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:

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Mizzled by misles

February 27, 2019

The first time you saw the word biopic, did you pronounce it ‘bi-OPic’, to rhyme with myopic, either aloud or in your head, before learning that it’s ‘bio-pic’, as in biographical picture? If so, you were well and truly mizzled. I mean MY-zelled. No, wait: misled.

There are words we know, or think we know, but: (1) we probably got to know them in print before hearing them spoken, and (2) their spelling is ambiguous or misleading in a way that leads us to ‘hear’ them differently – perhaps incorrectly – in our mind’s ear.

Eventually there’s a lightbulb moment. Oh, it’s a bio-pic, not a bi-opic! I’ve been mis-led, not mizzled! Some linguists and language enthusiasts call these troublesome words misles, back-formed from misled, which is perhaps the prototypical misle.

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Metaphors, dilemmas, and dictionaries

February 11, 2019

I have three new posts to report from my monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary.

We’re keen as mustard for condiment words’ explores extended uses of words such as salty, saucy, and vinegar:

Metaphors are part and parcel of English. Language lets us map the world around us, and metaphors are an important way of doing this. We take an image or idea from one domain and apply it in another, extending its use. This often takes the form of a physical idea being expressed in a figurative way.

Food is one such domain. The language of food is rich and varied, and refers to very common and tangible feelings and experiences. So food words lend themselves well to metaphorical use. So well, in fact, that we can take one small section of food – condiments – and find an array of these metaphors in use.

Resolving a usage dilemma’ examines the debate over the meaning of dilemma, whose first use in English, in the 16thC, was rhetorical:

Within decades, dilemma was being used in more general ways. Shakespeare, in All’s Well That Ends Well, has Parolles say: ‘I will presently pen down my dilemmas, encourage myself in my certainty’. From the early sense of a choice between two undesirable options, it came to mean a choice between several such options, then simply a difficult situation or predicament.

This was too much for linguistic conservatives, who felt the word was being unduly weakened.

Finally, ‘How to use (or misuse) a dictionary’ describes some of the many uses for dictionaries beyond simply checking definitions:

Dictionaries offer lots of other information about words and phrases, including their pronunciation, secondary senses, grammatical category, inflections, and use in the language, shown through example sentences.

A dictionary may also provide synonyms, etymology, and information about a word’s frequency in the language. Readers looking for one particular thing may end up browsing an entire page or clicking through to other entries, curious about the many facets of a word and the different relationships it can have with the language. Serendipity abounds.

The Usage Panel is dead, long live the Usage Panel!

December 5, 2018

If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?

The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.

There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.

For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.

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Interview with the OED

June 4, 2018

Some weeks ago I made a visual poem from book spines to mark the 90th anniversary of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED editors liked it enough to republish it on their website; they also asked me a few things about language, dictionaries, and book spine poetry.

You can read my short interview on the new OED blog. If dictionaries and word history interest you, I recommend the rest of the blog – click the image below – which looks at the OED‘s reception in 1928, the work of editors past and present, and dialect words from around the world, among other things.

For more book spine poems, aka bookmashes, see the archive.


Buffaloed by the verb buffalo

April 23, 2018

On a recent mini-binge of James M. Cain novels, I finished a 5-in-1 set from Picador: two I’d read years ago – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – and three others I soon raced through: Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly.

Cover image of "The Five Great Novels of James M Cain", published by Picador. Cover is dominated by a black and white photo of a man lying on the ground, his hat displaced; he appears to have been shotCain, in a preface to The Butterfly, reacts to some criticisms of his work, such as that he took his style from Hammett (‘I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiell Hammett in my whole life’).* A blurb from the NYRB hints at his formidable legacy: ‘It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir: or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Étranger.’

But the purpose of this post is to examine the vivid verb used, and mentioned, in the title. About midway through The Butterfly, a character’s unexpected appearance prompts the following exchange:

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Book spine poem: Walking Word by Word

April 19, 2018

Ninety years ago today, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – 414,825 words defined in 15,487 pages over 12 volumes – was completed. Invited by its editors to mark the anniversary, I’ve made a new book spine poem, dedicated to the OED and to James Murray:

[click to enlarge]

Photo of a stack of seven books, their spines facing front, and arranged to make a found poem, as presented in text below


Walking Word by Word

Caught in the web of words,
The loom of language,
The stuff of thought,
The story of writing ­­–
a line made by
walking word by
word through the
language glass.


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