Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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Speaking as a dumbed-down chav…

I am endlessly fascinated by the people who are, by their own account, in a constant state of simmering rage at having to overhear other people’s uncouth language. This comment was in response to an article in the Sunday Times:*

Dave Russell wrote:

Couldn’t agree more abouyt the dumbing down of the nation. Just listen to a conversation between a group of people under the age of 25. It seems to be cool to speak like a complete thicko these days, no longer something to be ashamed of. The one thing that really grates on my nerves is to hear people using the child-like term ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’- the mark of the true dumbed-down chav. The other thing is how some apparently intelligent people think its cool to continually use swear words in public-in bars, buses and trains etc-even at the ‘Train Station!’ Most of the this dumbed down class wouldn’t understabnd a single Monty Python sketch-they simple don’t have the educational background.

OK, this is the usual stuff: the suffering of psychic violence when exposed to casual speech, the fear of the demotic. But the idea that the mark of a ‘true dumbed-down chav’ is that they say ‘train station’? That’s genius.

*admittedly, it’s a Jeremy Clarkson article, but even so.

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Verbal ticks and burrs

Peter has an amusing post over at slow reads about a particular linguistic bugbear:

For my entire five-year teaching career, most students have addressed me as “Wait,” as in “Wait, do we need to write this in our sketchbooks?”

These little verbal tics just don’t bother me, and I offer sincere thanks to whichever deity is responsible for the fact. Because it could so easily have happened; I care about language and have copious supplies of pedantry. I should be a natural candidate for writing snippy letters to the Times about young people who say, like, whatever, and supermarket signs which mention ‘eight items or less’, but no, I just don’t care. Even the greengrocer’s apostrophe: meh.

And if perfectly innocuous colloquial language used by well-meaning people sets your teeth on edge, I can only assume you must walk around in a constant state of seething irritation. It must be like having someone following you around, standing just behind you and scraping their fingernails on a block of polystyrene. And we should save all that useful anger for something important, like stupid font choices.

My easy-going approach to language isn’t limitless. One thing that really, really winds me up is when people take it on themselves to correct what they perceive as my errors. The all-time winner being someone who, in apparent seriousness, told me that the ‘correct’ plural for octopus is octopodes. ‘Because it’s from Greek, not Latin’.

» apparently, if you do suffer from verbal ticks, there are special tools you can buy. Including a lasso.

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The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This is the latest of Pinker’s books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain’s inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.

weasel diorama

He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don’t really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker’s model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.

If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying “well yes, obviously” even though there’s nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I’ve read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there’s no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.

sad lion

So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it’s sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven’t done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there’s still enough there to help sugar the pill.

When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I’d make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don’t hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I’d at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.

bear and dog

The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn’t suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It’s only a popular treatment and I didn’t make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn’t get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it’s all quite interesting, but it doesn’t instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there’s a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn’t offer anything that you wouldn’t find in a good book on how to write poetry.

Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don’t actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can’t claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read.

» I couldn’t think what pictures to use for this post, neither language nor thought being very visually striking, so I went with stuffed animals. The weasels are by dogseat; the lion is by cenzMounted bear and the hunting dog who found him, and was killed by him is by Curious Expeditions. All are used under a by-nc-sa licence.



  • Interesting: 'We applied automated measurement techniques to recordings of 78 hours of oral arguments from the U.S. Supreme court, in order to look at the (average) effects on pitch and time of primary word stress, secondary stress, and lack of stress.'
    (del.icio.us tags: language )
  • A gently addictive flash game. Best I think with the music turned off.
    (del.icio.us tags: flash games )


One of the few ways that being in Wales is noticeably different to being in England is the presence of Welsh everywhere. Not spoken Welsh — there was some of that, but not much, at least in the part of Wales I was visiting — but written. Every piece of public information — every road sign, every bus timetable — is written in both Welsh and English. And although a lot of smaller businesses just run in English, the bigger organisations like banks and supermarkets are also bilingual. The result is a continual sequence of double-takes as you go to read something and stare blankly for a moment before realising that you’re looking at the wrong bit.

