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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Monday, 24 August 2009

I’ve looked at clouds that way

Joni Mitchell looked at clouds and saw ‘rows and flows of angel hair and ice-cream castles in the air’. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince looks at a cloud and compares it to a camel, then a weasel, then a whale. Somehow it wouldn’t be quite as poetic if these characters had scanned the sky and reported seeing a bank of altocumulus or cirrostratus.

The technical names for cloud formations are conventionally Latin words chosen to match characteristic shapes, and so when weather-watchers recently identified a new type of cloud that has hitherto escaped classification, the name proposed for it was the Latin word asperatus. Meaning ‘roughened’, this name looks set to join the likes of cirrus (meaning ‘a curl’), cumulus (‘a heap’) and stratus (‘a layer’) and the various combinations and subdivisions of these in the weather forecaster’s lexicon.

It is understandable that scientists should need precise terminology in talking about their subject, but The Chambers Dictionary knows that there are other ways of talking about clouds. A scan of the dictionary reveals that cirrus clouds can also be called goat’s hair or (when then they occur in long strands) mare’s-tails, while a cirro-cumulus cloud has the alternative name of a woolpack. A messenger is a light scudding cloud preceding a storm, and a water dog is a small irregular floating cloud supposed to indicate rain. A sky that is streaked with long, parallel white masses of cloud is called a mackerel sky due to a perceived similarity with the fish’s scales.

The farmers, shepherds and sailors who scanned the skies in the old days may not have known Latin, but they certainly came up with some memorable words for the things they saw. Perhaps the Royal Meteorological Society should give a thought to this descriptive tradition as it considers the name for the new formation.

Ian Brookes

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Thursday, 20 August 2009

'The Araucaria Counterweight Book Saver'

(click on images to enlarge)

Sometimes the correspondence we receive from our readers is just too good to keep to ourselves. This week we received the following email (repeated with the writer's permission) from a dedicated fan of the crossword setter the Reverend John Graham, better known as Araucaria. Four collections of his puzzles are published by Chambers: Chambers Book of Araucaria Crosswords Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.

Dear Araucaria,

I am a 75 year old crazy crossword enthusiast and inveterate puzzle solver while bathing. I recently had a terrible accident while trying to solve one of your puzzles while in the bath. I fell asleep and dropped the book in the water, thus ruining it forever. I had done this before, but not with an Araucaria book and was mortified. I then devised a counterweight system to prevent damage to books whilst reading in the bath and have named it 'The Araucaria Counterweight Book Saver'. I hope I have your approval. I have sent you some photos with this message showing how it works.

Araucaria crosswords are not readily available in South Africa and when visiting the UK I regularly stock up, so losing one is traumatic. I wish you many more years of compiling and hope to have many more years left of solving!

Respectfully yours in admiration,

Ivan Greenberg
Cape Town
South Africa

Those who have exhausted every last grid from these four books need not drown themselves in their baths in despair. A subscription to 1 Across magazine can drip-feed an Araucaria fix on a monthly basis. Email 1 Across for further details.

Anne Robertson

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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Playing it for laughs

I was recently looking at the entry for the word stork in The Chambers Dictionary when my eye was caught by a set of brackets containing the word facetious which were appended to one of the senses. When you spend your working life looking at words, it’s always pleasant to come across facetious usages, for they show the language at its most playful, trying to make us smile rather than battering information into our heads. They are, to use a formula discussed in a recent blog, the cartoon channel of the English language.

Using Chambers Reference Online, it is possible to search for all of the words that Chambers considers as facetious, and the 295 results show some distinctive patterns in the way that language can be used to put a smile on your face.

Some of these words are no more than childish alternative words for everyday objects, such as wagger-pagger (‘a waste-paper basket’) and moo-juice (‘milk’), but a more inventive process is at work when the laws of grammar are humorously applied to create words such as chapess (‘a woman or girl’), buttle (‘to act as a butler’), and gruntled (‘happy, pleased, in good humour’).

Another recurring theme is the use of Greek and Latin roots to create elevated terms which are then jokingly applied to lowbrow or homely items. Thus a striptease artist can facetiously be called an ecdysiast, a dog-lover can be a canophilist, and a wheelbarrow can be a monotroch.

These jokes can seem a little smug to modern ears, depending as they do on the understanding that both the speaker and listener have received a classical education. More likely to stand the test of time are another class of facetious terms: imaginary objects that have been invented to embody abstract ideas, such as elbow grease, the bush telegraph, the casting couch and retail therapy.

Another recurring pattern is the application of a formal word to something much more mundane. It is easy to see how comatose can be used facetiously to mean simply ‘asleep’ and liberate can mean ‘steal’. At other times the journey from the basic meaning to the facetious one is more convoluted. The reason why the stork should be ‘the bringer of babies’ is obscure, and it must have involved quite a flight of fancy to apply the word gnome to ‘an obscure but powerful international financier’ (a coinage attributed to Harold Wilson).

There are, it seems, many ways that people can amuse themselves by playing about with the English language.

Ian Brookes

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Monday, 27 July 2009

Do Geese see God?

