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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Thursday, 14 May 2009

A hairy situation

Hair can say a lot about a person, and in return we say a lot about hair. The word ‘hair’ itself comes from the Old English hær and the Old English form is related to the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Old High German and Old Norse forms – we’ve obviously been talking about hair to each other for a very long time.

Hair can be a great source of hilarity and at least two light-hearted definitions in The Chambers Dictionary poke a little fun. While mullet-supporters may describe their style as ‘business at the front, party at the back’, Chambers defines a mullet as ‘a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round’. Some men may attempt to hide their bald patches with a combover, but they can’t hide from our editors, who define combover as ‘a vain attempt to make the most of one’s dwindling resources of hair’.

A handful of hairy stereotypes can be found in a new Chambers book, Women Can’t Park, Men Can’t Pack by Geoff Rolls. Geoff is a psychology lecturer, and he uses his knowhow to examine the psychological truths behind common stereotypes: is it true that blondes are dumb yet gentlemen prefer them? Are redheads passionate? Do stressed-out people go grey early?

The origin of the passionate redhead stereotype is hard to pin down, but is not surprising given how we think of the colour red in our society and, by extension, language. Red is a colour associated with hot things, like fire, lava and blood – in fact, one definition of red in The Chambers Dictionary is ‘the colour of blood’. Moreover, there are a lot of idioms in the English language that use heat, redness and blood to get across the feeling of extreme anger: spitting blood, seeing red, red mist, hot-tempered, fuming (no smoke without fire), your blood boiling and the phrase like a red rag to a bull (when bullfighters use a red cape, it is for the stimulating effect of the colour on the watching humans – not the colour-blind bull). So it is not surprising that these associations carry over to people with red hair – indeed, so pervasive is this stereotype of the hot-tempered redhead that another meaning of ‘redheaded’ is ‘angrily excited’.

Of course, once a stereotype sticks, it can be hard to shake it off, and in many ways it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Geoff speaks of a red-headed friend who is normally the most placid, laid back woman on the planet … until someone brings up her hair, when she unwittingly snaps into the stereotype with her furious reaction.

The funny thing about stereotypes is that some are actually based in fact and some seem to have come out of nowhere. I’m not going to tell you which are which of the others though and leave you with the old tease: you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Naomi Farmer

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Monday, 11 May 2009

Not everything from Mexico is bad

If you are feeling well enough to read this, you are presumably not yet suffering from the H1N1 strain of influenza – although if reports are to be believed, many of us soon will be. Most reports about this virus use the name of ‘swine flu’, although some refer to it as ‘Mexican swine flu’, and the Israeli government even debated removing ‘swine’ altogether (on account of cultural sensibilities over pork) and calling it ‘Mexican flu’.

Needless to say, Mexico cried foul at this suggestion. Who wants their country's name to be enshrined in language as the purveyor of a pandemic? (However, one only to needs to think of Dutch elm disease and German measles to realize that other countries have suffered similar indignities.)

Before the arrival of swine flu, Mexico could claim a reasonable track record for projecting a favourable image through language. The Mexican wave (a rippling effect created by different sections of spectators at a sporting event standing up in turn) is associated with celebration, while Mexican orange blossom conjures up sensations of warmth and fragrance. Even the American phrase Mexican standoff (referring to an impasse or stalemate) is by definition a neutral term.

Words that Mexico has contributed to English through the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs generally refer to exotic animals (axolotl, ocelot, quetzal) or nice things to eat (avocado, chilli, chocolate), and words that have come into English more recently from the Mexican variety of Spanish also reflect the enthusiasm of the English-speaking world for spicy Mexican cuisine (enchilada, fajitas, jalapeño, taco).

No less than three districts of Mexico have given their names to well-known objects: the state of Tabasco to a hot pepper sauce, Tequila to an alcoholic drink associated with riotous partying, and Chihuahua to a small breed of dog with big eyes and pointing-up ears.

Finally, two notable Mexican people have given their names to English words: the revolutionary leader Zapata to a kind of droopy moustache, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma II to Montezuma’s revenge (also known as the Aztec two-step), which is a stomach disorder that you might get from eating too much of the above-mentioned spicy food.

This last term was probably as bad as it got as far as Mexico’s linguistic associations were concerned – until now.

Ian Brookes

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Thursday, 7 May 2009

Textual Intercourse

The advent of the mobile phone has had an unquestionable impact on how we communicate. For starters, many new phone-related words have found their way into The Chambers Dictionary in recent years. Obviously there's the definition of mobile phone itself, along with variations like flip phone, clamshell phone, camera phone and smart phone. Other terms that have become familiar include pay as you go, SIM card and even happy slapping. And after many years happily existing purely as a noun, text now acts as a verb as well; "to send a text message".

New words, however, are only the beginning – mobiles have started a whole new style of communication, rife with acronyms, abbreviations and (mostly) intentional misspelling. Twenty years ago you might have been considered mad if you'd written someone a note consisting of "lol. gr8, c u 2nite", but now this is an acceptable part of our new fast and efficient discourse. There has been much conversation about the effect of this language shift and the merits of text speak or textese. Jonathon Green, author behind the Chambers Slang Dictionary, contributes to the discussion concluding "It's just another form of the Queen's English – not better, not worse". Thousands of school teachers across the country disagree, and the debate continues.

Recently I encountered another interesting linguistic contribution from the world of mobile telephony - the "textonym". Two words are textonyms of each other if they are entered using the same combination of keys in predictive text. I'm sure many of us will have sent or received a nonsensical message caused by this phenomenon. I wrote a program to find textonyms within The Chambers Dictionary, hoping to uncover some interesting associations. Some of the these are happily serendipitous, others potentially disastrous, and some yield connections that would probably never otherwise be made.

Employers, be careful if you choose to text your candidates the outcome of their interviews - selection and rejection may be semantically distant, but they are perilously close together in the world of predictive text (keys 735328466). A night out can quickly turn from merriness to messiness, but thankfully it's easy to adjust your message accordingly (637746377). And although there aren't really any words that rhyme with purple, it need be lonely no longer - its textonym supple (787753) is just a key press away. A few other favourites are kiss and lips (5477), satay and saucy (72829), toffee and unfeed (853333) and libido and lichen (542436).

The most prolific combination for textonyms is 7663, yielding twelve words including some, roof, pond, Rome and several other more obscure words. 4663 gets you these slightly more useful eight textonyms: gone, good, goof, home, hond, hone, hood and hoof. The longest textonym in The Chambers Dictionary is 638765378262543742, offering a choice between neuroleptanalgesia and neuroleptanalgesic, though I wouldn't expect to find that in too many mobile phone dictionaries - occasions that call for conversation about "the administration of a tranquillizer and an analgesic at the same time to induce a sleeplike state" are few and far between.

The latest must-have gadgets seem to be favouring a traditional QWERTY keyboard for text input, so the days of predictive text may be numbered (no pun intended!). But although textonyms could be a short-lived phenomenon, the need to say more with less is still very pertinent, and so it looks as though other mobile influences, like textese, will b here 4 a while yet.

David Wark

Thanks to @jimmysixbellies and @Narrenschiff for bringing this to my attention on Twitter.

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