At times this feels more like a political statement than a vital public service: I know that the language is relatively healthy these days — apart from anything else, Welsh is now a useful career skill because of the need to produce translations of everything — but people who are so profoundly monoglot that they need SLOW to be painted on the road in Welsh as well as English must be vanishingly rare.

It is often said, in fact, and it seems plausible, that Welsh is the most heavily subsidised language in the world. That’s not just the cost of all the signage and government literature; there’s also BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, for a start.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a bad thing. Of all the things a government can do with its money, helping keep a language alive seems pretty benign. 

» untitled photo of a Welsh road posted to Flickr by Herr Julian.

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Marginalia on the word ‘cunt’

In a generally interesting post about Obama, Hillary and all that stuff, Sherry says this:

I have to admit it’s true that Hillary Clinton has never been called a nigger but I suspect Barack Obama has never been called a cunt.

I think the difference in the way that word is used on each side of the Atlantic is quite telling. Because if he was British, it would be quite likely that sooner or lately someone would have called him a cunt: I know it has happened to me. Not usually in earnest, but at least once, in a pub in Bristol when I was a student and one of the locals took offence at my green hair.

And that is the norm, I think, in British English: although it is still a coarse slang term for the female genitalia, it’s mainly used to insult men. Not out of any kind of profound sensitivity to gender relations, but just because that’s the way it is. And as a result, although it is regarded as a very offensive word—you can’t exactly use it on daytime telly—it doesn’t have the same kind of edge it clearly has in America. The parallel with ‘nigger’ is interesting: the word ‘cunt’ is taboo in Britain, but I don’t think anyone thinks of it as hate speech.

I guess if you call a woman a cunt you’re attacking her for being a woman, whereas if you call a man a cunt you are… well, doing something different, anyway.

» ABC, posted to Flickr by monkeyc.net. An amusing sidenote: my computer’s spellcheck flags up the word cunt as a possible spelling mistake, even though it’s in the built-in dictionary. I guess they think it’s important to warn all those people who were trying to write ‘count’ or ‘aunt’. It would be more useful if, every time I typed ‘form’, it asked me whether I really meant ‘from’.


Because there’s nothing more restful than a West Country accent. From the British Library collections, listen to a recording from 1956 of Fred Bryant, a retired farmworker from Stogumber in Somerset, talking about making cider.


The picture is from the V&A: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, ‘Apple’ (Malus pumila Millervar), watercolour, 1568-1572.

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Politician of the day…

Anna Lo

… is Anna Lo, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, about whom I know nothing except that she was on the radio today and has the most extraordinary accent I’ve ever heard. I remember hearing a Swede who had lived in Liverpool for some time, and that was quite something, but I think a Sino-Ulsterian accent tops it.

This is a CRA.

Found via No-sword, the original pictures used in the wug test.

This is a CRA.

I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article above, but the short version is that these pictures were used to test whether children can apply grammatical rules to nonsense words: can they correctly form a plural (or past tense, or whatever) of a word they’ve never heard before.

I mainly posted it because I find the pictures incredibly charming. You can download them here.

Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

Birding the dictionary 3

Today we start with the word ‘plover’.

plover (‘plʌvə(r)). [ME. and AF. plover = OF. plovier, later L. *plovārius belonging to rain, f. L. pluvia rain; in mod.L. pluvārius pluviārius; cf. Sp. pluvial plover, ad. L. pluviālis rainy, also Ger. regenpfeifer, lit. rain-piper, and Eng. rain-bird.]

Belon, 1555, said the birds were so called because most easily taken in rainy weather, which modern observation contradicts.

I’ve never tried to take a plover myself, so I couldn’t judge. I’d like to believe that the OED have a crack avian behavioral research squad who were sent up into the Peak District in rainy weather with strict orders not to come back until they checked this. But probably not. It carries on with more suggestions:

…because they arrive in flocks in the rainy season… because of the restlessness of the bird when rain is approaching… Others have attributed it to the appearance of the upper plumage, as if spotted with rain-drops.

