Why do we stand on our tiptoes and not our toetips?

October 3, 2018

Compounds are everywhere in English vocabulary, formed by combining two or more independent elements (‘free morphemes’, in linguistic jargon). They can be nouns (living room), verbs (download), adjectives (fun-loving), and other types. They can also be open, closed, or hyphenated, as shown.

The semantic relationship between the parts of a compound varies from one to another. Many are directly compositional; some require additional knowledge. When one element is part of the other, the main one tends to come first and be phonetically stressed: cliff edge, treetop, shoelaces, and so on.

So if we’re talking about the tip or tips of something, that’s the order we expect. Sure enough, there are fingertips, arrow tips, ear tips, horn tips, leaf tips, nerve tips, wingtips, and many more obscure compounds of the same structure. Which leads me to the present puzzle, which I aired first on Twitter:

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Fixer-upper(er) and funnerer reduplication

June 22, 2015

My recent post on ludic language has prompted me to dig up and rework some old notes on playful reduplication in English. I’ll begin with a short comic verse by author and editor William Rossa Cole:

I thought I’d win the spelling bee

And get right to the top,

But I started to spell ‘banana,’

And I didn’t know when to stop.

The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.

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Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.


Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.


Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.

Grammar and style in recent reading

October 4, 2012

This post is a hotchpotch of items of grammatical interest from books I read recently. Sections link to older posts and other articles, to distract from the fact that I’m currently too busy to blog as regularly as I’d like.

First up: Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration (1994) is a mixum-gatherum of articles assembled and introduced by John Walsh from a regular feature in The Independent magazine. It has some good lines: “I would like to write the way Fred Astaire danced” (Gilbert Adair); “a breath of rank air” (Beryl Bainbridge on Rasputin).

Of more interest grammatically is the following instance of faulty parallelism, similar to the “as much, or more, than” construction I analysed before. It’s from Russell Hoban’s tribute to Walter de la Mare:

There are moments and people in literature that become as real (and sometimes realer than) the moments and people in one’s own life . . .

There’s little if any effect on comprehension, and surely no possible confusion, but some editors would insert as before the parenthesis to make the syntax more rigorously logical. Other usage authorities, though, consider the shorter construction to be idiomatic and wholly unobjectionable (see my earlier post for details). What say you?


Item 2: The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas’s 1992 collection of essays on medicine, biology and the human condition, contains the notable phrase “space space”:

Within another century it is likely that we will have swarmed everywhere, pole to pole, covering almost every livable acre of land space and water space. Some people are even talking seriously of space space, theorizing about the possibility of launching synthetic cities and countrysides enclosed in huge vehicles to sail the galaxy and perhaps colonize other celestial bodies.

This is a nice example of contrastive focus reduplication, whereby outer space is contrasted with terrestrial space through immediate repetition of the polysemous word. Similarly, a review of The Raid: Redemption says it’s “the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined”. I guess a movie-movie is one made primarily to excite and entertain us rather than challenging us or making us think.

(My Tumblr blog has another passage from Thomas’s book, on the subject of extinction events and the future of life on earth.)


Finally, a book I’m reading at the moment, Rebecca Skloot’s admirable The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), contains this sentence:

She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six biological sons.

Note the informal who where sticklers would insist on whom. I’m a little surprised an editor or proofreader didn’t change it – unless they did and it was stetted – but I certainly have no problem with it. See my earlier post on who and whom, and Lane Greene’s recent report for Johnson of a four-year-old girl’s reaction to whom (“mama, sometimes you say a weird word”).

There’s also the interesting phrase “treated no different than”. Some readers might expect the adverb differently, and some will balk at the preposition than being coupled with different. I’m OK with different than, but the line is a little different in that its different functions not as an adjective but as a flat adverb: an adverb with the same form as its corresponding adjective. The OED labels adverbial different “chiefly jocular or dialectal”.

Here’s Emily Brewster with an excellent summary of flat adverbs:

From humblebrag to underbrag

August 16, 2012

We are, it seems, mired in a culture of bragging. The traditional form took a twist with the humblebrag, a boast veiled in fake humility (and showcased to hilarious effect on Twitter). Now we have the underbrag, a far subtler way for us to show off. Sort of.

