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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