Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Seven videos about language

February 5, 2021

A few years ago I shared six videos about language, so posting seven this time may set a perilous precedent. (I’ve also blogged a bunch of others, before and since, if you want still more audiovisual diversion.)

Below, there are two short, three medium, and two long videos, in that order. See what grabs your fancy.

A wild one to begin: Why Werner Herzog refuses to speak French:

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Awkness: an old word made new again

January 28, 2021

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.' Read the rest of this entry »


The OED Text Visualizer

June 27, 2020

The OED Text Visualizer is an amazing new research tool from OED Labs based on a powerful data engine that automatically annotates text. The Visualizer displays etymological information in an attractive visual format that can ‘open up new areas of questioning and means of discovery’.

It works like this: Paste up to 500 words into the box on this page, add the text’s date, click the button, and you get an instant display of word origins, helpfully colour-coordinated, along a 1,000-year timeline.

Here’s what I got with the first eight paragraphs of my post on the word culchie:

[click to embiggen]

Screengrab of the OED Text Visualizer. It shows a rectangular display with colour-coded bubbles of various sizes scattered along a timescale from before the year 1000 up to 2000 on the x-axis. Along the top are the colour codes: English, in blue (97), Germanic, in dark green (82), Romance, in red (66), Latin, in purple (23), other, in yellow (6), and Celtic, in orange (1).

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Link love: language (74)

March 23, 2020

Language links ahoy. If you’re looking to pass an hour or a few with some linguistic reading and audiovisual material, see what takes your fancy from the selection below (there are lots more after the fold). A couple of them are even about you know what.

Coronacoinages.

Forest dialect words.

Viral language and racism.

What counts as a slur, and why?

The Iron Curtain lives on as an isogloss.

Newly published: the Mother Jones style guide.

Science Diction: a new, bite-sized etymology podcast.

Irish English as the new EU working language [my annotations]

Emoji are to digital messages what gestures are to speech.

Solving the mystery of honeybee dance ‘dialects’.

When translation means editing the machines.

The newly launched Opie Archive.

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Book review: Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang, by Jonathon Green

November 30, 2019

Slang, the language of the streets, the tavern, the underground, the counterculture, the gutter, has traditionally been seen as a male preserve. Women feature in it, of course – but chiefly, unflatteringly, as objects. Slang, as Jonathon Green writes in Language!, is ‘a gendered vocabulary that while it does not exclude woman, is keen to keep them in their place: the nagging wife, the sexy ingénue, the whore, the hag’.

So what of women not as objects in slang but as its creators and users? Far less has been written on this front. ‘Women’s use of slang is drastically under-reported,’ writes Green in his new book, Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. As the world’s foremost slang lexicographer, he would know, and he has scoured the available records to describe the extent and nature of that relationship.

The cover of Jonathon Green's book Sounds & Furies. It is light grey with text in black and mostly red, drawn as if sewn in thread. Around the all-caps title in the middle are a few flowers on winding stems, and small red bird saying 'OMFG'.Those records go back centuries and surge in the digital era. Sounds & Furies is a rich social history told through a lexicological lens, from Chaucer to Mumsnet via Flappers and Valley Girls. There are ample, lengthy quotations and edifying commentary. The former can be grim on occasion and not for sensitive readers: slang’s treatment of social minorities, Green observes, is ‘depressingly conservative’; of women in particular it is ‘viciously misogynistic’.

The book’s focus, happily, is on women and slang, not in slang. Its sources are diverse: novels, newspapers, poems, plays, songs, ballads, court reports, vaudeville, memoirs, biographies, detective stories – crime being one of slang’s most fertile arenas – and of course the internet. In each case the slang is identified, contextualized, and analyzed. These often boisterous excerpts will delight fans of ‘low’ varieties of English.

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86 that slang etymology

May 17, 2019

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

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