Those who dislike seeing graffiti today may be heartened to know that even the ancient Romans suffered from rogue graffiti artists. While excavating the ancient town of Herculaneum in 1738, archaeologists discovered graffiti in the form of the Sator Square, dated to approximately 79 AD, and the earliest palindrome known to be recorded. Rather than a simple ‘Arepo woz ere’, the Sator square arranged the words ‘Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas’ into a square, which read the same in all four different directions. There are so many possible translations of the text that its meaning remains ambiguous, from anything such as ‘Arepo, the sower, guides the wheels with care’ to speculations of an underlying religious message with ‘the Creator holds the working of the spheres in his hands’. Either way, the Sator Square demonstrates that language patterns and palindromes have long fascinated humans.

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines a palindrome as “a word or phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards” and quips that the first ever palindrome to be uttered may have been ‘Madam, I’m Adam’. What Eve would have responded is anyone’s guess, although of course her name alone is palindromic. Readers called Anna, Hannah, Bob, Elle or Viv will know the joys of having such a name, while the actor Robert Trebor actually changed his surname from Schenkman just to enjoy the phenomenon.

It is often proclaimed that the longest single-word English palindrome is tattarrattat, used by James Joyce in Ulysses to describe a knock at the door, yet other contenders include detartrated, a contrived chemical term to describe the removal of tartrates, and kinnikinnik, a mixture used by Native Americans as a substitute for tobacco. However, these words have been criticized for being completely fabricated or almost never used. The Chambers Dictionary lists two slightly more useful nine-letter palindromes, Malayalam, “the Dravidian language of Kerala in SW India”, and the trademark Rotavator®, defined as “a motor-powered, hand-operated soil-tilling machine”. The Finnish language is rife with long single-word palindromes, such as saippuakivikauppias, denoting a soap stone dealer, and solutomaattimittaamotulos, which apparently translates as “the result from a measurement laboratory for tomatoes.” Yet while we might borrow some words from the Finnish from time to time, I’m not too convinced that either of those will be entering the English language any time soon.

Perhaps the most popular form of palindrome is the multi-word expression. 1948 saw the popularization of ‘A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!’, attributed to Leigh Mercer, while other historically relevant palindromes include ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’, purportedly spoken by Napoleon on his first sighting of the island Elba, to which he was exiled in 1814. Personally, my favourite use of palindromic expressions is this song, a parody of Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, made up entirely of palindromes. Any song that gets away with asking “May a moody baby doom a yam?” is ok by me.

Deborah Smith

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Friday, 24 July 2009

The Rory Bremner of neologisms

As a newcomer to the dictionary business, I still have a wide-eyed fascination with where words come from and how their inclusion in the lexicon comes about. An avid basketball fan, I was reading an article on the NBA website, where an up-and-coming player was praised as being ‘telegenic’. I was pretty sure I knew what this meant, but I thought I’d better look it up just to be certain. Sure enough, the definition is ‘having a presence, appearance and manner suitable for television’. The etymology reveals that this is modelled on ‘photogenic’, which was fairly obvious, but I was interested by the wording ‘modelled on’. It struck me that this was quite a different approach from just using common affixes to alter the meaning of words. By that method, with the traditional meaning of the prefix tele- being ‘far, distant, over a distance’, one might come to the somewhat different conclusion that this young basketball player only looked good from afar.

I wondered if this was a common technique for producing new words and thankfully, Chambers Reference Online came to the rescue, by allowing me to search for all cases where ‘modelled on’ appears in the etymology field. Perhaps this could help solve a few ‘chicken and egg’ scenarios about the order in which words appeared. For example, when asked ‘Which came first, the gremlin or the goblin?’, I can now emphatically answer ‘the goblin’. Unsurprisingly, developments in technology have produced a few notable examples, with viaduct building on aqueduct, video echoing audio, escalator leading to travolator and hi-fi producing both ‘lo-fi’ and ‘wi-fi’. Technophiles and early adopters have even been nicknamed the ‘digerati’, using this technique to bring literati into the 21st century.

It’s likely that the main perpetrators of such economical coinages are journalists. Who else could have formed Glaswegian from Norwegian, precycle from recycle and pescatarian from vegetarian? I was recently introduced to the concept of ‘snowclones’, defined by Language Log’s Geoff Pullman as ‘some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists’ – a veritable swiss-army knife of neologistic shortcuts. The most famous example is probably X is the new Y which was first popularised in the fashion industry with phrases like ‘gray is the new black’ but has now been used ad nauseum for a variety of purposes, for example ‘30 is the new 20’, ‘quiet is the new loud’, ‘knitting is the new yoga’ and so on. But my favourite snowclone has to be X is the Y of Z, a good example of which is the saying ‘Edinburgh is the Athens of the north’ (although a quick search reveals it’s not the only city to deem itself so). Language columnist Mark Peters extensively documents the latest and most creative occurrences of this phenomenon at his site The Rosa Parks of blogs, which provides many happy hours of distraction. Find out what’s been described as ‘the Tom Hanks of vegetables’, ‘the batman of feminism’ or ‘the Sean Connery of payment systems’!

It strikes me that these new words and phrases are somewhat like impressionists, inventive yet always paying homage to what’s gone before. In fact, to use a snowclone, you might say they’re like the Rory Bremner of neologisms.