The most appealing of these, the last one, strikes me as the least likely. But judge for yourself:

Pacific golden plover, originally uploaded by Doug Greenberg.

As the caption says, that’s actually a Pacific Golden Plover, whereas the original plover was presumably either the European Golden Plover or the Grey Plover (what Americans call Black-bellied Plover). But the appearance is very similar.

Plovers aren’t the only birds to be associated with rain, of course. In Britain, the obvious one is the Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis, known as the rain-bird because its call is supposed to mark the approach of rain. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this to be true myself. The call is one of the classic sounds of the English countryside; you can hear it here. It’s often described as laughter, although if you heard a person laughing like that you’d be a bit worried. Their other common name—yaffle—is derived from the call. This is typical yaffle behaviour; hunting for ants in someone’s garden lawn:

Yaffle II, originally uploaded by vlad259.

The dictionary has two other entries for ‘rain-bird’. The first is a bit vague: ‘A Jamaican cuckoo’. A little detective work narrows it down to the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Saurothera vetula. I don’t know what the connection is with lizards, but I can tell you that it’s also known as Old Woman Bird because of its cackling laugh.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Langooney.

Finally, the OED also mentions a couple of Australian usages. This is one of them, the Grey Butcherbird, Cracticus torquatus:

Grey butcherbird, originally uploaded by pierre pouliquin.

The other is the Channel-billed Cuckoo. In fact, though, Google turns up another Rainbird in Australia, the Asian Koel, also known as Stormbird; ‘Stormbird’ in turn can also refer to the Pheasant Coucal. For some information about the Stormbird’s place as an aboriginal storytime character, go here.

I know it might seem like I’m being too thorough here, but bear with me. Under the entry for rain, we also learn about the ‘rain crow’. Which isn’t actually a crow:

Dry Tortugas April 2006 Yellow Billed Cuckoo, originally uploaded by Jay Bass.

To quote Meriwether Lewis’s journal entry for 16th July 1806 from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which is one of the dictionary citations)

I saw both yesterday and today the Cookkoo or as it is sometimes called the rain-craw.

And yes, it does appear to be ‘craw’ unless there’s a typo in the dictionary, though all the other citations are for ‘rain-crow’. I guess you don’t employ explorers for their spelling.

As I said earlier, I am sceptical about the claim that the woodpecker’s call is an accurate predictor of rain. Some people have a disproportionate respect for traditional wisdom; in my experience it’s rather hit and miss, and weather lore is exactly the kind of area that’s likely to attract a lot of dubious theories. However, it’s very striking that of the seven birds I’ve mentioned, no less than five are cuckoos or their relatives: koels and coucals are both members of the Cuculidae. And in separate parts of the world people have, presumably independently, decided that they call more before the rain. It seems like more than a coincidence. If anyone reading this lives in one of the places where these birds live, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Returning to plovers; the dictionary lists no less than 60 from ‘bastard plover’ to ‘yellow-legged plover’. A few of them—Crab Plover, Ringed Plover—are still standard species names, but most are old or local names for waders we now know as something else. It really makes you appreciate standardised naming. There are ten names for ‘Golden Plover’, and eleven for ‘Grey Plover’; a few can mean either. Least helpful of all is ‘stone plover’ which can apparently mean Stone Curlew, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dotterel, ‘any shore plover of the genus Aesacus‘, Bar-tailed Godwit, or Whimbrel.

One last thing before I finally put an end to what was originally intended to be a short post. One of the dictionary’s citations for plover is this:

1486 Bk. St. Albans F vj b, A Falle of Woodecockis. A Congregacion of Pleuers.

The Book of St. Albans, by Dame Juliana Berners, is a book about hawking, hunting, and ‘fysshynge wyth an angle’, and is presumably one of the sources for all those irritating lists of collective nouns: a murder of crows, a heckle of alligators, a flashback of policemen. I don’t care if it does go back to the fifteenth century, I just don’t believe that anyone has ever actually called a flock of plovers anything other than a flock. All it proves is that whimsical linguistic pedantry is a 500 year old English tradition.

