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Archive for August, 2009

The Macmillan Dictionary blog

Friday, August 21st, 2009

I’ll wager that few Americans know about the Macmillan dictionaries unless those Americans are native speakers of languages other than English. These are dictionaries for English language learners, published in British and American versions. The person who’s in charge of the program overall is Michael Rundell, who trained me in lexicography when I joined Longman umpty-squillion years ago.

Yesterday I saw a message from Twitter: “MacDictionary is now following you!” I promptly followed MacDictionary back and went to its blog, which I didn’t know existed.

Several people who work on Macmillan dictionaries contribute to the Macmillan Dictionary blog. There’s a great mix of language news and musings there, written by people who’ve been in the language business for decades as well as by bright young lexicographers. The stated focus is on “global English, neologisms and language change,” and the site is geared toward advanced non-native speakers of English, but you can’t really tell that. It has useful and interesting stuff for native speakers, too, even those of us who aren’t British!Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: A whole nother issue

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: A whole nother issue

Last week, I sent out a tweet asking people to send me examples of aural spellings — words spelled as they sound to the person who wrote them, such as a sign I saw in a shop window: “Mini-blines 50% off.” I’m still collecting examples, which I’ll use in a future Tip. In the meantime, I thought that Tip readers might be interested in my reply to someone who offered an example of something that isn’t quite an aural spelling but is still interesting.

This person asked whether “a whole nother” was an example of what I meant. While it does reflect what is largely a spoken phrase, the transcription is not an incorrect spelling. Instead, it’s an accurate spelling of what is perceived to be an incorrect usage.

One school of thought perceives “a whole nother” to be the result of a combination of modifier infixing (”abso-effin-lutely” is an example) and misdivision, which is a type of metanalysis. In metanalysis, the person who hears a word or phrase misinterprets the roles of the elements that form the word or phrase. In the Oxford English Dictionary entry for metanalysis, a citation explains, “Examples of metanalysis are the longer forms of peas and cherries, originally singulars, which were reinterpreted as pea and cherry plus the noun plural morpheme /z/.” (Think about “pease porridge hot” and the French word for “cherry,” cerise.)

In English, words that begin with vowel sounds or the sound /n/ are particularly prone to misdivision because we use a or an depending upon whether the following noun begins with a consonant or a vowel. In misdivision, the /n/ migrates. Two examples of this are given in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for misdivision: “an ewte” became “a newt,” and “a napron” became “an apron.” As you can see, the /n/ can move in either direction.

Now we come to “a whole nother.” The “proper” way to say this colloquially (instead of saying “That’s another thing entirely”) is now to say “That’s a whole other thing.” But the pronoun nother is ancient, going back to Old English. The pronoun use “the nother” instead of “the other” is attested in Middle English, as is the use of “a nother” instead of “another” as a determiner. It’s this last use that allows for a modifier to come between the article and the determiner. Thus it is not likely that “a whole nother” is the result of misdivision; it’s simply a vestige of an earlier usage that we have retained in colloquial use in the United States but that has largely died out elsewhere. Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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A “weasel words” competition

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Back on March 27, before the Tip of the Week became a blog, I sent out a message about Schott’s Vocab, the blog written by Ben Schott and hosted by The New York Times. I’ve copied that post below this one for those of you who are interested.

Schott has just announced a “weekend competition” (the weekend, apparently, begins today). It looks to be one of particular interest to word lovers. He writes: “This weekend, co-vocabularists are invited to devise weasel words, euphemisms, dysphemisms and circumlocutions for items in the news.”

All you need to do is leave a comment on the August 14 post on the Schott’s Vocab blog. My favorite one so far is “crash text dummies: those geniuses who text while driving.”

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Schott’s Vocab

This past week, Copyediting columnist Charles Levine asked me whether I’d seen that The New York Times had begun publishing a blog by Ben Schott, called Schott’s Vocab.

I was familiar with Schott from his miscellanies, almanacs, and articles that have appeared in various (mostly British) outlets over the years, including The Daily Telegraph, Conde Nast Traveler, and The Times of London. (A selection of articles is posted on his Web site.) I’ve always appreciated the evident delight he takes in digging up facts and his ability to synthesize them into collections that are nearly always entertaining and quite often thought-provoking. So I was eager to see what he was up to in writing a blog about vocabulary.

In typical fashion, Schott has managed to identify a niche that is just narrow enough to have a clear focus but broad enough to provide him with blog fodder for years: scanning news sites to “find words and phrases that encapsulate the times in which we live or shed light on a story of note,” as the blog’s description says. He doesn’t analyze the terms he finds; he leaves that up to the commenters.