David Wark

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Fair’s fair

This weekend was celebrated in the part of Scotland where I live as Glasgow Fair, a holiday which traditionally marked the start of a ‘fair fortnight’ when local factories closed down and a fair was held in the city. Although such local holidays have lost some of their former significance, plenty of them are still observed around the British Isles, often enjoying quaint names such as ‘the wakes’ (traditionally celebrating the anniversary of the dedication of a church and marked by staying awake all night), ‘the mop’ (originally a fair where labourers looking for employment carried an implement to show their profession) or ‘the hoppings’ (which is an allusion not to one-legged dancing but rather to the fact that the local festival marked the completion of the hop harvest).

In the Middle Ages these fairs were at the heart of local economic activity, and the importance they once had can be gauged by the fact that several have left their mark on the English language. The word ‘barnet’ is a case in point: the town of Barnet was once famous for its horse fair, and this gave rise to Cockneys adopting ‘Barnet Fair’ as rhyming slang for ‘hair’. Another example is the word ‘donnybrook’, meaning a brawl, which comes from a fair held at Donnybrook in Ireland which was notorious for violence until it was outlawed in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the strangest and most surprising example of a fair that has left its mark in the language is Saint Audrey’s Fair, which was traditionally held at Ely in Cambridgeshire on 17 October. The fair was noted for the sale of brightly coloured scarves, and these cheap-and-cheerful accessories were named after Saint Audrey and called ‘Saint Audrey’s lace’, later changed to ‘Tawdry lace’, which is the origin of the modern word ‘tawdry’.

Ian Brookes

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Getting a word in

A while ago, Michael Quinion, writer and creator of the excellent site World Wide Words, contacted Chambers with a query he had received. His correspondent was curious to find out how you would go about getting a word you had coined into a dictionary.

A surprising number of people have contacted us with a similar query. Neologists can be passionate about the words they create and often view their inclusion in a major dictionary as the ultimate goal.

It is certainly not impossible to coin a word and live to see it entered into a dictionary – every word has started somewhere. However, we often repeat the caveat that we, like other dictionary publishers, don't include words until we have evidence that they have been used by a range of people over a reasonable period of time. No matter how cleverly conceived and logically constructed a word may be, it won't appear in a Chambers dictionary until we are satisfied it is in use.

Lexicographers' decisions on such matters are informed by statistics from corpora – large databases of real language use. At Chambers, we have the Chambers Harrap International Corpus (CHIC), a well-balanced and ever-growing corpus of nearly one billion words. With a little analysis, the citations in such a corpus can show how frequently a word is used and if it is restricted to a small group of users.

It follows that if people do find a coinage useful and start to repeat it, the number and spread of citations will increase and the word could eventually merit a place in the dictionary. So, if you are keen to see a word of your own making entered into a dictionary, you should use it as much as possible, encourage others to do so and, if you have the opportunity, use it in a context with a wider audience, for example a letter to a newspaper or a radio phone-in. Keep a record of when and where you have heard the word because, even with corpus evidence available, there is still room for lexicographers to exercise some personal judgement as to whether a word is likely to become firmly embedded in English. When you have enough evidence to prove that the word has established itself outside your own circle, send all your citations to your dictionary publisher of choice.

If your word makes the cut for the next edition of the dictionary, you can feel content in the knowledge that it has become part of the lexicon!

Mary O'Neill

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Anyone for sphairistike?

When Venus and Serena Williams were facing each other across the net at Wimbledon, we can be fairly sure that they didn’t say ‘tenetz!’ every time one of them prepared to serve. Yet it appears that long ago it was customary for the server to shout out this Anglo-French word (equivalent to the modern French imperative tenez), which meant ‘take this!’, and that this is the origin of the word tennis.

In those days, of course, the game in question was not our modern game of lawn tennis, but its rather grander ancestor known variously as real tennis, royal tennis, court tennis or close tennis (the latter term referring to the enclosed court in which it is played). Besides keeping lexicographers on their toes trying to cross-refer all of its different titles, this ancient form of the game is also the source of some pretty obscure terminology such as bricole (the rebound of a ball from the wall), dedans (an open gallery), hazard (the side of the court into which the ball is served), penthouse (a roofed corridor surrounding the court) and tambour (a sloping buttress).

All of these real-tennis terms are explained in The Chambers Dictionary, yet none provides quite as striking an entry as the one for sphairistike. This bizarre word is included as the name under which a certain Walter Wingfield tried to patent the new game of lawn tennis in 1874. Wingfield’s word was pronounced ‘sfee-ris-ti-ki’ and was a shortened form of the Greek phrase sphairistike techne, meaning ‘the skill of playing with a ball’. The dictionary also tells us that the game was ‘quite widely known for a time’ by this name. Indeed, had Wingfield not offered the alternative name of lawn tennis, we might have spent the recent Wimbledon fortnight hearing about ‘sphairistike balls’, ‘sphairistike rackets’ and ‘sphairistike courts’, and Andy Roddick and Roger Federer might now be experiencing a touch of ‘sphairistike elbow’ after their marathon encounter in the men’s final.

Ian Brookes

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Thursday, 25 June 2009

A cluster of collective nouns

A few days ago, I received a text message from my brother lamenting a poster he had seen outside a bar, which read ‘Be Part of the Pack for the Lions Tour’. I replied that I might let its creators off as they were referring to rugby, but they should have run with something like ‘Lions Tour 2009: Feel the Pride’.

