Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

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Incentivized and mitigated

January 7, 2021

After 10+ years and 215 articles, my language column at Macmillan Dictionary has come to an end – as indeed has the blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog itself, for now. Here are my last two posts.

Militate against mitigate looks at this pair of similar words, setting out how each one is used, why they’re easily confused, and how to remember the difference:

Because mitigate (reduce harmful effects) is sometimes like a subset of militate (have an effect), people often use mitigate when they mean militate. We know this because they write *mitigate against. Usually the writer means militate against, but not necessarily. Readers can’t always figure it out, and it isn’t their responsibility. It’s up to writers and editors to know the difference and militate against the error.

Are you incentivized to use this word? plays devil’s advocate for a much-maligned word, reviewing the usage commentary on it and showing why it’s likely to stick around:

Over time, we get used to new usages. We accept them grudgingly or even enthuse about them. Decades later, the ones that survive have become thoroughly familiar and lack the stigma of novelty. The verb contact, for instance, was loathed a century ago but is perfectly unremarkable today. Until that happens, though, these usages provoke contention, with many people looking askance at them or criticizing them vocally. So it is with incentivize.


Verb all the things

January 13, 2020

Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters has a short passage on business jargon and young people’s attitudes to it. Layla, a character in her mid-teens, is visiting her friend Cas and introduces Cas’s father:

Her dad is a tech-preneur. Name a major company in Silicon Valley and he’s ‘pulled a stint there’ – his words. It’s why they moved from Oakland, California. Detroit is friendlier to start-ups: lower overheads, tax incentives, hungry talent, cheap office space in TechTown. He’s bought into the city’s revitalization ‘with bells on’. Layla loves hearing him talk. It’s another language, where any word can be verbed. She and Cas have a secret drinking game they play during dinner, taking a sip of juice every time he uses techno jargon like ‘angel-investor’.

‘How’s Crater going?’ Layla asks him, trying to remember the name of his big start-up project.

‘Curatr,’ he corrects her automatically, rolling the trrrr.

Some examples certainly qualify as tech jargon or terminology: the portmanteau tech-preneur and the fictional brand Curatr, with its fashionably dropped vowel (cf. Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Qzzr). TechTown, meanwhile, is a real-life hub for entrepreneurship in Detroit, notable in this context for its CamelCase style.

Other examples cited – pulled a stint, with bells on, angel investor – are not what I’d consider tech jargon, but the passage is from Layla’s pov, so I figure it’s more that she has only heard these phrases from Cas’s dad and associates them with his industry.

Her observation about verbing applies to English more generally.

But I suppose the point is that tech execs (and managers, advertisers, etc.) are more likely to do it with abandon, and that when you’re a teenager and it’s your dad or your friend’s dad, it can be a particular source of interest, embarrassment, or entertainment.

It’s refreshing to see this form of language, so often maligned, portrayed positively. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Dana Fradon included in The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975–1985:

Two businessmen are in a room. One on the right stands, smiling slightly, facing the one on the left, who is bald and sits behind a large desk in front of a window. The one sitting says, "You're a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs."

[Caption: “You’re a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs.”]

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Irregular, elementary, and belittling

September 29, 2018

I have three new posts to report from Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about words and language. Links and excerpts follow.

‘This is highly irregular’ showcases the devilish irregularity of English:

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.

‘Elementary error, my dear Watson’ looks at a well-known expression whose provenance proves unexpected:

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.

It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.

‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.


Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

*


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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Getting ratioed for your bad take

November 16, 2017

Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.

Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):

Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.

And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter. (If you’ve seen it elsewhere, let me know.)

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