Irregular, elementary, and belittling

September 29, 2018

I have three new posts to report from Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about words and language. Links and excerpts follow.

‘This is highly irregular’ showcases the devilish irregularity of English:

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.

‘Elementary error, my dear Watson’ looks at a well-known expression whose provenance proves unexpected:

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.

It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.

‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.

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Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

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Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

September 24, 2012

I have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in everyday words like be and go:

Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.

The post also looks at how new irregulars (snuck, knelt) sometimes appear; how old ones (holp, brung) survive in regional dialects; and how irregular forms, far from being chaotic, tend to follow patterns and sub-rules of their own.

Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’:

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . .

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retains – old grammatical and phonetic variants. [read more]

Finally, On the metaphor of sock puppets addresses the term sock puppet in its new online incarnation. Describing it as “the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way”, I examine the term’s connotations and appropriateness, especially in light of the etymology of puppet and the other metaphorical uses to which it is put:

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap. [read more]

Older posts are available in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Slightly sinister sock puppet image via Wikimedia Commons.