No discernible circumference

July 11, 2009

Earlier this year there was a minor media flurry about the English language supposedly attaining its millionth word. This (non-)event, which was dragged out for a few years, was such raiméis that I decided not to write about it at all, apart from a curt dismissal on Twitter. However, it did serve some useful purposes. For one thing, it prompted many interested parties – amateurs and academics alike – to write thoughtful criticisms. It got people writing, talking, and thinking about language. It also showed the extent of credulity or cynicism, or both, in many commercial news organisations. Shocking, I know.

I could get carried away posting hyperlinks to worthwhile criticisms of the project (or ‘publicity stunt’, if you prefer), but out of mercy for my readers I’ll limit the links to a handful, each of which I heartily recommend: Ben Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, Grant Barrett, Michael Covarrubias, and David Crystal, whose post attracted a response from the man behind the millionth-word shenanigans. Language Log, an outstanding linguistics blog, covered the pseudo-event in considerable detail. To one of those posts, written by Zimmer, I added a comment with an excerpt from James A. H. Murray’s introduction to the first volume of the original Oxford English Dictionary. The main purpose of this post is to repeat that excerpt here on Sentence first.

Stan Carey - James Murray OEDBefore that, though, a few words about Murray (pictured, in his Scriptorium). It is possible that no one else could have done the job he did; it is almost certain that no one could have done it so well and with such commitment to quality over haste. He embodied a rare combination of knowledge, ability, temperament and dedication that made him ideal for the job, though over its many years he had more than occasional cause to doubt his suitability for it and the probability of its eventual completion.

As well as being as great lexicographer, Murray was a polymath whose keen interests included astronomy, botany, archaeology, mathematics and geology. These interests prepared him well for the decades he spent working on the OED. They gave him expertise in a wide range of subjects, which enabled him to draw useful analogies between different disciplines. This is beautifully apparent in the excerpt below. As his granddaughter K. M. Elisabeth Murray wrote in Caught in the Web of Words, “because he never compartmentalised his interests, he never missed seeing something because he had allowed himself to become preoccupied with another line of research.”

Here is Murray’s own diagram of the structure of the English vocabulary, followed by his exceptionally lucid explanation of it.

Stan Carey - James Murray's lexical diagram

The centre is occupied by the ‘common’ words, in which literary and colloquial usage meet. ‘Scientific’ and ‘foreign’ words enter the common language mainly through literature; ‘slang’ words ascend through colloquial use; the ‘technical’ terms of crafts and processes, and the ‘dialect’ words, blend with the common language both in speech and literature. Slang also touches on one side of the technical terminology of trades and occupations, as in ‘nautical slang’, ‘Public School slang’, ‘the slang of the Stock Exchange’, and on another passes into true dialect. Dialects similarly pass into foreign languages. Scientific terminology passes on one side into purely foreign words, on another it blends with the technical vocabulary of art and manufactures. It is not possible to fix the point at which the ‘English Language’ stops, along any of these diverging lines.


The Vocabulary of a widely-diffused and highly-cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits. That vast aggregate of words and phrases which constitutes the Vocabulary of English-speaking men presents, to the mind that endeavours to grasp it as a definite whole, the aspect of one of those nebulous masses familiar to the astronomer, in which a clear and unmistakable nucleus shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness. In its constitution it may be compared to one of those natural groups of the zoologist or botanist, wherein typical species forming the characteristic nucleus of the order, are linked on every side to other species, in which the typical character is less and less distinctly apparent, till it fades away in an outer fringe of aberrant forms, which merge imperceptibly in various surrounding orders, and whose own position is ambiguous and uncertain. For the convenience of classification, the naturalist may draw the line, which bounds a class or order, outside or inside of a particular form; but Nature has drawn it nowhere. So the English Vocabulary contains a nucleus or central mass of many thousand words whose ‘Anglicity’ is unquestioned; some of them only literary, some of them only colloquial, the great majority at once literary and colloquial,- they are the Common Words of the language. But they are linked on every side with other words which are less and less entitled to this appellation, and which pertain ever more and more distinctly to the domain of local dialect, of the slang and cant of ‘sets’ and classes, of the peculiar technicalities of trades and processes, of the scientific terminology common to all civilized nations, of the actual languages of other lands and peoples. And there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.