Birding the dictionary 2

I’ve been investigating more avian etymologies, looking for things of interest. There isn’t much to say about most bird names, because they’re self-explanatory (oystercatcher, wagtail) obviously onomatopoeic (chiff-chaff), or just dead-ends. For example, checking up on ‘merlin’, the dictionary says:

merlin (mɜ:lın). ME. [– AFr. merilun, aphet. f. OFr. esmerillon (mod. émerillon), augment. of esmeril :– Frankish *smeril = OHG. smerlo, smiril (G. schmerl).] A small European falcon, Falco æsalon.

Which is admirably thorough (and useful if you’re ever travelling in Old High Germany and need to talk about falconry) but doesn’t actually get us any closer to an ‘original’ meaning.

Water Rail, originally uploaded by markkilner.

Another word whose origins the OED refuses to offer an opinion on, beyond mentioning that it’s from the Norman-Picard (no relative of Jean-Luc), is ‘rail’. Fortunately for us, the American Heritage Dictionary is recklessly willing to take a guess:

rail n. Any of various marsh birds of the family Rallidae, characteristically having brownish plumage and short wings adapted only for short flights. [Middle English raile, from Old French raale, perhaps from Old French raler, racler, to scrape, from Old Provençal rasclar; see raclette.]

Raclette, originally uploaded by Alfesto.

Dictionary.com describes raclette as ‘a [Swiss] dish made by heating a piece of cheese, as over a hearth, and scraping off the melted part onto a plate: served with boiled potatoes[…] the cheese used in making this dish’, which is why the name is derived from ‘to scrape’. But what about ‘rail’? Well, I think it must be onomatopoeic. The only bird referred to as a rail by British birders today is the water rail, as pictured above (but also see the fabulous picture here). Water rails make all sorts of noise, including, according to the Collins Bird Guide, ‘a discontented piglet-like squeal, soon dying away’, as well as ‘a weary, ‘all in’, choking moan’, but none of them sound much like scraping. However, as well as the water rail, there is a bird which used to be known as a ‘land rail’, and now usually called a corncrake.

Corncrake at Balranald, originally uploaded by citrineblue.

To see a corncrake in the UK now, your best chance is to go somewhere like North Uist, where that photo was taken, but they used to be common. A poem by John Clare; it’s on the long side but I think it’s worth quoting in full. Of all the poets who have been called ‘nature-poets’, John Clare is by far the most observant and the one who comes closest to being a naturalist-poet.

The Landrail

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again,
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain.

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn,
We hear it in the summer’s prime
Through meadows night and morn;

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again,
And let a minute’s notice pass
And now ’tis in the grain.

‘Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt,
We know ’tis something but it ne’er
Will blab the secret out.

If heard in close or meadow plots
It flies if we pursue,
But follows if we notice not
The close and meadow through.

Boys know the note of many a bird
In their bird-nesting rounds,
But when the landrail’s noise is heard
They wonder at the sounds;

They look in every tuft of grass
That’s in their rambles met,
They peep in every bush they pass
And none the wiser yet,

And still they hear the craiking sound
And still they wonder why—
It surely can’t be under ground
Nor is it in the sky,

And yet ’tis heard in every vale,
An undiscovered song,
And makes a pleasant wonder tale
For all the summer long.

The shepherd whistles through his hands
And starts with many a whoop
His busy dog across the lands
In hopes to fright it up.

‘Tis still a minute’s length or more
Till dogs are off and gone,
Then sings and louder than before
But keeps the secret on.

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way,
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay,

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy guest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest.

In simple holes that birds will rake
When dusting in the ground;
They drop their eggs of curious make,
Deep-blotched and nearly round—

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow-hay.

As Clare makes clear, the corncrake is famously difficult to see, and usually found via its ‘craiking’ call. Pleasingly the corncrake’s Latin name is pretty much a transcription of the call: Crex crex. You can listen to the call of the corncrake here. I’ve heard you can attract a corncrake by scraping the spoon from a miniature tub of icecream along the zip of your waterproof jacket (and if you’re birding in the Outer Hebrides, you will have a waterproof jacket with you), or by rubbing a comb across the edge of a matchbox. But I’ve never had a chance to try either trick.

