Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring out the old (words); ring in the new (year)

Happy New Year*. And what better way to celebrate the end of 2008 than by looking at its worst words and looking forward to a better year of lexical innovation? Well, I can think of several better ways but they involve Angelina Jolie, a bottle of champagne and a hot tub, but you don't want to know about that. And neither does Brad Pitt - he'd get jealous.

Have a look at this if you'd like to find out about Susie Dent's worst words of 2008 and have a look here if you'd like to see a video about the new year and why it's over-rated.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Your mum's so fat she eats deep-fried mars bars

An American academic has claimed that the art of battling, so long associated with rap music, actually has its origins in the Scottish practice of flyting. The Daily Telegraph carries the story here and it's a good read.

Professor Szasz is convinced there is a clear link between this tradition for settling scores in Scotland and rap battles, which were famously portrayed in Eminem's 2002 movie 8 Mile.

He said: "The Scots have a lengthy tradition of flyting - intense verbal jousting, often laced with vulgarity, that is similar to the dozens that one finds among contemporary inner-city African-American youth.

"Both cultures accord high marks to satire. The skilled use of satire takes this verbal jousting to its ultimate level - one step short of a fist fight."

I know I would say this, but this is a point I've been making to anyone who's cared to listen over the last few years of teaching English Language (grand total of listeners so far = 3). And while the academic quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Professor Ferenc Szasz, credits the Scots with inventing flyting, I thought it had existed from way back in Anglo-Saxon times with warriors such as Ragnar Hairytrousers chucking abuse across the battlefield. A fascinating piece on this blog makes a link between internet flaming, Anglo-Saxon flyting and rap battles.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. I suppose what's interesting is that like so many things to do with language, there are ancient origins or paradigms for most of our current usages. If you can get to it before it's removed, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah has done a really interesting programme on the background to the dozens, a competitive and abusive form of wordplay, which you can find here on I-Player.

And for some light entertainment, try this link for The Pharcyde's excellent track Ya Mama.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Feck off

As we all know, swearing is not big and it's not clever. But it's something that many of us do in certain situations: pain, anger, frustration, as punctuation in a particularly dramatic story. Preston Council has decided though that swearing has to stop and have instituted on the spot fines for swearing and other antisocial behaviour (spitting, littering, dog fouling etc.).

But when is a swear word not a swear word? According to the Advertising Standards Authority, the word feck, as popularised by the brilliant Father Jack in Father Ted, is not rude. The Scotsman newspaper covers the story in more depth here. Lots of rude words, or blasphemous expressions have been toned down by swapping a few letters round. Expressions like Cripes and Jeepers are both believed to originate in attempts to avoid "taking the Lord's name in vain". So Cripes = Christ and Jeepers = Jesus. Oh Cripes, I've just blasphemed by typing those...

If you search using the blog search bar you'll find lots of useful stuff about rude words and people's attitudes towards them. As several of you are doing research into swearing and taboo language for your Language Investigations, some of this could make good background reading.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Words disappearing

Words don't just change (see below); they sometimes disappear completely. At least, that's what The Daily Telegraph tells us has happened to words like thrush, marzipan and willow in the latest edition of Oxford University Press's Junior Dictionary.

Not only have these words been removed, but they've been replaced with newfangled ones like MP3 player, broadband and dyslexic. While the tone of the article borders on the splenetic (look it up, lexis lovers) to begin with, it does quote some sensible linguists too:

Oxford University Press, which produces the junior edition, selects words with the aid of the Children's Corpus, a list of about 50 million words made up of general language, words from children's books and terms related to the school curriculum. Lexicographers consider word frequency when making additions and deletions.

Vineeta Gupta, the head of children's dictionaries at Oxford University Press, said: "We are limited by how big the dictionary can be – little hands must be able to handle it – but we produce 17 children's dictionaries with different selections and numbers of words.

"When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed. We are also much more multicultural. People don't go to Church as often as before. Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as "Pentecost" or "Whitsun" would have been in 20 years ago but not now."

So there you least Christmas is still in it, otherwise I'd be complaining too.

Edited to add: Henry Porter of The Observer has made his own response here. It's a bit verbose (Gilberto, that's you, that is) but has this paragraph which is quite interesting:

However necessary these dull newcomers to the Oxford Junior Dictionary may be, it must be true that with each word and experience excluded, the 21st-century child is minutely deprived. Language becomes more functional, the interior life more arid and the opportunities for rich expression and playfulness fewer.

Words turning bad

There's a good piece on the BBC website's magazine about how words often pick up unpleasant meanings as time goes on - semantic change and, in this case, pejoration - and how this happens.

Their focus is on the word "groom" which has shifted from meaning "to beautify oneself or one's steed" (as in "I'm just popping out to groom the pony.") or to prepare someone for a particular position, usually a successor, to having unpleasant connotations of nurturing an unhealthy sexual relationship with (usually) a young person over the internet.

Given the words used in the article (words from, shall we say the "semantic field of Gary Glitter") you might find it a) unpleasant reading and/or b) blocked by your college filter, but if you can reach the link, it's a good read and one that chimes in with many other words that have changed meaning over time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I-phone? Pah, US-phone!

The I-phone is a beautiful thing. And I don't have one yet, so if you're drawing up a Christmas list remember me. But while the I-phone looks nice, it's causing all sorts of problems for those people who don't conform to a "standard accent". And because the I-phone's new voice recognition programme has been based on an American accent (which variety of US accent, I don't know), some British users are getting their wires crossed.

The Telegraph reports on it here. We covered a similar story on the blog way back in 2005 when Alex Ferguson, manager of a little-known Northern soccer club, had to return his posh car to be "fixed" as it couldn't understand his melodious tones.

But beyond the silly aspects of these stories, there is serious issue about the whole idea of what is "standard" and what's not. Who decides on what is a "normal" accent? Well, usually those who feel they have the right and the power to make their own accent the norm. So if it's north American software developers today using their own accents as the norm, five hundred years ago it was William Caxton and his printer chums who settled on the dialect of south east England as the standard of their era.

Me, I'm waiting for the cockney phone, which responds to any voice with a slap round the face and a shout of "Millwall".

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Variation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Let's sort these parasites out

If you haven't already seen Barnardo's shocking film in defence of children's rights, you really should. It's here on the Barnardo's website and makes excellent material for looking at how language is used to represent young people. Remember, all the dialogue in the film is taken from UK newspaper websites: in other words, these are all things members of the British public have said about young people. Scary stuff.

Useful for:
ENGA2 - Investigating Representation

When is a word not a word?

When is a word not a word? Well, if you believe some people, the answer is when it's meh.

