Secrets and private languages

July 28, 2020

Deborah Tannen’s book You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Virago Press, 2006) has no shortage of passages worth quoting. Here are two.

The title’s foregrounding of clothes, by the way, is indicative but potentially misleading: clothing is but one of many topics whose metamessages Tannen analyses.

A chapter on inclusion and exclusion in female relationships notes the early emergence of this preoccupation:

Much of the talk that little girls exchange with their friends is telling secrets. Knowing each other’s secrets is what makes them best friends. The content of the secret is less significant than the fact that it is shared: Exchanging secrets is a way to negotiate alliances. A girl can’t tell secrets in front of girls who aren’t friends, because only friends should hear her secrets. So when girls don’t like another girl, they stop talking to her, freeze her out of the group. That’s why when a little girl gets angry at a playmate, she often lashes out, “You can’t come to my birthday party.” This is a dreadful threat, because the rejected girl is left isolated. In contrast, boys typically allow boys they don’t like, or boys with low status, to play with them, though they treat them badly. So boys and men don’t tend to share (or understand) girls’ and women’s sensitivity to any sign of being excluded. (They tend to develop a different sensitivity: to any sign of being put down or pushed around.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

May 3, 2019

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: ‘The Dictionary of Difficult Words’ by Jane Solomon and Louise Lockhart

April 26, 2019

Early English dictionaries, such as A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not aim to be thorough. Instead they defined only difficult and specialised vocabulary – the assumption being that ordinary, familiar words did not need explaining. There are practical benefits to learning difficult words, and they often have aesthetic and intellectual appeal too, whether they are ‘lost’ words or simply outside the everyday trade of language.

Book cover of The Dictionary of Difficult Words. It is mainly dark blue, with lots of individual letters and small images scattered about, such as a worm, boat, guitar, rainbow, and butterfly. In the middle is a pink rectangle with ragged edges. Inside it is the title, in red and white text, and the author and illustrator's name in black underneath.Children in particular can be delighted by weird and wonderful words. And children in particular will lap up The Dictionary of Difficult Words, a new book written by lexicographer Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart. It’s aimed principally at readers aged 7–12, but this is a publication that will brighten anyone’s bookshelf. It would be very much at home in school libraries too.

Before opening the book, I was struck by how attractive it is as an object. The large, slim hardback has an embossed title and beautiful texture on the cover. The design throughout is fun and expressive, with multiple drawings or collages on every page. The whole package is artfully coloured and styled, with lexical and graphic marvels galore.

Some definitions are pithy:

Read the rest of this entry »

50 lost words from the OED

April 17, 2019

Ammon Shea loves dictionaries – especially the OED. He loves the OED so much, he read it – the whole thing, in its second edition: 21,730 pages with around 59 million words. It took him a year, full-time, and he wrote a book about it, titled Reading the OED (2008).

This is not a review, but it is a recommendation. Reading the OED will charm anyone who’s into dictionaries and words, especially unusual ones, or anyone curious about unusual hobbies and passions-slash-afflictions. (I did review Shea’s 2014 book Bad English, an entertaining historical snapshot of the English usage wars.)

Book cover of "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages". The cover shows a man lying on his back on the grass with his hands crossed on his belly and a volume of the OED open on his face. He's probably asleep.When I said Shea loves dictionaries, I meant he really, really loves them. (This repetition of really is an example of epizeuxis, which is defined below.) Before the book came out, he moved house and brought 45 boxes: dictionaries filled 41 of them. As well as the 20-volume second edition of the OED, he owns the 13-volume 1933 edition, the four-volume supplement, the two- and ten-volume Shorter OEDs, the condensed-type edition, and ‘a random single-volume edition’. ‘Each has its own usefulness,’ he assures us. Certainly these things are relative, but I don’t doubt him for an instant.

So what was it like to read the biggest, most celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These qualities make it both a tremendous joy to read at some times and unbearably boring at others.’

How boring? Consider the un- prefix:

Read the rest of this entry »

Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.


Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.


[click to enlarge]


Read the rest of this entry »

Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

Read the rest of this entry »