The “value proposition” here, as they say in business-land, is that it’s Schott who’s doing the curating. What he collects is described as “unconsidered lexicographical trifles—some serious, others frivolous, some neologized, others newly newsworthy.” The idea of curated collections is to bring together in one place a group of things one might not otherwise be able to consider as a group. Usually, the things are works of art, museum artifacts, and the like. But almanacs have served the same purpose as collections for centuries—think of Poor Richard’s Almanack, which bore the unique stamp of its “curator,” Benjamin Franklin.

To sample the modern Ben’s vocabulary curating and decide what you think of it, just visit the Schott’s Vocab blog.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: The best etymologist I know of

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: The best etymologist I know of

Writers and editors may be interested in how to use a given word or expression correctly, but the question about language that most captures the attention of amateurs and professionals alike is “Where did this word come from?”

 

Far too often, in my cranky opinion, the result of this interest is the proliferation of historical fiction. You know the type: the e-mails that have been circulated Lord knows how many times, with five or six layers of those angle brackets that are the trail of evidence that the senders have simply forwarded the message to their entire contacts list. E-mails that proclaim the origins of words, some with a grain of truth in them, some made up of whole cloth.

 

A fair few armchair etymologists have blogs now; most of the ones I’ve seen are well-intentioned and essentially sound. Though they tend to be derivative, relying on what dictionaries tell them rather than on original research, they do little or no harm and provide a check on the e-mail crazies. But for accuracy, originality, and readability, no one comes close to Anatoly Liberman, a preeminent scholar and a professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch at the University of Minnesota.

 

Don’t let the word “scholar” scare you. Anatoly (I can call him that; he’s one of my Dictionary Society of North America buddies) has a dry wit and can crack up an audience (admittedly, an audience of lexicographers—but I’ll bet his students enjoy him, too). His detailed, opinionated, and honest writings about the origins of words—honest in that he will tell you what the merits and drawbacks are of prevailing theories—can be enjoyed at Oxford Etymologist, his blog on the Oxford University Press Web site.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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Copyediting Tip of the Week: Literally mortified

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

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bullet-glyph21Subject: Literally mortified

In the July 21, 2009, Tip of the Week, I picked on the writer of a New York Times article (or her editor), pointing out a repeated error in apostrophe use.

In that same article (“Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley”), I spotted something else. Not an error in the reporter’s text, but one in the speech of the publicist who was being quoted, Brooke Hammerling.

Here’s the relevant passage:

“There are no stars in P.R.,” she says one boss told her — the job should be about behind-the-scenes teamwork, not individual personalities. “That literally hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. She quit.

Did you spot what I did? It’s the use of the word literally to intensify an idiom that is patently not literal.

Now, I realize that this was a spoken use, but it’s widespread in texts as well. I once edited a manuscript in which literally was used so often simply for emphasis that I used the Find feature in Word to catch and correct all 54 instances. My favorite? “I literally died.”

The use of literally merely for emphasis is one that even Patricia T. O’Conner and Stuart Kellerman, in their recently published book Origins of the Specious, cannot endorse — even though they skewer many other “Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.” But the authors do note (thanks to help from the OED) that the emphatic use has a history. They quote Louisa May Alcott: “The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions.”

I’ve been thinking stray thoughts about the emphatic use. One is this: An English teacher of mine urged us to replace literally with truly if we wanted to be emphatic. But how different, really, is “literally flowed with milk and honey” from “truly flowed with milk and honey”—semantically, anyway? The land didn’t truly flow any more than it literally flowed.

That leads to the next thought: Is there a difference between the emphatic use with an idiom, and the emphatic use that’s just annoyingly breathless? In other words, is there a way to justify “It literally hit me like a ton of bricks” but not allow “I literally died”?

The argument would go something like this: “It hit me like a ton of bricks” is an abstraction for “It dumbfounded me.” If literally has been used as an intensifier by Dryden, Dickens, Twain, Thackeray, and others (according to Origins of the Specious), couldn’t we allow its use as an intensifier when really just isn’t strong enough? It seems that the use could be glossed as “It really and truly did this abstract thing to me.”

But then my author’s use of died was figurative, too: it meant “It embarrassed me to death.” (Isn’t that what the word mortified is for?)

I think I’m going to have to give up, and like O’Conner and Kellerman, say that you can go ahead and use literally as an intensifier if you want to. But I, for one, would be mortified to do so.Copyediting Tip of the Week square bullet

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