Current reading: Because Internet

Friday, 16 August, 2019

“Whatever else is changing for good or for bad in the world, the continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems nor the cause of them. It simply is. You never truly step into the same English twice. When future historians look back on this era, they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we know find innovative works from Shakespeare and Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians and, and explore the revolutionary period of linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.”

A snippet there from the conclusion from the entertaining first chapter of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch.

Because Internet

Churchill flirted with Basic English

Wednesday, 14 August, 2019

In the early 1920s, a rather eccentric Cambridge academic named C.K. Ogden came up with the idea of “Basic English“, which reduced the language to 850 words. One can imagine Winston Churchill, then in his mid-forties, having been shocked by such an idea, but circumstances change cases and, astonishingly, the great orator and author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples found that Basic English had its war-time merits. The first recorded mention of his support for the notion dates from an Anglo-American summit with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Quebec in August 1943, when he was proposing a closer union between Britain and the United States. Eight months later, in April 1944, having heard nothing from Washington, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt stating: “My conviction is that Basic English will then prove to be a great boon to mankind in the future and a powerful support to the influence of the Anglo-Saxon people in world affairs.”

Filled with enthusiasm for the idea, Churchill formed a Cabinet committee on Basic English and appointed Leo Amery, then Secretary of State for Burma, to chair it. Amery had been a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, a great writer as well as a stout imperialist and, as the late Christopher Hitchens put it in Blood, Class and Nostalgia, “It is hard to think of a man less likely to acquiesce in the reduction of English to 850 words.”

Eventually, Roosevelt replied. Snippet:

“Incidentally, I wonder what the course of history would have been if in May 1940 you had been able to offer the British people only ‘blood, work, eye water and face water,’ which I understand is the best that Basic English can with five famous word.”

Thus, with a deft jab of WASPish sarcasm, Basic English was banished forever from the “Special Relationship”. Curiously, George Orwell was also an early fan of Basic English, but he turned against it and used the concept as the basis for the dreaded Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four.



Friday, 2 August, 2019

The Urban Dictionary has its own set of descriptions and examples, but we have to scroll down to the seventh definition to find “butt” in the sense of “the remaining end of a smoked cigarette”. Ass is in there, of course, but we have to jump from there to find “bootie“, the butt word of our time. The OED offers 14 entries for butt as a noun and the most common is: “The thicker end of anything, esp. of a tool or weapon, the part by which it is held or on which it rests; e.g. the lower end of a spear-shaft, whip-handle, fishing-rod, the broad end of the stock of a gun or pistol.” According to the OED, the meaning of butt as the “remainder of a smoked cigarette” was first recorded in 1847.


Word of the week: sinister

Monday, 8 July, 2019

The adjective sinister, with its meaning of evil, entered the English vocabulary early in the 15th century. It came from the Old French senestre, sinistre “contrary, false; unfavourable; to the left”, and its origins are in the Latin sinister, meaning “left, on the left side”.

The Latin word was used in augury, the Roman religious practice of interpreting omens from the flights of birds. Flights of birds, seen on the left side, were regarded as bringing misfortune, and in this way sinister acquired a sense of “harmful, adverse.”

When the augur interpreted flights of birds, it was referred to “taking the auspices”. This comes from the Latin auspicium and auspex, literally “one who looks at birds”.

Flight of birds

The English of the Future is English

Friday, 28 June, 2019

On 29 November 1968, at the 58th annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Milwaukee, the late Neil Postman gave a talk entitled “Growing Up Relevant” as the main part of a session entitled “Media Ecology: The English of the Future.” The talk was later published as a chapter in High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (PDF), where it appeared as “The Reformed English Curriculum.” Postman’s 1968 address marked the formal introduction of the term “media ecology”, which he used as the name for a field of study he defined as “the study of media as environments.”

In Postman’s time, the internet, texting and emoji were as distant as GN-z11 so his comments on the future of English have to be seen in that light. Snippet:

“Perhaps what I meant to say at the conference was that there ought not to be such a subject as English by 1980; that English as it is commonly taught, is shallow and precious, is not very interesting to most children and, above all, has very little survival value for people who are going to live most of their lives in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond.

I will not take time here to catalog the shortcomings of English. If you have not already noticed that English is withering away, being consumed by its own irrelevance, the chances are slim that I can make you see that this is, in fact, the case. I do want to point out, however, that what happens in school should have survival value (or what’s an education for?) and that the soundest reason for having such a subject as English has always been that children need to be competent in using and understanding the dominant communication media of their own culture. When these media were largely limited to such forms as novels, poems, and essays, the content of English made some sense. My purpose here is to suggest an alternative to English for the high school of 1980 when we will be so deeply immersed in the nuclear space age.”

