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.


Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

November 19, 2018

In my language column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been writing about whether presently is ambiguous, as some authorities warn, and about the uses of and differences between till, until, and their abbreviations.

Ambiguity is presently unlikely shows my conclusion in the title, but the detail is worth examining. I’m usually reluctant to warn against using certain words or phrases, and so it is with presently in its primary sense of ‘currently’:

Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity. . . .

[But] if I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant.


The difference between till and until is something I’ve been asked about a few times over the years. In TIL about till and until, I sort out these synonyms and related forms, describing how they differ, how they don’t, where you can use them, and which ones to avoid. There’s also a bit of history:

People often assume that till is simply an abbreviation of until, but in fact till is a few centuries older. It shows up in the runic inscription on the ancient Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, where its original sense was the same as ‘to’.

There is an abbreviation of until: ’til. Some critics reject it, because we already have till. They may even call it incorrect. ’Till is still more disparaged, because the apostrophe is superfluous, and although this form was used by George Washington, of all people, I can’t recommend it. Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.

Irregular, elementary, and belittling

September 29, 2018

I have three new posts to report from Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about words and language. Links and excerpts follow.

‘This is highly irregular’ showcases the devilish irregularity of English:

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.

‘Elementary error, my dear Watson’ looks at a well-known expression whose provenance proves unexpected:

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.

It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.

‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.

Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.


Verbing and nouning are fine and here’s a quiz

May 16, 2018

New words enter English in a variety of ways. They may be imported (import); compounded (download); clipped (totes); affixed (globalisation), acronymised (radar); blended (snowmageddon); back-formed (donate); reduplicated (mishmash); coined (blurb); or formed from onomatopoeia (cuckoo), proper nouns (algorithm), folk etymology (shamefaced), or semantic shift (nice, starve).

Another important source is when a word in one grammatical class is used in another: this is called functional shift, because the word shifts function. A noun becomes an adjective, a verb becomes a noun, and so on. It’s also called conversion and zero derivation – because a new word is derived without any inflection or affixation.

Linguistic conservatives often object to the process. At every Olympic games, for example, people complain about medal being verbed, blithely unaware that the usage dates to at least 1860, when W. M. Thackeray wrote, ‘Irving went home medalled by the king’. From my A–Z of English usage myths:

Read the rest of this entry »

Variant usages are plenty

March 22, 2018

My monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year, and I haven’t reported on it since November. So here are the latest four items I’ve written there, with excerpts to give you a flavour:

1. Macmillan’s thesaurus is a bit different, unusual, special, and unique: This post showcases unique features of the site’s thesaurus:

Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. … These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.

2. Disagreements are plenty: What can dictionary entries tell us about linguistic attitudes? I examine Samuel Johnson’s reaction to a certain use of plenty:

‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’ ‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. In his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But […] the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.

3. Loath(e) to get it wrong: Even native English speakers are often unsure of the difference between loath and loathe. Does it matter? I take a look:

Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced. The reality is a bit messier.

4. Would you like an espresso – or an expresso? I review the status of a much-used, and much-loathed, variant pronunciation:

A half-full (or half-empty) cup of espresso on a saucer with a spoonAnother reason for the popularity of expresso is that it looks and sounds more like an English word than espresso does – albeit an imported one, with that ‘o’ at the end. Aside from esprit, another Romance-language borrowing, espresso is the only word in common use in English that begins with espr-, whereas expr- is very familiar from words like express and expression. So people unconcerned with etymology are unlikely to notice anything wrong with expresso. … Usage purists are not happy about expresso being in common use. To them, it’s wrong, end of story, and anyone who uses the word is making a careless linguistic error and a social faux pas.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Comments are welcome at either location.

[Photo © Nevit Dilmen licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

Verbings, superlatives, and film catchphrases

November 7, 2017

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about various aspects of language use and innovation. Here are excerpts from the latest three posts, in chronological order. Click the titles to read the rest:

Verbing weirds language – but in a good way

When contact gained popular use as a verb (‘Please contact us later’), critics rejected it as a corruption and a ‘hideous vulgarism’. Nowadays most people are unaware it was ever a problem. But the same controversy has clung to the verbs impact and architect – even though both have been around for centuries. At major athletics events, there is always ‘harrumphing from the stickler brigade’, as Liz Potter reports, over the verbing of podium, medal, final and gold. For some, it’s still a tough ask.

Party on, film catchphrases!

Some films are so popular and linguistically memorable that their lines enter widespread use. It can happen with a line in a classic film, such as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (Gone with the Wind), ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (The Wizard of Oz), ‘I’ll be back’ (The Terminator), and ‘Play it again, Sam’ (Casablanca – even though that line is never used in the film). Sometimes it’s not a catchphrase but a new word that enters the language indirectly: gaslight from the 1944 film is a good example.

Good, better and best rules for comparatives and superlatives

Easyeasier and easiest illustrates another rule, one of spelling. When the adjective ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i (heavy heavier, not *heavyer). There are two other spelling rules. When the adjective ends in a mute e, add –r or –st, not –er or –est (latelater, not *lateer). And when it ends in a consonant after a stressed, single-letter vowel, double the consonant (fit fitter, not *fiter). Once we learn these rules, we can apply them broadly.