So what about the word ‘corncrake’? That’s obvious—it’s clearly derived from the call, right? Well, not directly. ‘Crake’ is derived from the Old Norse krâka, which means crow, and that’s the first meaning the OED gives:

1. A crow or raven. north. dial.
2. A name of birds of the family Rallidæ, esp. the corn-crake (also bean-crake) or landrail
3. The cry of the corn-crake

We’re told that

In sense 2, perh. orig. the same word (corn crake = corn crow), but now viewed as directly derived from the grating cry of the bird, as in sense 3

The Old Norse krâka is itself onomatopoeic (‘croak’ is derived from the same word), and if ‘corn crake’ did originally mean ‘corn crow’, it was in reference to the call, but still, I find the idea of a ‘corn crow’ surprising and appealing. The word ‘crow’ is, not surprisingly, also originally onomatopoeic but from the Old High German crâwan.

Cormorant, originally uploaded by Rune T.

One last bit of related etymology. Cormorant is from the French cormoran with a ‘parasitic t’; i.e. the ‘t’ has no particular linguistic logic, it just got glommed onto the word by analogy with words like ‘elegant’ and ‘reluctant’. The same is apparently true of ‘peasant’ and ‘pheasant’ (paysan and faisan in French). Cormaran in turn is deduced to have been something like corp marin in Old French, and is derived from the Latin corvus marinus: ‘sea raven’.

So there you are; corn-crows and sea-ravens.

[ Unless noted otherwise, dictionary extracts are from either the Shorter Oxford Dictionary or the slightly insane ‘compact’ OED (the whole 2nd edition printed in such tiny writing that it fits in one huge volume). The poem is from “I Am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, edited by Jonathan Bate. As ever with Clare, the punctuation is editorial, that version of the poem is presumably © Jonathan Bate. The photographs are all from Flickr and © the respective photographers. ]

Birding the dictionary

I was watching a dunnock in the garden earlier


and it suddenly occured to me that there might be a parallel between the word ‘dunnock’ and ‘ruddock’ – the old name for a robin.

robin on Flickr

And having got that far, I thought maybe ‘dunnock’ derived from ‘dun cock’ and ‘ruddock’ from ‘ruddy cock’. So I got out the dictionary. Turns out I was part right.

dunnock (‘dʌnək). [app. f. dun a. + -ock dim. suffix; from the dusky brown colour of the plumage. Cf. dunlin.]

In other words, ‘dunnock’ pretty much translates as that classic birder’s term, LBJ — Little Brown Job [btw, while I was looking for dunnock photos on Flickr, I discovered that the Dutch for dunnock is ‘heggemus’ — presumably ‘hedge mouse’. But let’s stick to one language at a time].

The reference to ‘dunlin’ intrigued me.

dunlin on Flickr

And at dunlin I learnt that it’s f. dun a. + -ling. ‘ling’ is a familiar diminutive suffix of course; ‘darling’ and ‘duckling’ are the most obvious examples. But there’s another small sandpiper called a sanderling, and I was curious how that fitted in.

sanderling on Flickr

Well, pleasingly, the OED’s best guess for the origin of sanderling is the Old English sand-yrðling; i.e. ‘sand-earthling’. Not as in ‘take me to your leader’; ‘earthling’ meant ‘ploughman’. Ploughman of the sand.

Getting back to my -ock birds. I looked up ‘ruddock’, and sure enough it says

ruddock (‘rʌdək). [OE rudduc, related to rud sb., ruddy a. : see -ock.]

I also learned that a ruddleman is a digger of, or dealer in, ruddle; a raddleman. But that’s not important right now. Seeing ‘rud’ written as a word helped me make the connection that ‘ruddy’ is cognate with ‘red’. Which probably should have been obvious but I never thought about it. There was one last entry that needed to be checked out. It has such a load of great words in it I’m going to type it out in full.

