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1. Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2014

As always, I want to thank those who have commented on the posts and written me letters bypassing the “official channels” (though nothing can be more in- or unofficial than this blog; I distinguish between inofficial and unofficial, to the disapproval of the spellchecker and some editors). I only wish there were more comments and letters. With regard to my “bimonthly” gleanings, I did think of calling them bimestrial but decided that even with my propensity for hard words I could not afford such a monster. Trimestrial and quarterly are another matter. By the way, I would not call fortnightly a quaint Briticism. The noun fortnight is indeed unknown in the United States, but anyone who reads books by British authors will recognize it. It is sennight “seven nights; a week,” as opposed to “fourteen nights; two weeks,” that is truly dead, except to Walter Scott’s few remaining admirers.

The comments on livid were quite helpful, so that perhaps livid with rage does mean “white.” I was also delighted to see Stephen Goranson’s antedating of hully gully. Unfortunately, I do not know this word’s etymology and have little chance of ever discovering it, but I will risk repeating my tentative idea. Wherever the name of this game was coined, it seems to have been “Anglicized,” and in English reduplicating compounds of the Humpty Dumpty, humdrum, and helter-skelter type, those in which the first element begins with an h, the determining part is usually the second, while the first is added for the sake of rhyme. If this rule works for hully gully, the clue to the word’s origin is hidden in gully, with a possible reference to a dupe, a gull, a gullible person; hully is, figuratively speaking, an empty nut. A mere guess, to repeat once again Walter Skeat’s favorite phrase.

The future of spelling reform and realpolitik

Some time ago I promised to return to this theme, and now that the year (one more year!) is coming to an end, I would like to make good on my promise. There would have been no need to keep beating this moribund horse but for a rejoinder by Mr. Steve Bett to my modest proposal for simplifying English spelling. I am afraid that the reformers of our generation won’t be more successful than those who wrote pleading letters to journals in the thirties of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the Congress being planned by the Society will succeed in making powerful elites on both sides of the Atlantic interested in the sorry plight of English spellers. I wish it luck, and in the meantime will touch briefly on the discussion within the Society.

Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.
Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.

In the past, minimal reformers, Mr. Bett asserts, usually failed to implement the first step. The first step is not an issue as long as we agree that there should be one. Any improvement will be beneficial, for example, doing away with some useless double letters (till ~ until); regularizing doublets like speak ~ speech; abolishing c in scion, scene, scepter ~ scepter, and, less obviously, scent; substituting sk for sc in scathe, scavenger, and the like (by the way, in the United States, skeptic is the norm); accepting (akcepting?) the verbal suffix -ize for -ise and of -or for -our throughout — I can go on and on, but the question is not where to begin but whether we want a gradual or a one-fell-swoop reform. Although I am ready to begin anywhere, I am an advocate of painless medicine and don’t believe in the success of hav, liv, and giv, however silly the present norm may be (those words are too frequent to be tampered with), while til and unskathed will probably meet with little resistance.

I am familiar with several excellent proposals of what may be called phonetic spelling. No one, Mr. Bett assures me, advocates phonetic spelling. “What about phonemic spelling?” he asks. This is mere quibbling. Some dialectologists, especially in Norway, used an extremely elaborate transcription for rendering the pronunciation of their subjects. To read it is a torture. Of course, no one advocates such a system. Speakers deal with phonemes rather than “sounds.” But Mr. Bett writes bás Róman alfàbet shud rèmán ùnchánjd for “base Roman alphabet should remain unchanged.” I am all for alfabet (ph is a nuisance) and with some reservations for shud, but the rest is, in my opinion, untenable. It matters little whether this system is clever, convenient, or easy to remember. If we offer it to the public, we’ll be laughed out of court.

Mr. Bett indicates that publishers are reluctant to introduce changes and that lexicographers are not interested in becoming the standard bearers of the reform. He is right. That is why it is necessary to find a body (The Board of Education? Parliament? Congress?) that has the authority to impose changes. I have made this point many times and hope that the projected Congress will not come away empty-handed. We will fail without influential sponsors, but first of all, the Society needs an agenda, agree to the basic principles of a program, and for at least some time refrain from infighting.

