Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

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.

A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

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.

Double passives, real grammar, and finding fault

July 22, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about double passives, beliefs about grammar, and usage criticism. Excerpts and links follow.

In The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes), I look at a construction often criticised in writing manuals, reporting on why double passives are (sometimes) problematic, and what writers can do to avoid them:

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.


Reflections on Real Grammar follows up on Macmillan’s recent series on that topic, which included a quiz in which over 13,000 people took part. In a Twitter chat I was asked if the results surprised me. Some did, such as the 24.7% who said they would say Whom did you see at the coffee shop? rather than Who…? in a conversation with their sister:

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.


Finally, in Finding fault in the right places I examine the practice of using examples of people’s language to make a point about correctness, and stress the importance of doing this appropriately:

Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.

For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. . . . Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation.

You can also browse my full archive of articles for Macmillan Dictionary.

Mx: a gender-neutral title; and ludic language

June 12, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first is about a term you might not be familiar with but whose profile seems certain to grow: Mx – a new gender-neutral title.

Mx, which has been in use since at least 1977, made headlines lately because an OED editor said it might be added to that dictionary soon. (So far, Macmillan appears to be the only major dictionary to have done so.) Increasing use of Mx will lead to more recognition of it, both public and official, but since it’s still quite niche I aimed mainly to cover the basics, link to resources, and make the case for its linguistic, political, and cultural value:

To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.

Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations.

Or it may be pronounced as an initialism, ‘em ex’. The post also looks briefly at some of the parallels between Mx and Ms, and at the challenges of consciously engineering language.


Ludic language and the game of grammar surveys a subject close to my heart – or rather a cluster of subjects in the intersection of language and play:

Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.

Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial…

The post lists additional examples of language play of various structural types. This includes recent online fads like doge and can’t even, which seem deliberately ungrammatical, and I speculate on what motivates the subversive element of this linguistic behaviour.

Older posts can be found in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary.

Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

May 16, 2015

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.


With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


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