The bar staff obviously thought they were being clever by punning on the rugby pack (the forwards; you know, the ones who do all the scrummaging and stuff) and a pack of lions. But we all know that the collective noun for lions is a pride – so my pun is far superior. Pack is the collective noun for hounds.

A collective noun is defined as ‘a singular noun referring to a group of people or things’, although people seem most fascinated by those referring to groups of animals, and it’s not surprising given the wonderful images they create. Author Ali Smith was kind enough to write to us with some of her favourite words, one of which was a shrewdness of apes, which instantly makes me think of their strangely human faces and wrinkly foreheads.

Some collective nouns are so common that we barely realise that they’re collective nouns – a swarm of bees, for example. Others are familiar but have lost none of their power: think of that pride of lions, holding their heads high, kings of the jungle, or a gaggle of geese cackling away to themselves. And did you know that geese are only a gaggle when on the ground or in water? In flight, they’re a skein of geese: flying in a loose formation, tied together by the thermals we cannot see.

I particularly enjoy obscure collective nouns: a kindle of kittens, warm and soft but sparky as they learn to use their claws; an ambush of tigers, stalking their prey; a skulk of foxes, scavenging in the twilight; a tribe of goats, nomads on the hills.

The collective nouns for birds are my favourites, conveying a cacophony of colours, sounds and moods. Compare a parliament of owls, serious and studious, to a pandemonium of parrots where all hell breaks loose. A watch of nightingales, sentinels of darkness, give way to an exaltation of larks celebrating the new day. A murmuration of starlings go about their business, talking under their breath, and a rafter of turkeys line the barn. In folklore, birds are often regarded as omens, and sinister connotations can be found in a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens.

Such is our interest in the collective nouns for animals that we’ve listed them in two of our most recent editions: they can be found in The Chambers Thesaurus and in the Language Lovers’ Miscellany included in Chambers Concise Dictionary. Now my aim is find a suitable collective noun for ‘lexicographers’ – I’ve had a lexicon suggested to me and I’m quite partial to a drudge in homage to Samuel Johnson’s irreverent definition of a lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge’. Answers on a postcard [or suggestions in the comments section], please…

Naomi Farmer

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Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Midsummer merriment

The bad news for those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere is that the days are already starting to get shorter. On June 21, the Sun reached its maximum distance from the equator. Ancient observers noticed that at this point the Sun (‘Sol’ in Latin) appeared to come to a standstill (‘status’ in Latin) before reversing its course, and so this extreme point of the year was called the ‘solstitium’, from which we get our word ‘solstice’.

June 21 is also commonly referred to as ‘midsummer’, marking as it does the longest day. The Chambers Dictionary's entry for midsummer records some delightful expressions connected with this time of year. The lunar month containing the summer solstice was traditionally called the ‘midsummer moon’ and was believed to bring on bouts of erratic behaviour known as ‘midsummer madness’. This was also the time when girls are said to have used the leaves of the plant roseroot in various rituals to discover the identity or fidelity of their lovers, as a result of which the plant acquired the charming name of ‘midsummer-men’.

Somewhat surprisingly for a modern reader, the dictionary records the date for Midsummer’s Day as being June 24, three days after the solstice. It appears that in ancient times the solstice occurred on the 24th – the discrepancy with the current date being due to anomalies in the reckoning of the calendar – and the traditional midsummer celebration was fixed on this day. The date also coincided with the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, and so the midsummer festival combined Christian and pagan traditions in the same way as did the midwinter feast of Christmas.

So although June 21 may be the signal for Druids to descend upon Stonehenge, some people would say that it is on Saint John’s Eve – the night of the 23rd – that the real midsummer celebration should take place.

Ian Brookes

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Friday, 19 June 2009

"Quotation marks" & "ampersands"

In a recent Chambers blog, it was noted that bad grammar and poor punctuation often annoy people, yet there are websites devoted to some of the more peculiar interpretations of grammar and punctuation rules. One such site is the pleasantly diverting The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which collects examples of this phenomenon (think along the lines of Please "close the door" behind you) caught on camera by contributors.

Chambers Perfect Punctuation advises that quotation marks can be used to set apart words you want to distance yourself from, often to indicate that you are being ironic or sarcastic. However, the use of quotation marks to highlight words or phrases presented without a trace of irony or sarcasm is on the increase. There seems to be a widespread notion that you can use inverted commas for straightforward emphasis, as you might use underlining.

A more recently emergent fashion in writing is the use of an ampersand in place of the word 'and' in running text. Conventional usage dictates that ampersands are acceptable in titles, company names and fixed abbreviations such as A&E, but should not be used in formal running text. Now this elegant little symbol is increasingly used – very often in subtitles that appear in rolling news programmes – as shorthand for 'and' in phrases such as a lethal combination of reckless & excessive risk-taking.

But how annoyed should we be by this more indiscriminate use of the dainty device? Perhaps our level of irritation should be correspondent with the level of confusion that a misuse might engender. A misplaced apostrophe or comma, or wrongly used quotation marks for that matter, could result in ambiguity, but there can be no doubt what '&' means in any context. The character was originally a ligature of E and T (Latin et, meaning 'and') used in printing and, as if any reinforcement of its meaning were needed, the word 'ampersand' has a delightfully circular etymology, coming from 'and per se, and', ie, & by itself means 'and'. So, if an ampersand so determinedly and exclusively means 'and', why worry about the context in which people employ such a handy symbol?

