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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