Archive | March, 2011

Are verbs the English language’s avant-garde? On ‘verbising’ English

31 Mar

 

I read this great article on TechCrunch about “The 6 Verbs For The Next 20 Years Of The Connected World” – and it really got me thinking about verbs in general.

Are verbs the avant-garde of English?  Do we use verbs to push the boundaries of language?  Are verbs ‘early adopters’ of language change – and other parts of speech mere fast followers?

The reason I say this is that it seems to me that the trend of recent years is ‘verbisation’ – taking a perfectly good word, particularly a noun, and making it into a verb.

Just like the brand ‘Hoover’ has come to stand for any vacuum cleaner, and indeed the act of vacumning, we’ve seen Google and Facebook move from noun to verb – ‘Google it’ or ‘Facebook me’.   Google’s also achieved the same ubiquity as Hoover in that it just means looking something up on t’internet.

Here are a couple of other ‘verbisations’ that have crossed my path recently!  Or should that be ‘path-crossed’ me?

  • ‘Sunset’ – I’ve heard this used as a verb, carrying the meaning of ‘retire’.  ‘It’s about time we sunsetted that infrastructure’.
  • ‘Demise’ – I’m most familiar with ‘demise’ as a noun – ‘the demise of the Roman empire’ – but I’m increasingly hearing it used as a verb, with a similar meaning to ‘sunset’ above.  I did look this up – and to be fair, ‘demise’ actually appeared in English first as a verb, with the noun coming later.   As a verb, ‘demise’ has a meaning in legal circles – to give or transfer an estate by a will or a lease – so the modern usage of ‘demise’ as ‘retire’ is quite different.
  • ‘Forward’ – I’m used to this in the sense of forwarding a letter or an e-mail, but only today, I heard it used on the radio in the sense of ‘progress’: “We need to forward this project urgently”!  I was half-asleep in bed at the time, and was so surprised at this usage, I sat up!
  • ‘Onboard’ – I hate this word, but I have to admit it’s quite useful!  In my line of work, I understand ‘onboarding’ to be the process of inducting and training a new employee, or setting up a new customer on the system.  “We’ll start to onboard Mark next week” – and there’s no ship in sight!
  • ‘Gift aid’ – we have this great scheme in the UK called ‘Gift Aid’ that, with the donor’s permission, allows charities to write off the basic tax they might otherwise have to pay on a donation. So when making a donation recently, I was recently asked if I wanted to ‘gift aid’ it!
  • Sky Plus – in our house, we quite regularly say something along the lines of ‘I’ve Sky Plussed it’, meaning I’ve recorded it off the TV!

There are lots of people who’ll tell you this ‘verbisation’ is terrible , disgusting, and bad English.  But for me, this is exactly what I love about language – it allows us to play.   It’s like being set free in Legoland – all the building bricks you’ll ever want, and the opportunity to create anything with them.

And what could be more fun than that?  Or, in the spirit of this article, funner?

On the history of surnames

28 Mar

I’m fascinated by people’s names, something you might guess from my earlier post on finding out how posh your surname is.

The study of names is called onomastics – and there are two main branches that really interest lovers of language: personal names (anthroponomastics) and place names (toponomastics).   (I’ll pick the latter up at some point.)

Whenever you use the word ‘onomastics’, you invariably have to qualify it with a pompous sentence like ‘the study of onomastics is fraught with difficulty’.  And the reason for this is that because names are the most personal part of language, they don’t obey the normal trends of language change.

Two things tend to happen with names:

  • people hang on to a name long after that use of language has gone out of fashion
  • people ‘invent’ names, changing language

So an example in the first category is the name ‘Stanley’.  Stanley means ‘stone field’ – as the old word for stone was stan (pronounced with a long ‘a’).

But between around 1300 and 1600, people in the southern part of England started to pronounce their long vowels further forward in the mouth – so stan became stone, ban became bone; hame home; an one, halig holy and so forth.  This process has the delightful and amusing name of the Great Vowel Shift.  (And it’s one of the great mysteries of English.)

