Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The emergence of Gambit

Not too long ago I wrote about some of the imaginative and not so imaginative superhero names to have appeared in comic books, graphic novels and blockbuster movies recently. Not to get obsessive, but this subject is yet again relevant, with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine this week.

While a number of the X-Men heroes were discussed in my previous blog, one of the better-known characters had yet to be depicted on the big screen. Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit, is a comic-fan favourite and will be debuting in Wolverine this week. Gambit has the ability to manipulate the kinetic energy of objects, exhibits a hypnotic charm, possesses superhuman agility and dexterity, and carries a pack of playing cards as his weapon of choice. He also has a great name.

The word gambit can be used generally to refer to trickery or stratagem (another fantastic word), and is clearly fitting to describe a superhero who carries playing cards wherever he goes. Specifically, the word is applied to chess to describe a move in which a player sacrifices one piece early in their game in order to gain an overall advantage. Such a risky move may seem to be quite a gamble, and it would be logical to imagine that with this semantic similarity and initial 'gamb' in common, gambit and gamble may be etymologically related. Yet while gamble is a form of game, deriving from the Danish gammen, gambit can be traced back to Italian gambetto, meaning a tripping up, from gamba, leg. Of course, exactly who is tripping who depends on the strength and cunning of the gambit itself.

A similar etymology to gambit can be found in the rather jolly gambol, meaning to jump around playfully, which also derived from the Italian gamba, and suggests exactly how I will be frolicking to the cinema this weekend.

Deborah Smith

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Thursday, 23 April 2009


Lexicography is one of the few professions in which it is not merely permissible to use obscene words, but it is actually compulsory. Words that you would not use in conversation with your bank manager or your mother-in-law turn up as part of the work: they are found in the language and there is no avoiding them. Of course, whether this state of affairs is a penance or a privilege really depends on the individual.

Few people of working age are seriously embarrassed or offended by many of the words to which the dictionary attaches its cautionary labels of ‘taboo’ or ‘offensive’. Indeed there is often a certain relish attached to such words, especially when they are used in a way which is neither gratuitous nor offensive. When Michael Caine snorts ‘You’re only supposed in the blow the bloody doors off!’ in The Italian Job, or Audrey Hepburn urges ‘Come on, Dover, move your blooming arse!’ in My Fair Lady, the swearing is integral to the situation and appropriate to the characters, and we are naturally amused.

For most people there is a dividing line between tolerable obscenity and unacceptably foul and abusive language. Yet it can be difficult to judge which words fall on which side of the divide. In a recent conversation I was censured for using the word pee. I had thought I was choosing a harmless euphemism, but something about the word made it quite unpalatable to my interlocutor.

So it appears that each individual may respond differently to a word. Some words may develop unpleasant associations for us from the contexts in which we have heard them. Others may contain sound combinations which are somehow objectionable to our ears. Much also depends on the culture in which the person grew up. Americans, for example, appear to be quite unabashed about using the word crap (although it is not one I would use in front of my local vicar, rabbi, imam or guru), and yet they react with horror when Brits use the word toilet.

On the whole, however, words relating to religion, sex and bodily functions have lost much of their power to shock in recent decades – probably because their subjects are no longer taboo. I can type words such as crap, bloody and arse without experiencing any serious concern that I might be offending anybody. And yet these words have not entirely lost their vestigial power as obscenities - I still wouldn’t use them in front of my bank manager.

Ian Brookes

Those who are not easily shocked will have fun browsing Smut, a collection of the most down-and-dirty of slang words.
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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A forgotten oubliette

Discovering useful words for useful things is always an intriguing aspect of lexicography, as Ian Brookes recently mused on in this blog. Yet sometimes it's even nicer to rediscover obscure words that will rarely serve any use at all. This was the case recently when I flicked through Foyle's Philavery and stumbled across the word oubliette, the name for a secret dungeon beneath a trap door.

Oubliette is hardly a word that a person needs to use everyday, unless perhaps you're trapped in a dungeon or live in a castle. But as a child obsessed with Labyrinth - in which David Bowie in tight lycra was almost as scary as the magical creatures and mythical monsters - an oubliette seemed a logical thing to be aware of. Where else would you trap hapless wanderers within the sprawling maze, never to return again?

In this sense oubliette acts in the truest sense of the word, for not only is the dungeon designed to trap its victims, but to remove them from memory entirely, revealed by the word's origins in the French oublier, to forget. With no way out but the trapdoor through which they fell, prisoners relied on their captors' mercy, or some other outside assistance, to get out. And those that didn't were simply forgotten. Which is quite ironic, since the word itself is likely to be one I'll forget again and again, only to be reminded of it by the occasional nostalgic film viewing. And while oubliettes are still occasionally discovered in this country, I'll just keep hoping I never find myself trapped in one.

Deborah Smith

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Thursday, 9 April 2009

Words fail me

There are few things more satisfying for a dictionary editor than a definition that neatly explains a difficult word in simple terms. That, after all, is the apparent function of a dictionary.

Yet common words can sometimes defy lucid explanation in this way. What if a concept is so fundamental that it cannot be simplified but can only be explained by increasing the level of complexity? On such occasions a dictionary is apt to struggle. For example, The Chambers Dictionary defines the verb laugh as ‘to express, by explosive inarticulate sounds of the voice, amusement, joy, scorn, etc, or a reaction to tickling, etc’. And the definition of north is even more convoluted: ‘the point of the horizon or that pole of the earth or sky which at equinox is opposite the sun at noon in Europe or elsewhere on the same side of the equator, or towards the sun in the other hemisphere’. These definitions may be accurate, but one wonders if any user will come away thinking, ‘Ah, so now I know what that word means.’

You might even argue that everybody knows what words such as laugh and north mean, and so there is really no need to define them in a dictionary. However, there are good reasons for hesitating before deciding that a dictionary should deal only in hard words.

For it is possible and even necessary to give useful information about common terms: the entry for north explains the difference between true north and magnetic north; the entry for monkey explains the technical distinction between monkey and ape, and so on.

Furthermore, especially when viewed in its electronic form, a dictionary can be used as a resource from which to view the entire language. It is possible to use Chambers Reference Online to find all of the dictionary’s New Zealand words, all of the Shakespearean words, all of the words ending in -thon, and much more besides. The results of such searches would be compromised if editors started to discard words that they felt people would never need to look up.

So the definition of north stays in – although suggestions for a simpler and neater version would still be welcome.

Ian Brookes

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