We covered meh a while ago on this blog post, picking up on an article in The Guardian and a discussion on the ace linguistics blog Language Log, but it's been made a new entry in the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary. The story is reported here in The Times and discussed in the subsequent comments from readers.

What is meh? According to the The Times article the story goes like this:

Meh” started out in the US and Canada as an interjection signifying mediocrity or indifference and has evolved, via the internet and an episode of The Simpsons, into a common adjective meaning boring, apathetic or unimpressive in British English.

So, you might describe something as meh in an adjectival way ("That was just so meh".) or as an interjection (Your mum*: "We're going to Aunty Betty's for lunch" You: "Meh".), but is it really a word? And should it be in the dictionary?

Ben Zimmer follows the discussion here on his Visual Thesaurus site, and it's worth a read as he tracks the development of the word and the debate about what "words" actually are.

And for a taste of a prescriptive versus descriptive take on language change, try these two Times comments for size:

1.No wonder we have such a slip in standards in this country, this word and the others being cited to appear in the Collins Dictionary, are slang and i don't think that slang has any place in a dictionary of our English words, why don't they just put them in a Slang Dictionary,

marina, Hemel Hempstead, Herts

2.Language is fluid and constantly evolving. Many of the words we use today would have been considered slang in the past but we don't know the difference as we have always used them. The way we adopt new words and how they shape & reflect our understanding of the world fascinates me, i'm all for it!

Stephanie Barnett, Sheffield, UK

Go, Stephanie, go Stephanie, go Stephanie....

Useful for:

ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

*Yes, I said "your mum" and I'm proud of it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grammar rock

Still struggling with word classes? Do you get your adjectives and adverbs mixed up? Try these videos from the Grammar Rock series in the USA...

First off, here are nouns:


Children in trouble

"What is happening to our children? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets."A quote from the Telegraph newspaper in 2008?

No, that quote is attributed to the philosopher Plato, born more than 400 years before Christ. Let's try another.

"The manners of children are deteriorating... the child of today is coarser more vulgar... than his parents were."

A leader from the Daily Mail in 2008? No, that was CG Heathcote, the stipendiary magistrate for Brighton in 1898, giving evidence to an inquiry on juvenile delinquency.

Representation of young people in the media is a topic we've looked at in AS classes this term and there are some A2 students covering it for their Language Investigations too, so this story on the BBC website is pretty good for focussing your thinking on the key issues.

This link takes you through to the Barnardo's website where their campaign in support of young people is discussed in more detail. Barnardo's have run some brilliant (and often disturbing) campaigns over the years and this one looks very interesting. Here's a link to the video for the campaign. This could make a really good focus for a coursework investigation on ENGA2.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Apostrophe's must go!

Today's Telegraph and last night's Newsnight have features on that old friend of ours (why not our's?): the apostrophe.

Why does this punctuation mark exist? How come about 50% of the population can't use it properly? Should we just say "pah" and get rid of it? The Newsnight link is very good as it's got a 4 minute of Jeremy Paxman and David Crystal discussing its (why not it's?) history and use. And, it has to be said, it's a slightly more enlightening interview than Paxman's one with Dizzee Rascal last week.

There's more about this debate here on The Register and here on the linguist, John Wells' excellent blog (scroll down to Friday 3rd for this). It's John Wells, of course, who kicked off this particular round of apostrophe uproar with his call to get rid of the apostrophe as part of a more straightforward system of spelling and punctuation (covered here and here).

It's all part of the prescriptivist versus descriptivist debate which features in ENA5 Language Change.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Yes we can

Can we analyse Obama's victory speech? Yes we can.

Like a lot of people, I'm still feeling a warm glow about Barack Obama's amazing victory in the US elections. And like a lot of people, I'm impressed with the victory speech he made in Chicago. But being a language nerd and teacher, that's not enough for me. I need analysis!

So, here's a link to The New York Times' video of the speech and their interactive transcript, a video of the whole speech from The Guardian website, and a link to an article in today's Times about the rhetorical techniques used in the speech.

Friday, November 07, 2008

F*ck you, you f*cking f*ck

Apparently the f-word is being overused on TV and it's all getting too much for some people. The Daily Mirror has even launched a campaign to "clean up" the airwaves, calling for swearing to have "a specific point".

So, why does swearing upset so many people? Some words have been normal, inoffensive expressions for centuries and then become taboo. The c-word (which I can't type here or the college filters will ban the blog) is one example of this. Even the old favourite sh-word had few offensive connotations back in Middle English. But it's clear that some words are just seen as ruder than others, and certainly not suitable for children to hear.

The recent debate has probably been sparked by the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross furore on Radio 2 the other week, where Ross claimed that Brand had "f*cked your grand-daughter" in a call to Andrew Sachs' ansaphone. But are we getting ruder and swearing more than we used to? We apparently send each other many more offensive greetings cards than we ever used to, according to this Guardian story earlier in the term. And an OFCOM survey of offensive language and behaviour in the media from 2005 made a range of interesting points about swearing:

  • Swearing and offensive language is considered to be widespread and to have increased over time by all groups
  • It was seen as a symptom of decline in public life, for which participants believed the media was partly responsible
  • All groups considered that the worst aspect of the increase in swearing was because of the example it sets to younger people/children
  • The use of offensive language by young people is most offensive overall as it is seen as indicating a lack of respect
  • Through the process of detailed discussion, swearing becomes a benchmark for underlying fears about society ‘breaking down’, or standards ‘slipping’.
  • Younger people were more likely to swear among their peer groups, and saw it as inoffensive in this context. However, there was a wide range of behaviours in relation to swearing across all groups.
Steven Pinker talks about swearing as an inbuilt language characteristic, something that in an animal might equate to a dog yelping when it gets its paw trodden on, or a cat hissing when it doesn't like the way you stroke it. He explains it in more detail here in a YouTube clip, or here in a Guardian podcast. And while we've evolved enough to have some control over swearing, Pinker makes it clear that part of the offensiveness of certain swearwords is down to their deep-rooted origins in our ancestors.

So, what's your take on swearing? A natural response to shock and way of venting anger, or a deplorable reflection of modern society's low moral standards?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA2 - Investigating Representation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

At the end of the day, I personally shouldn't of done this

Can you spot the three irritating expressions and/or mistakes in that headline? Come on, it's not rocket science...

The people behind the Oxford English Corpus have drawn up a list of the top 10 irritating phrases in English, which is featured in today's Telegraph. That list in full:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Friday, October 31, 2008

Early words

New research from the USA suggests that children's acquisition of vocabulary begins earlier than previously thought and relies more heavily on phonology (the sounds of a language) than expected. The report in Science Daily draws on research from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Daniel Swingley and suggests that children's comprehension of words starts at around 8 months, even though the average child will probably say his or her first word at about 12 months.