In this spirit of objectivity, we can identify the stages of any linguistic bugbear. Stage 1 is irritation when the development becomes apparent. You might question why this construction/word/punctuation mark is being used in such a clumsy and haphazard fashion when its purpose is to provide clarity in a different situation. However, if you are not the type of person to be riled by something as apparently innocuous as a punctuation mark, you might proceed directly to stage 2, amusement. Incongruous incorrect usages can have an unintended comic effect, something that the quotation marks website capitalizes on. Then there is stage 3: acceptance. The gripe is considered old hat, one raised only occasionally by stuffy pedants, and the 'misuse' (necessary quotation marks?) becomes so commonplace that most people cease to notice or care. You never know, the day could come when no one bemoans the incorrect insertion of an apostrophe in a plural.

Mary O'Neill

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Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hoping for a barbecue summer

At the end of April someone at the Met Office forecast that Britain would enjoy a ‘barbecue summer’. The expression conjures up images of ease and enjoyment and was calculated to appeal to a sun-starved nation, grown accustomed to the idea that summers are not as good as they used to be. And it is interesting to note that while English has several phrases to mean a period of fine weather in autumn – Indian summer, Saint Luke’s summer, Saint Martin’s summer – no such expression characterizes a period of prolonged hot weather during summer itself (although older readers might be able to remember a time when the single word ‘summer’ was deemed sufficient to do this job).

Anyone who is prompted by the prospect of a hot summer to issue invitations to a barbecue might pause briefly to wonder about the correct spelling of the word. It turns out that almost anything goes: both ‘barbecue’ and ‘barbeque’ are correct in the eyes of The Chambers Dictionary, while it is also acceptable to write ‘Bar-B-Q’ or even ‘BBQ’. The Australian form ‘barbie’ is also a popular variation, and doesn’t take up too much space on a sign or invitation.

The fact that the word has no single fixed spelling form hints at an exotic origin. Although it entered English via the Spanish barbacoa, its ultimate origin is Caribbean, coming from the Haitian word barbacòa, which refers to a framework of sticks set upon posts – not exactly what many of us will be cooking on this summer.

You might think Haiti’s contribution to the English language would not go much beyond this, but in fact The Chambers Dictionary lists no fewer than eleven words that can be traced to the indigenous language of Haiti. These include such familiar words as tobacco, canoe and potato, as well as the dances mambo and merengue, which might provide you with some ideas for what to do on a hot summer evening after the barbecue has finished.

Ian Brookes

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Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lexicography 2.0

The Global Language Monitor recently announced that, according to its calculations, the millionth word in the English language is Web 2.0 (web two point oh), a term popularized several years ago by Tim O'Reilly and friends as a way of describing the maturation of the World Wide Web from its humble text-on-screen beginnings to the interactive, community-driven, multimedia, all-encompassing behemoth that it has now become. This announcement is likely to provoke a lukewarm response from the general public, for whom the term is probably unfamiliar, and amongst web pioneers, who are getting excited about the semantic web (which enables computers to understand the meaning behind web content) and hoping to usher in the era of Web 3.0. And it provides yet another example (along with the language of search engines and mobile phones) of the challenge presented to lexicographers by the rapidly advancing world of technology. The transient nature of such words makes dictionary inclusion a difficult decision. In fact, Web 2.0 didn't make the cut for the recent edition of The Chambers Dictionary.

The term Web 2.0 pays homage to a popular method for naming different versions of software. Traditionally, developers use this numbering scheme to differentiate between minor and significant updates - a version ending in .0 is a completely new version, whereas other numbers represent more subtle improvements. Hence the choice of Web 2.0 rather than Web 1.1 to emphasize that this was a radically new way of thinking about the web. And so the 2.0 suffix joined the family of "e-"s, "i-"s and ""s in creating artefacts of the information age, as it became a somewhat popular way to describe any organization or entity that hopes to re-invent itself with a new, tech savvy identity. Reference has been made to Business 2.0, Government 2.0, Terror 2.0, Church 2.0 and Novel 2.0. But it’s often hard to pin down exactly what these terms mean. How does a book become eligible for the Novel 2.0 label? Could a film adaptation be considered a multimedia novel? Or if interactivity is key, what about "choose your own adventure" style books? At Chambers our concern is with Dictionary 2.0, as online dictionaries, open dictionaries and visual dictionaries provide new opportunities for people to engage with and contribute to the lexicon.

Adopting technical conventions for more conversational purposes is not a new practice. James Harkin's book Cyburbia, published by our friends at Little, Brown, drew my attention to how words like "feedback", "in the loop" and "switched on" were drafted into everyday language from the world of engineering in the middle of the 20th century. More recently, "offline" has been co-opted by businessmen where "taking something offline" means discussing it outside or after a meeting. I'm sure the reader will be able to think of many more examples from other sciences and disciplines, and the list will no doubt expand in years to come as dictionaries try to keep pace.

Even the designation by Global Language Monitor of "Web 2.0" as a word is another cause of lexicographical debate, given that it contains numbers, a space and a full stop. Loosening restrictions on what makes a word is something that we have to deal with 24-7. From the panic of Y2K to the potential of the G20, viewing things in 3-D and listening to MP3s, lexicographers better hope this all doesn't lead to some kind of catch-22 situation.