The indefinite pronoun one once again

I was asked whether I am uncomfortable with phrases like to keep oneself to oneself. No, I am not, and I don’t object to the sentence one should mind one’s own business. A colleague of mine has observed that the French and the Germans, with their on and man are better off than those who grapple with one in English. No doubt about it. All this is especially irritating because the indefinite pronoun one seems to owe its existence to French on. However, on and man, can function only as the subject of the sentence. Nothing in the world is perfect.

Sir John Vanbrugh by Thomas Murray (died 1735). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our dance around pronouns sometimes assumes grotesque dimensions. In an email, a student informed me that her cousin is sick and she has to take care of them. She does not know, she added, when they will be well enough, to allow her to attend classes. Not that I am inordinately curious, but it is funny that I was protected from knowing whether “they” are a man or a woman. In my archive, I have only one similar example (I quoted it long ago): “If John calls, tell them I’ll soon be back.” Being brainwashed may have unexpected consequences.

Earl and the Herulians

Our faithful correspondent Mr. John Larsson wrote me a letter about the word earl. I have a good deal to say about it. But if he has access to the excellent but now defunct periodical General Linguistics, he will find all he needs in the article on the Herulians and earls by Marvin Taylor in Volume 30 for 1992 (the article begins on p. 109).

The OED: Behind the scenes

Many people realize what a gigantic effort it took to produce the Oxford English Dictionary, but only insiders are aware of how hard it is to do what seems trivial to a non-specialist. Next year we’ll mark the centennial of James A. H. Murray’s death, and I hope that this anniversary will not be ignored the way Skeat’s centennial was in 2012. Today I will cite one example of the OED’s labors in the early stages of work on it. In 1866, Cornelius Payne, Jun. was reading John Vanbrugh’s plays for the projected dictionary, and in Notes and Queries, Series 3, No. X for July 7 he asked the readers to explain several passages he did not understand. Two of them follow. 1) Clarissa: “I wish he would quarrel with me to-day a little, to pass away the time.” Flippanta: “Why, if you please to drop yourself in his way, six to four but he scolds one Rubbers with you.” 2) Sir Francis:…here, John Moody, get us a tankard of good hearty stuff presently. J. Moody: Sir, here’s Norfolk-nog to be had at next door.” Rubber(s) is a well-known card term, and it also means “quarrel.” See rubber, the end of the entry. Norfolk-nog did not make its way into the dictionary because no idiomatic sense is attached to it: the phrase means “nog made and served in Norfolk” (however, the OED did not neglect Norfolk). Such was and still is the price of every step. Read and wonder. And if you have a taste for Restoration drama, read Vanbrugh’s plays: moderately enjoyable but not always fit for the most innocent children (like those surrounding us today).

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2. Henry James, or, on the business of being a thing

By Jeff Sherwood

It is virtually impossible for an English-language lexicographer to ignore the long shadow cast by Henry James, that late nineteenth-century writer of fiction, criticism, and travelogues. We can attribute this in the first place to the sheer cosmopolitanism of his prose. James’s writing marks the point of intersection between registers and regions of English that we typically think of as mutually opposed: American and British, Victorian and modernist, intellectual and popular, even the simple good sense of Saxon-Germanicism and the fine silk shades of Franco-Romanticism. Thus, because his writing defies easy categories, it isn’t hard to suppose that James belongs in the back parlor of English-language history, a curiosity of passing interest, but one which, in its very idiosyncrasy, fails to capture the ‘ordinary, everyday’ language.


Henry James in the OED

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites Henry James over one thousand times, often in entries for common English words like useturn, comedo, and be. At least one explanation for this preponderance is the fact that, precisely because James’s prose incorporates elements from so many different kinds of English, it is uniquely positioned to exemplify—and even differentiate between—very subtle distinctions of usage and meaning. Thus, at green adj. James’s early novel The American provides a downright crystalline use of the phrase green in earth to mean ‘just buried’: ‘He thought of Valentin de Bellegarde, still green in the earth of his burial.’ By adding the final (semantically superfluous) three words, not only does James clarify the phrase’s context, he accentuates its poetic wordplay; its dependence on the double sense of green both as ‘new’ (sense 7a) and as ‘covered with vegetation’ (sense 2a) in order to conjure the renewal of the earth that is part and parcel of the burial rite. In this case, poeticism, often an obstacle to meaning, is actually the most probable explanation for the collocation’s longevity.