Catachresis and the amusing, awful and artificial cathedral

July 3, 2009

New words arise in several ways. They can be invented, imported from another language, made by mistake, or made by adding to, subtracting from, or mutating an existing word. And sometimes words attain a new meaning just by waiting a while.

The technical term for this last phenomenon is catachresis, though the word has other meanings, as we will see. The word catachresis arrived, through the Latin word of the same spelling, from the Greek katakhrēsis, excessive use, from katakhrēsthai, to misuse or use up. Its plural is catachreses, its adjectival forms catachrestic and catachrestical.

Whether or not words formed by catachresis are, strictly speaking, new words depends on how strict you are about such categorisation. Some authorities describe catachresis as the deterioration of a word, but it can also be described more neutrally as semantic drift, which is an inescapable characteristic of any language. As Robert Burchfield wrote in The English Language:

it is best to assume . . . that no single word in the [English] language is a stable, unchanging, and immutable legacy from the past, however fixed, dependable, and definable it may seem at any time.

St_Paul'sIn Our Language, Simeon Potter illustrates catachresis by reporting that when King James II saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, he described it as amusing, awful, and artificial. The King meant no offence, and presumably none was taken, because those words then denoted pleasing, awesome (i.e. awe-inspiring), and skilfully achieved, respectively. (Note: according to some sources it was Queen Anne who offered the now-puzzling observation.) When Chaucer used nice it meant ignorant or unaware; later it meant fastidious or precise, among other things – the OED has 14 separate entries for the word, differentiated by meaning and historical usage.

[Continue reading]

The curious land of the ampersand

May 13, 2009

The ampersand symbol & means and, though it often implies a closer relationship than the word. So “cheese & onion and chilli” refers to two kinds of flavour: (1) cheese and onion; (2) chilli. Similarly, screenwriting credits use & to indicate a writing team and and to indicate separate contributions.

The symbol seems to be a stylised ligature of et, the Latin for and, but in its innumerable old and modern forms this ancestry is only occasionally visible.


Historical_ampersand_evolution s

According to Adobe‘s short history of the symbol, the ampersand has been in use for almost two millennia. It was popular enough to be appended to alphabets as early as the 11th century (see 3.1.1 here).

Schoolchildren later learned it by rote as an extra letter, of sorts; in the 19th century they recited “A per se A” and “I per se I” to distinguish the words A and I from the letters A and I, and concluded their alphabets with “& per se and”, which means “(the character) ‘&’ by itself (meaning) ‘and’”. Ampersand, the name by which we know & today, is a corrupt abridgement of the phrase, and first appeared in dictionaries in 1837.

The ampersand is typically used to save time and space. Formally it is commonly used in references, business names, dictionaries, television and film titles, and when addressing a couple (“Dear Mary & Michael”), but as a direct substitute for and it is otherwise generally avoided in formal prose. &c and &cetera were once used frequently for etc., but these forms are now rare and can be considered old-fashioned. H. W. Fowler used & in early editions of the pocket and concise Oxford dictionaries and throughout A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“inversion is archaic & poetic under such circumstances, & non-inversion normal”

Ampersand curveThe ampersand was adopted as shorthand for and in formal logic, and it gave its name to a pretty curve in mathematics (see figure). It is now frequently used in computer programming, e.g. in HTML, though its very versatility has caused problems. It is even more popular in informal contexts, such as notes, diaries, letters, text messages, instant messaging, and online social networks.

Here is an interesting example of its time-saving deployment in an old informal note:

“Some of the outer slips have got torn, &’ll need mending” (Philologist Frederick Furnivall in a note to James Murray, editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, from Caught in the Web of Words, K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather.)

[Edit: And a beautiful ampersand which Sarah France arranged with bark chippings. If browsing ampersands appeals to you, there’s a Flickr pool and a blog devoted to them. Readers might also be interested in my post on the use of the Tironian et (⁊) in Ireland.]

