June 22, 2017
Catching up on my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I have three recent posts to share.
Golly, matey – vocabulary change is massively awesome looks at how the words we use reflect our shifting habits and preoccupations:
To look more broadly at these ripples in the collective lexicon, we can turn to big data in the form of language corpora. One of these, the Spoken British National Corpus, allows many kinds of linguistic research, such as studying how English vocabulary and regional dialects are shifting. The project was in the news recently with a story about ‘words we no longer use’. The headline exaggerates, but there are indeed words we use much less – or much more – than we did twenty years ago. The corpus data can illustrate how our lives have changed over the years.
TL;DR: Abbreviations FTW is an overview of the different types of abbreviations and the different ways we style and use them:
Efficiency is intrinsic to communication, and can drive language change. Set phrases that are used repeatedly are commonly abbreviated, as they save people time and effort. In digital communication, abbreviations may also serve as tribal markers – tfw users are in the know about internet lingo. Ikr. Sometimes, as in the case of lol, abbreviations may even undergo grammatical transformation.
Cucks, cuckolds, cuckqueans and cuckoos briefly explores the origins and applications of this nest of interconnected words:
Quean is a notable word in its own right. It comes from Old English cwene, meaning ‘woman’, from Proto-Indo-European *gwen-, which is also the root of queen, misogyny, and gynaecology. In English, cwene was originally a neutral word; but like many terms of female reference, it gradually took on negative senses and connotations, coming to mean ‘impudent woman’, ‘hussy’, and ‘prostitute’. In Scots it has retained its original neutral sense.
Each post is bite-sized, readable in 2–3 minutes. For more, you can browse the full archive.
January 31, 2017
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.
Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:
Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.
The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.
Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:
Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.
You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.
December 22, 2014
Remember the transformation of fail and win 5–6 years ago? Fleeting online slang phrases like bucket of fail and made of win may sound dated now, but terms like epic fail/win and FTW (“for the win”) and the words’ use as tags and hashtags remain popular. Fail and win have firmly, if informally, extended their grammatical domains, having been converted from verb to noun, interjection, and other categories.
A word undergoing comparable change is nope. Its metamorphosis over the last few years has in some ways been more impressive, but it seems less remarked on than fail and win – maybe because of its more limited distribution. For instance, this cartoon on Imgur (pronunciation note here), which shows Spider-Man shooting spiders from his hands, drew comments that use nope as a verb, adjective, and noun – mass and count – as well as duplicating, lengthening, and adverbifying it.
Some of the comments are listed below. A couple have swear words, so you might prefer to skip ahead if you’re likely to be offended by those:
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October 24, 2014
If I made a list of words I often see misspelt, definitely would definitely be among them. But while it was once *definately or *definatly I’d read in casual, unedited writing, nowadays it’s more likely to be defiantly. I ran a search on Twitter:
The figure is taken from thin air, but it might not be far wrong: see for yourself. Defiantly is used a couple of times a minute around the world on Twitter, almost always to mean definitely. I suspect that’s also the case in text and instant messaging, but I haven’t looked into it.
In fact, just about the only time we see defiantly ≠ definitely on Twitter, it’s not because someone is using defiantly to mean defiantly, but because they’re mentioning it to complain about the misspelling.
It could be, as @GramrgednAngel suggested, that people are typing definat… (like in the good ol’ days) and autocorrect is transposing this into defiantly. If so, it’s having a big influence.
I’ve not heard the error in speech, nor yet spotted it in print; for now it seems mainly restricted to informal digital communication. But who’s to say it won’t spread, defiantly.
October 7, 2014
I’ve been interviewed by Grammarist, a website specialising in words and language use. Among the topics addressed are the origins of Sentence first, whether blogging has changed language use, common mistakes, and how I would change the way people use language.
Here’s one Q&A item:
What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?
I’ve always been drawn to nature and biology, and language is one of its more compelling phenomena – not least because we use it to think and communicate with. As the Modest Mouse song goes, it’s the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Once you start looking closely at language it opens up worlds of wonder, be it the complex choreography of speech or syntax or the transporting effects of a novel or poem. Sometimes language gets in our way, but it’s hard to imagine human life without it.
You can read the rest here. Despite my tendency to ramble I kept things fairly short and light. Comments are welcome at either location.
Grammarist has a good series of these interviews, with some names that I’m sure will be familiar to you. Anyone in the mood for even more can read earlier interviews I did for Copyediting newsletter and the WM Freelance Writers Connection.
July 23, 2014
I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.
First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.
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