This old thing?

James’s ability to write prose that is both fastidiously discerning and euphemistically elliptical is not accidental, and cannot fail to intrigue someone whose business it is to describe words all day. In fact, despite clearly affectionate attachments to a number of words (presence and relation leap to mind), the one I would nominate as James’s absolute favorite is of great concern for lexicography—the thoroughly common word thing. Meaning quite literally any-thing from the genitals (sense 11 c) to a work of art (sense 13, complete with a James citation), thing is remarkably Jamesian in its ability to denote both the most concretely literal elements of reality and the most rarefied abstractions of human thought. And it is in just this respect that the word presents itself at the heart of perhaps the most naïve yet essential question that the lexicographer must answer: whether any particular meaning associated with a given word is actually ‘a thing.’ At times, this can be quite easy: it is not difficult to evaluate whether the physical object we mean when we say ‘smart phone’ is a ‘thing.’ But in many cases, the ‘thing’ referred to by a word is only conceptual. The existence of what we mean by ‘freedom’, for example, cannot be empirically proven. All we can say for sure is that the frequency and manner in which people use such words strongly suggests that they mean specific ‘things’.

Philosophically speaking, what makes ‘thing’ so interesting is that it straddles the gap between words that refer to physical objects and those that refer to abstract concepts, serving as a kind of verbal ‘junk drawer’ where items from both groups get casually tossed, only to wind up completely tangled and confused. Unsurprisingly, this confusion is just what James chooses to explore in his short story ‘The Real Thing.’ Its protagonist is an illustrator visited by two aristocrats, Major and Mrs. Monarch, who have fallen on hard times. They volunteer themselves as models for the artist, presuming that as bona fide members of society they are more suitable subjects for the aristocratic characters he depicts than the working-class types he typically employs. In fact, of course, the couple is awkward and unnatural, unable to embody the concept of aristocracy despite being literal examples of it.

Defining the tooth fairy

In just the same way, when a particular word is used ‘in the real world’, it will almost never be a perfect example of the concept it refers to. Consequently, it becomes the lexicographer’s job to improve upon ‘the real thing’, to illustrate a word more vividly than the real world can. This is especially clear when the word being defined refers to a fictional character, like the tooth fairy. To give wholesale priority to this term as a lexical object would render a definition like ‘a fairy that takes children’s baby teeth after they fall out and leaves a coin under the child’s pillow.’ This covers how the term is ordinarily used, since in everyday speech we are not in the habit of constantly remarking on the key conceptual detail that the tooth fairy is not real. Nevertheless, a definition that fails to note this misses, paradoxically enough, ‘the real thing.’ Just as Major Monarch doesn’t quite look like ‘the real thing’ he is, sometimes a word used in everyday speech doesn’t quite capture the thing it really is.

Jeff Sherwood is a US Assistant Editor for Oxford Dictionaries. Read more about Henry James with Oxford World’s Classics. A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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Image: Montage of Henry James Oxford World’s Classics editions.

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3. Unsung heroes of English etymology: Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

By Anatoly Liberman

At one time I intended to write a series of posts about the scholars who made significant contributions to English etymology but whose names are little known to the general public. Not that any etymologists can vie with politicians, actors, or athletes when it comes to funding and fame, but some of them wrote books and dictionaries and for a while stayed in the public eye. Ernest Weekley authored not only an etymological dictionary (a full and a concise version) but also multiple books on English words that were read and praised widely in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century. Walter Skeat dominated the etymological scene for decades, and his “Concise Dictionary” graced many a desk on both sides of the Atlantic. James Murray attained glory as the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Curiously, for a long time people, at least in England, used to say that words should be looked up “in Murray,” as we now say “in Skeat” or “in Webster.” Not a trace of this usage is left. “Murray” yielded to the anonymous NED [New English Dictionary] and then to OED, with or without the definite article).

