A word 3½ hours long

February 11, 2014

If you’d asked me as a child how long it would take to speak the longest word in the English language, I’d have guessed a couple of seconds. Antidisestablishmentarianism would have come to mind, as the longest word in my pocket Collins dictionary at the time, or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if “made-up” words were allowed.

Later I met other odd giants, like pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with their unmistakeably medical morphemes. All these words (Mary Poppins aside) are known chiefly for being very long – but with a bit of practice you could voice any of them in a single breath.

They’re mere pipsqueaks compared with some chemical names, which are probably not words in a strict sense but are impressively massive all the same – especially the protein Titin, aka connectin, whose chemical name begins Methionylalanylthreonylseryl… and goes on like that for 189,819 letters. In this remarkable video, Dmitry Golubovskiy reads it in its entirety. It takes him just over 3½ hours:

You can read along here.

I didn’t watch the whole thing. After a couple of minutes I skipped ahead a bit, then watched the finale. His beard visibly darkens over the course of the performance, and he looks decidedly dazed at the end. The flowers wilt suddenly at 2:09:21 in a cut that suggests a bathroom break, or maybe a breather for sanity’s sake.

Hat-tip to @emordino for the video.


Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.

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What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


Dictionary updates and etymological commutes

September 13, 2013

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about digital dictionaries and everyday etymologies.

The dictionary recently underwent a major update. News media tend to cover this by focusing on new words, either through force of habit, to drum up controversy, or because they think it’s the best way to interest people in a story about lexicography. So I wanted to look not at shiny new entries but at changes to existing ones.

Updating … A new version of your dictionary is now available takes technology as its theme:

Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.

Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit.

I also discuss updates to words like calendar, curate, tap, and gesture.

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The mutable route of ‘commute’ sketches the curiously winding history of this familiar Americanism,* and how divorced it has become – for some of us at least – from its origins as a verb meaning “exchange” or “interchange” (cf. mutation, transmute), and later “make less severe” (a sense still current in law):

The “exchange” sense of commute allowed it to be used in various ways relating to financial transaction, including the act of combining several payments into one. So when people began buying season tickets for trains and streetcars in 19th century US, they called them commutation tickets. From here it was a short stop to commuter – at first “one who holds a commutation ticket” – and to commute, referring to this mode of regular travel to and from work.

Only after developments in mass transportation systems, then, did the familiar sense of commute arise to fill a lexical niche.

You can read the rest here, or visit the archive for my older posts.

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* Though it’s perhaps less familiar as an Americanism.


Touchous about “whom”

April 9, 2013

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker, celebrates a few regional terms in US English, and suggests some good sources for learning more about them:

A curious recent example is unthoughted, meaning thoughtless, with the related adverb unthoughtedly and noun unthoughtedness (heard mainly in the South and South Midlands, according to DARE). Given another spin of the language-change wheel, it’s easy to imagine this being the normal morphology and thoughtless the obscure one.

More exotically, consider the BFG-esque honeyfuggle, an old-fashioned term meaning (among other things) “to flatter, sweet-talk; to wheedle; to ballyhoo”. There’s a related noun, equally fun to say: honeyfoogler, meaning a flatterer. [Read the rest.]

While I’m on the subject: DARE – the Dictionary of American Regional English – has hit financial trouble and is seeking help. It appears, as far as I can tell from samples and reviews, to be a masterwork of modern lexicography, and deserves rescuing.

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Next I revisit the fuss over whom, in To whom it deeply concerns. This was triggered by an article at the Atlantic that quotes me and other usage specialists on the word’s declining status. Some of the comments there were, shall we say, on the alarmist side.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that language is somehow not supposed to change, when in fact change is one of its central qualities. English has survived the loss of umpteen inflections, with no significant effects on its expressiveness. People who lament whom’s decline, and protest that they like the word, may continue using it – they needn’t stop just because it’s becoming less popular.

Nor is whom sure to disappear: there’s every chance it will persist in set phrases (for whom the bell tolls) and, more generally, right after prepositions, especially in formal settings (The applicants, all of whom live locally, will be notified today). Tellingly, COCA (1990–2012) has 17 examples of all of who versus 1429 of all of whom.

I also discuss why whom has fallen from favour, among other things.

Comments, as always, are welcome at either location, and my archived articles are here.


Foclóir: A new English–Irish dictionary

January 23, 2013

A quick follow-up on a tweet – or should I say tvuít – from yesterday: Foclóir, a new English–Irish dictionary, has just gone online. It looks great; alongside its translations it offers detailed grammatical data, example sentences, and sound files from native Irish speakers.

The sound files are a particular treat, offered in the three major dialects of Connacht, Munster and Ulster Irish. Vocabulary-wise, although the dictionary is far from complete, there’s already more than enough to reward repeat visits:

Focloir English Irish dictionary - headword blogThe dictionary is being published on a phased basis, and the full content won’t be online until end-2014. The entries published in January 2013 consist of approximately 30% of the eventual content, however this range covers approximately 80% of general English usage.

Foclóir was created by Foras na Gaeilge and is based on the Dante lexical database. Preparation of a print edition will begin in 2015, once all the dictionary material has been published online. I’m making it my primary internet reference for English–Irish translation.

[via RTÉ News]


Crowd-sourced dictionaries and rare portmanteaus

October 25, 2012

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts now follow.

Dictionary signals vs. noise looks at the business of crowd-sourcing in dictionary-making. (Crowd-sourcing means outsourcing a task to the general public or another unspecified group.) Some recent discussion about this might give the impression that the field of lexicography is destined for an Urban Dictionary–style makeover. This won’t happen.

It seems to me more a matter of dictionaries finding different ways to integrate public input, and this is something they’ve always done to varying degrees.

Urban Dictionary is an extreme case in that its entries are entirely user-generated; it is therefore best consulted with a certain scepticism. This is not to say UD is unhelpful: it’s sometimes the best or even the only place to find a plausible explanation for contemporary slang, especially the more faddish or explicit sort. But unless several definitions converge on a sense, a pinch of salt or a confirming source tends to be necessary.

For more of my thoughts on Urban Dictionary, and why professionally curated dictionaries are in no danger of displacement, you can read the rest here.

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Lesser spotted portmanteau words briefly introduces the history and structure of portmanteau words, aka blends, before coining a few fanciful examples (which turned out to be unoriginal, but anyway):

Blending is a common source of new words because it’s fun – a kind of language play – and relatively straightforward. So when people neologise, whether whimsically or with more serious intent, they often coin portmanteau words. It’s an easy way to combine two ideas: just think of a word and blend it with another. From dictionary, for example, we might conjure a contradictionary: a dictionary of paradoxes; and a benedictionary: a dictionary of blessings.

Many such coinages are destined to be short-lived or remain limited to certain sublanguages. Others, as we’ve seen, eventually enter our everyday vocabulary.

The post was prompted by a unusual sense of portmanteau word which I encountered in an old book on Beethoven. You can find out about that – and ponder whether banoffee pie has peaked – at the original post.

Comments here or there are welcome, and if you’re new to this and inclined to read more, there’s always my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Don’t tell Richard Feynman

September 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,
Francis

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.


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