Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

Read the rest of this entry »


Awkness: an old word made new again

January 28, 2021

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.' Read the rest of this entry »


Incentivized and mitigated

January 7, 2021

After 10+ years and 215 articles, my language column at Macmillan Dictionary has come to an end – as indeed has the blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog itself, for now. Here are my last two posts.

Militate against mitigate looks at this pair of similar words, setting out how each one is used, why they’re easily confused, and how to remember the difference:

Because mitigate (reduce harmful effects) is sometimes like a subset of militate (have an effect), people often use mitigate when they mean militate. We know this because they write *mitigate against. Usually the writer means militate against, but not necessarily. Readers can’t always figure it out, and it isn’t their responsibility. It’s up to writers and editors to know the difference and militate against the error.

Are you incentivized to use this word? plays devil’s advocate for a much-maligned word, reviewing the usage commentary on it and showing why it’s likely to stick around:

Over time, we get used to new usages. We accept them grudgingly or even enthuse about them. Decades later, the ones that survive have become thoroughly familiar and lack the stigma of novelty. The verb contact, for instance, was loathed a century ago but is perfectly unremarkable today. Until that happens, though, these usages provoke contention, with many people looking askance at them or criticizing them vocally. So it is with incentivize.


Vocative commas, -ise/-ize, and the -fishing libfix

January 16, 2020

My monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year. Here are the most recent three posts.

In Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix, I report on -fishing, which has been quite productive since originating in catfishing about a decade ago:

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. It comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. . . . Libfix is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated.

Blackfishing and sadfishing are among the more prominent spin-off terms, but many others have been coined by analogy, and ‘all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance’.

Criticizing -ize and -ise explores this suffix, a common source of new verbs in English. After tackling the idea that such neologisms should be minimized (e.g., Garner says they are ‘usually ungainly and often superfluous’), I consider the vexed question of spelling:

The –ise suffix comes from French, ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

Hello, vocative comma looks at the comma you often see between a greeting word and a name:

Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?

It’s called the vocative comma because these structures are in the vocative case. (The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’.) But the vocative comma is used in many other types of situation, as the post goes on to show.


Grey areas in usage and etymology

July 25, 2019

It’s time for an update on my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column on language.

First up is A quick dive into ‘dived’ vs ‘dove’ – which is right, or does it depend on where you are? I outline the history and the growing acceptability of dove:

Dove is a relative newcomer, probably formed by analogy with drivedrove or strive–strove. The OED’s first citation is from 1855, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: ‘Straight into the river Kwasind Plunged as if he were an otter, Dove as if he were a beaver.’ In later editions Dove became Dived, perhaps under editorial influence.

Is ‘alright’ all right? looks at a common variant spelling but one that usage authorities disagree strongly about:

Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22.

In Where does ‘OK’ come from? I trace the curious etymology of one of the most popular words in the world:

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century.

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, I considered the book’s linguistic legacy in Orwell and the English Language:

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Finally, Simple in the correct sense of the word shows how language use is often far from simple, despite what pedants may claim or wish:

Over the centuries, simple has meant ‘humble and unpretentious’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undistinguished in office or rank’, ‘small and insignificant’, ‘bare’, ‘wretched and pitiful’, ‘lacking knowledge or learning’, ‘foolish or stupid’, ‘not complex in structure’, ‘easily done or understood’, and so on. Some of these senses shade into one another, so it’s not always obvious which one is intended.


Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

May 3, 2019

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

Read the rest of this entry »


Lewis Carroll and the portmanteau words quiz

August 2, 2018

If you enjoyed my quiz on nouning and verbing, you might like my new quiz on portmanteau words, now up on the Macmillan Dictionary site. It will test your knowledge of novel portmanteaus such as plogging, smombie, theyby, and zoodles. It’s multiple choice, so you can guess at any strange ones.

Portmanteau words are words that blend two or more others in structure and meaning, like smog (smoke + fog), brunch (breakfast + lunch), and portmonsteau (portmanteau + monster). That last one hasn’t caught on yet. They should be distinguished from compound words like teapot and seawater, which also combine words but don’t blend them.

I like a good portmanteau word, and by browsing Macmillan’s Open Dictionary (which is crowd-sourced but lexicographer-edited – this ain’t Urban Dictionary) I see a lot of shiny new ones soon after they enter circulation. Hence the portmanteau quiz. Let me know how you score.

Now follows a bit on the etymology of portmanteau, for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Read the rest of this entry »