Those tireless researchers deserved the recognition they had. But there also were people who formed a circle of correspondents united by their devotion to some journal: Athenaeum, The Academy, and their likes. Most typically, the same subscribers used to send letters to Notes and Queries year in, year out. As a rule, they are only names to me and probably to most of our contemporaries, but the members of that “club” often knew one another or at least knew who the writers were, and being visible in Notes and Queries amounted to a thin slice of international fame. Having run (for the sake of my bibliography of English etymology) through the entire set of that periodical twice, I learned to appreciate the correspondents’ dedication to scholarship and their erudition. I learned a good deal about their way of life, their libraries, and their antiquarian interests, but not enough to write an entertaining essay devoted to any one of them. That is why my series died after the first effort, a post on Dr. Frank Chance (Dr. means “medical doctor” here), and I still hope that one day Oxford University Press will publish a collection of his excellent short articles on English and French subjects.

To be sure, Henry Bradley is not an obscure figure, but even in his lifetime he was never in the limelight. And yet for many years he was second in command at the OED and, when Murray died, replaced him as NO. 1. In principle, the OED, conceived as a historical dictionary, did not have to provide etymologies. But the Philological Society always wanted origins to be part of the entries. Hensleigh Wedgwood was at one time considered as a prospective Etymologist-in-Chief, but it soon became clear that he would not do: his blind commitment to onomatopoeia and indifference to the latest achievements of historical linguistics disqualified him almost by definition despite his diligence and ingenuity. Skeat may not have aspired for that role. In any case, James Murray decided to do the work himself. That he turned out to be such an astute etymologist was a piece of luck.


Beginning with 1884, Bradley became an active participant in the dictionary. According to Bridges, in January 1888 he sent in the first instalment of his independent editing (531 slips). In the same year he was acknowledged as Joint Editor, responsible for his own sections, in 1896 he moved to Oxford, and from 1915, after the death of Murray in July of that year, he served as Senior Editor. In 1928 Clarendon Press published The Collected Papers of Henry Bradley, With a Memoir by Robert Bridges, and it is from this memoir that I have all the dates. About the move to Oxford, Bridges wrote: “He definitely entered into bondage and sold himself to slave henceforth for the Dictionary.” (How many people still remember the poetry of Robert Bridges?)

James Murray was a jealous man. He might have preferred to go on without a senior assistant, but even he was unable to do all the editing alone. It could not be predicted that Bradley would trace the history of words, inherited and borrowed, so extremely well. Once again luck was on the side of the great dictionary. In 1923, when Bradley died, not much was left to do. Even today, despite a mass of new information, the appearance of indispensable dictionaries and databases (to say nothing of the wonders of technology), as well as the publication of countless works on archeology, every branch of Indo-European, and the structure of the protolanguage and proto-society, the original etymologies in the OED more often than not need revision rather than refutation. This fact testifies to Murray’s and Bradley’s talent and to the reliability of the method they used.

Bradley joined the ictionary after Murray read his review of the first installments of the OED (The Academy, February 16, pp. 105-106, and March 1, pp. 141-142; I am grateful to the OED’s Peter Gilliver for checking and correcting the chronology). Bridges wrote about that review: “…its immediate publication revealed to Dr. Murray a critic who could give him points.” But today, 140 years later, one wonders what impressed Murray so much in Bradley’s remarks and what points “the critic” could give him. Bradley did not conceal his admiration for what he had seen, suggested a few corrections, and expressed the hope that “the work [would] be carried to its conclusion in a manner worthy of this brilliant commencement.” It can be doubted that Murray melted at the sight of the compliments: with two exceptions, everybody praised the first fascicles, and those who did not wrote mean-spirited reports. More probably, he sensed in Bradley someone who had a thorough understanding of his ideas and a knowledgeable potential ally (Bradley’s pre-1883 articles were neither numerous nor earth shattering). If such was the case, he guessed well.

Finding word origins was only one small (even if the trickiest) part of the editors’ duties, but my subject is limited to this single aspect of their activities. The title of Bradley’s posthumous volume, The Collected Papers, should not be mistaken for The Complete Works. Nor was such a full collection needed, though some omissions cause regret. Like Murray, Bradley wrote many short notes (especially often to The Academy, of which long before his move to Oxford he was editor for a year). My database contains sixty-five titles under his name. Here are some of them: “Two Mistakes in Littré’s French Dictionary,” “Obscure Words in Middle English,” “The Etymology of the Word god,” “Dialect and Etymology” (the latter in the Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society; Bradley was born in Manchester, so not in Yorkshire), numerous reviews and equally numerous reports, some of whose titles evoke today unexpected associations, as, for example, “F-words in NED” (the secretive year of 1896, when the F-word could not be included!).

