Variant usages are plenty

March 22, 2018

My monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year, and I haven’t reported on it since November. So here are the latest four items I’ve written there, with excerpts to give you a flavour:

1. Macmillan’s thesaurus is a bit different, unusual, special, and unique: This post showcases unique features of the site’s thesaurus:

Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. … These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.

2. Disagreements are plenty: What can dictionary entries tell us about linguistic attitudes? I examine Samuel Johnson’s reaction to a certain use of plenty:

‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’ ‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. In his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But […] the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.

3. Loath(e) to get it wrong: Even native English speakers are often unsure of the difference between loath and loathe. Does it matter? I take a look:

Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced. The reality is a bit messier.

4. Would you like an espresso – or an expresso? I review the status of a much-used, and much-loathed, variant pronunciation:

A half-full (or half-empty) cup of espresso on a saucer with a spoonAnother reason for the popularity of expresso is that it looks and sounds more like an English word than espresso does – albeit an imported one, with that ‘o’ at the end. Aside from esprit, another Romance-language borrowing, espresso is the only word in common use in English that begins with espr-, whereas expr- is very familiar from words like express and expression. So people unconcerned with etymology are unlikely to notice anything wrong with expresso. … Usage purists are not happy about expresso being in common use. To them, it’s wrong, end of story, and anyone who uses the word is making a careless linguistic error and a social faux pas.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Comments are welcome at either location.

[Photo © Nevit Dilmen licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

Dr Johnson’s House in London

June 2, 2017

On a recent trip to London I visited 17 Gough Square, better known as Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of 1755 in this tall Georgian building, and I’ve always wanted to visit. As I’m currently writing a column on the subject (ish), the timing was apt.

On my way there I passed a Furnival Street and wondered if it was named after another lexicographer – but that Furnivall has two l’s in his name, so I guess not.

The house is ‘one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have done so’, Henry Hitchings writes in his terrific book Defining the World (aka Dr Johnson’s Dictionary). Here’s the plaque outside:

Circular plaque on the red-brick wall of 17 Gough Square. The plaque reads:

Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:

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The Samuel Johnson notes: A notorious ‘curmudgeon’

May 30, 2017

I write a column on language for rare-books journal The Time Traveller, in which Samuel Johnson and his Dictionary have a recurring role. The first article looked at the semantically spectacular history of nice; the second, posted below, is on the etymology of curmudgeon and an infamous lexicographic flub.


A Notorious ‘Curmudgeon’

In issue 1 of The Time Traveller I described the radical changes the word nice has undergone, and how this prompted resistance and criticism. Because linguistic change is inevitable, constant, and disorienting, language usage attracts its fair share of curmudgeons. It’s a marvellous word, curmudgeon: the kind that Dickens might have made into an affectionately mocking surname. Yet despite its familiarity and popularity, it hides a mystery and a certain notoriety.

We begin, as before, with Samuel Johnson, critic, occasional curmudgeon, and lexicographer extraordinaire. In his Dictionary he defined curmudgeon as ‘an avaricious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard; a churl; a griper’. Several things stand out about this sequence.

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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.

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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 from 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.