David Wark

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Monday, 8 June 2009

Inspired by reel life

There are so many interesting words, uses and etymologies that often go unnoticed until brought into the limelight by their use in journalism, politics, finance, literature, music, advertising, television or film. Events of last week were no exception, for where popular culture goes, old words, new words, and linguistic trends may be unearthed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be a little too busy being governor of California to work on any Terminator films at the moment, but the humans vs. Skynet battle continues regardless in the post-apocalyptic Terminator Salvation, released in cinemas last week. The word terminator is a fairly obvious extension of terminate, and its application as the name of the robots sent to kill influential (if fictional) humans such as John Connor is both catchy and logical. Yet it also has an alternative sense, defined in The Chambers Dictionary as “the boundary between the illuminated and dark portions of the moon or of a planet”. The terminator divides night and day on the moon, casting shadows from craters and mountains along its line. Due to the light scattering effect of all the air in our atmosphere, Earth’s terminator is not so clear, and night becomes day much more slowly. So Earth does have a terminator – it just isn’t out to eliminate the human race.

Last Saturday’s MTV Awards across the Atlantic were dominated by blockbuster vampire film Twilight, and its two stars Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart. Although their romance seems to be restricted to the big screen and feigned moments in award ceremonies, the co-stars have nonetheless been assigned the combination nickname ‘Robsten’, following in the footsteps of celebrity supercouples such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (Brangelina), Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (TomKat) and the now separated Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (Bennifer). Although these combined names have become increasingly prevalent in popular culture, they certainly aren’t a new invention. Bill and Hilary Clinton reportedly went by ‘Billary’ during their first few years in the White House, while Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, stars of American sitcom I Love Lucy, referred to themselves as ‘Desilu’. This portmanteau technique of word formation can be seen in many common compound words, such as chocoholic, blog, cyborg, brunch, sitcom and Spanglish. Even television itself was originally a portmanteau, fusing the Greek tēle- meaning ‘far’ and the Latin –visiō meaning ‘to see’, concisely describing the function of the television through the combination of ancient languages.

Talking of television, love it or hate it, most people will be aware that Channel 4’s reality show Big Brother returned to our screens on Thursday. Only time will tell what new catchphrases this year’s contestants will popularize, but the show itself certainly remains faithful to the notion of a sparse society controlled by an unseen superior as depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984, from which the title ‘Big Brother’ derives. Indeed, Orwell’s novel coined a surprising number of terms that have taken on extended meanings in modern language. As well as the powerful dictator figure of Big Brother, Orwell introduced the idea of doublethink, the power to believe two conflicting notions at once, and Newspeak, a simplified language system including such words as ‘blackwhite’, the habit or ability to claim or even believe that black is white, and ‘unperson’, one who has been erased from existence entirely. Such was the power of 1984 that the adjective Orwellian now describes the characteristics of the society Orwell so vividly portrayed in it, one embodying a climate of dehumanization and authoritarianism. Of course, whether this year’s Big Brother will demonstrate those concepts remains to be seen.

Deborah Smith

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Friday, 5 June 2009

A garden of delights

Summertime is finally here, and while others fire up their lawnmowers or head down to the local garden centre, a lexicographer is prompted to think about the names of flowering plants.

The Chambers Dictionary sheds some interesting light on this subject. It reveals, for example, that dahlia is spelt like that because it is named after a Swedish botanist called Anders Dahl. Similarly, fuchsia takes its name from a German botanist called Leonard Fuchs, and buddleia from an Englishman Adam Buddle.

Knowing this sort of thing can be very useful if you want to remember how to spell these tricky words, but it seems to me that calling flowers after botanists to create hard-to-spell Latin-sounding names is a disappointingly prosaic thing to do. For the dictionary preserves another strand of plant names – ones that originated in country lore – which I find much more evocative. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we still called the pimpernel the poor man’s weather glass (a name earned from its habit of closing up its flowers before a fall of rain), and if we still gave flowers names like enchanter’s nightshade, gold dust and Spanish dagger?

Many of these old names suggest resemblances to parts of animals, as in hare’s ear, pheasant’s eye and storksbill, while the shapes and colours of others suggested sad images to the old country-dwellers: love-lies-bleeding, baby’s tears, mourning bride.

Of course, familiarity breeds a certain amount of contempt. There are plenty of poetic-sounding names that have survived – forget-me-not, honeysuckle, foxglove, snapdragon, speedwell – but we are somewhat immunized against their charms because we know them so well.

Nevertheless, I still like the idea of a garden filled with the likes of dusty-miller, snow-in-summer and witches’ thimble. I wonder whether any of these will be available at the garden centre.

Ian Brookes

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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Bada bing!

Microsoft have just launched a new search engine, Bing™, which they hope will be a serious pretender to Google's web search crown. While the beta is slick with a particularly impressive image search module, functionality won't be the only front on which the battle for search dominance will be won. Microsoft will also have to sell us brand Bing.

According to the Microsoft marketing folk, Bing has an onomatopoeic quality, evocative of that moment of enlightenment or discovery - the 'sound of found'. Steven Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, also expressed his happiness with its potential to 'verb up'. This comment is interesting because, in general, companies are fiercely protective of their treasured trademarks and do their utmost to prevent their verbification or use as a generic noun.

