Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Link love: language (76)

May 13, 2021

A selection of language-themed links for your listening, viewing, and (mostly) reading pleasure.

 

How to say chorizo.

History of the asterisk.

Emoji time 🕙 is meaningless.

Bookselling in the End Times.

Neopronouns: a beginner’s guide.

New Covid-inspired German words.

The linguistic construction of terrorists.

Boyo-wulf: Beowulf translated into Cork slang.

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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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Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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Awkness: an old word made new again

January 28, 2021

In a recent conversation, I heard the word awkness in reference to a socially awkward situation. I hadn’t heard it before, but its meaning was obvious in context. After all, its cousin awks ‘awkward’ has been around a while; I’ve even used it myself.

When I looked into awkness, I had a surprise. It sounds, as I said on Twitter, like a millennial coinage – and it is, more or less. But not originally: the OED dates awkness to the late 16th century, defining it thesaurusily as ‘wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude’.

The first citation is from a 1587 religious book by Philippe de Mornay (tr. Philip Sidney & Arthur Golding): ‘The skilfull can work much upon little, and by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.’ The citations continue till 1674, with the word also spelled awknesse, awknes, and aukness.

And then: obsolescence.

Well, not exactly.

OED entry for 'awkness'. Etymology: < 'awk' adj. + '-ness' suffix. Obsolete. Definition: 'Wrongness, irrationality, perversity, untowardness, awkwardness, ineptitude.' Citations: 1587: Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay, 'Trewnesse Christian Relig'. xxxii. 595 'The skilfull [man] can..by his cunning ouercome the awknesse of his stuffe.' 1615: S. Hieron 'Dignitie of Preaching' in 'Wks.' (1620) I. 602 'A reprobate awknes to all good.' 1658: W. Gurnall, 'Christian in Armour: 2nd Pt.' 448: 'So much awknesse and unwillingnesse to come to Gods foot.' 1668: W. Spurstowe, Spiritual Chymist Pref.' 5: 'Awkness to this beneficial employment.' 1674: N. Fairfax. 'Treat. Bulk & Selvedge' 171: 'By shewing the aukness or great absurdity on the other side.' Read the rest of this entry »


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.


Six new language podcasts

December 6, 2020

Podcasts have become a bigger part of my media consumption than I expected they would. I’ll stick to linguistic ones here, in keeping with the blog’s theme. New ones keep appearing, leading to dilemmas in time management, but it’s a happy kind of dilemma.

Here, in alphabetical order, are a handful of good language podcasts that entered the scene in 2019–2020. Episode lengths, given in parentheses, are approximate.

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