December 9, 2017
Margaret Atwood has a short essay in A Virago Keepsake to Celebrate Twenty Years of Publishing, one of twenty contributions to this slim and enjoyable volume from 1993.
In the essay, ‘Dump Bins and Shelf Strips’, Atwood describes her introduction to Virago Press in the mid-1970s when it occupied ‘a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho’. To reach it you had to climb ‘several flights of none-too-clean stairs’, past ‘a lot of men in raincoats hanging around’.
The following passage, completing the climb, is notable for several reasons, one of which is the variable suffixation:
Read the rest of this entry »
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
Easy → easier 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 (late → later, 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.
September 25, 2017
The prefix be- has a wide range of meanings and applications. It can be added, forming transitive verbs, to nouns (befriend), adjectives (belittle), and other verbs (bespeak) and it can help turn nouns into participial adjectives (witch → bewitched; suit → besuited).
Prefixing a word with be- often lends the sense ‘about, around, all over’ or ‘completely’. It can also intensify it, as in the line ‘Snails, much despised, bekicked, and becrushed’ in George Kearley’s natural history book Links in the Chain (1863). Or it can suggest affecting or afflicting something greatly, as in bestench (1568) ‘to afflict with stench’.
The prefix was common in Old English, appearing in words like befealdan ‘fold round’ and behātan ‘promise’ (examples are from Burchfield’s The English Language) and becoming part of prepositions like before, behind, below, beneath, and beyond. In Middle English be- continued to spread, being added also to imports from French and other Romance languages: becalm, beguile, belabour, besiege.
Read the rest of this entry »
January 31, 2017
At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.
Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:
Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.
The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.
Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:
Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.
You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.
September 16, 2016
‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.
The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:
Milt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”
Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.
But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.
Read the rest of this entry »
January 25, 2016
In modern standard English, you as second person pronoun serves a multitude of purposes: singular and plural, subject and object, formal and informal. It wasn’t always so.
Centuries ago the language had singular thou and thee, plural ye and you. The numerical distinction then changed to one of register: thou and thee for familiar use and for speaking to children or people of lower social standing; ye and you for marking courtesy or respect.
Gradually ye and you shifted to the default position, supplanting thou and thee, which were marginalised to regional, religious, and archaic use. Then ye began to wane, for a variety of reasons, until you had taken centre stage as the pronoun of choice in singular and plural uses in all registers – but not all dialects.
Hiberno-English is one dialect where ye is found: I grew up using it in the west of Ireland, and I find it extremely useful. Ye behaves much like you: we have yeer ‘your’, yeers ‘yours’, ye’ll ‘you’ll’, ye’d ‘you’d’, ye’ve ‘you’ve’, ye’re ‘you’re’, and yeerselves ‘yourselves’ (all plural).
These are far more often spoken than written, so they’re less codified than the standard paradigm for you. But I would still consider ye’re ‘your’ in this Irish Examiner article an error (yere without the apostrophe is less wayward):
Read the rest of this entry »
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.