Becoming the generic term for a class of product is certainly confirmation of a brand's dominance. However, if a trademark becomes genericized, the owners’ intellectual property rights to the word are threatened. Syntactic or morphological shifts such as verbification and pluralization can often signal a trademark’s demise and so are actively discouraged by the likes of Google™, Hoover™ and Xerox™ wishing to avoid the fate of escalator, kerosene, trampoline and yo-yo.

The situation gets pretty tricky when it comes to dictionaries. It is the job of a lexicographer to use corpus evidence to identify and record language change accurately. If there is evidence of change in the form, frequency or function of a word - trademark or otherwise - then a good dictionary should reflect this. As can be seen here though, trademark owners will always defend their brand, even at the expense of lexicographical completeness. Consequently, we have to be very careful when dealing with trademarks in our dictionaries - always using the registered trademark symbol where required with the disclaimer that a trademark's inclusion by us has no bearing on its legal status.

Only time will tell if Steve Ballmer gets his wish but he'll surely be pleased to know that the word ‘bing’ has got form when it comes to 'verbing up'. According to The Chambers Dictionary (never one to leave you short of an obscure definition) it is an obsolete slang term evidenced in the works of Walter Scott and means 'to go'.

Incidentally, 'google' as a verb also has an existence independent of search engines. It describes the action of a cricket ball and means 'spin like a googly' - a 'googly' being 'an off break bowled with an apparent leg-break action by a right-arm bowler to a right-handed batsman, or conversely for a left-arm bowler'. Unsurprisingly, neither of these terms is in any way related to the origin of Google™. The name is a play on the word googol and a reference to the ambition rather than the cricketing nous of Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Ruth O'Donovan

Monday, 1 June 2009

A different kettle of ghoti

"The only stupid thing about words is the spelling of them."
- Laura Ingalls Wilder

Incorrect spelling annoys people. So does bad grammar and strange punctuation. There are websites, blogs and forums devoted entirely to finding cases of peculiar or humorous cases of these mistakes. But while grammar and punctuation seem (on the whole) to follow logical rules, there are so many shortcomings in our current spelling system that it’s a wonder we still use it to communicate.

The well cited argument for spelling reform, commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, is that with current spelling ‘fish’ could be spelt ‘ghoti’. It wasn’t Shaw who actually made this particular statement, but it’s still a valid point. ‘Ghoti’ takes the sound made by ‘gh’ in rough, the ‘o’ in women, and the ‘ti’ in nation, which phonetically combined could be pronounced as ‘fish’. It’s no wonder that this is possible when you consider that there are nine pronunciations of ‹ough›:
  • Borough/thorough ə
  • Cough ɒf
  • Enough/rough ʌf
  • Bough/plough aʊ
  • Nought/thought ɔː
  • Through uː
  • Dough/though əʊ
  • Hiccough (hiccup) ʌp
  • Lough (Irish loch) ɒχ
Mark Twain satirically devised an ingenious plan to improve spelling by gradually dropping the ‘unnecessary’ letters of the alphabet c, x and y, removing double consonants, ‘fixing’ the use of g/j and w/o and completely adjusting the way we use vowels. Yet what was satirical then was not so ridiculous once. Before the printing press standardized written English, spelling was much more flexible. William Caxton introduced not only the printing press but also Dutch spelling habits, and began to homogenize English spelling. Language was further normalized by Samuel Johnson with his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and since then dictionaries have usually been considered the most authoritative guide to correct spelling.

But here’s the catch: dictionaries are on the whole descriptive, describing the language that people do use, rather than prescriptive, prescribing how people should use language. So rather than set the standard form of a word, most dictionaries merely reflect the one that is most commonly considered acceptable. If the nation decided to start spelling ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’, you would soon find this updated in The Chambers Dictionary.

Because of this, readers occasionally question why we list the two alternatives of words such as recognize/recognise or organize/organise with the –ize suffix as the headword. The reason is that while both spelling forms are acceptable in British English, only the spelling –ize is regarded as correct in American English, making it more internationally appropriate. In fact, while some British speakers prefer the –ise forms, –ize is actually more etymologically accurate. The suffix was found in many Ancient Greek verbs as –izein, for example baptizein, to immerse, from which our modern baptize is derived. The –ise spelling was a later adoption from the French, and can be seen fixed in forms such as revise and advise.

Of course, as language isn’t a fixed phenomenon, we might just have to revise this all one day anyway. In which case, we’ll keep you posted.

Deborah Smith

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Thursday, 28 May 2009

What shall we do with the icebound sailor?

Working in the Marketing Department at Chambers, I find myself in a strange lexicographical position – I know exactly how words get into the dictionary but I have no say in whether they do (it’s certainly not a case of slipping the editors a tenner with my personal ‘missing word’ bugbear written on it). I know too that we get a lot – a lot – of mail asking for words to be added to the dictionary. The editors meet regularly to discuss new words. Our commissioned readers constantly trawl the media and we have a computer program zapping tirelessly through the internet in search of cutting-edge vocabulary. Dictionaries thrive on the addition of new words.

With all this pressure to put words in, I particularly enjoyed this piece by Robin Bloor on ‘words you don’t know that shouldn’t exist’ – it’s very rare that we get people demanding that we take words out.