Infants have a unique ability to discriminate speech-sound (phonetic) differences, but over time they lose this skill for differentiating sounds in languages other than their native tongue. For example, 6 month old babies who were learning English were able to distinguish between similar-sounding Hindi consonants not found in English, but they lost this ability by 12 months of age. Since the 1980s it has been known that infants start focusing on their language’s consonants and vowels, sometimes to the exclusion of non-native sounds. More recently, researchers have increasingly focused on how infants handle whole words.

Recent research has shown that during infancy, babies learn not only individual speech sounds but also the auditory forms of words; that is, babies are not only aware of the pieces that make up a word, but they are aware of the entire word. These auditory forms of words allow children to increase their vocabulary and help them to eventually develop grammar. Although they may not know what the words mean, children as early as 8 months start learning the phonological (sound) forms of words and are able to recognize them—and just being familiar with the words helps increase the children’s vocabulary. Studies have shown that 18 month old children who are familiar with a word’s form are better at learning what it means and are also able to differentiate it from similar sounding words.

You'll be starting ENGA1 Language Development quite soon as part of your AQA A English Language AS (or will already have studied it as part of your ENA1 unit in AS last year), so keep an eye out for research into child language to help you understand the topic.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Language Development

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Welcome to the "Croydon Facelift"

Or to put it more technically "a UK female hairstyle which pulls the hair back tightly from the face, supposedly giving the effect of a facelift; stereotyped as that of working-class young women". And how about prison whites: "expensive trainers favoured by rap stars and their acolytes; the implication is that such shoes are worn by young black men, who are de facto criminals".

These are new entries in Jonathon Green's Chambers Slang Dictionary (a reworking of his Cassell Dictionary of Slang, or "that big yellow swearing dictionary on the shelf" as it's become known in my classroom). The Daily Telegraph offers its views on the dictionary in an article here; it's a decent read, as it goes beyond the usual novelty take on new words and instead has a think about where the words come from and what this tells us about the English Language and its development over the last century, with a shift away from homegrown Cockney slang towards American influences:

But while the themes of slang have stayed much the same, the sources have changed hugely. Until the start of Second World War, slang in this country was basically home-grown. There was cockney rhyming slang, of course, with its cheery costermongers banging endlessly on about their 'apples and pears' and 'plates of meat'. But there were also numerous other secret languages, designed to be understood only by a small group of people. As words and expressions passed into more common usage, so slang evolved in order to retain its exclusivity.

All that changed, though, with the Second World War. 'After D-Day, American slang - principally black American slang - took over,' says Green. 'In the 1960s, middle-class white people used words like "cool" and "groovy" without realising that they were incredibly old black words. Actually, "groovy" started out in the early 20th century as an expression meaning "staid" or "unfashionable" - that is, stuck in a groove. By the 1940s, though, it was being used by jazz musicians to refer to "slipping into a groove" while they were playing.'

But whereas it used to take several years for new words or phrases to move into common usage, now it happens in a few days. 'That's been the biggest change recently. If you look at black rappers and hip-hop, which is undoubtedly the cutting edge of slang at the moment, they're coming up with words that the white middle classes in America and England are immediately trying out for themselves. That's why you get all those floppy-haired public schoolboys making complete idiots of themselves by referring to their girlfriends as "bitches".'

But the Telegraph article takes a bit of a strange sidetrack when it claims that Black British English (and to some extent Asian British English, if there is such a homogeneous thing) has lagged behind its US counterparts. Green seems to suggest that most Black British slang is just imported from the USA via rap music, but I'd argue that we still have a fairly healthy homegrown slang. Yes, it riles me (it vexes me even) to hear British teenagers describing the police as the "feds" (feds being a clipping of the full words of FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, an organisation we don't have in the UK): why not stick to coppers, boy dem or the rozzers?

But then trying to impose rules on slang - or arguing with someone about the etymology of a particular slang term ("Listen here, my good man. This homework cannot be "gay", as you suggest, for it is an assignment without sexuality of any kind") - is pointless. Green is to be admired for his love of language and desire to find out more about it. Maybe next time round, we'll see some citations from our own students and your research into some of these words.

And here's a link to a video clip of Jonathon Green talking about his dictionary.

Useful for:

ENA5 - Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pimping for beginners

Having looked at the semantic change of fail yesterday, I had a look at some more language articles on Slate and found this excellent one about the word pimp. Again, it's a word that's gone through an interesting process of semantic change, ameliorating into something with quite approving connotations and shifting its grammatical function from noun to verb, as well as broadening to encompass an almost entirely new set of meanings.

As the Slate article points out, the original meaning of pimp appears to be as a noun referring to a person (usually) male who solicits customers for prostitutes in return for a share of their money (from Etmology online suggests a possible origin for the term as the verb pimper from French meaning "to dress elegantly" or pimpreneau from French meaning "a knave, rascall, varlet, scoundrell" (ie a bad person). So far so good... or bad depending on whether you're the unfortunate prostitute renting out body parts to desperate men or the elegantly dressed arranger of the liaisons.

But as Slate goes on to discuss, the word has semantically shifted more significantly over recent decades:

But the word has seen a renaissance of sorts, with a strong increase in use in recent years. Media attention to (and glamorization of) the stereotype of the inner-city pimp brought such terms as pimpmobile and pimp walk—an ostentatious swagger affected chiefly by African-American men—to public attention in the 1970s. More recently, we've seen the advent of a range of benign figurative uses. We can now pimp our possessions, making them flashily decorated or customized, a use mainstreamed by MTV's car-detailing show, Pimp My Ride. An attractive or appealing man may be called a pimp, and this is viewed as a positive description. To describe something using the accolade pimping is to mark it as wonderful or exciting. Jay-Z's 2001 hit "Big Pimpin'" used the term as shorthand for a livin'-large lifestyle.

So, a more modern meaning of pimp appears to be as a term of approval for a sexually successful man (in the same way that stud, playa, cassanova, romeo have all been used too) , but the term has broadened in its verbal form to take in anything that is enhanced or made more attractive. But is this a good thing? Can we ever really say that language change is good or bad? (For a brief digression, have a look at this post on Language Log if you want to explore the idea of change being good, bad or just neutral.)