Jen Doll believes that the humblebrag’s moment has passed. Introducing the underbrag in the Atlantic Wire as the brag that “doesn’t care what The Man thinks”, she says it’s:

when you brag your own disaster or situation that one would not normally brag about. Skilled underbraggers can get away with doing so because the underbrag is not fake like the brag brag; it reveals intimate life details that are interesting and probably even embarrassing . . . . Part of the twofold power punch of the underbrag is what it demonstrates about the person who can get away with it. It is a sign of both authenticity and enthusiasm. And power. If you can underbrag and not get fired, grounded, or shamed into brag-bragging, you are a force to contend with indeed.

For example: Wow, my bedsit is a real pigsty. Or: I’m totally reheating yesterday’s toast for my dinner. The underbrag is a lousy brag, a brag that shouldn’t be a brag. It is, Doll contends, “not really a brag at all—except for the fact that the underbragger is bragging about it and therefore changing the rules of bragging as we know them.”


On a side note, you might have noticed two examples of contrastive reduplication in the quoted excerpt above: “not fake like the brag brag”; “shamed into brag-bragging” – brag-bragging being normal bragging, in contrast to these modish spin-offs.

Emily Brewster also used contrastive reduplication in the tweet that tipped me off: ‘All this talk about new words, but my fave new NEW word is “underbrag.”’

What other forms of bragging are there? Bumperbrag could be a brag on a bumper sticker. Mumblebrag, mumbling a brag so you seem coy about something but really you want someone to ask you to repeat it, louder, or to brag on your behalf. Examplebrag, using examples to show off. Umm. I’d better stop there.

Update: On Twitter, Angela Tung tipped me off about a new kind of brag via Anil Dash: disclosurebrag.

Contrastive focus reduplication: It’s reduplication, but it’s not *reduplication* reduplication

August 7, 2012

Since writing about reduplication (choo-choo, splish-splash, heebie-jeebies) for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been meaning to elaborate on a particular form of it, known as contrastive focus reduplication or just contrastive reduplication (CR), also called lexical cloning, the double construction, and word word.

It sounds obscure, but it’s a common phenomenon in informal English. This Zits comic illustrates it well:

Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, via Language Log

Jeremy can be “up” while still in bed because up can mean simply awake, as it does in the first speech bubble. So UP-up in the second bubble indicates a contrasting kind of up – “up and about”, i.e. out of bed – that the word normally refers to in the context.

I came across a good example last weekend, in Augusten Burroughs’s novel Sellevision [underlines added]:

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Oke is OK

July 31, 2012

People often wonder whether to write OK, okay, O.K., ok, or o.k. They’re all OK, but the last two are less so – at least in formal styles – and the first may be the most OK of all, nowadays. Some prefer okay because it looks more normal or proper, or because its inflected forms (okayed, okaying) don’t warrant an apostrophe.

The word has many apocryphal etymologies, including Latin omnis korrecta, Scottish och aye, Choctaw oke, German ohne Korrektur, French au quai, and Finnish oikea. But it’s actually an abbreviation of the deliberate misspelling oll korrect.

Monosyllablic forms such as ’kay, kay, and K are common, especially in text messages, internet chat and casual speech, while long versions – like the rhyming reduplications okie-dokie, okey-doke(y), and the Ned Flanders-y okely-dokely or okily-dokily – are also popular. Other variants include okey and the obsolete okeh.

Reading The Dain Curse last week, a 1929 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett,* I came across yet another form:

When we reached the Temple door I had to caution him: ‘Try not breathing so hard. Everything will probably be oke.’

At first I thought it might be pronounced the same, maybe with an unstressed second syllable; but apparently it’s homophonous with oak. Chambers Slang Dictionary says the adjective, as in Hammett, above, occurred in the US in the 1920s–1950s; the exclamation oke! appeared only in the 1930s.

I can’t see it coming back in style, but I guess that’s oke.


* See also: Dashiell Hammett on how to be a detective.