Bradley had edited and revised the only full Middle English dictionary then in use. The modest reference to “obscure words” gives no idea of how well he knew that language. And among The Collected Papers the reader will find, among others, his contributions on Beowulf and “slang” to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ten essays on place names (one of his favorite subjects), and a whole section of literary studies. Those deal with Old and Middle English, and in several cases his opinion became definitive. Bradley’s tone was usually firm (he made no bones about disagreeing with his colleagues) but courteous. Although he sometimes chose to pity an indefensible opinion, the vituperative spirit of nineteenth-century British journalism did not rub off on him. Nor was he loath to admit that his conclusions might be wrong. Temperamentally, he must have been the very opposite of Murray.

One of Bradley’s papers is of special interest to us, and it was perhaps the most influential one he ever wrote. It deals with the chances of reforming English spelling. I will devote a post to it next week.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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4. Don’t bank on it

By Beverley Hunt

With just over a week to go until Christmas, many of us are no doubt looking forward to the holidays and a few days off work. For those working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, writing the history of the language sometimes took precedence over a Christmas break.

Christmas leave in the UK today centres around a number of bank holidays, so called because they are days when, traditionally, banks closed for business. Before 1834, the Bank of England recognized about 33 religious festivals but this was reduced to just four in 1834 – Good Friday, 1 May, 1 November, and Christmas Day. It was the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 that saw bank holidays officially introduced for the first time. These designated four holidays in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland — Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day. Good Friday and Christmas Day were seen as traditional days of rest so did not need to be included in the Act. Scotland was granted five days of holiday — New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.

So when James Murray took over as editor of the OED in 1879, Christmas Day was an accepted holiday across the whole of the UK, Boxing Day a bank holiday everywhere except Scotland, and New Year’s Day a bank holiday only in Scotland. Yet this didn’t stop editors and contributors toiling away on dictionary work on all three of those dates.

At Christmas play and make good cheer

Here is the first page of a lengthy letter to James Murray from fellow philologist Walter Skeat, written on Christmas Day, 1905. Skeat does at least start his letter with some seasonal greetings and sign off “in haste”, but talks at length about the word pillion in between! There are at least two other letters in the OED archives written on Christmas Day – a letter from W. Boyd-Dawkins in 1883 about the word aphanozygous (apparently the cheekbones being invisible when the skull is viewed from above, who knew?), and another from R.C.A. Prior about croquet in 1892.

Boxing clever

Written on Boxing Day, 1891, this letter to James Murray is from Richard Oliver Heslop, author of Northumberland Words. After an exchange of festive pleasantries, Oliver Heslop writes about the word corb as a possible misuse for the basket known as a corf, clearly a pressing issue whilst eating turkey leftovers! Many other Boxing Day letters reside in the OED archives, amongst them a 1932 letter to OUP’s Kenneth Sisam from editor William Craigie concerning potential honours in the New Year Honours list following completion of the supplement to the OED.

Out with the old, in with the new

Speaking of New Year, here is a “useless” letter to James Murray from OUP’s Printer Horace Hart, written on New Year’s Day, 1886. Although not an official holiday in Oxford at that time, this letter provides a nice opportunity for discussing the etymology of the term Boxing Day. The first weekday after Christmas Day became known as Boxing Day as it was the day when postmen, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expected to receive a Christmas box as a monetary reward for their services during the previous year. This letter talks about baksheesh, a word used in parts of Asia for a gratuity or tip.

Holidays are coming

In case you’re wondering, New Year’s Day was granted as an additional bank holiday in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1974, as was Boxing Day in Scotland (and 2 January from 1973). So the whole of the UK now gets all three as official days of leave in which to enjoy the festive season.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Beverley Hunt is Archivist for the Oxford English Dictionary but will not be archiving on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day.

