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.

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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.

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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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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

March 3, 2017

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-1

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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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