Some people, used to the older meaning of pimp as an immoral and uncaring man making money out of a woman's exploitation, object to the amelioration of the term. It's not a difficult point to understand: if the word pimp is used positively, does it now mean that the whole idea of pimping is seen more favourably? That it's ok to sell women's bodies? Or does it just mean that the word has changed and has little to do with its original meanings? Slate writer Jesse Sheidlower goes on to say:

Many younger speakers find these uses neutral and unobjectionable. Many older speakers think that any positive use of pimp is sexist or demeaning. But you can't make someone feel a certain way about a word. Younger people will continue to use suck ("to be notably bad") or gay ("lame, boring, terrible, stupid") heedless of what their elders think; it's just as hard to get people to reject something they think is OK as to get people to accept something they've been taught is wrong. (Though it's interesting to observe the online trend of writing the pejorative sense of gay as "ghey," to explicitly disassociate it from the homosexual sense.)

So, pimp, pimping, to pimp... what does it mean to you?

Useful for: ENA5 - Language Change ENGA2 - Investigating Representations ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The definition of FAIL... you. Ha ha. Or your mum to be more precise.

But no, what does FAIL mean these days? In this very good article from the American online magazine Slate, Christopher Beam traces the origins of this rather splendid word and how it has changed thanks to its appearance in obscure Japanese video games, online gamer chat and now a brilliant blog dedicated to the art of fail.

We all know what fail used to mean: it existed as a verb. I fail, you fail, she fails, we all fail: you get the general idea. But now it's undergone conversion and can be used as a noun - a fail, a total fail, an epic fail - or even an adjective - you are fail - but it's unclear whether this will last or if it's just another passing language fad.

Have you come across it? Is it part of your vocabulary? Or just another nerdy internet thing like w00t and pwned which two students (Leanne and Henrietta, hello!) and me (hello...oh hang on) know about from our mis-spent time on t'internet?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

More word hating

The Oxford English Dictionary is running a vote (with a prize!) asking you to choose your least favourite word from their list. It's here if you want to vote.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beware Barbie culture

According to this article in The Daily Mail
our society is in danger of being 'Barbie dolled'. This is interesting in a number of ways:

-it is a clear example of the process of conversion
- it sounds a little less violent than representations of 'knife crime' and 'hoodies'
- it is written by one half of a couple known as 'Barbie and Ken!' Her views are not taken seriously despite her Government position. (Take a look at the audience positioning).

Barbara is accused of believing all girls are 'Vicky Pollards'.
So this is what Culture Ministers debate: WAGS, X-factor and Little Britain!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Word hating

As John McCain's ratings slide in American opinion polls and the election looms ever closer, the language of his supporters and even of McCain himself becomes more and more angry. According to various reports, including this one from the BBC, McCain's supporters have taken to shouting words like "terrorist", "Arab" and "traitor" whenever Obama's name is mentioned. Meanwhile, McCain himself has attracted criticism for referring to Obama as "that one" and gesturing in an offhand way towards him during a TV debate, and a black TV cameraman was told to "sit down, boy" by a white Republican supporter at a recent rally. Maybe he thought he was at a KKK rally. Veteran civil rights activist, John Lewis makes the point that "toxic language can lead to destructive behaviour" and the language of race and ethnic identity in the USA is fraught with painful history. Obviously, this blog is pro-Obama, so I'm biased, but the festering racism lurking under the surface of a lot of these increasingly desperate Republican yelps makes for interesting reading from a language point of view. Admittedly, no one from McCain's camp has gone on record as saying something as blatant as "lynch the n-word" or to describe Obama as "an uppity negro" - the bald racism of the segregation era - but the lack of respect in "that one" and "boy" can be decoded pretty quickly. On a different tack, here's a very good article on and interview with Sarah Silverman, the Jewish American comedian who is trying to rally support for Obama among one of its less obvious demographic targets, elderly Jewish people. Her use of racist language is set in the context of its anti-racist roots, making it clear that it's not the words you use but the way you use them which is really significant. Useful for: ENGA2 - Investigating Representation

Friday, October 10, 2008

Word loving

The BBC News Magazine has been inviting entries for its readers' favourite words. Have a look here for examples of some strange and beautiful words, including the verb to defenestrate and the noun slubberdegullion.

Next week, we'll be starting a new Moodle-based wiki, an interactive website which will allow its users (you and me) to add pages with new word definitions.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ambient replenishment controllers...

...or to put it more clearly, shelf stackers. How about "Technical horticultural maintenance officers"? Gardeners. Or a "Knowledge navigator"? A teacher.

Jargon - technical language associated with specific occupations - can be completely baffling to lots of us, which is why the Plain English Campaign will be happy to see that some local councils have decided to ditch their insane obfuscations and ludicrous circumlocutions (look 'em up) in favour of clear and straightforward language. Huzzah!

This piece in The Daily Mirror gives some shocking examples of how local authorities and businesses dress up mundane jobs and activities in fancy language to make them look really important, and how some local authorities are deciding it's time to change their tune.

We've looked at jargon elsewhere on this blog - here and here - so have a look.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Investigating Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

Saturday, October 04, 2008

In other words

A piece by John Walsh in The Independent a couple of days ago gives a new "visual dictionary" website, Wordia a bit of a savaging. Wordia claims to be "redefining the dictionary" but is described by Walsh as "misleading", which is no use for a dictionary, and he goes on to wonder...

...whether a dictionary can usefully be run by chat and semi-consensus; and whether it's right for readers to "select" a meaning they find "relevant", rather than one that's actually correct.

The idea behind Wordia is explained in the article:

The everyone-join-in dictionary is called, and is the joint offspring of the television producer Edward Baker and Michael Birch, the internet entrepreneur who founded Bebo, the social-networking site. They've linked up with HarperCollins, the blue-chip publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch, to make use of their electronic dictionary of 76,000 headwords and 120,000 definitions. But the unique selling proposition behind is visual: they want to compile an archive of videos in which thousands of members of the public will offer their own definitions of favourite words and have them posted on YouTube, with which Baker and Birch are also in partnership.

But, as Walsh points out, dictionary definitions aren't decided upon by random celebrities; they're decided upon by qualified language experts who know something about the language and where the actual words derive from. That's not to say that we can't have our own ideas about what certain words mean to us - they're more the connotations of words than their denotations - but that if we don't have accepted and agreed definitions to words we'll be left floundering in a sea of vagueness and, like...whatever.

The other point is that dictionaries do respond to new words and new meanings, but they're a bit more careful to source these than Wordia. Look here and here for more details about what lexicographers actually do.

But Walsh is not entirely negative about different approaches to dictionary compilation. He speaks more approvingly of Urban Dictionary, which collects different meanings from its contributors and is well known for its up to date slang definitions (and its rude words and thinly veiled personal insults e.g. "definition of gay = my stupid English teacher").

And if you think that's sad, have a read about this chap who has just read the OED from cover to cover.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Cripes! It's another article about new words

It's the 74th article this year about new words. Are you bored yet?

"No!" I hear you cry. "New words are a fascinating barometer of social change and I long to discover more about the formation processes behind them," you go on to say.

