Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity

February 4, 2013

Time to report on my postings at Macmillan Dictionary Blog since the year turned. I have three new posts up. The first, Nominalisation and zombification, looks at a grammatical process often cited as a hindrance to good prose:

Nominalisation, with or without adding an affix, is very common in English, and is a prolific source of new vocabulary. Yet it has a bad reputation in writing circles. As well as the traditional grumbling about words being used in novel ways or created unnecessarily, there is also a popular belief that nominalisation leads to weak and wordy prose. In the New York Times last year, Helen Sword warned writers about what she calls zombie nouns that “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

Does Sword have a point? I look at the arguments and try to separate the sense from the scapegoating.

Next up is Mansplaining the new-word-pocalypse, in which I review the American Dialect Society’s recent Word of the Year poll, assess trends and likely keepers and offer some subjective thoughts on the winners and also-rans in the various categories:

Most readers will recognise some nominated terms and be less familiar with others. Gate lice (“airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board”), voted Most Creative, was new to me but made immediate visual sense. Still, I’d have liked to see mansplaining win (“a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience”). It’s not especially creative – just another man-word, really – but it is very useful and has inspired several variations, such as whitesplaining, geeksplaining, and others based specifically on people’s names.

The comments include some fun discussion of various man– and –splaining words.

My latest article, just up today, is In praise of serendipity – the much-loved word and the equally treasured experience. It includes a note on etymology:

We have Horace Walpole to thank for this popular but peculiar word. In a letter he wrote in 1754, Walpole describes looking through an old book at random and finding some fact of significance to his studies – a discovery, he says, “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

Walpole based the word on Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, as in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. The eponymous princes, while travelling, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. Serendip comes from Arabic Sarandīb, ultimately from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ, meaning island (dvīpaḥ) of the Sri Lankan people.

I also wonder whether serendipity is threatened by the pattern of bookstores and dictionaries going increasingly online-only.

Your comments here or at Macmillan Dictionary are very welcome. For older articles, visit the archive.

Getting pure thick

June 7, 2011

I don’t care how thick he gets, I’m not inviting him!

I overheard this in Galway recently, and it prompted me to write a few notes on the word thick as it is used in Ireland. As well as the familiar adjectival and adverbial senses (dense, stupid, hazy, viscous, not thin, numerous, closely acquainted; thickly, densely…), which need no elaboration, thick has common colloquial senses in Irish English that do not seem to be well known or widely used in other dialects.

In the line quoted above, thick means angry, argumentative, sullen, or belligerent. It’s a versatile usage that often collocates with get and is typically associated with moody or petulant grumpiness, and sometimes with drunken antagonism. I heard the phrase regularly when I was growing up in the rural west of the country, and now in the urban west I still do, occasionally, in expressions such as:

She’s fierce thick over it. [fierce = very]
Don’t you be getting thick with me.
He got pure thick about it.
Thick out!

Short digression: ‘X out’ is a common construction in Irish English speech, where X describes someone’s general state or predominant characteristic at a given moment, e.g., happy out, busy out, tired out, sound out, hardy out, clever out, handy out, cute out, proud out, killed out. ‘Is he any trouble? Ah no, he’s easy out.’ The out serves as a mild intensifier and colloquial marker. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a culchie (rural) thing.

Thick is also used to mean stubborn, obstinate, or obstructive. This can overlap with the foolish or angry/sullen senses. When I asked about the word on Twitter, some ten people mentioned variations on this sense. Here’s a sample:

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