[Image sources: 1, 2, 3]

Back-forming back-formations

April 28, 2009

Back-formation (or back formation or backformation) is a term that describes the way certain words are formed. It also refers to the words themselves, so back-formations result from back-formation. If affixation means forming a word by adding an affix (e.g. frosty from frost, refusal from refuse, instrumentation from instrument), then back-formation is essentially this process in reverse: it adapts an existing word by removing its affix, usually a suffix (e.g. sulk from sulky, proliferate from proliferation, back-form from back-formation).

Sometimes a back-formation arises through the assumption that it must already exist, and that its source word is the derivative term. Such an assumption, while misguided, is altogether reasonable, being based on a summary analysis of the source word’s morphology. Consider donation. You might think it derives from donate, but the noun is several centuries older; donate is the back-formation. You are unlikely to recognise a back-formation just by looking at it.

burglars_toolsAnother everyday example is burgle, a back-formation from burglary. In U.S. English, burglarize (or -ise) is by far the more common verb, but burgle dominates in British English. That burgle has failed to take hold in U.S. English may be partly a result of its lowly origins as a back-formation, as well as its funny phonetic blend of burble and gurgle. But whatever the reasons, I wouldn’t call it “hideous”. Back-formations are not inherently wrong, but they can be redundant; before you use one that seems new or gimmicky, check if there is a standard alternative. [Image: burgling tools. Or are they burglarizing tools?]

Back-formations are frequently made by dropping -tion or -ion from a noun, and adding -e when appropriate, to form a new verb, such as donate from donation. From evolution we get evolute, which has technical meanings as a noun in mathematics and as an adjective in botany, but as a verb meaning the same as evolve, it is a needless variant. Similarly superfluous are cohabitate for cohabit, interpretate for interpret, and solicitate for solicit. Solicitate has a standard adjectival use; it is only its unnecessary use as a verb that I advise against. Last week I heard someone on the radio say installating, as if he had forgotten all about install. But some of these may eventually become standard, even installate.

In most of the examples I’ve included so far, the change has occurred at the end of the word, i.e. the removed affix has been a suffix. Back-forming by removing prefixes is less common, except in humorous contexts such as Jack Winter’s “How I met my wife”, which boasts a litany of deliberately malformed terms like chalant, ept, and peccable.

Regardless of how back-formations are formed, they are often initially considered to be irregular, even ignorant, and suitable only for informal use in slang or jokes. Sometimes, as we have seen, there is no need for them because the semantic niche they purport to inhabit has already been filled. Other back-formations, such as enthuse and liaise, inhabit a grey area of acceptability. And then there are many that serve a useful purpose and have become standard. Here are some I haven’t mentioned already:

automate from automation
beg from beggar
diagnose from diagnosis
drowse from drowsy
edit from editor
execute from execution
free associate from free association
grovel from grovelling (or -l-) (adj.)
injure from injury
intuit from intuition
kidnap from kidnapper
orate from oration
pea from pease
peddle from peddler
reminisce from reminiscence
resurrect from resurrection
scavenge from scavenger
self-destruct from self-destruction (from destroy, destruction)
sleaze from sleazy
statistic from statistics
surveil from surveillance
televise from television
vaccinate from vaccination
window-shop (v.) from window-shopping

Gelett Burgess and the blurb

April 14, 2009

A few weeks ago I started writing about the origin of the word blurb, but ended up writing instead about tintiddle, also known as l’esprit de l’escalier. In this post I’ll finish what I started.

Gelett Burgess (1866–1951) coined both blurb and tintiddle, though blurb is sometimes attributed to Brander Matthews. Matthews set the record straight in a 1922 article (PDF) in the New York Times, in which he also describes the art of the blurb.

The story began at the 1907 American Booksellers Association banquet, where Burgess handed out copies of his new book Are You A Bromide? The book had a parodic jacket with a photo of a woman who effusively praised the book and its author. Burgess had borrowed the image from a dental advertisement and had given its subject a new name, Miss Belinda Blurb, and a new role: blurbing.