And yes, I agree with you. So, here's a piece from today's Daily Mail which features such gems as those in the image here and many others such as momnesia and nomophobia. And for this week's Haribo prize, what do these two words mean?

There is still 1 unclaimed prize from last week, so have a look at this post to get your prize and join Leanne in the happy land of Haribo.

Useful for: ENA5 - Language Change ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cool accents

A recent survey featured in The Sun (and other sources) rates the Birmingham accent as the least "cool", and R.P. (Received Pronunciation) as the most "cool". I don't know if "cool" has recently been redefined, because RP is clearly not cool in any world I've visited recently. But ho hum...

Adrian Chiles - semi-professional Brummie - defends his accent here, while more serious news outlets give the story a different slant here, here and here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Variation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Investigation ideas 1 - Team GB

This is the first of a series of short posts on Language Investigations to kick start some thinking on recent language issues in the news that might be worthy of investigation for the A2 coursework project, or possibly the ENGA2 Investigating Representations unit on the new spec.

Yesterday's Labour Party conference has had blanket coverage in the media, maybe because lots of media pundits expected Gordon Brown to fall flat on his face and be booed from the stage, but the coverage has been largely positive. His wife, Sarah Brown is also reported on quite favourably in many papers, while Brown's erstwhile leadership rival, David Milliband suffers a few digs.

So what could be done with this for an investigation? On one level, the different representations of the Browns and Milliband could make for a solid investigation, where lexical, semantic, grammatical and pragmatic frameworks could be applied to pull apart how they are presented to us. On another level, a corpus analysis could be carried out on some of the speeches. The frequency of terms like Labour, Tony, I, Britain, Cameron might be explored by feeding a digital copy of one of the speeches into something like Teachit's word cruncher software and then examining how many times the words appear and what they are appearing with.

The Guardian already has a running total of how many times certain words were used, so this could be a start:

I/I'm/My = 121
Britain = 25
Fair = 20
Labour = 20
NHS = 15
Conservatives = 10
Tough = 10
Together = 9
Markets = 5
Serious = 4
New Labour = 3
Harry Potter = 1
Tony = 1
Iraq = 1
Afghanistan = 1
Sorry = 0

The speech itself is here.

Out with the old, in with the new

When we look at Language Change we often get interested in new uses of words, or even new words which crop up. So, today we looked at semantic change in one class and thought about words like bitch, gay, moist, sick, grimy and beef which have changed meaning over time and the processes behind these semantic shifts. Last week we looked at new words and word formation processes: blending (moobs = man + boobs, autocutie = autocue + cutie); compounds (studmuffin = stud + muffin, muffintop = muffin + top); initialisms (FBI, BBC); acronyms (HEIDI = Highly Educated Independent Degree-carrying Individual, BOBFOC = Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch, BOGOF = Buy One Get One Free).

But what about old words? In two articles in Monday's Times, old words get discussed and their inclusion in the dictionary debated. In this excellent article, David Crystal - all round language God and one of the speakers at next year's teacher workshops at SFX - talks about what happens when words stop being used or go out of fashion. In this article, The Times ask readers to vote for words they wish to keep in the dictionary and why.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Textual healing

Texting is destroying our language. Young people are using text language in their exam papers. English is being dumbed down thanks to Satan's little helper, SMS. These are all regular complaints about the vile disease that is texting (apart from the last one which I made up).

But it's all a load of cobblers, according to one of the world's top linguists, David Crystal. In an interview on the Visual Thesaurus website linked from an article on the excellent Language Log blog, he puts these "myths" to the sword:

Now, in the case of the text messaging scenario, none of that has happened. It's people imagining the situation. They say, "Text messages are full of abbreviations." These are people who may never have texted in their lives, and who have certainly never done any research to find out. They believe that this is the case. And of course one of the first planks of research that I did was to look at large quantities of text messages, as well as the research that other people have done, to find that typically less than 10 percent of the words in text messages are actually abbreviated in any way.

We've looked at texting before on this blog - use the search toolbar to find out where - and some of our students (hello A2 classes!) have been involved in Tim Shortis's latest research into text usage, which we hope to be able to bring you news of in the next few months . (His earlier observations on texting and the various assumptions about them can be found summarised here.) Crispin Thurlow's paper on the sociolinguistics of text messaging can also be found here.

NEway (Ha ha, do you see what I did there?), what are your views on texting? Does it influence your written language? Does it make you spell badly? Can you no longer write you and have to write u? Text your responses to 22554 (texts will cost no less than £75).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Phwoar, get a load of these

...these new entries into the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, that is. Sorry for the gratuitous picture of Barbara Windsor from the Carry On films (and more recently Eastenders) but phwoar was usually uttered when she was around.

The term phwoar was made famous in the 1960s and 70s by the legendary Sid James and has now made it, along with stud muffin and arm candy into this latest version of the slang dictionary . The story (all 4 paragraphs of it) is here on the Daily Mirror's website or covered in more detail in The Daily Mail here, and you can find out more about the new entries in the dictionary here.

And for this term's first Haribo competition, what word formation process is responsible for stud muffin, Glasgow kiss, happy slapping and arm candy? A bag of Haribo to the first 2 answers posted as comments here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The A to Bee of spelling

Spelling and spelling reform have hit the news recently, with arguments over the English spelling system in several newspapers. If you believe popular opinion, we're all getting much worse at spelling and this is probably down to rubbish teachers, teenage fecklessness, utter indolence and text messaging. But as with much "popular opinion" or "it's obvious innit" schools of "common sense", it's not that simple.

The English spelling system is a strange beast and one that reflects a lot about the history of our language - its origins in other languages, its changes over time, and the influences of technology and social change - and a lot about the ways we pronounce words, or used to. And it's this mish mash of different influences that makes it such a difficult system for many people to master. Not only that, but to say it's a system implies there's a logical structure to it, and that's not always the case.

John Sutherland, in this article in The Independent, looks at the issue of spelling reform - changing the way we spell words - and the debates over it. Elsewhere, the views of John Wells, the President of the Spelling Society (there is indeed such a thing), the man who kick started this current debate about spelling by arguing that we should relax spelling rules, are covered in this Times piece, this Daily Mail article and this Guardian article which is good if you're looking for the historical background to some of our spelling patterns.

In a slightly different way, this article in yesterday's Guardian - a profile of the top linguist David Crystal - makes the point that texting isn't really the true villain in all this, as some commentators are claiming, but just the latest technological advance to carry the can for making us communicate more inaccurately.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Saturday, September 13, 2008

CSI Nokia

Forensic linguistics is a growing field and one that directly applies skills of textual analysis to a range of everyday communications - letters, texts, internet discussions, recordings of speech - in a bid to accurately trace the user's identity.

