On privilege-checking and amazey amazeballs

January 16, 2014

I have two new posts to report at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First: Check your privilege and know thy selfie offers some thoughts on the words and phrases of 2013. It includes my own pick, because X, which anticipated the American Dialect Society’s selection.

The focus, though, is on privilege-checking, a phrase that didn’t feature in other WOTY discussions, and remains niche, but whose emergence I’ve found especially interesting:

[C]heck your privilege, described as “one of the great political rallying cries of 2013”, is increasingly used in debates about social justice and power, typically directed at people who are saying something from a position of unconscious privilege.

For example, a middle-class white male might remark on how little abuse there is in social media, not having realised or enquired about its extent for people in less socially powerful positions: he has failed to check his privilege. As the Geek Feminism Wiki puts it, a privileged person “is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it”.

Read the rest for further notes on privilege-checking and more familiar WOTY candidates like selfie and -splaining.


Is ‘amazeballs’ still amaze? considers a word perhaps more loathed than loved but which shows no immediate signs of going away – indeed, the BBC called it one of 2013’s most overused words.

The BBC article quotes lexicographer Ian Brookes as saying, ‘You know a word has arrived in language when people use it without needing to explain it’ – but in this case I think most people knew what amazeballs meant the first time they heard it. It’s pretty self-explanatory, as are other amaze– coinages like amazetastic, amazetabulous, and amazeroonie (in decreasing order of Google hit count).

The short adjectival form amaze – which gave rise to the neologisms above – also remains common, and is a good example of conversion or zero derivation, where a word’s grammatical category is changed without altering the spelling. Amazeballs and company all testify to our love of language play, and specifically the fun of new words.

Odder even than the word’s productiveness in the linguistic domain is the (true) story of Kellogg’s and Tim Burgess, which I summarise in the post. For older articles you can browse the archives.


A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

May 27, 2013

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

Read the rest of this entry »

Is you is or is you ain’t bad grammar?

June 19, 2012

In a post at Lingua Franca a few months ago, Geoffrey Pullum made a useful distinction between Normal and Formal styles of English. He says “proper use of English is not defined by relentless use of Formal”, a fact that eludes those for whom correct English is coterminous with formal standard English.

Unaware that correctness, far from being absolute, can vary with register, dialect and context, people end up taking against innocuous usages and non-existent errors that then impair their enjoyment of language. Their appreciation of music suffers too, because they hold song lyrics to the same restrictive standards as elevated writing.

Certain lyrics are ungrammatical: I don’t dispute that. But people flip out over double negatives, omitted subjunctives, reflexive pronouns and the playful disregard of formal subject-verb agreement as though these implied illiteracy, laziness, stupidity or recklessness. Never mind dialectal sensitivity: not even poetic licence gets a look-in here.

The common but notoriously non-standard word ain’t occurs frequently in song lyrics and is often singled out for criticism, be it light-heartedly ironic or stern and cranky:

I dislike hearing the word ain’t in a song and sometimes an otherwise beautiful piece of music just grates when that word is used. Having been a teacher I guess to me it’s the grand daddy of bad grammer [sic].

But ain’t isn’t really a grammatical issue. Bad grammar and non-standard language, though commonly conflated, are not the same thing, as I said in a discussion on Grammar Girl’s blog last year. Bad grammar means something like “Goed us town.” I don’t think that’s grammatical in any variety of English, though we might hear goed from a child who has temporarily regularised a strong verb.

There are rules of syntax and morphology that we pick up as infants and observe automatically, and there are “rules” – generally style or usage guidelines – that we’re taught later and that may be worth heeding in certain settings. But to many people, bad grammar and grammar errors simply mean any set of conventions in English that differ from the formal standard (or from their interpretation of it).

In short: informal ≠ incorrect, and non-standard ≠ sub-standard. A particular kind of English – formal written style – is socially privileged, and sometimes it’s exalted at the expense of common sense or courtesy. Ignorance of these nuances means irrational peeves thrive, and people make a habit of collecting and hating everyday usages that don’t fit their narrow sense of what’s acceptable.

English is replete with styles, dialects and sublanguages that are fully context-appropriate, and grammatical in their own right. They’re not what you’d use in a business letter or ceremonial speech, but why would they be? Different domains of expression have their own norms: it’s presumptuous and preposterous to impose one set on all others.

Songwriters draw on genre conventions and their own dialects, both of which they may play with and subvert. Insisting on formal standard English all the time is like prescribing formal attire 24/7. It’s like saying E. E. Cummings ought to fix his formatting, or demanding that jazz obey 2/4 time. No wonder peevers can’t get no satisfaction.


The problem with banning words

April 26, 2012

I recently wrote about linguistic inflation for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, asking self-referentially if the phenomenon was ‘insanely awesome’. John Petrie, in a comment, told me about a ‘Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome.’ The person responsible calls it a ‘nauseatingly ubiquitous (and by now, completely meaningless) superlative’. He sells stickers with this message.

Inflation is a form of semantic change. This is a very common process, yet critics tend to be strangely selective about the particular changes that bother them. It doesn’t seem to matter to awesome-haters that many people find the weakened sense of the word natural and useful, or that to call it ‘completely meaningless’ is absurdly hyperbolic – something to which another pedant might well object. Read the rest of this entry »

The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

November 28, 2011

The word hybrid (from Latin hybrida,’mongrel’) commonly refers to animals and plants of mixed lineage, and more recently to vehicles with two or more power sources. In linguistic morphology it refers to a word formed by combining elements that originated in two or more languages. The process is called hybridization.

