Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible or dogmatic about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

Read the rest of this entry »

Ijit, idjit, eejit, idiot

July 22, 2011

After about 15 years of not reading Stephen King, I came across Dolores Claiborne in a second-hand bookshop and immediately bumped it to the upper reaches of my book mountain. I’ve long admired the film adaptation, so I was more than a little curious to visit the source.

Set on an island off the coast of Maine, New England, it’s a memorable story told very well as a continuous narrative in Dolores’s dialectal speech. It has one lexical feature that I want to mention here. No spoilers follow:

…the biggest ijit in the world coulda told he didn’t think I’d do any such thing once I finally understood what’d happened

I don’t remember seeing the word ijit in print before. Obviously it’s a regional form of idiot – like idjit, another variant – and means more or less the same thing (see eejit, below), but it’s interesting how its pronunciation /’ɪdʒət/ ‘idget’ differs from the standard /’ɪdiət/ ‘iddy-uht’. I suppose this is related to the tendency for /dj/ to shift to /dʒ/ in words like due and during.

Ijit has only one hit in COCA; idjit has three, including the amusing line ‘an optimist […] is just a crossword puzzle way of saying idjit’. Browsing Google Books, though, I see that they’re not so rare, ijit occurring for instance in a story by Jacques Futrelle, who lived not far from Maine in Scituate, Massachusetts.

I expect they occur here and there around the English-speaking world. Wordnik aggregates several colloquial examples of both forms. Rooting around some more, I see that ijit is also an old African American word, mentioned in Hubert Anthony Shands’s Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi (1893):

Eejit is the Irish English equivalent, and is common in fictional and vernacular dialogue. It doesn’t connote mental retardation – idiot can – instead signalling foolish behaviour, be it chronic or occasional. Eejit is softer than idiot, and is not generally used hurtfully but to gently criticise someone the speaker knows and may well hold in affection. I imagine this is also true of ijit and idjit, but I’m open to correction.

Eejit can, of course, be used in self-criticism, as in this example from Jennifer Johnston’s novel Shadows on Our Skin:

And he hadn’t done his homework, let alone his extra homework. Eejit. Eejit.

T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers a few literary examples of eejit and a note on pronunciation: that it approximates the Irish rendering of d and i. Take for example the Irish words Dia (God) /’dʲi:æ/ and idir (between) /’ɪdʲər/. [Edit: See the comments for more on this.]

‘You’re the biggest eejit this side of Cork,’ his old father used to say snappishly. (William Trevor, Fools of Fortune)

Common modifiers of eejit include big, awful, feckin’, fuckin’, and oul’ (also ould, aul’, auld). Its jocular flavour made it a frequent favourite in the TV comedy Father Ted, and might help explain why the word was found to be not unparliamentary when it was used in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Irish English as Represented in Film by Shane Walshe presents some uses of the word in films, but you’ll have to turn your head sideways to read them. Like an eejit.