Science Daily reports on one particular case in which a man was convicted for the murder of his ex-partner largely through the evidence of messages sent on her mobile phone. Dr Tim Grant of Aston University explains:

‘Jenny Nicholl disappeared on 30th June 2005. A linguistic analysis showed that text messages sent from her phone were unlikely to have been written by her but, rather, were more likely to have been written by her ex-lover, David Hodgson. A number of stylistic points identified within texts known to have been written by Jenny Nicholl were not present in the suspect messages. Instead, these were stylistically close to the undisputed messages of David Hodgson.

Hodgson was convicted partly because, in text messages he sent on her phone after she disappeared, he spelled "myself" as "meself". In her own text messages, Nicholl had spelled the word "myself".

‘The kind of features we were interested in were the shortening of “im” in the texts from Nicholl contrasting with “I am” in the suspect messages and the lack of space after the digit substitution in items such as “go2shop” contrasting with “ave 2 go”’.

So, while your skills of textual analysis and understanding of new modes of technology will obviously help you do well in your A Levels, they might also help you become a crime-fighting super sleuth.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Language and Mode
ENGA3 - Language Explorations
ENA5 (old spec) - Language Change

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The rents won't get it

A story in today's Daily Mail tells us all about a new guide to teen slang available from here on the Parentplus website. The guide is supposed to be a "jargon buster" for parents who can't understand the language their kids are using. The article uses the usual trick of journalists (and sad English teachers like me) of trying to insert slang terms into "normal" speech for comedy effect, but fails by trying too hard (like a sad English teacher). Have a look at some examples here for a taste of what's on offer.

Language students might argue about the use of the word jargon here - it's not really jargon as such (technical language associated with a given job or activity) but slang that they're really talking about. But it's an interesting snapshot of what's going on with slang at the moment and the influence of American English, London English and especially Black British English on mainstream language.

As with any guide to slang it's got a short shelflife, with new words rapidly appearing, to take the place of old ones. Words like ace and magic which were used as terms of approval when I was a kid (the 1970s if you must know...) got replaced by sick and wicked, and now words like nang, off the hook and gully (although they're probably out of date already).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Dirty English infects beautiful Italian

It sounds like some obscene liaison between Russell Brand and Sophia Loren, but it's all about language really.

According to this story in The Daily Telegraph, language purists in Italy have had enough of English words being thrown into daily conversation and have said no to Anglitaliano. Words and phrases such as weekend, know how and cool have appeared on a list of "ugly English words" and are being derided as unpleasant and affected.

The French have usually been the ones who complain about this sort of thing, as this post from March illustrates, but it all seems part of a wider response among people in all societies who worry about language change and losing the "purity" of their language, be it Italians appalled at English words or English speakers sick of American phrases.

Are we bovvered?

A recent Telegraph report provoked 120 comments online. The views expressed ranged from angry to sarcastic and incredulous. The intensity of feeling was surprising and included harsh lexis such as: ‘nasty’ ‘scum’ ‘insanity’ ‘pompous little Hitlers’ ‘petty minded Fascists’ ‘halfwits’….. the list goes on.

So what stirred up such a reaction? In an attempt to be avoid offence and to be sensitive to individuals and certain groups Chichester District Council has written a 7 page booklet as a guide for their employees. The term ‘general public’ is promoted as a positive alternative to ‘Man on the street’ to avoid offending women.

How angry does this make you feel? Or does this not bother you at all?

Possibly the comments received online by the Telegraph are more interesting to debate than the leaflet alone. Here we see Political Correctness described as ‘highly offensive’ and ‘a sickness.’ The negative sexual connotations of ‘woman on the street’ are highlighted in more than one comment. Some historical context is given for the usage of ‘man’.

As English Language students you need to form views and express opinions on language issues both in Paper 5 and Paper 6. Exploring the comments expressed by ‘the man on the street’ in response to articles about language issues may help you to form a view. It is not just your teachers who get excited and passionate about language debates!

(Unfortunately my lack of technical ability prevented me from including a google image of a 'man on the street' that would definitely cause offence here in Chichester!)

Monday, September 08, 2008


Welcome to the blog, if you're a new student at SFX, or have just started this course at another school or college.

We're hoping to get a few more contributors to add posts this year and as ever we welcome your views. Please just click add comment on a post to give your own view or link to a story that interests you.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Grammar rage!

You know what really makes my blood boil? It's not knife crime, the prospect of David Cameron being the next Prime Minister or global warming: its people who dont no how to use proper grammer and spellings.

Have a look at this list of grammar crimes and feel your own blood boil...or not.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Fewer items, less trouble

Tesco have made grammar purists everywhere jump for joy by changing their "10 items or less" signs to "Up to 10 items". But why?

According to the BBC website it's all about the difference between less and fewer.

The new wording was suggested to Tesco by language watchdog The Plain English Campaign. Tesco said the change would be phased in across its stores."Saying up to 10 items is easy to understand and avoids any debate," said a spokesman for The Plain English Campaign.

"Fewer" should be used when you are talking about items that can be counted individually, for example, "fewer than 10 apples"."Less" is correct when quantities cannot be individually counted in that case, e.g. "I would like less water".

But is this change important? Does this distinction actually matter? Everyone knows what's meant by "10 items or less". In fact, isn't "Up to 10 items" actually less clear? Does it mean up to and including 10 items or up to the point where 9 becomes 10, but no further? In fact, does it matter at all when most people actually pretend they can't count and just take 20 items?

The debate - oh yes, there's a debate about this - is followed up in comments on the Daily Telegraph's website, where you can see some very poor spelling and grammar from those who claim to be grammar experts. Tut tut...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Medal that man

The changing function of some words in English gives certain people an attack of the shakes. Nouns like medal and podium have been used as verbs in reports on the Olympics in Beijing (for example ,"Chris Hoy has medalled" and "the athlete podiumed three times").

David Marsh, the style guide editor for The Guardian has written an article here about these uses and found that "to medal" as a verb has actually been knocking around since at least 1822.

The process is called conversion and we've seen it before with nouns like fax and text becoming to fax and to text, and with a verb like to ask becoming a noun an ask (as in football commentators describing a difficult challenge as "a big ask").

As David Marsh explains, some people find these shifts in function very upsetting and see them as Americanising the language. Others make the point that English is amazingly flexible, so why not just use it to its full extent?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Friday, August 22, 2008

Serious pwnage

The internet has speeded up the pace of language change and led to new varieties of English which are often limited to relatively small communities of practice (groups of language users linked by a shared interest or practice, such as online gaming, hacking, phishing, 419 scams etc) but which often leak out into wider society and affect the mainstream.

