Buffaloed by the verb buffalo

April 23, 2018

On a recent mini-binge of James M. Cain novels, I finished a 5-in-1 set from Picador: two I’d read years ago – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – and three others I soon raced through: Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly.

Cover image of "The Five Great Novels of James M Cain", published by Picador. Cover is dominated by a black and white photo of a man lying on the ground, his hat displaced; he appears to have been shotCain, in a preface to The Butterfly, reacts to some criticisms of his work, such as that he took his style from Hammett (‘I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiell Hammett in my whole life’).* A blurb from the NYRB hints at his formidable legacy: ‘It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir: or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Étranger.’

But the purpose of this post is to examine the vivid verb used, and mentioned, in the title. About midway through The Butterfly, a character’s unexpected appearance prompts the following exchange:

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Linguistic contagion and detox

February 14, 2018

Sludge: the word’s connotations range from unsavoury to downright toxic, radioactive. But we produce a huge amount of it (multiple shit-tons, you might say), and we have to deal with that. And so we resort to code, euphemism, and other linguistic tricks.

Portobello UK cover of Rose George's book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste". The design is minimalist, dominated by male and female icons like those used to indicate public toilets‘When sewage is cleaned and treated,’ writes Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, ‘the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the US, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.’ George devotes a chapter of her superb book to the nature of this ‘blandly named product’ and the bitter controversy over its use on land.

The Big Necessity, dubbed a ‘tour de feces’ by Nancy Friedman, lists five options for disposing of sludge: landfill, incineration, gasification (these three are expensive), ocean dumping (illegal), and land application. ‘It was not a difficult choice,’ George writes, and for the fifth option there was precedent:

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Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.


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.

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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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Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Don’t flout this distinction – flaunt it

February 3, 2017

English, in its superabundance, has many multiples of words and phrases that overlap contentiously in meaning. These confusables are the bread and butter of usage manuals: imply and infer, disinterested and uninterested, careen and career, defuse and diffuse, convince and persuade, militate and mitigate, refute and reject, and flaunt and flout.

Some of these pairs are worth distinguishing; others are not. Part of editing well – and writing well – is knowing which distinctions to preserve and which to disregard. Examining over versus more than, John E. McIntyre refers to dog-whistle editing: ‘the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time’.

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