. If a writer’s points are not clear, plain and forceful, they will not become so with weasel words.

In other words, weasel words will not bridge the gap of persuasion. They can, of course, be used in exemplary ways that do not cast doubt on the writer’s credibility; unfortunately, they seem just as likely to be used to “inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity”, as Calvin put it. I recommend using them sparingly.