Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

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A word so dreadful and rotten

February 16, 2020

Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:

Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.

In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.

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Are you codding me with all this stravaging?

January 29, 2020

Brian Moore, last seen on this blog Irishly having tea, uses a couple of interesting dialect words in his 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. One of them, codding, is in my idiolect in various forms, including codology; the other, stravaging, I’ve seldom seen and had to look up.

An old sexton, dusting the church in the evening, is obliged to let in two people preparing for a play:

… some people had no consideration, stopping a man in the middle of his work. Every afternoon for the past week they had come stravaging up for their rehearsals, the pair of them. Once, they even came back at night.

Brooding on the interruption, the sexton is annoyed that the church hall is regularly opened for plays, lectures, card games, and ‘all kinds of codology’. Later he wonders, ‘Are they codding me, or what?’ Then two other characters have this exchange:

‘So help me God it was the first time I ever tried.’

‘That’s the best yet. Who do you think you’re codding, Devine?’

‘I’m not codding!’

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Vocative commas, -ise/-ize, and the -fishing libfix

January 16, 2020

My monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year. Here are the most recent three posts.

In Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix, I report on -fishing, which has been quite productive since originating in catfishing about a decade ago:

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. It comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. . . . Libfix is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated.

Blackfishing and sadfishing are among the more prominent spin-off terms, but many others have been coined by analogy, and ‘all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance’.

Criticizing -ize and -ise explores this suffix, a common source of new verbs in English. After tackling the idea that such neologisms should be minimized (e.g., Garner says they are ‘usually ungainly and often superfluous’), I consider the vexed question of spelling:

The –ise suffix comes from French, ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

Hello, vocative comma looks at the comma you often see between a greeting word and a name:

Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?

It’s called the vocative comma because these structures are in the vocative case. (The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’.) But the vocative comma is used in many other types of situation, as the post goes on to show.


The meaning and origin of ‘culchie’ in Ireland

December 11, 2019

Culchie is a word used in Irish English to mean someone from the Irish countryside (or a small town or village), especially from the point of view of a Dubliner. Though originally pejorative, culchie has been partly reclaimed and is now often used neutrally, warmly, or as a tribal badge by those who live or come from beyond the Pale (i.e., Dublin and its urban environs).

While the word’s meaning is clear enough, its origin is uncertain and much speculated upon, as we’ll see. First, I’ll look at its use in Irish culture and literature. Its phonetic similarity to culture, incidentally, informed the aptly named (and now defunct) pop culture website Culch.ie, where I used to write about cult films – the URL trades nicely on Ireland’s internet top-level domain .ie.

The equivalent of a culchie elsewhere might be a bumpkin, a peasant, or a yokel. In Ireland the synonyms are likewise derogatory: bogger (bogman, bogwoman), mucker, the gloriously suggestive muck savage. So too is the antonym jackeen, referring to a certain type of Dubliner.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable notes that while culchie was initially an insult indicating rusticity, it now tends to be used in jest or affection, a change owing to Ireland’s modernisation, specifically ‘the rise in the standard of living and in educational standards in Ireland from the 1960s onwards’.

View of a field, in which grass gives way to very mucky ground. In the bottom left, the sun shines on briars growing against a low stone wall. Behind it, a few yards into the field, three black-headed sheep face the camera. Beyond them, a half dozen cattle stand near a feeding pen. Behind them is a wall with trees and a pale blue sky above.

Mayo countryside: briars, stone walls, mossy verges, sheep, cattle, and muck are fond and familiar sights to any culchie worth their salt

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Book review: Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang, by Jonathon Green

November 30, 2019

Slang, the language of the streets, the tavern, the underground, the counterculture, the gutter, has traditionally been seen as a male preserve. Women feature in it, of course – but chiefly, unflatteringly, as objects. Slang, as Jonathon Green writes in Language!, is ‘a gendered vocabulary that while it does not exclude woman, is keen to keep them in their place: the nagging wife, the sexy ingénue, the whore, the hag’.

So what of women not as objects in slang but as its creators and users? Far less has been written on this front. ‘Women’s use of slang is drastically under-reported,’ writes Green in his new book, Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. As the world’s foremost slang lexicographer, he would know, and he has scoured the available records to describe the extent and nature of that relationship.

The cover of Jonathon Green's book Sounds & Furies. It is light grey with text in black and mostly red, drawn as if sewn in thread. Around the all-caps title in the middle are a few flowers on winding stems, and small red bird saying 'OMFG'.Those records go back centuries and surge in the digital era. Sounds & Furies is a rich social history told through a lexicological lens, from Chaucer to Mumsnet via Flappers and Valley Girls. There are ample, lengthy quotations and edifying commentary. The former can be grim on occasion and not for sensitive readers: slang’s treatment of social minorities, Green observes, is ‘depressingly conservative’; of women in particular it is ‘viciously misogynistic’.

The book’s focus, happily, is on women and slang, not in slang. Its sources are diverse: novels, newspapers, poems, plays, songs, ballads, court reports, vaudeville, memoirs, biographies, detective stories – crime being one of slang’s most fertile arenas – and of course the internet. In each case the slang is identified, contextualized, and analyzed. These often boisterous excerpts will delight fans of ‘low’ varieties of English.

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Whose only passive

October 29, 2019

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.