The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

Read the rest of this entry »

Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.


What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.

A radical awareness of language’s mutability

March 28, 2012

I recently read Henry Hitchings’s Defining the world: The extraordinary story of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, and I recommend it heartily to those of you who enjoy its principal fields of interest: words, history, literature, biography, and lexicography.

As well as recreating the history of Johnson’s Dictionary, which was first published in 1755, Hitchings’s book serves as a frank and affectionate portrait of Samuel Johnson himself, and as a vivid profile of 18th-century England. It’s an elegant and enthralling account that includes a keen analysis of Johnson’s linguistic attitudes and shows how these developed over the course of creating his mighty work.

Before beginning the Dictionary in earnest, Johnson wrote a lengthy Plan of an English Dictionary, in which he presented his ambitions for the book and his suitability for the task. It was addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield in order to win his patronage. Chesterfield, we read, was “obsessed with propriety of usage . . . and with embalming or even bettering the language”. Johnson said the dictionary’s chief intent would be “to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”.

The order of these aspirations is no accident. Johnson’s characterisation of English as “licentious” and “inconstant” has what Hitchings refers to as “a distinctly moral cast”. But although the emphasis on stability was “consistent with [Johnson’s] own political instincts”, Hitchings suggests that it was probably exaggerated for Chesterfield’s sake: years later the Dictionary’s preface would contain a sober and eloquent acknowledgement of the irresistibility of linguistic change.

From Defining the world:

Linguistic conservatives like Chesterfield were afraid that unchecked changes in general usage would cause the English of the eighteenth century to become as bewildering to its inheritors as the language of Chaucer was to them. They were correct, of course, in seeing that their language was in flux. Then and now, the engines of this change include international commerce and travel, which involve contact with other languages; shifts in political doctrine or consensus; translations, which frequently preserve the idiom of their originals; fashion (in Johnson’s age, the nascent cult of sensibility), whose adherents require a special figurative language to articulate their refined and rarefied perspectives; and advertising, which uses foreign terms to connote mystique. These transfusions are what keep a language alive, but this is a modern view. Chesterfield could not begin to see that change was a force for the good. With time, Johnson’s conservatism — the desire to ‘fix’ the language — gave way to a radical awareness of language’s mutability. But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what’s there, and not just what one would like to see.

250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary remains “not merely readable, but vital”, Hitchings writes, its every page brimming with philological lore and choice quotation. It is not just a landmark in lexicography but a great work of literature, described by Robert Burchfield as “the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank”.*

The sixth edition of the Dictionary (1785) is available in multiple formats from the Internet Archive: Volume 1 and Volume 2.


* My Tumblr blog has a short passage by Burchfield on semantic drift.

‘Nice’ in Northanger Abbey

March 9, 2012

Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)

Nice is often held up as an example of semantic drift: its meaning has changed often, and radically, since it entered English in the 13thC from Old French nice “simple, silly, foolish”, from Latin nescius “ignorant”.

Etymonline sketches the sequence, while the Shorter OED’s entry is shown in plain form here with quotations for each sense. The 14th and final adjectival sense in the OED, dating from the early 18thC, is the general-purpose expression of approval we’re most familiar with:

Agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory, delightful, generally commendable; (of food) tasty, appetizing; (of a person) kind, considerate, friendly; iron. (very) bad, unsatisfactory. colloq.

This usage has long been criticised for being vague, overused, and colloquial. Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it “an indication of laziness”, while Fowler blamed the word’s own good fortune, and women, for ruining it: “the ladies”, he wrote, had “charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness.” Woe is mankind!

Nowadays, nice is used mostly in speech and fiction, as the following at-a-glance genre graph in COCA (1990–2011) shows. You can click through for examples in each category.

Comparatively few instances of the word are found in academic texts, and many of these are acronymic or dialogue uses.

Fowler said people limiting nice to its “more proper” (i.e., older) senses were doing the language a favour. He would presumably have sided with Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), who teased Catherine Morland over her modern-leaning use of the word:

   ‘But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?’
   ‘The nicest; – by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.’
   ‘Henry,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word “nicest,” as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’
   ‘I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?’
   ‘Very true,’ said Henry, ‘and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’
   ‘While, in fact,’ cried his sister, ‘it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.’