But did all the Stanleys shift their vowels further forward in the mouth?  Heck no!  They hung on to their long ‘a’ – and all the Stanleys of the world are still hanging on to it now!

At the other end of the scale is people who make up names that defy the rules of English spelling.  I once saw an edition of the Jerry Springer show, and there was a lady on there by the name of ‘Liberteeee’.  Now, basic rules of English spelling say that you don’t ever use more than two of the same vowel in a row – but Liberteeee’s parents decided they wanted their daughter to be stand out from the crowd!

But, that being said, the study of names is absolutely fascinating and gives a real insight into how people lived in days gone by.

In English, surnames fall into one of four categories:

1.         NAMES RELATED TO FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

Some obvious ones are anything ending in –son: Robertson (son of Robert); Williamson; Harrison; or –kin: Hodgkin; Wilkin

You also get names that also allude to a person’s place in the family: Child or Children; Husband; Younger.   There are surnames like ‘Little’, which could have referred to the fact the person was small, but more probably that they were someone’s son or daughter.

Some common Welsh names, such as Jones, Richards or Williams, also show family relationships as the ‘s’ ending indicates ‘son of’ – so Jones is ‘son of John’.

Also from the Welsh are surnames beginning with the letter ‘p’.  The Welsh preposition ‘ap’ means ‘son of’ – so you get names like Pritchard (son of Richard); Pugh (son of Hugh) etc.

We call these patronymic (or matronymic) names.

2.         NAMES RELATED TO JOBS

The most common English surname, Smith, falls into this category – a smith being someone who worked with metal of some kind.  You also get names like Cook, Seaman, Carpenter, Fletcher (someone who made arrows); Miller; Gardener; Farmer; Groom; Baker; Knight; Carter and Turner.  You also get a few based on nicknames for jobs – the classic example being ‘Green’ or ‘Greene’ as people who worked with copper often had stained green hands.  Webb (and its variations) also imply someone was a weaver.

(*I’ll pick up on Baker at a later date as there is a theory, known as nominative determinism, that says if your surname is Baker, you are twelve times more likely to be a baker than if your surname isn’t!)

3.         NAMES RELATED TO PLACES

My own maiden name, Hartley, falls into this category (Hart being a male deer; lea being a field).  I used to go to school with someone called ‘Cowmeadow’ and someone called ‘Stagfield’ – all variations on a theme!

You also get names like Hill, Field, River, Pond, Woods, which describe the natural landscape in which people lived – or more subtle ones like Townsend, which probably tell you where the ancestor’s house was located in the town.  Some also relate to buildings where the person may have worked, or more likely, lived nearby – Castle; Church.

I used to go to college with someone called ‘Bush’ and I do wonder if his ancestor lived next to such an amazing bush that people commented on it to the point where it became a name!

You also get people named after the town or village in which they lived – so surnames like York, Lancaster, or the famous author Jack London.

4.         NAMES RELATED TO PERSONALITY OR PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

You get loads of great names in this category.  I like Redhead (perhaps not surprisingly); other gems include Smallbone; Tall; Grey; Goodman; Wise; White; Smart; Russell; Brown; Old. I also dig the surname ‘Beard’ as it implies that someone had such a memorable beard, it became their surname.

(As a side point, my father had had a beard for the majority of his adult life (once red, now white, grown to disguise an awful chin), and it came as a great surprise to my mum when she discovered that the regulars in the local pub referred to her ‘Mrs Beard’ in light of my father’s fine facial hair).

The French have some ‘mean’ names that fall into this category; I knew someone called ‘Borné’ (which means narrow-minded) and I’ve also seen people called Méchant – nasty.

There are also surnames that relate to an experience someone may have had in life.  I’m particularly thinking of surnames like Pilgrim and Palmer, both of which imply the person went on a pilgrimage.