One of the words in the list is ‘mallemeroking’. In my opinion, mallemaroking is a brilliant word. It’s a rare word meaning ‘carousing of seamen in icebound ships’, from the obsolete Dutch mallemerok, ‘a romping woman’, with the Dutch mal meaning ‘foolish’. There are few words to be found in English with this mal in their derivation, although there is mallemuck, ‘the fulmar or a similar bird’, literally translated from Dutch as ‘foolish gull’.

While admitting the word ‘mallemaroking’ is obscure – Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words points out that it is ‘the preserve almost solely of those wordsmiths who write about Weird Words’ – I have my own suggestion for easing this word into more everyday usage. Let’s make it into a simile: carousing like seamen in icebound ships. Think of the raucous behaviour of children on the bus home from a school trip that gets caught in traffic or snow or flooding – the holiday from school and parents nearly over, excited and tired, they snatch their extra moments of freedom by playing games, singing, shouting across the seats, smearing lipstick and ink on the faces of their sleeping peers. They are mallemaroking.

For the time being, mallemaroking will stay in The Chambers Dictionary. We take great pride in our range of historical and obscure words. After all, they’re the ones that you’re going to have to look up if you come across them. What’s more, we love words. We love them for their oddness or aptness, their meaning or euphony. It is no surprise that mallemaroking makes an appearance in Foyle’s Further Philavery by Christopher Foyle, a collection of words that are just wonderful for whatever reason.

Whatever your view of this word, it’s great to see people blogging about it and talking about it again. I predict a resurgence in its use, and mallemaroking may be here to stay.

Naomi Farmer

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Monday, 25 May 2009

Cornering the meerkat

I have been noticing a lot of meerkats recently. It’s not that I have taken up residence in the Kalahari Desert, but it has been hard to escape an advertising campaign playing on the similarity between the words meerkat and market that has brought these creatures to Britain’s television screens.

Readers who are acquainted with Dutch will know that the word meerkat literally means ‘lake cat’ (although meer originally referred to the sea, and so the word meant ‘sea cat’). Quite why a meerkat should be called a ‘sea cat’ is a bit of a puzzle – the animal isn’t a cat at all but a member of the mongoose family. And it lives in deserts, not by water.

Some experts think that this is an example of a folk etymology – an unscientific attempt to make sense of an unfamiliar word by associating it with words that are familiar. According to this theory, Dutch travellers may have adopted the Hindi word markat (or a similar word from another Asian language) to mean ‘monkey’, and this word was later assumed incorrectly to be associated with ‘sea’ and ‘cat’. The early occurrence of the word – it had already moved from Dutch into English in the 15th century – makes this theory difficult to substantiate, but not impossible to believe.

So meerkat became a Dutch and also an English word for a monkey, but at this date it still had nothing to do with the desert-dwelling member of the mongoose family. It was not until the start of the 19th century that the word was applied to these curious animals – presumably by someone who hadn’t studied a lot of zoology and thought that any creature with a cute face that stood up on two legs must be some kind of monkey.

So it's only by a chapter of accidents that the word meerkat comes to exist at all, never mind become attached to its current owners. Not that the advertisers who are using meerkats to sell car insurance will be too worried about the word’s strange journey.

Ian Brookes

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Thursday, 21 May 2009

Let's talk about text

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about textonyms. I never expected it to be as popular as it turned out, but I've since learned how a little bit of hype can behave like a gyre (4973). It happened so quickly - one day I posted the blog, the next I was being goaded to incede ("advance majestically") (462333) upon the BBC studios to be interviewed for Radio 4's cultural magazine programme Front Row. I felt quite terrified as I versified (837743433) about textonyms, and although it's always easy to judge one's own performance with harshness, hearing myself on the airwaves ultimately brought a sense of happiness (427746377). You can still listen to the end result at the BBC site (I appear about 23 minutes in to the programme, but the whole show is worth a listen!).

Before my five minutes of fame, I had to make sure I had enough ammo to cause a boom (2444). Thankfully, my friends and family were there to provide some tales of predictive text gone wrong. Even my "nun" diligently compiled a list of possible textonyms that she'd encountered during the course of a day's texting, my favourite of which was the bizarre mapping from "cards of hope" to "acres of gore". To aid me on my quest, I also made some improvements to the program I'd written initially to research the phenomenon. This has been packaged into a little "textonym solver" which is available on our website. It's still in no way a complete resource, so I apologize if it seems to be both effective and defective (333328483) at the same time. Be sure to let us know if you find any interesting new examples!

In the world of technology, innovation inevitably leads to obsolescence - just look at how the internet threatens to make paper rarer (72737). Mark Lawson, the presenter of Front Row, agreed that the popularity of smart phones with touch screens and small keyboards would likely relegate "textonyms" and indeed predictive text to the annals of time. Our grandchildren will laugh as we try to explain why we used to have to type words using numbers. The fact that you can now get The Chambers Dictionary on your iPhone is certainly proof that mobiles are getting smarter, but I fear the loss of predictive text may well make them seem less wise. Gone is the relationship advice – knowing that we can be damaged by those we once fancied (3262433). Gone are the lessons for our children about the effects of disobedience – a prank is always closely followed by a spank (77265). We might miss it more than we expect.

David Wark

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