If you’re feeling inspired by the words featured in today’s blog post, why not take some time to explore OED Online? Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number. If you are in the US, why not give the gift of language to a loved-one this holiday season? We’re offering a 20% discount on all new gift subscriptions to the OED to all customers residing in the Americas.

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5. National Libraries Day UK

Ever wondered what the Latin word for owl is? Or what links Fred Perry and Ping Pong? Maybe not, but you may be able to find the answers to these questions and many more at your fingertips in your local library. As areas for ideas, inspiration, imagination and information, public libraries are stocked full of not only books but online resources to help one and all find what they need. They are places to find a great story, research your family or local history, discover the origins of words, advice about writing a CV, or help with writing an essay on topics from the First World War to feminism in Jane Austen.

Saturday 9 February 2013 is National Libraries Day in the UK, and here at Oxford we publish a variety of online resources which you can find in many local libraries. To help with the celebrations we have asked a selection of our editors to write a few words about what they feel the resource they work on offers you, why they find it so fascinating, and what it can do when put to the test! And here is what they said…

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Philip Carter, Publication Editor, Oxford DNB

What can the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography offer librarians and their patrons? Three things, I’d say.

First, with life stories of 58,552 people who’ve shaped British history, there’s always someone new to meet: the first woman to swim the English Channel, perhaps? Or the last person convicted of witchcraft; the owner of Britain’s first curry house, the founder of the Mothers’ Union, the man who invented the football goal net. Plus 58,547 others — Julius Caesar to Jade Goody.

Second, there are new things to discover about some familiar figures. Did you know, for instance, that the cookery writer Mrs Beeton grew up in the stand of Epsom racecourse? That before tennis Fred Perry led the world at ping pong? That Roald Dahl kept 100 budgerigars and was a chocaholic, or that Dora Russell (wife of Bertrand) was the first woman to wear shorts in Britain?

Third (and perhaps most importantly) there’s the chance for some social networking — British history style. Traditionally, print dictionaries laid out their content A to Z. Online, the opportunities for new research — by local and family historians, or by teachers and students — are so much greater. Of course, the ODNB online still allows you to look up people ‘A to Z’. But it can also bring historical figures together in new ways, often for the first time — by dates, places, professions or religious affiliations. Simplest is date: for instance, it takes moments to gather the 92 men and women who were born on 9 February (National Libraries Day, 2013), including (appropriately) 15 who made their mark as writers, editors, lexicographers, and publishers.

But it’s with place searching that new discoveries really become possible, and a dictionary of the nation’s past becomes a resource for local and family history — from street level upwards. Which historical figures have connections to my county? Who once lived in my village, town, or city? Who went to my school or college? Who was baptized in this church or buried in that churchyard?

If you’d like to try for yourself, we’ve guides on using the ODNB for local history and family research, as well as bespoke pages to introduce historical figures by individual library authority (for example, Aberdeenshire or Sheffield. If you’re a librarian and would like one to promote historical figures near you, just let us know.
Oxford English Dictionary
Owen Goodyear, Editorial Researcher

For me, what makes the OED so fascinating is the fact it is one of a kind. What sets the OED apart is the attention it pays to each word’s history. I trained in historical linguistics, and when I look at an entry, I’m always drawn to the etymology first. Take the word owl. The Latin for owl is ulula, and the early modern German huhu, rather delightfully imitating the sound of the bird. Owl is also used for varieties of pigeon — not for the sound, but its distinctive ruff — and, apparently, moths and rays, for their barn-owl-like colouring. One such type of moth is more commonly known as the garden tiger moth, which leads me to look up tiger and find the theory that its name comes from the Avestan word for sharp or arrow… then I find myself distracted by tiger as a verb, meaning to prowl about like a tiger. Pretty much what I’m doing now, in fact, following the connections from entry to entry. It’s hard to resist. Like an owl to a flame, you might say.
Oxford Reference
Ruth Langley, Publishing Manager Reference

The new British citizenship test has been in the news lately — with commentators speculating that many people born and brought up in the UK would not be able to answer some of the questions on Britain’s history or culture. One of the wonderful things about living in Britain must surely be the access to free information found provided by the public library system, so I found myself wanting to remind all the lucky UK library users that they could find the answers they needed by logging onto Oxford Reference with their library cards. So, using a small sample of the questions featured in many newspapers, I decided to put Oxford Reference to the citizenship test — would it get the 75% necessary to prove itself well-versed in what it means to be British?