Is there also a fifth category: names that are made up entirely?  I’ve watched Jerry Springer in the past and have seen someone called ‘Liberteee’.  It’s a trend that’s bound to be impacting surnames as well.  So just as Stanley decided he didn’t want to go with the normal linguistic flow and become ‘Stonley’, so Liberteee decided she would disobey the normal rules of language as well!

On ‘perigee’ and ‘peruke’

25 Mar

The papers have been filled with stories about the Super Moon recently.  It’s apparently 31,000 miles closer than normal and 14% brighter.  I can’t say I have noticed a difference myself!

The word they’ve been using to describe the moon is ‘perigee’ – which is a word I’d never heard before.  It doesn’t sound like an astronomical word to me, more like a cooking technique or an 18th century ball game.

I did have to admit when I first read ‘perigee’ in the news, my first thought wasn’t of moons or other astronomical bodies; it was something a lot more down to earth – wigs!

After looking the word up, I realised I was confusing with ‘perigee’ with ‘peruke’, which does actually mean ‘wig’.

And contrary to my expectations, ‘perigee’ does have a proper astronomical meaning.  It refers to the point of an orbit at which the satellite is closest to earth (so is entirely logical in the context of the Super Moon!), or the time of the year when the sun is lowest in the sky at noon (such as the Winter Solistice).

The word derives from the Latinperigeum’, and comes into English in the late 16th century via Middle French.   It doesn’t really get used any more outside of the specific astronomical context, although it occasionally crops up to refer more generally to the lowest point or ‘nadir’

And what I didn’t realise is that ‘perigee’ is the opposite of ‘apogee’, which is a word I did know.  If ‘perigee’ is the closest point, then ‘apogee’ is the furthest point – and both words are recorded in English for the first time at the same time.  It also has an astronomical meaning but we use it more commonly to simply refer to the ‘peak’.

It’s curious how ‘apogee’ has become more popular in ‘perigee’ – both words came into English together, and both seem equally useful.  I wonder if there are any other pairs of words that have shared a similarly rich dad / poor dad fate.

‘Peruke’ is nothing to do with the literal moon – although as it’s commonly associated with bald heads, I’d say it’s pretty familiar with moons of one sort.

Fascinatingly, ‘peruke’ once meant a full, natural head of hair – and now means the complete opposite, a wig that imitates the hair.  The origins of the word are French – perruque – but beyond that, the etymology is extremely unclear.  It’s speculated whether the word is related to ‘parakeet’ – I guess a wig and some brightly-coloured feathers are both plumage of a sort.

After reading the OED online, I just wanted to compliment the writers on the definition of ‘wig’ – isn’t this a lovely piece of writing?

An artificial covering of hair for the head, worn to conceal baldness or to cover the inadequacy of the natural hair, as a part of professional, ceremonial, or formerly of fashionable, costume (as still by judges and barristers, formerly also by bishops and other clergymen), or as a disguise (as by actors on the stage).

So big moons and bald heads – a great start to a weekend!

On spotting trends for your favourite clichés – warning: you could distract yourself for hours!

21 Mar

The Guardian’s Style Guide blog ran a brilliant article today about a little-known search feature within Google that allows you to see how words and phrases grow or decline in popularity over time. It’s the perfect tool to accompany any round of ‘buzzword bingo’!

To access the tool, simply search for any word or phrase – and then when the results are returned, you see a range of options on the left-hand side (e.g. pages from the UK).  At the bottom of this list is ‘More Search Options’ – and from that list, choose ‘Timeline’.

Google then searches Google Books and online newspaper articles – and will generate a little timeline graph of all the instances of that word or phrase.  (Remember to use “inverted commas” to search for every word in that phrase.)

There are countless examples in The Guardian article, and readers are encouraged to submit their own examples in the comments field.  I particularly like ‘the elephant in the room’, which is a phrase I first heard in about 2002.  It seems like the phrase really gained popular usage in the 1980s – and you can see its massive growth in the 1990s and 2000s.

