Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled thrill-ride!!!

Earlier this week I was indulging in a spot of channel-surfing (which the Chambers Dictionary delightfully defines as “to switch rapidly between different television channels in a forlorn attempt to find anything of interest”) and settled on one of the myriad reality programmes, in this case following a local police force on the beat. The synopsis proclaimed it as high-octane, which didn’t seem the best choice of adjective for footage of slightly over-weight police officers trying to chase teenage drug-dealers down the high street. But it got me thinking about this kind of muscular language that often gets bandied around when trying to engage with lad culture.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it in the tag lines of blockbuster action films. You’ve seen it on the side of buses, in snippets of reviews for said films, usually directly followed by a ★★★★★ rating from a lad mag. It’s a school of film marketing that seems entirely based around convincing you that going to see this movie will provide the least comfortable two hours of your life. Words and phrases like relentless, mind-snapping, pulse-pounding, heart-thumping and breathless are more akin to post-traumatic stress than an average Friday night at the local Cineplex. One review of wrestler-slash-actor John Cena’s latest cinematic offering 12 Rounds warns “you’ll be picking shrapnel out of your eyeballs for weeks”. Great! A quick survey of reviews for the films of the genre’s poster boys, like Vin Diesel and Jason Statham, reveals a significant increase in usage for terms like adrenaline, steroids, explosive, raw and blistering.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that this is all figurative, and I’m not expecting any movie-goers to emerge from Crank 2 with third-degree burns or whiplash. It makes perfect sense that promotion of such material should reflect the content - many of these descriptions indeed being the adjectival equivalent of a six car motorway pile-up, or a beer-soaked bar fight spilling into an all-out street brawl. In fact, it’s probably a better indicator of what to expect from a film than the warnings issued by the British Board of Film Classification, my personal favourite being “Contains scenes of extended peril”. I can definitely see why the marketing department have opted for more colourful language to help them corral the demographic.

The Chambers Dictionary defines high-octane as “(of petrol) of high octane number and so of high efficiency”. If the intended result was for me to change channels as quickly as possible, then “Cops with Cameras” was most certainly efficient, and perhaps the description was fitting after all.

David Wark

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

A different kettle of fish

There are times when you switch on the radio and you are not sure if you are listening to the news or a cookery programme. Recent reports about police handling of public demonstrations make frequent use of the word ‘kettling’. Sadly, that this has nothing to do with having a nice cup of tea, but refers instead to the practice of containing protesters within a fixed area for a prolonged period.

The image works by viewing the energy of a seething mass of people as being analogous to the boiling water in a kettle. If the restricted area is maintained, the energy of the crowd will eventually be dissipated, and the protesters will then be allowed to disperse.

It may seem a surprising at first that a form of crowd control is named after a kitchen utensil. Then again, we might consider that every household has a kitchen, and so the things found in a kitchen are familiar, and we often explain new or unusual phenomena by comparing them to familiar objects.

It is certainly not the first time that a kitchen object has been called upon to give a name for something that has nothing to with cooking. The word stovepipe, for example, was borrowed to describe a tall silk hat of the kind favoured by Abraham Lincoln, while a panhandle is a thin strip of territory stretching out from the main body like the handle of a pan – as is found in the states of Oklahoma and Florida. Meanwhile, in the jargon of town planners the word pepperpotting has been coined to refer to the practice of sprinkling social housing among areas of private housing, so that lower earners are not herded together in large estates. Viewed in the light of these usages, the imagery of kettling is easier to understand.

Of course, some items of kitchenware have yet to acquire any metaphorical senses. The Chambers Dictionary does not yet record any interesting secondary uses of the words toaster or microwave oven – but perhaps there is still time.

Ian Brookes

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Friday, 18 September 2009

Barbed words

There was a discussion in one of our July posts about new words that are modelled on other established words (telegenic from photogenic, digerati from literati).

Dictionary compilers often stumble upon clumsy word blends that raise a groan (would the sublebrities and vegematarians please stand up?). However, some similarly constructed coinages must be admired for their incisiveness: they pin down exactly the sense they are intended to convey.

One coinage which neatly encapsulates an idea is churnalism. It is a blend of 'churn' and 'journalism' used by journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, and the idea certainly caused a stir.