[Image source: Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection.]

The word quickly became popular and remains so today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines blurb as “a short promotional description of a book, film, or other product”. Some dictionaries, e.g. Merriam-Webster, include blurb as a verb: “to describe or praise in a blurb”.

These definitions remain close to the originals in Burgess’s later book Burgess Unabridged: A Dictionary of Words you have always needed, though they lack Burgess’s playfulness and gentle mockery:

Praise from one’s self, inspired laudation. (p. xvii)


Blurb, n. 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher. (p. 7)

Blurb, v. 1. To flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself.


Here is a photograph of Burgess at work and at play – to his credit, he seems to have combined these activities throughout his career. He was well known for his humorous drawings and writings, including children’s books, comic strips, and poetry – such as a parody of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

His short verse “The Purple Cow” became so popular that Burgess wrote a sequel threatening to kill anyone who recited it! The poem also inspired rewrites in the styles of other poets. Although his writing amused and entertained, it could also edify: an example is “The Wild Men of Paris”, his fascinating essay on Cubism.

To finish this post I will leave you with an excerpt and a nonsense poem from his introduction to Burgess Unabridged, which is available online in scanned and text versions:

We have no Academy, thank Heaven, to tell what is real English and what isn’t. Our Grand Jury is that ubiquitous person, Usage, and we keep him pretty busy at his job. He’s a Progressive and what he likes, he’ll have, in spite of lexicographers, college professors and authors of “His Complete Works.” That’s the reason why English has ousted Volapük and Esperanto as a world language. It snuggles right down where you live and makes itself at home.

How does English shape itself so comfortably to the body of our thought? With a new wrinkle here and a little more breadth there, with fancy trimmings, new styles, fresh materials and a genius for adapting itself to all sorts of wear. Everybody is working at it, tailoring it, fitting it, decorating it. There is no person so humble but that he can suggest an improvement that may easily become the reigning mode.



In praise of a reference book: MWDEU

March 30, 2009

My enthusiasm for The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which I hereby declare, will make immediate sense to those who refer to it in their own investigations of English usage. To the majority, who are more likely never to have heard of it, or then only in passing, such enthusiasm may seem idiosyncratic or downright nerdy. So be it.

The uninitiated can, if it helps, think of MWDEU as a classic of its kind, though its profile is much lower than that of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which are often iconically shortened to Strunk & White and Fowler, respectively. To summarise what MWDEU offers I can do no better than its editor E. Ward Gilman, whose preface says it:

examines and evaluates common problems of confused or disputed usage from two perspectives: that of historical background, especially as shown in the great historical dictionaries, and that of present-day usage, chiefly as shown by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.

mwdeu-sThat it does this in such a thorough and unbiased way is what elevates MWDEU so far above the ordinary. Each entry is presented in a much broader context than is typically the case in books that advise on English usage and style. Take for example its short entry on insightful:

This relatively new adjective (first recorded in 1907) has lately become something of a minor irritant to a few usage commentators, who have described it variously as ‘journalese’ (Zinsser 1976), ‘a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive”’ (Strunk & White 1979) and ‘jargon’ (Janis 1984). Dictionaries, on the other hand, routinely treat it as an ordinary, inoffensive word. Its use is common and has been for several decades. Here is a representative sampling of the ways in which it is used…

All language reference books have their blind spots, prejudices and unconscious axioms, and MWDEU has been criticised for being too liberal, too prevaricating, too descriptivist. These criticisms are fair, but they pale in comparison to what the book supplies: great and balanced content in abundance, and no dogmatic prohibitions or intolerant admonishments. Alongside each word and phrase we get a historical overview of its usage, interpretation and application; clear and astute analysis; and repeated advice to judge for oneself.