The search engine isn’t 100% accurate as it can confuse a phrase used in a modern book about a historical event with a contemporary usage.  For instance, I looked up ‘mission creep’ – a foul phrase I learned when briefly contracting in the public sector that describes government and charitable bodies expanding their remit.  According to the timeline, ‘Mission creep’ first appears in 1550AD – but in reality, it appears to have been coined in the 1990s.

In honour of my football-loving husband, here are a few overused sporting clichés.

“Squeaky bum time” – I’ve heard this unattractive phrase several times in the last few weeks as the Premiership is still yet undecided.  The phrase was coined by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002 – and we can see the usage of the phrase grow and grow across the rest of the decade.  The chart suggests it starts to fall out of usage in 2010 – but if the commentary on Radio 5 is anything to go by, this isn’t true!   I wish they’d stop using it.

“At the end of the day” (as meant in the same sense as ‘when all is said and done’) – this is harder to track as it also has a literal meaning – but if you view the timeline, you see a massive growth throughout the 1980s until the present day.  This usage by Princess Diana in 1995 is a good demonstration of its upward trajectory.

“It’s a game of two halves” – interestingly, this is a relative late-comer into the language.  Google identifies the first significant usage in an Independent article in 1995.  The phrase does grow in popularity – but appears to fall in and out of favour throughout the 2000s, and seems to be comparatively unfashionable at the moment.

“Bouncebackability” – many years ago, the TV show Soccer AM championed the word ‘bouncebackability’, a coinage by Iain Dowie, the then-Crystal Palace football manager in 2004.   People all round the country adopted the phrase and it became an in-joke to hear the word snuck into other communications, including the BBC Weather forecast!  I remember that one newspaper even started each feature with one of the letters of ‘Bouncebackability’, with the first feature starting with a ‘B’ and the last with a ‘Y’ and all the others in the right order in-between!

The phrase has remained pretty popular for the rest of the decade – with its top years being 2005 and 2010.  It would be interesting to analyse whether it had any seasonal usage – perhaps being used more commonly towards the end of a football season!

Cool words from other languages that have no decent English equivalent!

19 Mar
King Gorm the Old recieves the news of the dea...

Image via Wikipedia

I was having dinner with an old school friend last night, and on the way home, I realised that we’d been talking partly in Wenglish, which is English, but smattered with Welsh words, phrases and very occasionally, some unique syntax (word order).  (Wenglish speakers have a lot in common with Yoda – you’ll often hear phrases that start with either the verb or the object – ‘Gorgeous, he was, gorgeous!’ or ‘Lovely day, it was.’)

There was one word in our conversation with no obvious English equivalent – hiraeth.  It means a sense of longing for one’s country, but often tinged with a sense of loss and longing for the past.

It got me thinking – what words exist in other languages that have no obvious English translation?   English has always borrowed words from other languages (and increasingly, other languages borrow from English) – but what cool words and phrases are there that we should use now?

One obvious example is Schadenfreude – a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.  (something which I’m sure we’re all guilty of from time to time.)

Esprit d’escalier – ok, a phrase, not a word.  This is the expression for those situations where you think up exactly the right, witty retort to someone – but only after the conversation is long over!  It literally means ‘the spirit of the staircase’ – that is to say, only when you’ve walking away up the stairs does the inspiration strike you!  Again, this is a situation I’m sure we’re all too familiar with.

Another Welsh word I love is cwtch. It means to snuggle up next to someone or have a lovely cuddle.  It literally means ‘a safe place’ – so as well as asking your beloved to come closer on the sofa for a cwtch, you’ll also put your coat in the cwtch when you come home!

I’m not making any claims that any of the following are true (they’re all from the web) – but they did make me smile.  Do they provide an insight into other cultures?