Many of the words associated with online gaming in particular are interesting from a language change point of view, often consisting of the usual blends, acronyms and initialisms, but also a weird range of semantic changes and random fluctuations and errors which become "real" words in their own right.

One word, the blend playbourer - a person employed to "farm" gold in a MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) and then sell it on to other gamers - is reported on in today's BBC News. It's a form of sweatshop labour that fuels a black economy of gold-spammers (people who send you endless spam messages about buying virtual gold with real money) but I can't see a World of Warcraft fairtrade movement springing up any time soon.

Elsewhere terms like owned and pwned have grown in popularity. Owned has a similar meaning to the London slang boyed: defeated, beaten or humiliated. So, to get owned (the passive form of the verb) is is to be beaten. In gaming this seems to refer to any dramatic defeat at the hands of NPC (non-player character) enemies or other players. The obvious link to the traditional sense of to own - to possess or have - suggests that this usage might be seen as a broadening, a form of semantic shift where a word changes its meaning while leaving the original word with its original meaning. And rather like to boy, or even to merk/murk (generally meaning to beat up, destroy or kill, possibly* derived from a shortened version of mercenary, a paid soldier), slang terms with connotations of victory, violence and competitive prowess often move into use in areas of sexual behaviour. Take the recent Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris track Dance Wiv Me, which features the romantic chat-up line "You've got a body to die for: let me merk it"...

Pwned is a weirder and maybe more interesting example of how keyboard technology can lead to variations in language use. According to this definition and this one, pwned was probably a typo (with 0 and p being adjacent keys on a QWERTY keyboard) but has now become a word in its own right. A similar example is book to mean cool, created by the predictive text on mobile phones selecting book as the first option. Again, despite originating in a mistake, this has taken off as a slang term (or at least did for a while).

And what do linguists make of this? This week's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 (listen again here) includes an interview with renowned linguist David Crystal who makes the point that the internet is spreading language change so quickly that the days of prescriptivism (the movement to regulate and "fix" spelling, grammar and meaning) are numbered as we let our fingers do the talking.

Useful for:
ENA5/ENGA3 - Language Change
ENGA1 - Language and Mode

*I say possibly as there are loads of different ideas about where this word comes from

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chambers dictionary new word entries

The latest edition of the Chambers Dictionary includes a number of new words and phrases that you might have come across. The editor-in-chief claims that these words present "a vivid picture of current interests and concerns", while others bemoan the inclusion of business jargon and ephemeral expressions.

Take a look at some of the media coverage of the new dictionary inclusions for a taste of how people feel about some of these new words and phrases, and find out more about where the words come from and how they're formed.

Guardian - WAGS and War on Terror
Guardian - Electrosmog and wardrobe malfunction
Telegraph - WAGs, HIPs and credit crunch
BBC - Electrosmog enters the dictionary
Chambers Dictionary Word of the Week

2008 exam results

Congratulations on a really excellent set of exam results this year - we're very chuffed and hope you are too!

Obviously, not everyone gets the grade they want, so if you are unhappy with your result and want to talk it through, email me on the college address and I'll see what I can do to help.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Word of the week

Just a quicky to recommend this link to Kerry Maxwell's Word of the week on the MacMillan Dictionaries site.

Each week she looks at a new word that has emerged and explores its meaning, etymology and use. Very handy for A2 Language Change.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chavs and chav nots

Turn away now if you sat (or marked) an ENA6 paper last month, as Zoe Williams is about to reappear. In her Guardian online column she responds to yesterday's call by the Fabian Society to stop using the word chav. Yes, it's a nasty word, redolent of prejudice and snobbery, but banning words is not a great plan, she reckons.

Meanwhile, one of many responses to the article in yesterday's Guardian about what to do about offensive language in a post-PC world makes the point that Zia Sardur missed out women from his lists of groups susceptible to bigotry. The correspondent says "Although not strictly a "minority", women have been verbally abused since time began. Sadly, vicious insults such as bitch, tart, chick and even whore are increasingly used against us now, after a couple of decades when such words were rarely used. The idea that these references are "ironic" is merely a smoke screen".

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Axe the chav and more tales of PC

Two articles in today's Guardian feature discussions about language and how it represents different groups and individuals in society. In the first piece by Ziauddin Sardar, the idea of language in a post-PC world is discussed. The argument goes something like this: if the term PC (Political Correctness) is discredited and the ideas that go with it are suffering splashback as a result, then what should we do to make sure that people are sensitive and careful about the potential impact of their words on others? As Sardar says:

We shape our language, but language also shapes us. Giving a currency to demeaning language can blind us to the fact we have embraced demeaning perceptions about other people.

And he expands on this:

Derogatory words make way for degrading treatment. Language is more than our basic tool of communication; it shapes perceptions and so influences behaviour. Referring to "faggots" or "wrinklies" strips people of respect, and it's just a short step to thinking them less equal. Terms such as "cripples", "spastics", "thick" and "retarded" stigmatise disabled people as less human. A recent increase in attacks has its roots in such language. If "terrorism" is constantly linked to the "Muslim community", as though it is one monolithic entity, it is not surprising if 69% of Britons see all Muslims as terrorists and feel fear and loathing towards them.

It's an argument that should be familiar to most A Level students who've looked at Language & Representation or done the recent Language Debates ENA6 paper (which I'm still marking...). Basically, what Sardar is proposing is an argument inspired by linguistic determinism: that the language we use is a framework through which much of our perception of the world is dictated, or at least influenced.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, Tom Hampton of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank and pressure group, argues that the word chav should not be used as it is "deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and – especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV – it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred".

This time what's being proposed seems to be a reflectionist argument: that the language we use reflects our social values and attittudes, and that if these values stink (racism, snobbery, sexism etc.) then we should try to moderate our language. The article goes on to talk about the use of racist, homophobic and generally abusive language, so it's a good read for anyone studying ENGA2 (new spec) next year or ENA6 (old spec) from September.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Txtl Analysis

David Crystal is renowned as one of the country's top linguists and in an extract from his new book on language, in The Guardian today, he looks at the rise of texting and the arguments about its effect on our wider communication skills.

Some of the background to texting is covered - the number of messages sent each year & the typical abbreviations used - but maybe more interesting from an English Language A Level point of view is the debate over what texting does (or doesn't) do to our language. Some views are particularly strong...

Crystal quotes a 2002 John Sutherland article (which actually featured on an ENA6 paper a few years ago) in which texting is described as "penmanship for illiterates", and a more recent article by John Humphrys which tell us that the "SMS vandals" "are destroying it (English): pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped."

