‘Because X’ in Finnish and Norwegian, because borrowing

November 20, 2015

Languages often borrow from one another: it’s a common source of linguistic growth and change. Normally what gets borrowed is words, called ‘loans’, ‘loanwords’, or ‘borrowings’ (though the terms suggest eventual return, which isn’t how it works). Any word that isn’t a loanword is a native word.

English is a frequent borrower, being full of loanwords from many other languages. This ability to integrate foreign forms is one reason for its success. And it goes both ways: because of English’s status and reach, it’s a common ‘donor language’ for others. The World Loanword Database is a useful resource on the phenomenon.

Less often, other linguistic elements are borrowed, like grammatical structures or pronunciations. An example of the former is because X, a popular construction in informal English.* I first wrote about because X in 2013, elsewhere picking it as my word of the year (the American Dialect Society later did likewise). Such was its impact that the phrase was discussed not just by linguists but by more mainstream outlets.

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English is not going to the dogs

November 17, 2015

Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post about descriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year by Intelligence Squared.

The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.

Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.

Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’

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Reconciling descriptivism with editing

November 10, 2015

A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:

Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).

Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).

Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.

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Afterlives of words and birds

October 22, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Words change, and that’s OK looks at a new series by Macmillan on word use and language change, and concludes that – despite what language cranks would have you believe – etymology is not the boss of meaning:

This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real Vocabulary series, which assesses word use based on the evidence of usage rather than myth, hearsay, and pet preference. In a video about awesome, for example, Scott Thornbury points to the Dictionary’s secondary meaning  for the word, which defines it as ‘extremely good’, labels it ‘informal’, and says it is ‘used mainly by young people’. This supplies enough information and context to understand the word’s recent extension, and is infinitely more helpful than complaining about it or rejecting it as wrong.


john tenniel engraving of dodo, alice's adventures in wonderland by lewis carrollIn The dodo is dead, long live the dodo, I reflect on dodo the word and dodo the bird, now sadly extinct but with an afterlife of sorts in literature (such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a line from which gave this blog its name) and in expressions like dead as a dodo:

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

Older posts can be read at my Macmillan Dictionary archive.

An incredulous anachronism?

October 9, 2015

I was struck by this use of incredulous in an old trailer for the 1932 Universal Studios film The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff:

universal studios 1932 mummy trailer - incredulous

My first reaction was that it should be incredible – since incredulous means ‘unbelieving’ or ‘disbelieving’, not ‘unbelievable’ – but it seemed unlikely that such a ‘mistake’ would have slipped through unnoticed. So I looked it up.

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Bandying libfixes about

August 26, 2015

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

It’s a libfix-aganza! looks at those productive word-bits dubbed libfixes by linguist Arnold Zwicky – like –gate, –splain(ing), and –pocalypse. My post provides an overview of the phenomenon and a small feast of examples:

There’s iversary to mark an anniversary of some kind (blogiversary, hashtagiversary, monthiversary), kini for variations on the bikini (face-kini, mankini, nun-kini), –preneur for different types of enterprising person (foodpreneur, mumpreneur, solopreneur), –tacular to refer to something impressive in a particular way (cat-tacular, craptacular, spooktacular), likewise –tastic (awesometastic, foodtastic, quintastic), and –zilla, ‘connoting size, significance, awesomeness, or fearsomeness’, as linguist Arnold Zwicky puts it (bridezilla, hogzilla, shopzilla).

All of these combining forms are what Zwicky calls libfixes, a term he coined in 2010, because they are liberated parts of words or portmanteaus but ‘are affix-like in that they are typically bound’. . . . Libfixes behave essentially like affixes but tend to be more semantically specified than, say, de- or –ation or –ible.


Bandying the word ‘bandy’ about considers the word bandy: the various meanings it has gained and the many ways we’ve used it over the centuries.

Funnily enough, Charles Dickens used the word to mean ‘too many bands’ in a letter where he called Dover ‘Not quite a place to my taste, being too Bandy (I mean musical – no reference to its legs).’ . . .

Many of the early, interrelated senses of the word have to do with throwing something aside, or to and fro, or tossing it about. It may be something physical, such as a ball in sport, or more figurative, like words and ideas. If you picture a crowd watching a tennis game you can see why the physical reference was suitable for extension to arguments and other back-and-forth verbal exchanges.

All my posts for Macmillan Dictionary on assorted language-related topics can be read here.

Link love: language (63)

August 1, 2015

For your weekend reading and viewing pleasure, a selection of recent language-related links from around the web:

Love letters to trees.

How to design a metaphor.

Two medieval monks invent writing.

The United Swears of America, in maps.

On the political power of African American names.

Asperitas: the first new cloud name since 1951.

The emerging science of human screams.

Telegraphic abbreviations of the 19thC.

Secret language games, aka ludlings.

Managing weight in typeface design.

Zodiac signs for linguists.

A stone talking to itself.

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