'Churnalism' was the name given by the writer to a perceived practice in news media, when decreasing budgets and increasing workloads take their toll, of regurgitating a news item without questioning its provenance. As a result of the practice, a single press release (or even one part of it) written by an individual or organization can be taken up by a newspaper and interpreted by its readers as unassailable fact. Other agencies might pick up the story from that newspaper and run it themselves.

As the story is reproduced, there may be little attempt on the part of time-poor journalists to do the job they would like to do in verifying the story or uncovering new aspects of it. Thus, one view of a particular situation, or even a general notion, can be latched on to and propagated but left unchallenged.

Churnalism is not a barbed word in the sense that it is intended to hurt. But it is a good example of a word that is trenchant, cutting through redundant verbiage and coming straight to the point.

Mary O'Neill

Friday, 11 September 2009

Finding your feet

One of the exercises within the CD-ROM for the recently released Chambers Student Learners’ Dictionary involves inserting the name of a part of the body into the correct idiomatic expression. The exercise, designed for learners of English, may sound easy, but when you consider the plethora of expressions in English that involve various bodily appendages, you can understand how it might be a little more difficult for a learner.

The thinking behind body-related expressions is often quite clear. To do something behind someone’s back or to stab someone in the back is to be treacherous in a such a way that the victim cannot be aware of it or anticipate it. Similarly, sticking your neck out portrays the vulnerability that would be associated with that action, especially if performed around sharp instruments or fast moving traffic. Seeing eye to eye demonstrates a shared viewpoint, while something that falls on deaf ears may as well have not been said.

You can do more things with your feet than anyone would have thought possible, whether relaxing by putting your feet up, or putting your foot down in determination, or sometimes awkwardly putting your foot in it. All of these are only possible if you’ve got a leg to stand on of course, so you have to avoid paying an arm and a leg for anything. If you do end up making an expensive purchase you might pay through the nose, a process that sounds particularly painful.

One would also assume that losing limbs would represent injury, or at least discomfort, unless of course you’re laughing your head off, a surprisingly enjoyable experience, or someone’s been pulling your leg. Giving someone a hand can’t be too excruciating either, and is definitely more morally rewarding than a severed limb. And of course, while some may argue of the potential emotional stress, falling head over heels isn’t always as bad as it sounds.

There are so many expressions like this that it’s no wonder some English learners try to learn them all by heart, but with so many different variations they would really have their hands full, and even with the right phrase on the tip of their tongue, might never quite put their finger on it.

Deborah Smith

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009


Those meerkats have got a lot to answer for. Back in May, I wrote a blog about the origin of the animal’s name, noting that an advertising campaign had brought this curious creature to public attention. Now it appears that the advertisements have been so successful that they are even influencing the way that people are using English.

The advertisements in question feature a Russian-accented meerkat called Aleksandr, who professes to be amazed at how many people confuse the words ‘market’ and ‘meerkat’, and ends his demonstrations of the difference between the two by saying, ‘Simples!’

Influenced by the wit of the advertisements and the intrinsic cuteness of the meerkat, people have taken to repeating Aleksandr’s catchphrase as a humorous way of saying that the explanation they have just provided is easy to understand. At the recent World Athletics Championships, for example, British athlete Phillips Idowu was interviewed after winning the gold medal in the triple jump and made light of his victory with the words, ‘Hop, step, jump, 17.73. Simples!’ A petition has even been launched on a popular social-networking site to get the word ‘Simples’ included in a dictionary of English.

There is ample precedent for advertising slogans being adopted in English speech. Plenty of us have pronounced meat to be ‘bootiful’ in homage to a noted turkey farmer; and for a period around 2000 the greeting ‘Whassup?’ – borrowed from the adverts of an American beer company – threatened to become as common as ‘Hello’, before the craze disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

It is precisely the ephemeral nature of such crazes that is the biggest barrier to ‘Simples’ making it into the dictionary. While television is very good at getting people to repeat phrases in pubs and playgrounds, few of these slogans have great staying power. The Chambers Dictionary has resisted the urge to include earlier television catchphrases such as ‘Cowabunga!’ (popularized by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), ‘Fandabidozi!’ (The Krankies), ‘Flobbadob’ (The Flowerpot Men) and ‘Scorchio!’ (The Fast Show). Perhaps ‘Simples’ will prove to have more legs, but it is a little early to tell.

Ian Brookes

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Monday, 31 August 2009

Superfluous, tautological redundancy...