But as Crystal points out, "Ever since the arrival of printing - thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people's minds - people have been arguing that new technology would have disastrous consequences for language. Scares accompanied the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting". He makes the point that texting is just another example of language change in action.

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a new phenomenon, nor is its use restricted to the young. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of it uses a distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages might seem a lot, but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use, but its long-term impact is negligible. It is not a disaster.

So is texting destroying our language, turning us into a nation of lazy illiterates? Or is it just a form of technology that helps us communicate quickly, a form with its own rules that we can switch into and out of when we choose? Sounds like a language debate to me, so fair game for assessment on ENA6 and the new ENGA3 spec.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Dictionary takes the biscuit

Custard cream is entering the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time, along with muffin top, leetspeak and fascinator. Today's Daily Mirror tells you more about these new additions, while the press release and guide to new entries from the Concise OED reproduced below might give you more of an idea about how dictionaries are put together, where idioms such as "freeze the balls off a brass monkey" and "take the biscuit" come from and what's happening to our language.

Your guide to some of the new entries in the latest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary

• n. a set of photographs displaying a fashion designer's new collection, assembled for
marketing purposes.

• adj. very fashionable: her fitted jacket is bang on-trend.

• n. a light, decorative woman's headpiece consisting typically of feathers, flowers, beads, etc. attached to a comb or hairclip.

muffin top
• n. informal a roll of fat visible above the top of a pair of women's tight-fitting low-waisted trousers.

• adj. denoting a style of clothing characterized by very tight-fitting garments: the body-con trend is big news at the moment.
— origin shortening of body-conscious.

vanity sizing
• n. the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, in order to encourage sales.

custard cream
• n. Brit. a biscuit with a vanilla-flavoured cream filling.

• n. informal a celebrity.
— origin 1990s: representing a colloq. pronunc. of celeb.

• v. emulate or seem to be inspired by: Meg Ryan plays Avery as if she's channelling Nicole Kidman.

• n. the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, etc., especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime.
• v. engage in cosplay.
— derivatives
cosplayer n.
— origin 1990s: blend of costume + play.

• n. Brit. an inner-city school which is funded partly by the government and partly by a private individual or organization.

• n. another term for biomarker. naturally occurring molecule, gene, or characteristic by which a particular medical condition, disease, etc. can be identified.

• v. start up (an Internet-based business or other enterprise) with minimal
financial resources.

boiler room
• n. a room or office in which many operators engage in high-pressure telephone sales, especially of risky or worthless investments.

• n. a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge, e.g. to send spam messages.

bragging rights
• pl. n. a temporary position of ascendancy in a closely contested rivalry: it's
over 25 years since Burnley last had the bragging rights in East Lancashire.

busted flush
• n. (in poker) a hand containing four cards of the same suit and one of a different suit. informal a promising person or thing that turns out to be unsuccessful: her leadership is already a busted flush.

car crash
• n. informal a chaotic or disastrous event or situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers: her life is turning into a car crash.

cc (also c.c.)
• v. (cc's, cc'ing, cc'd) send a copy of an email to (a third party).

• n. a severe shortage of money or credit: the beleaguered company has become the latest victim of the credit crunch.

• adj. feeling elated because one is about to leave a stressful or responsible job or situation.

/"drUkIt/ (also droukit)
• adj. Scottish extremely wet; drenched.
— origin
C16: origin uncertain; cf. ON drukna ‘to be drowned’.

• adj. — phrases
fit for purpose (of an institution, facility, etc.) well equipped or well suited for its designated role or purpose.

• n. chiefly N. Amer. a bag packed with essential items, kept ready for use in the event of an emergency evacuation of one's home.

goji berry /"g«UdZi/
• n. a bright red edible berry widely cultivated in China, supposed to contain high levels of certain vitamins. See also wolfberry. either of two shrubs (Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense) on which goji berries grow.
— origin from Chin.

• n. [with modifier] a dominant contender within a particular sphere of operation or activity: they'll be up against the 800-lb gorilla in this business, Sony.

• n. an informal language or code used in Internet chatrooms, email, etc., in which numerals or special characters are used to represent standard letters.
— origin from leet, representing a pronunc. of elite, and -speak.

locavore/"l«Uk«vOÉ/ (also localvore /"l«UkÒ«ÔlvOÉ/)
• n. N. Amer. a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or
produced food. — origin C21: on the pattern of carnivore, herbivore, etc.

• pl. n. the shoots of salad vegetables such as rocket, celery, beetroot, etc., picked just after the first leaves have developed.

• n. chiefly N. Amer. a non-alcoholic drink consisting of a mixture of fruit juices or other soft drinks. — origin 1930s: blend of mock + cocktail.

• n. Brit. a young person who is not in education, employment, or training.
— origin acronym.

non dom

• n. Brit. a person who lives in a country but is not legally domiciled in it, thereby sometimes obtaining tax advantages in the country concerned.

• n. informal a person's guest at a social function.

• v. (on the social networking site Facebook) attract the attention of (another member of the site) by using the ‘poke’ facility.

pump and dump
• n. the fraudulent practice of encouraging investors to buy shares in a company in order to inflate the price artificially, and then selling one's own shares while the price is high.

• adj. enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something: Mary-Kate's problems make her more relatable.

able to be related to something else.

• adj. referring to credit or loan arrangements for borrowers with a poor credit
history, typically having unfavourable conditions such as high interest rates.

train wreck
• n. informal a chaotic or disastrous situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers: his train wreck of a private life guaranteed front-page treatment.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The universal language of hand gestures

Research at Chicago University and reported here in The Telegraph seems to suggest that a "universal language" of gesture might exist regardless of the grammar of spoken language used by people around the world.

To help settle a long-running dispute about whether language influences the way we think, psychologists tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers, first asking them to describe an action in a video in speech, then only with gestures.

What was remarkable was that, when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order - subject, object, verb (woman knob twists, for example). Meanwhile, when asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages.

What the research seems to be pointing towards is that certain conceptual frameworks exist beyond speech and language and that it's these frameworks that we see the world through, rather than language. Linguistic determinists and relativists such as Sapir and Whorf argued that it is language that controls our perception of the world.

So why - if people use a universal gesture "language" regardless of their actual spoken language - do different world languages have varying surface structures? In other words, why do some languages have Subject - Verb - Object word order, while others have Subject - Object - Verb? Is there, as Noam Chomsky famously suggested, a deep structure underneath all human languages?

If you know the answers, please tell me...

Edited to add: Language Log runs this story with a degree more scepticism here and refers to the original article in New Scientist here.

And no one has mentioned the fact that I've got to the end of this post without guffawing childishly about the words woman , knob and twist being in the same sentence. Ha ha.

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