Many new words arise through compounding and affixation, and a lot of roots and affixes in English derive from Latin or Greek — sometimes indirectly, such as through French. (Classical compounds are a related source of new vocabulary, but they are of a ‘purer’ strain than hybrids and need not concern us here.)

There is a tendency for like to join with like, but because affixes from other languages are so well-established in English, and their origins are not widely known, etymological affinity is not routinely observed when words are formed. English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.

Hybrids are ubiquitous: they ‘luxuriate in the English word-garden’, as Simeon Potter put it. A familiar example is television, which (via French) yokes Greek tele– ‘far’ to Latin visio ‘seeing’. Neuroscience joins Greek neuro– ‘nerve’ to science, from Latin scientia ‘knowledge’. Other hybrids include automobile, hypercorrectionlovable, merriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Frankenstein’s monster reads a hybrid word and collapses in a daze; Dr F. flees in fright and disgust.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavoury to fuse morphemes from different languages. Maybe this attitude owed something to a fastidious temperament and a bias for classical learning. Jan Freeman, writing about these Frankenwords, said that ‘usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them.’

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, said neologisms should avoid ‘unseemly misalliance’ and pay heed to ‘etymological decency’. Ralcy Husted Bell called jeopardize ‘a monster’, which seems a bit harsh. These phrases give the impression that hybrids are malformed abominations, hideous chimeras to be shunned and disowned.

In their influential King’s English, the Fowler brothers object to amoral on the grounds that a– is Greek, moral is Latin, and it is ‘desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed’. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following ‘ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, & some all’:

amoral, amusive, backwardation, bi-daily, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, colouration, dandiacal, floatation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, racial, sendee, speedometer

Several are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine them bothering anyone; others never caught on. Often it seems to be the newness wherein lies the main trouble: rarely is there a problem with well-established hybrids. On this point, Robert Burchfield found that ‘the arguments apply only to words formed in the 19C. and 20C.’

Fowler believed that word-making,

like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it; others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.

But even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and grammaticasters, or the general population whose language it equally is? Again I find myself siding with Burchfield, in his New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

Homogeneity of language origin comes low in [language users’] ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, a sense of appropriateness, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not — these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language.

This to me is a more sane and tolerant stance, free of purist dogma and control-freakery. Rejecting hybrids in English just because their parts’ ancient origins don’t match is pointless peevery. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that nowadays ‘only a few Classics professors’ object to them. Let us be thankful for that.

My only regret is that hybrid is not a hybrid and so does not describe itself the way portmanteau does. But it’s probably too late to do anything about that.


Updates: Ben Zimmer has drawn my attention to a T-shirt with the text: ‘Polyamory is wrong! It is either multiamory or polyphilia but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!’

Ben quotes a similar joke from Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: ‘Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin!’

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
[Frankenstein image from Wikimedia Commons]

The ongoing fuss over ‘ongoing’

July 28, 2011

“avoid this ugly adjective” – The Times Style Guide

A journalist friend on Twitter asked my opinion of ongoing. He said he had been asked to ban it in a style guide, and that he didn’t see why. I said I had nothing against it, and that banning it struck me as excessive and unhelpful. Although I sometimes find constructions like ongoing situation and ongoing issue vague or euphemistic, I see no point in prohibiting them outright.

Indeed, there are times when the adjective lends a helpful distinction. Take ongoing treatment in the context of medical care: it immediately conveys the prolonged or recurring nature of the care, as distinct from one-off treatment. You could say continuing treatment instead, but why be obliged to avoid a particular modifier if there’s nothing inherently wrong with it (which there isn’t)?

I think there are many occasions when ongoing can profitably be deleted, or perhaps replaced with current, continual, continuing, developing, prolonged, persistent, sustained, in progress, under way, or some such phrase – if only for variation. It is something of a journalistic crutch word, as Oliver described it. But this is no reason to remove it from the realm of possibility.

A day after this discussion, the Guardian style guide tweeted:

Can we agree to delete the word ‘ongoing’ whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.

A bit harsh, I thought, and checked the Guardian website to see if the word appeared there often. It did: 20,765 times (more by the time you click). Including many headlines. I let @guardianstyle know about this, and they found it “shameful”.

Their response was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there’s really no shame in ongoing. A similar search on the Irish Times website yielded 22,187 hits. Even allowing for repeats, these figures strongly indicate that the word is not only well established but also useful. Browsing examples in newspapers and corpora, the usages seem to me to vary from perfectly reasonable to utterly (but harmlessly) superfluous.

A Google Ngram charts ongoing’s recent rise to prominence. The trend happened slightly earlier in the U.S. than in the UK (about which see the final quote below). Ernest Gowers, a close observer of the language, called it a vogue word back in the 1950s, and people have been griping about it ever since. Here are a few examples.

Read the rest of this entry »

Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’

January 31, 2011

He literally glowed (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. Let’s see where we stand with the dictionaries. The Shorter OED defines literally as follows:

In a literal manner, in the literal sense; so as to represent the very words of the original; so as to depict or describe the thing realistically; (emphasizing the use of a word or phrase) without metaphor, exaggeration, distortion, or allusion, colloq. With some exaggeration etc., emphatically.

Note the inclusion of a colloquial definition, the brevity of which belies the popularity of this usage. Merriam-Webster includes a helpful usage note with its two-pronged definition:

1: in a literal sense or manner: actually [took the remark literally] [was literally insane]
2: in effect: virtually [will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins]

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

The casual uses of the word to emphasise figurative or hyperbolic statements (“I literally exploded/died!”) are widely reviled, but they’ve been around for centuries and can be seen in the texts of many great writers. I’ve scattered examples throughout this post, some of them courtesy of MWDEU, as a counterpoint to the ridicule – and rage – that often accompanies the non-literal use of the word.

And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading)

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