-ock, suffix, forming diminutives. A few examples of dimin. –oc, –uc, occur in OE., as bealloc ballock, bulluc bullock. In mod. Eng., the chief instance of the dim. suffix is hillock (found already in Wyclif); but other examples occur in the dialects, esp in Sc., e.g. bittock, lassock, queock or queyock, whilock, wyfock, also proper names as Bessock, Jamock, Kittock. Several names of animals, esp. birds and fishes, have the same ending and are prob. orig. diminutive; among these are OE. cranoc, cornoc (dim. of cran), crane; ruddoc (read red) redbreast, ruddock; cf. the modern (some ME.) dunnock, haddock, girrock, paddock, piddock, pinnock, pollock, puttock; also, as names of things, buttock, hattock, tussock. In other words (some of which, as bannock, hassock, mattock, go back to OE.) -ock appears to be of different origin.

The actual word ‘robin’, btw, is from the habit, going back at least as far as the middle ages, of applying personal names to birds: Robin Redbreast, Jack Daw, Mag Pie. ‘Magpie’ is especially apt because ‘mag’ was used to mean ‘chat’, ‘chatterbox’, or ‘to chatter’. ‘Mag’s tales’ were what we would call ‘old wives’ tales’.

NB. The pictures are all from Flickr and © the people who took them; you can click through to the page on Flickr. The dictionary extracts are all from the OED.

Taboo vocabulary

Commenting on the current controversy surrounding Celebrity Big Brother and a bleeped-out word spoken by one of the contestants, the Telegraph printed this remarkable sentence:

Channel 4 was quick to clarify that Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ‘paki’.

Channel 4 being a bit too clear for the delicate sensibilities of Telegraph readers there. Note that ‘paki’, which, by implication, is the more taboo word, is left en clair. Although to be fair, ‘Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ****’ would be even more bizarre.

For more fun with taboo vocabulary, check out the Language Log, where they’ve conveniently compiled a list of posts on the subject. You might want to start with this one.

Oh, and if you were wondering: ‘cunt’.

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Tender American sensibilities

Via bookofjoe; the OED and BBC are repeating their exercise of inviting the public to try and find earlier citations for various words. It’s a somewhat interesting idea but, having seen some of the last series: the results don’t make for riveting television.

What I found interesting was a couple of things from the Washington Post article on the subject. Firstly there’s this weirdly obsequious paragraph about the English:

The English have a special relationship with the language named for their land. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, this country has given the world some of its most memorable literature. The spoken word is also revered here, and English debaters articulate even the most mundane ideas with remarkable music and vocabulary. Americans puzzle over Britons keeping their spare “tyre” in the “boot” of their car, but most admit that they sound clever doing it.

The spoken word is ‘revered’ in England? You what? And what do simple regional variations like boot/trunk have to do with anything?

The other thing that I found odd was this:

Before 1976, “marital aids” were known by less genteel names, and using them, along with other more sexually adventurous behavior, became “kinky” in 1959. Some terms on the list are too naughty to be printed here. But the Oxford editors are as interested in their X-rated beginnings as they are in “identity theft,” “spiv” (a sharply dressed hustler), “mucky pup” (a messy child) and “prat” (a fool or a jerk).

I was surprised that the BBC would pick unprintable words for a TV show about word origins, so I checked out the list. The only possibilities seem to be ‘dog’s bollocks’ and ‘tosser’. Or ‘dogging’, I suppose. Can it really be true that an apparently grown-up newspaper like the Washington Post has such tender, innocent readers that they would be offended by seeing the word ‘bollocks’ in print?

I suppose it might be. I remember seeing some footage of Emma Thompson on Leno where she starts telling an anecdote about doing some filming with a horse which, hilariously, had an erection, and Leno having to cut her off because the e word was apparently just too strong for a late-night chat show. Perhaps that’s what our ‘special relationship with the language’ consists of: knob jokes.

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In which Harry demonstrates his pedantic soul

A local free magazine that came through the door includes a few hundred words of Buddhist-inspired wisdom. The column starts:

As a child, were you encouraged to aim for perfection*?