The lasting impression is of being treated without condescension as a person with the good sense to assess the evidence and arguments and to make up one’s own mind. MWDEU does not hector its readers with shoulds, oughts, musts and don’t-even-think-about-its. There are neither emotional outbursts nor emotive appeals. Since English usage is, has been and is likely to remain a hotbed of contention, MWDEU’s polite and level tone is as refreshing as its broadminded counsel is constructive.

study-in-scarletTo paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, beware the grammarian of one reference book – especially if that book is The Elements of Style. In any edition, EoS is an eminently useful book: it is short, direct and efficient, and it has plenty of good advice. It is also rather simplistic and occasionally self-contradictory. It positively quivers with imperious finger wagging, which has helped fuel decades of ill-judged fussiness. Its tight, parsimonious rules, useful in their way, have unfortunately been adopted by some readers as universal commandments.

In a sense it is unfair to compare EoS, a short style guide, with MWDEU, a hefty usage dictionary. But the former remains so popular, and the latter so comparatively unknown, that I wanted to do my bit to redress the balance; and I find their antithetical attitudes interesting and worthy of examination.

If in writing something you are racing the clock, consulting MWDEU might not be in your best interest, since it doesn’t provide yes/no answers but rather opens one can of worms after another. For this reason it is less likely to be favoured by journalists, or anyone who prefers a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Those with more time on their hands, and indeed anyone with an interest in the history of the English language, could not fail to appreciate its contents, which are lucid, informative and entertaining.

To appeal to authority I’ll cite Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the Language Log blog, who described MWDEU as “the finest work of scholarship on English grammar and usage I have ever seen, in thirty years of doing research on English grammar”. The book also comes in concise and pocket editions, which are shorter but newer; i.e., they are not just abridged editions. Best of all, at least for those of you persuaded by my zeal, MWDEU is now online. Should you prefer a physical book, you are likely to find it excellent value. Happy reading!

[image source]

Tintiddle and l’esprit de l’escalier

March 9, 2009

Lately I went looking for the origin of the word blurb. The short answer is that Gelett Burgess coined it in 1907, and the long answer is that the more I rummaged the more I found, and the more I found the more I wrote, so I’ve postponed posting my findings until I’ve reduced them to a digestible size.

In the meantime I offer you tintiddle, another word coined by Burgess (1866–1951), who was an American artist, writer, critic and humorist. In his book Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, he defined tintiddle as:

An imaginary conversation; wit coming too late.

Everyone seems to have moments when they think of a devastating line some moments or months after the opportunity for its expression has passed. It is the perfect quip in all aspects but one: timing. This delayed wit occurred frequently to people descending stairs in 18th century France, and so the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–84) called it esprit de l’escalier – literally wit of the staircase – in his book Paradoxe sur le Comédien.

Freud mentioned it in The Interpretation of Dreams, while Emily Stolzenberg suggests that it may be ‘of greater consequence to the speaker’s pride than the listener’s pleasure’. The moment has passed but we imagine delivering the line anyway, to satisfy ourselves or to repair wounded pride.

The French idiom avoir l’esprit de l’escalier means to have the wit of the staircase, in other words to be a bit slow with repartee. If you’ve seen the French film Ridicule (1996), set in 18th century Versailles, you’ll remember the importance of swift comebacks to spare oneself social humiliation. Contemporary usage often drops this connotation; esprit de l’escalier now refers to a witticism too late for any situation, embarrassing or otherwise.

I have heard several people lament the lack of an equivalent term in English, but this lack is only apparent, for tintiddle is that term. You might prefer staircase wit, or even the German Treppenwitz, a calque from esprit de l’escalier. Some translate Diderot’s expression as ‘wit of the staircase’, which could suggests the staircase itself is witty – you can’t be too careful with words.

More on this from The King’s English by H. W. and F. G. Fowler:

The French have had the wit to pack into the words esprit d’escalier the common experience that one’s happiest retorts occur to one only when the chance of uttering them is gone, the door is closed, and one’s feet are on the staircase. That is well worth introducing to an English audience; the only question is whether it is of any use to translate it without explanation. No one will know what spirit of the staircase is who is not already familiar with esprit d’escalier; and even he who is may not recognize it in disguise, seeing that esprit does not mean spirit (which suggests a goblin lurking in the hall clock), but wit.