Searching for ‘Wiltshire monument’ across the 340 subject reference works on Oxford Reference, it correctly identifies Stonehenge as the multiple choice answer for the question on famous landmarks.

As I follow links from the information on Stonehenge to editorially recommended related content, I find results from OUP’s archaeology reference works which offer information on other ancient monument sites in Wiltshire like Avebury and Silbury Hill.

The admiral who died in 1805 causes no problems for our History content, and neither does the popular name for the 1801 version of the flag for the United Kingdom.

There are ten entries on St Andrew the patron Saint of Scotland, and I linger for a while to re-read his entry in one of the most colourful reference works on Oxford Reference, the Dictionary of Saints. The Dictionary of English Folklore quickly confirms that poppies are worn on Remembrance Day, and from that entry I follow a link to information about how poppies were used as a symbol of sleep or death on bedroom furniture and funerary architecture — my new fact for the day.

Other questions on the House of Commons and jury service take me to the extensive political and legal content on the site, and before long I am pleased to confirm that Oxford Reference has passed its citizenship test with flying colours.

I’ve been reminded along the way of the depth and richness of the content to be found on Oxford Reference covering all subject areas from Art to Zoology; the speed with which you can find a concise but authoritative answer to your question; the unexpected journeys you can follow as you investigate the links to related content around the site; and the pleasure in reading reference entries which have been written and vetted by experts.
Oxford Dictionaries Online
Charlotte Buxton, Project Editor, Oxford Dictionaries Online

As a dictionary editor, I work with words on a daily basis, but I still can’t resist turning to Oxford Dictionaries Pro when I’m out of the office. It’s not just for those moments when I need to find out what a word means (although, contrary to what my friends and family seem to believe, I don’t actually know the definition of every word, so find myself looking them up all the time). I’m a particular fan of the thesaurus: why say idiot, after all, when you could use wazzock, clodpole, or mooncalf? Most importantly, I can access the site on the move. This helps to end those tricky grammar arguments in the pub — a few taps and I can confidently declare exactly when it’s acceptable to split an infinitive, whether we should say spelled or spelt, and if data centre should be hyphenated. And thus my reputation as an expert on all matters relating to language is maintained.

And now take our UK Public Library Members Quiz for a chance to win either £50 worth of Oxford University Press books or an iPod shuffle (TM).

The majority of UK public library authorities have subscribed to numerous Oxford resources. Your public library gives you access, free of charge within the library or from home to the world’s most trusted reference works. Learn more at our library resource center and in this video:

Click here to view the embedded video.

 The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 165 life stories now available (including the lives of Alan Turing, Piltdown Man, Wallace Hartley, and Captain Scott). You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number.

Oxford Reference is the home of Oxford’s quality reference publishing bringing together over 2 million entries, many of which are illustrated, into a single cross-searchable resource. Made up of two main collections, both fully integrated and cross-searchable in the same interface, Oxford Reference couples Oxford’s trusted A-Z reference material with an intuitive design to deliver a discoverable, up-to-date, and expanding reference resource.

Oxford Dictionaries Online is a free site offering a comprehensive current English dictionary, grammar guidance, puzzles and games, and a language blog; as well as up-to-date bilingual dictionaries in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. We also have a premium site, Oxford Dictionaries Pro, which features smart-linked dictionaries and thesauruses, audio pronunciations, example sentences, advanced search functionality, and specialist language resources for writers and editors.

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6. ‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’: a remarkable Editor

Dictionaries never simply spring into being, but represent the work and research of many. Only a select few of the people who have helped create the Oxford English Dictionary, however, can lay claim to the coveted title ‘Editor’. In the first of an occasional series for the OxfordWords blog on the Editors of the OED, Peter Gilliver introduces the most celebrated, Sir James A. H. Murray.