The footnote at the bottom of the page explains:

The word * ‘perfection’ comes originally from the Greek ‘telios’ meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’

The first thing that bothered me about that was — how much of a tin ear for language do you need to believe that ‘perfect’ could possibly derive from ‘telios’?

Even if ‘perfect’ did come from a Greek word meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’ — how would it prove anything? What difference would the Greek root mean to a discussion in English? Words change their meaning. Over two thousand years and a shift from one language to another, the meanings can change really quite a lot.

In fact it derives (via Old French) from the Latin perfectus ‘completed,’ from the verb perficere, from per– ‘through, completely’ + facere ‘do.’ The outlines of which I guessed, although the details came from a dictionary.

A bit of googling reveals that there is a connection between ‘perfect’ and ‘telios’, though. Teleios (τελειος) is indeed a Greek word for perfect, and it’s regularly translated as perfectus in the Vulgate and ‘perfect’ in the KJV (I did check, but you’ll have to take my word for it).

However, although teleios does mean ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’, it doesn’t apparently mean ‘purpose’. But it’s derived from telos (τέλος), which means ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’ (hence ‘teleology’); presumably because something which is complete is something which has achieved its aim.

So we can reconstruct the idea as it was presumably originally told to her:

“In Greek, the word for ‘perfect’ meant something which had fulfilled its purpose.”

As I said, arguments from etymology are daft anyway; but at least this version has a certain fortune-cookie aphoristic quality to it. It approaches the idea of ‘perfection’ from a slightly different angle. The version in the column

The word * ‘perfection’ comes originally from the Greek ‘telios’ meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’

is not only obviously false, it also garbles the point of the original observation. How could you write that down and not think “hang on a minute, I don’t think I’ve got that quite right”?

The Hall of a Thousand Columns

Tim Mackintosh-Smith at a Makdunaldiz in Sharjah:

An occasional meaning did rise out of the nonsense. For instance, a child with a wide and poetical vocabulary might be puzzled by his hābī mīl (‘Happy Meal’) – ‘My serpent is an eyeliner pencil’.

An enjoyable book, so far. Though I’d suggest you start with Travels With A Tangerine.

And there’s ‘benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk’ on the menu over at Language Log. And fairness demands that any comment about dodgy Chinese translations of English is compensated for by a link to Hanzi Smatter.

hable despacio por favor

I’ve been trying to learn a little Spanish before going on holiday. I have no illusions that a few weeks of cramming will enable me to walk alongside the Rio Guadalquivir reading Lorca in the original – or even make small talk about the weather – but at least it might give me a starting point when reading menus and trying to find the right bus. My vestigial French and Latin seem to be even less useful than I expected, although trying to learn the verb forms in the present tense did give me flashbacks of doing my amo amas amat, amamus amatis amant.

I’ve been using an excellent open-source javascript flashcard program called jMemorize. You gotta love the open-source people.

EDIT: I just realised I that I even got the title of this post wrong. That doesn’t bode well for me developing mad skillz in conversational Spanish.

‘How Language Works’ by David Crystal

I’ve just finished How Language Works by David Crystal, the linguist who wrote the excellent The Stories of English.

It’s a slightly odd book to be marketed as popular non-fiction, in that it doesn’t have any central hook. Rather it’s a broad survey of all aspects of language; it reads rather like an introductory text for an undergraduate course in linguistics. Perhaps that what he had in mind before his publisher decided to try and cash in on the success of Stories. Anyway, it consists of 73 chapters, all phrased as answers to a ‘How?’ question. He compares it to a car manual, with each chapter designed to be pretty much self-contained. i.e., picking some fairly random examples:

How we make speech sounds
How we peceive speech
How we learn to read and write
How we analyse meaning
How conversation works
How we know where someone is from
How the Indo-European family is organised
How we cope with many languages: translate them

Obviously, any of those is a subject that could fill a whole book, so even at 500 pages, the book can only skim over them.

If you’ve read your Steven Pinker most of this stuff will be broadly familiar, but he still held my attention all the way through. It’s clear, interesting, well-written, quietly entertaining, and Crystal obviously knows his stuff. I hope the lack of a clear USP doesn’t restrict sales too much.