Given that English has become the lingua franca of a global economy, Neil Postman was spectacularly wrong on this subject, but on many others, especially media ecology, he was spectacularly prescient.

Word play

Monday, 8 April, 2019

“‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” — Taylor Swift


IPA: the alphabet, not the ale

Monday, 25 March, 2019
  • For hipsters, the abbreviation IPA means India Pale Ale, a trendy beer flavour that oozes hops.
  • For linguists, the abbreviation IPA means International Phonetic Alphabet, a system of phonetic notation based on the Latin alphabet.

Back in June 2015, Halle Neyens explained how it works in a Language Base Camp post titled “Linguistics for Language Learners: What is the IPA?“, and the post was accompanied by an excellent infographic showing where the sounds English speakers use are produced in the mouth and throat.


Note: Language Base Camp is a community-based hub where language learners and language lovers “connect and help each other along the path of self-directed language learning.”

No feelings of overworth

Friday, 22 March, 2019

Almost two decades ago, the American-British journalist and bestselling travel-writer Bill Bryson had the notion of writing a a clear, concise and entertaining guide to the problems of English usage and spelling, so he proposed the idea to “a kindly editor at Penguin Books” by the name of Donald McFarlan and the response was positive. Or as Bryson puts it in the introduction to Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “To my astonishment and gratification, Mr. McFarlan sent me a contract and, by way of advance, a sum of money carefully gauged not to cause embarrassment or feelings of overworth.” That’s finely put, the “feelings of overworth” bit.

On page 218, Bryson arrives at the letter “Y” and “year’ time” is the second entry.

“In 1865 an influential book by Stanley Jevons argued… that Britain would run out of coal in a few years’ time” (Economist). The author is to be commended for putting an apostrophe on years, but the effort was unnecessary, as pairing time with years is inescapably repetitious. “In a few years” says as much and gets there quicker.

Finely put, that.

Seoladh na nGéanna agus na nGamhna

Monday, 5 November, 2018

The Irish Gaelic for goose is and the plural is géanna, so a flock of geese translates as scata géanna. The activity of collecting, herding or driving the geese is seoladh na ngéanna. As regards gamhna (calves), they’re below the photo of this fine scata géanna.

Seoladh na nGéanna

A calf is gamhain and calves are gamhna, and all that’s by way of saying that the English for the traditional song, Seoladh na nGamhna, is “driving the calves”.

Tá crainnín cumhra i lúib na coille
Is ragham araon go lá ann,
Mar a mbíonn ceol na n-éan dár síorchur a chodladh
Is geobhaimid na gamhna amárach.
Gabhaim cead saor ó mhaor na coille
Féar a thabhairt go lá dóibh.
Le fáinne an lae béam araon ‘nár seasamh
Is ag seoladh na ngamhan fén bhfásach.

There’s a fragrant bush back in the wood
And we’ll both go there until day comes,
Where there is birdsong to bring on sleep,
And we’ll find the calves tomorrow.
The woodman will readily permit us
To give them grass until day.
With the dawn of day we’ll both be afoot
Driving the calves on the common.

Word order

Saturday, 27 October, 2018

Things native speakers of English know, but don’t know they know.

Word order

Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler

Friday, 26 October, 2018

“When was a word first used in print? You may be surprised! Enter a date below to see the words first recorded on that year.” So heralds the Merriam-Webster dictionary its new Time Traveler service.

I was born the same year as agribusiness, big bang theory, consultancy, DIY, exurbia, free agent, gangbusters, hidden agenda, information science, juicehead, kegger… Why stop at “k”? Well that word kegger, “a party featuring one or more kegs of beer,” is worth a look. Surprisingly, in Merriam-Webster’s list of eight example sentences featuring the word, there is no mention of “Kavanaugh”. And that is startling because “kegger” was one of the main words used in the demonization of Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination to the US Supreme Court. Here’s a Roll Call headline from 5 October: “Protesters Throw ‘Kegger’ at Mitch McConnell’s House Ahead of Kavanaugh Vote.”

Anyway, Time Traveler is an entertaining and informative tool for the word sleuth and, particularly, for the teacher of English needing an extra activity to keep learners busy.

*An important note on First Known Use dates: “The date most often does not mark the very first time that the word was used in English. Many words were in spoken use for decades or even longer before they passed into the written language. The date is for the earliest written or printed use that the editors have been able to discover.”