The passage plays astutely on the word’s polysemy, while the reference to Johnson is, well, a nice coincidence. Today I saw a page of Isaac Watts’s Logick which Johnson had marked up to quote in his Dictionary: “Nor have we either Senſes or Inſtruments ſufficiently nice and accurate to find them out.” The word nice, exemplifying one of the usages of which Fowler later approved, was duly underlined.

Flouting class and flaunting mnemonics

December 5, 2011

It’s the start of a new month, which means it’s time to report on what I’ve been writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Five posts on words and language are linked and excerpted below, or you can go straight to my archive of articles.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a sign that read: “Help impact a child, donate your vehicle”. This is a usage of impact that bothers a lot of people, and I can’t say I’m fond of it myself. But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it.

So how does “impact” impact you? This post considers the word in the context of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory, which says that as we acquire vocabulary it becomes “loaded with the contexts (linguistic, generic and social) in which we repeatedly encounter it”. And it seems we can’t help wanting others to support our impressions:

We have a tendency to generalise from our feelings, leaping too easily from “I dislike this usage” to “This is wrong” or even “No one should ever say this anywhere.” It’s natural that we would want to universalise our preferences, but it’s not very reasonable or practical. Better to examine why we might object to a legitimate word. This can have a surprising impact. [more]

People sometimes adopt new modes of speech to advance in work or society or to dissociate from certain areas or attributes and so on. This may be part of what inspired the much-derided “Dortspeak” in and around Dublin.

I look briefly at the accent and at Received Pronunciation in RP and Dortspeak. RP, also known as BBC English and the Queen’s (or King’s) English, is not so exalted nowadays as it once was, but for a long time it had powerful social prestige:

An RP accent, even a modified one that combines it with regional qualities, has prestige because it implies a certain level of education, social status, prosperity and perhaps political power. Centuries ago it was the accent of the courts and high society in London and the home counties; people moving there to advance in life often adopted it as their own.

Later, RP became the accent of public schools and the BBC, which strengthened and stabilised its status as the “standard” form of English speech. It was (and remains) linked to class consciousness. [more]

Class consciousness was a recurring theme on Macmillan Dictionary Blog during November, which was its “class English” month and featured excellent posts by a range of regular and guest contributors.

My next article, Through the class ceiling, broadens the discussion in my previous post from accents to dialects:

Standard English is an important and useful variety of English, but its status comes from historical circumstance rather than inherent linguistic superiority. This point is sometimes missed by those who hold that there is an ideal form of English — which typically corresponds to the form they were taught or to which they aspire.

Later I quote from Jean Aitchison’s book Language Change: Progress or Decay?, in which she describes how Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary may have encouraged belief in a false hierarchy of linguistic properness:

Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. . . . in many instances [he] pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes [more]

Leaping forward a few centuries, High-speed tech jargon explores online lingo and its rapid turnover:

Jargon is part of a sublanguage, and is subject to forces of change just like our common vocabulary is. Technology evolves quickly and its jargon is churned out at a corresponding rate. Entire avenues of research and use are rendered obsolete by superior (or better commercialised) developments, so what were technological buzzwords one year might be unrecognisable just a few years later.

After considering (and linking to) a few recent articles on tech jargon, two of which find fault with its ubiquity or opacity, I conclude that

So long as jargon is reasonably transparent and pitched at the appropriate level, there is no cause for alarm; when communication fails because the words we use are too obscure or esoteric, people will either stop reading or let us know. [more]

Finally, Avoid flaunting your confusion is about commonly confused word pairs like flaunt vs. flout, and how we can use mnemonics and other methods to help remember which word is which.

To remember that flaunt means show off, for example, you could think of the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. To make it doubly effective, address the other word in the pair, too: notice the lout in flout and think of a lout flouting the law . . . .

Mnemonics can help us only if we put them to work. First we need to be aware that there’s a difficulty, and to take responsibility for it. The tricks we devise can be personally meaningful or arbitrary and absurd, so long as they’re readily brought to mind. The more memorable they are, the more reliably they’ll do the job. [more]

Feel free to share your thoughts below or at the aforelinked posts.