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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