A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

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Bewondered by obsolete be- words

September 25, 2017

The prefix be- has a wide range of meanings and applications. It can be added, forming transitive verbs, to nouns (befriend), adjectives (belittle), and other verbs (bespeak) and it can help turn nouns into participial adjectives (witch bewitched; suit besuited).

Prefixing a word with be- often lends the sense ‘about, around, all over’ or ‘completely’. It can also intensify it, as in the line ‘Snails, much despised, bekicked, and becrushed’ in George Kearley’s natural history book Links in the Chain (1863). Or it can suggest affecting or afflicting something greatly, as in bestench (1568) ‘to afflict with stench’.

The prefix was common in Old English, appearing in words like befealdan ‘fold round’ and behātan ‘promise’ (examples are from Burchfield’s The English Language) and becoming part of prepositions like before, behind, below, beneath, and beyond. In Middle English be- continued to spread, being added also to imports from French and other Romance languages: becalm, beguile, belabour, besiege.

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Language change and the politics of accents

August 12, 2017

These are the topics of my latest posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. In Words in constant motion, I write that every aspect of language use is subject to change, that this understandably unsettles some people, but that we can learn to live with it:

We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism.

In The politics of accents, I examine a recent case of linguistic prejudice against a British politician that centred on her regional accent, and consider what motivates such a reaction:

Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior.

One of Macmillan Dictionary’s busiest and most interesting features is its Open Dictionary, which relies on reader submissions of words and phrases previously absent from the dictionary. These entries, of course, are vetted and edited by lexicographers before being accepted (which many are not). Liz Potter wrote a helpful post on it last month: What’s the point of the Open Dictionary?

My full archive of posts for Macmillan is available here.


Euphemisms for the stomach

July 31, 2017

Sometimes we use language to talk about something without referring to it directly – for fear of flouting social or moral convention, for fear of the thing itself, to conceal and deceive, and so on. In everyday discourse much of this falls under politeness and pragmatics: certain domains are taboo to whatever degree, so we employ euphemisms to avoid crossing a line of what is considered appropriate in the context.

Book cover of 'Loving and Giving' by Molly Keane, publisher AbacusThe last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning the toilet or even the bathroom.

In Loving and Giving, another bittersweet comic gem by Keane, the area of taboo avoidance is the middle anatomy. The novel follows an Irish girl, Nicandra (named by her father after a beloved horse), who is eight years old when we first meet her. Her Aunt Tossie lives in the big house with them, and Nicandra goes to her room one morning:

Her nightdress was nothing like as pretty as Maman’s, no lace, only broderie anglaise the same as edged Nicandra’s drawers (“knickers” was a common word, not to be used. For the same reason, if you had a pain it was in “your little inside”, not in your stomach – and there were no words beyond “down there” to describe any itch or ailment in the lower parts of your body).

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‘Cuckquean’, abbreviations, and vocabulary change

June 22, 2017

Catching up on my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I have three recent posts to share.

Golly, matey – vocabulary change is massively awesome looks at how the words we use reflect our shifting habits and preoccupations:

To look more broadly at these ripples in the collective lexicon, we can turn to big data in the form of language corpora. One of these, the Spoken British National Corpus, allows many kinds of linguistic research, such as studying how English vocabulary and regional dialects are shifting. The project was in the news recently with a story about ‘words we no longer use’. The headline exaggerates, but there are indeed words we use much less – or much more – than we did twenty years ago. The corpus data can illustrate how our lives have changed over the years.

TL;DR: Abbreviations FTW is an overview of the different types of abbreviations and the different ways we style and use them:

Efficiency is intrinsic to communication, and can drive language change. Set phrases that are used repeatedly are commonly abbreviated, as they save people time and effort. In digital communication, abbreviations may also serve as tribal markers – tfw users are in the know about internet lingo. Ikr. Sometimes, as in the case of lol, abbreviations may even undergo grammatical transformation.

Cucks, cuckolds, cuckqueans and cuckoos briefly explores the origins and applications of this nest of interconnected words:

Quean is a notable word in its own right. It comes from Old English cwene, meaning ‘woman’, from Proto-Indo-European *gwen-, which is also the root of queen, misogyny, and gynaecology. In English, cwene was originally a neutral word; but like many terms of female reference, it gradually took on negative senses and connotations, coming to mean ‘impudent woman’, ‘hussy’, and ‘prostitute’. In Scots it has retained its original neutral sense.

Each post is bite-sized, readable in 2–3 minutes. For more, you can browse the full archive.


When is a typo not a typo? In the wor(l)d of Ulysses

June 6, 2017

Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

As a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t introduce an error. But at the risk of undermining that solid principle, there is an occasional exception.

Enter James Joyce.

Cover of OUP edition of "Ulysses", the 1922 text, with cover illustration by Richard Hamilton featuring black and white figures in quasi-Cubist styleThe length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.

Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards. Brenda Maddox, in Nora, notes that Joyce wrote ‘as much as one third of the final text of Ulysses in the form of corrections or additions in the margins of the proof sheets’.

So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.

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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.

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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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