Yoko meshi – the Japanese expression for the stress involved in having to speak a foreign language.  It literally means ‘a meal eaten sideways’.

Tingo – this is from the Easter Islands, and means (this is brilliant) to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left

Rujuk – a word from Indonesia, which means to remarry your ex-wife.

I also came across the German word Handschuhschneebalwerfer.  This is used to refer to a coward – but when you translate it directly, it means ‘someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs’.  What a great description!

Let me also throw ‘gorm’ into the mix as a cool word that did exist in English, but we’ve lost.  However, we still talk about the absence of ‘gorm’ when we refer to people as ‘gormless’.  Gorm is an old word for understanding – and to call someone ‘gormless’ is to suggest they’re an idiot.  (There’s also a famous Danish king called Gorm, who I believe was the founder of the current Danish royal line).

No? Me either. Answers to the youth slang quiz.

17 Mar

Wa’gwan?  (question)    What’s happening?

Tonk (adjective)            Muscular

Choong (adjective)        Gorgeous

Brap (onomatopoeic word)        Celebratory noise

Brare (noun)                  Friend

Slippin (adjective)         Up to no good

Wack (adjective)            Rubbish

Blad (noun)                   Friend

Par (verb, I think)           Get one up on someone

Wasteman (noun)          Layabout

Allow it (verb)               Ignore it

Owned (verb)                Made a fool of

Merked (verb)               Merked

Beef (noun)                   Dispute

Giving me jokes (verb) Making me laugh

Airing (verb)                 Ignoring

Bedrin (noun)                Friends

Bless (verb)                  Honour something

Boi (noun)                     Young man

KMT (expression starting with a verb)     Kiss my teeth

Bustin (verb)                 To do something

Chirps (verb)                Chat up

Cotch (verb)                  Relax at home

Fam (noun)                   Close friend

Crunk (adjective)           Very drunk

Dark (adjective)             Bad but can mean good

Deep (adjective)            Good but can mean bad

Endz (noun)                  Where you live

I wonder if ‘airing‘ comes from the gesture of putting one’s nose in the air to ignore someone.  ‘Cotch‘ is also interesting as it’s very close to the Welsh ‘cwtch’, which means a ‘safe place’, but also to ‘cuddle up to someone’.  And ‘beef‘ to mean ‘complaint’ isn’t exactly new – according to the OED, people have been using ‘beef’ to mean complain since 1888 and to mean complaint since 1900.  So perhaps today’s teenagers wouldn’t be too impressed to learn they’re speaking the lingo of their great-grandparents!

Quick quiz: Can you speak like a teenager?

13 Mar

I thought I’d share some slang words I found in an interview with Grace Dent, a British author who specialises in novels for and about teenagers.

I have to be honest that I don’t really know any teenagers any more (I’m sure I’ll know loads in about 10 years when all the children I do know grow up a bit more) – but I like to think myself still young in mind, if not quite in body.

Sadly, this list of words brought me down with a bump!    The only word I did know (which I’ve censored from the list) was one I’d learned from Grey’s Anatomy!

See if you can guess what any of the following mean.  I’ve removed all the rude words, so you’re safe – and I’ve added what part of speech they are, just in case that helps.

Wa’gwan?  (question)

Tonk (adjective)

Choong (adjective)

Brap (onomatopoeic word)

Brare (noun)

Slippin (adjective)

Wack (adjective)

Blad (noun)

Par (verb, I think)

Wasteman (noun)

Allow it (verb)

Owned (verb)

Merked (verb)

Beef (noun)

Giving me jokes (verb)

Airing (verb)

Bedrin (noun)

Bless (verb)

Boi (noun)

KMT (expression starting with a verb)

Bustin (verb)

Chirps (verb)

Cotch (verb)

Fam (noun)

Crunk (adjective)

Dark (adjective)

Deep (adjective)

Endz (noun)

I’ll post the answers later this week.  Good luck!