I was recently asked if there was a specific term for phrases made up of an acronym followed by a word where that word is the expanded form of the last initial of the acronym. A common example is ‘PIN (Personal Identification Number) number’.

Generally speaking these phrases can be classified as pleonasms - more words than required are used to express the concept in question. Interest in this phenomenon has also resulted in these more specific terms: ‘RAP (Redundant Acronym Phrase) phrase’ and ‘RAS (Redundant Acronym Syndrome) syndrome’ - let the self-referential irony not go unnoticed!

Being both curious and empirically-minded, I turned to our corpus, CHIC, to find out more about ‘real life’ manifestations of this phenomenon and was rewarded with ample evidence of acronym-related redundancy.

Examples (beginning with more common cases) include:
  • ATM (Automated Teller Machine) machine
  • ISBN (International Standard Book Number) number
  • LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) display
  • DVD (Digital Versatile or Digital Video Disc) disc
  • DMA (Dynamic Mechanical Analysis) analysis
  • NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) agreement
  • IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) agency
  • JOA (Joint Operating Agreement) agreement
  • CD (Compact Disc) disc
Company names with a redundant component, usually as a result of some sort of rebranding, include ‘DC (Detective Comics) Comics’ and ‘Lloyds TSB (Trustee Savings Bank) Bank’.

The PIN number example is by far the most common. In CHIC, the term 'PIN number' is used 195 times while ‘PIN’ (as a standalone phrase) occurs 160 times. Looking at the way the occurrences are distributed across the different subject areas in the corpus we can see that PIN without 'number' occurs with significantly higher relative frequency in the Applied Science and Technology domain.

This supports the idea that the redundant word is intended to disambiguate or clarify meaning. In scientific or technical writing it is assumed that both writer and reader will be familiar with an acronym’s meaning or stylistic conventions for glossing acronyms will be adhered to. In more general communication, however, a speaker or writer may be unsure of their own or their audience’s familiarity with an acronym’s precise meaning. The seemingly redundant phrase is therefore an attempt, often subconscious, to reinforce intended meaning.

While it’s likely that clarity was the initial motivation for redundant acronyms such as ‘PIN number’, this particular word combination appears to be evolving into a set phrase with the original meaning of the acronym becoming less important. The corpus again provides evidence for this. Of the 195 hits for the corpus query ‘PIN number’, only 52% of cases are of the form ‘PIN number’ while 7% are of the form ‘Pin number’ and 41% of the form ‘pin number’ where the acronym appears to have completely lost its status as such.

This sort of redundancy is generally regarded as stylistically objectionable but as observers and recorders of the language use, we are duty bound to monitor all instances of lexicalisation, even of rule breakers like RAP phrases.

Ruth O'Donovan

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Don't cry for me, Clishmaclaver

I am moving from Chambers to pastures new, so the time has come for me to say goodbye.

Many people don’t like to say goodbye as it seems too final – it holds no inherent suggestion that there will be another meeting. Indeed, the word itself is a contraction of the words ‘God be with you’: divine protection must be called upon to guide you through an unknown future. This wish for people to be safe after they have left you is reflected in farewell, while a similar entreaty for God’s care is made in adieu, addio and adios, from the French, Italian and Spanish respectively, all meaning ‘to God’.

Is it because we are reluctant to imply a potentially permanent separation that many other, more optimistic, foreign farewells have been borrowed into the English language? The French au revoir, the German auf wiedersehen, the Italian arrivederci and Arnie’s Terminator 2 special from Spanish, hasta la vista, all mean ‘until we meet again’. Two other ways to say goodbye in Spanish are hasta luego [see you later] and hasta mañana [see you tomorrow].

Mañana itself is a very vague term which is defined (as far as possible) in the upcoming Chambers book, The Untranslatables. It could be translated as ‘tomorrow’, the day that follows today, but there is a strong possibility that in most parts of the Spanish-speaking world, mañana refers to some indefinite time in the future. Arabic goes one step further with the word bukra, which has been described as being ‘like mañana… but without the same sense of urgency’.

Of course, heartrending though it may be, it is always better to say goodbye than overstay one’s welcome. The Untranslatables warns of that terrible beast, la pedze. Coming from the Swiss patois word for ‘resin’ or ‘glue’, this word refers to someone who stays too long in one place, or to someone who cannot drag themselves from the table after a meal, and especially to a guest who long overstays his welcome.

And on that note, I shall quote the The Sound of Music and say: so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

Naomi Farmer

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