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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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.

Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign

October 28, 2013

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) devised a model of linguistic meaning involving what he called the signifier (a symbolic or phonological form) and what it signifies. Their association is a basic unit of communication he referred to as a linguistic sign, and it is fundamentally arbitrary.

For example, rose signifies a flower with a pleasant smell, but by any other name it would, per Romeo, smell as sweet. Generally speaking, the meaning of a word cannot be predicted from its form, nor its form from its meaning.

Ferdinand de SaussureSaussure also drew a useful distinction between two approaches to linguistic study, which he called diachronic and synchronic – essentially historical and ahistorical. How he knitted these concepts together may be seen in this passage by Jonathan Culler in his book Saussure (Fontana Modern Masters, 1976):

What is the connection between the arbitrary nature of the sign and the profoundly historical nature of language? We can put it this way: if there were some essential or natural connection between signifier and signified, then the sign would have an essential core which would be unaffected by time or which at least would resist change. This unchanging essence could be opposed to those ‘accidental’ features which did alter from one period to another. But in fact, as we have seen, there is no aspect of the sign which is a necessary property and which therefore lies outside time. Any aspect of sound or meaning can alter; the history of languages is full of radical evolutionary alterations of both sound and meaning. . . . In short, neither signifier nor signified contains any essential core which time cannot touch. Because it is arbitrary, the sign is totally subject to history, and the combination at a particular moment of a given signifier and signified is a contingent result of the historical process.

The fact that the sign is arbitrary or wholly contingent makes it subject to history but also means that signs require an ahistorical analysis. This is not as paradoxical as it might seem. Since the sign has no necessary core which must persist, it must be defined as a relational entity, in its relations to other signs. And the relevant relations are those which obtain at a particular time.

There are exceptions to the arbitrary nature of the sign, such as onomatopoeia or sound symbolism, but even these may have aspects that are arbitrary or informed by the cultures in which they exist. And they are greatly outnumbered by the arbitrary signs.

John Lyons notes in Language and Linguistics that this arbitrary quality makes languages more difficult to learn, but it also gives them great flexibility and adaptability.

Squishy vs. squidgy

March 23, 2012

I got to wondering recently about the semantic differences between squishy and squidgy.

For me, squishy is soft and yielding, squishable like a sponge; squidgy refers to something a bit firmer and more malleable, like marla.* Their internal consonant clusters, voiceless sh vs. voiced dg, reflect this distinction — as with slush vs. sludge.

Curious about how others contrast them, and why, I asked offhand on Twitter, and was gratified by the range and detail of responses. I hadn’t thought much about the words’ emotional connotations: these and other qualities (e.g., relative wetness) recurred in the replies.

The discussion is now up on Storify for convenient reading and reference: ‘Squishy’ vs. ‘squidgy’.

Additional thoughts here or on Twitter would be welcome.

Edit: A recent tweet from @OxfordWords led me to their definition of squeegee, which says its origin is “from archaic squeege ‘to press’, strengthened form of squeeze.” Which seems relevant.


* /’mɔːrlə/ An Irish word for plasticine or modelling clay.