The place for toilet euphemisms

August 27, 2015

Molly Keane’s exceptional and darkly comic novel Good Behaviour (1981) has a telling passage on euphemisms for toilet in upper-class Anglo-Irish society a century or so ago. The first paragraph below is not of immediate linguistic interest but supplies context for what follows and no little amusement in its own right.

The narrator, a memorably antisocial creation, reports on her brother’s visit to the hospital when they were both children:

molly keane - good behaviour - abacus book coverThey took Hubert off to Cork that same night, and he had an appendix and tubes and nearly died. I prayed night and day for his recovery and that he might get a reprieve from pain. Constantly with me was the thought of his black hair, peaked on his forehead, smooth on his head as if painted on an egg. As I cleaned out his budgies and his mice his eyes haunted my work – his eyes that never lit and sparkled as blue eyes should, as I knew mine would, if only they were big and blue.

When at last he came home he was a very great disappointment to me. The nuns in the nursing home had spoiled him so that he was really unbearably demanding, sending me in all directions and inventing tasks for me while he lay on a chaise longue under the cedar tree with lemonade constantly at his elbow. In those days thrombosis had not been heard of, and invalids, young and old, were allowed a comfortable rest after their operations. Hubert even had a po in the bushes “in case.” Another thing these kind nuns had done was to teach him to say “the toilet” when he meant the po or the lavatory, which was a vulgarity no one seemed able to straighten out. If circumstances forced Mrs. Brock to mention it she called it the Place. “Have you been to the Place, dear?” or “Have you been?” Or else “Hubert, shouldn’t you run along the passage?” when Hubert was fidgeting frighteningly from foot to foot.

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Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

April 28, 2015

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise, lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

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Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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Numbnuts, hashtags, and refutations

February 20, 2015

I normally report on my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog about once a month. But because I took a short break from blogging here, I have three to share instead of the usual two.

The first reflects on the American Dialect Society’s words of the year (columbusing, even, manspreading, bae, #Blacklivesmatter). These category winners, considered collectively,

testify to the creativity and imagination inherent in language use, each in a different way. #Blacklivesmatter is not lexically innovative, but its selection as word of the year underscores the irresistible rise of hashtags and how they continue to spread into mainstream culture and domains beyond their early use as a way of organising discussions on social media.

It also indicates the broader significance of the hashtags shortlisted: #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed and #blacklivesmatter all point to conversations taking place, on a global scale and in real time, about violence or abuse between different groups of people. Hashtags have facilitated such communication, providing a forum for voices to be heard and opening people’s eyes to others’ experiences.


My next post picks up on a new entry to Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary, numbnuts, and looks at words with a similar sound and meaning, such as ninny and numbskull:

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green dates numbnuts to the late 1960s, and has also recorded numbhead, numbwit and nimwit (by analogy with dimwit) numbass, and other more colourful variants that cluster around similar sounds. There’s also numps, numpty, nimrod and nincompoop, and a little further off we find dumbo, dumb-ass, dunce, dunderhead, chump, schmuck, and Monty Python’s Gumbys. I have a soft spot for numbskull because of the comic strip The Numskulls, which I loved as a child. And I recently dreamt I called someone an ‘ignorant ninny’, which belongs in the same general set (though it doesn’t appear to be an abbreviation of nincompoop, as I originally imagined).


Finally, and topically, I defend the ‘loose’ use of refute by refuting allegations of its incorrectness:

For the first few hundred years of its existence in English [refute] had various related senses having to do with disproving theories, arguments, people, and so on. But its use as a word meaning reject or deny the accuracy or truth of something is no upstart either – it dates to the 19th century, so it’s had time to become established in the common tongue.

This ‘weakened’ usage has been criticised for almost as long as it has been around . . . . Yet the original sense of refute, according to the OED, is ‘To refuse or reject (a thing or person)’.

It’s topical because the UK Telegraph responded to the HSBC scandal this week by ‘utterly refuting’ allegations (from its newly resigned chief political commentator Peter Oborne) that its editorial operations were not distinct from advertising-based income. The BBC went so far as to paraphrase the Telegraph’s statement:

bbc news - telegraph hsbc peter oborne story -refute deny

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Telegraph’s use of refute in its statement. It could be described as unclear, or careless because it contradicts the paper’s own style guide. But it’s not incorrect, and anyone insisting that refute can only mean ‘disprove’ has fallen foul of the etymological fallacy.

Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Australian clippings in Peter Temple’s ‘Truth’

February 5, 2015

Australian English has a famous tendency to abbreviate words, doing so frequently and in a variety of ways. Clipping comes first, then the stump may be suffixed with an –er, –o, -s, -ie or –y, etc. This can and does occur in any form of English, but Australians seem to have taken diminutives furthest: it’s an unmistakable feature of the dialect.

Peter Temple - Truth - Quercus book coverPeter Temple’s Truth is an Australian crime novel with an abundance of such terms, and as I read it I decided to note some of them. The book, incidentally, is outstanding: the generic phrase crime novel utterly fails to capture this eloquent and ambitious morality tale. Anyway: to begin with -o forms. Truth offers several, usually in dialogue:

‘…get someone to take down every rego in the parking garage’ (registration, i.e., car number plate)

‘…years ago, you rings the cops, the ambos, they come.’ (ambulances ambulance paramedics)

‘If my old man had been a garbo, I’d be labouring on a building site.’ (garbage collector)

‘And have the Salvos take a walk around there,’ said Villani. (Salvation Army)

‘Told you at the servo then, you don’t fucken listen.’ (service station, i.e., gas station or petrol station)

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“Nope” intensifies, diversifies grammatically

December 22, 2014

Remember the transformation of fail and win 5–6 years ago? Fleeting online slang phrases like bucket of fail and made of win may sound dated now, but terms like epic fail/win and FTW (“for the win”) and the words’ use as tags and hashtags remain popular. Fail and win have firmly, if informally, extended their grammatical domains, having been converted from verb to noun, interjection, and other categories.

A word undergoing comparable change is nope. Its metamorphosis over the last few years has in some ways been more impressive, but it seems less remarked on than fail and win – maybe because of its more limited distribution. For instance, this cartoon on Imgur (pronunciation note here), which shows Spider-Man shooting spiders from his hands, drew comments that use nope as a verb, adjective, and noun – mass and count – as well as duplicating, lengthening, and adverbifying it.

Some of the comments are listed below. A couple have swear words, so you might prefer to skip ahead if you’re likely to be offended by those:

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Strong Language: A sweary blog about swearing

December 16, 2014

I rarely post here twice in one day, but I have some news to share: Strong Language is a new group blog about swearing set up by sesquiotic linguist James Harbeck and me. This is how it started.

As James puts it, the blog:

gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing.

At the bottom of the new blog you’ll see some familiar names among the contributors. More will be signing up, and we’re very open to ideas for new material. The associated Twitter account is @stronglang.

Some of you may find the idea unappealing, and will not wish to read further. I won’t hold it against you.

strong language - a sweary blog about swearing

It’s early days, and we’re still figuring out the details, but there are several posts up already on a range of topics, including the phonology of cusswords, whether shit is a contronym, and one from me today on great moments of swearing in the horror film The Thing.

If swearing gives you lalochezia or interests you linguistically, culturally or ineffably, then bookmark, subscribe and follow at will, and spread the word if the notion takes you.


My first Strong Language post is featured on the Paris Review blog:

Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity.

Ben Zimmer introduces Strong Language to Language Log readers:

There’s a new linguablog that’s definitely worth your time if you’re not put off by vulgarities. And if you revel in vulgarities, well, you’re in luck. . . . James and Stan have enlisted a great lineup of contributors (I’m happy to be one of them).

Eugene Volokh gives Strong Language his nod of approval at the Washington Post.

Strong Language just got picked up by MetaFilter.

Language Hat is also happy about it.

Dave Wilton spreads the word at

Katy Waldman at Slate‘s Lexicon Valley blog welcomes the “cheerful temple to the vulgar and profane” that is Strong Language.

Jazmine Hughes at The Hairpin praises Strong Language‘s “scholarly, robust, cool-as-shit deep dive into when and why we swear, where our curses come from, and what, exactly, they mean”.

Laura M. Browning selects Strong Language as a staff pick for the A.V. Club:

Although the blog’s authors are serious about language, they don’t take themselves too seriously, so the posts are as hilarious as they are informative. Plus you’ll pick up some language that would make Malcolm Tucker proud.


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