By Peter Gilliver

If ever a lexicographer merited the adjective iconic, it must surely be James Augustus Henry Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; although what he would have thought about the word being applied to him—in a sense which only came into being long after his death—can only be guessed at, though it seems likely that he would disapprove, given his strongly expressed dislike of the public interest shown in him as a person, rather than in his work. The photograph of him in his Scriptorium in Oxford, wearing his John Knox cap and holding a book and a Dictionary quotation slip, is almost certainly the best-known image of any lexicographer. But there is a lot more to this prodigious man.

In fact prodigious is another good word for him, for several reasons. He was certainly something of a prodigy as a child, despite his humble background. Born on 7 February 1837 in the Scottish village of Denholm, near Hawick, the son of a tailor, he reputedly knew his alphabet by the time he was eighteen months old, and was soon showing a precocious interest in other languages, including—at the age of 7—Chinese, in the form of a page of the Bible which he laboriously copied out until he could work out the symbols for such words as God and light. Thanks to his voracious appetite for reading, and what he called ‘a sort of mania for learning languages’, he was already a remarkably well-educated boy by the time his formal schooling ended, at the age of 14, with a knowledge of French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and a range of other interests, including botany, geology, and archaeology. After a few years teaching in local schools—he was evidently a born teacher, and was made a headmaster at the age of 21—he moved to London, and took work in a bank. (It was only in 1855, incidentally, that he acquired the full name by which he’s become known: he had been christened plain James Murray, but he adopted two extra initials to stop his correspondence getting mixed up with that of the several other men living in Hawick who shared the name.) He soon began to attend meetings of the London Philological Society, and threw himself into the study of dialect and pronunciation—an interest he had already developed while still in Scotland—and also of the history of English. In 1870 an opening at Mill Hill School, just outside London, enabled him to return to teaching. He began studying for an external London BA degree, which he finished in 1873, the same year as his first big scholarly publication, a study of Scottish dialects which was widely recognized as a pioneering work in its field. Only a year later his linguistic research had earned him his first honorary degree, a doctorate from Edinburgh University: quite an achievement for a self-taught man of 37.

Dr. Murray, Editor

By this time the Philological Society had been trying to collect the materials for a new, and unprecedentedly comprehensive, dictionary of English for over a decade, but the project had gradually lost momentum following the early death of its first Editor, Herbert Coleridge. In 1876 Murray was approached by the London publishers Macmillans about the possibility of editing a dictionary based on the materials collected; the negotiations ultimately came to nothing, but the work which Murray did on this abandoned project was so impressive that when new negotiations were opened with Oxford University Press, and the search for an editor began again, it soon became clear that Murray was the only possible man for the job. After further negotiations, in March 1879 contracts were finally signed, for the compilation of a dictionary that was expected to run to 6,400 pages, in four volumes, and take 10 years to complete—and which Murray planned to edit while continuing to teach at Mill Hill School!

The Dictionary progresses. . .

As we now know, the project would end up taking nearly five times as long as originally planned, and the resulting dictionary ran to over 15,000 pages. Murray soon had to give up his schoolteaching, and moved to Oxford in 1885; even then progress was too slow, and eventually three other Editors were appointed, each with responsibility for different parts of the alphabet. Although for more than three-quarters of the time he worked on the OED there were other Editors working alongside him—he eventually died in 1915—and of course from the beginning he had a staff of assistants helping him, it is without question that he was the Editor of the Dictionary. (He soon had no need of those extra initials: a letter addressed simply to ‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’ would reach him without any difficulty, and he even had notepaper printed giving this as his address.) It was Murray who, in 1879, launched the great ‘Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public’ which brought most of the millions of quotation slips from which the Dictionary was mainly constructed—slips sent in from all parts of the English-speaking world, recording English as it was and had been used at all times and in all places. And it was during the early years of the project that all the details of its policy and style had to be settled, and that was Murray’s responsibility; the three later Editors matched their work to his as closely as they could. He was also responsible for more of the 15,000-plus pages of the Dictionary’s first edition than anyone else: the whole of the letters A–D, H–K, O, P, and all but the very end of T, amounting to approximately half of the total.

A dedicated man

What qualities enabled him to achieve this remarkable feat? It hardly needs to be said that he brought an extraordinary combination of linguistic abilities to the task: not just a knowledge of many languages, but the kind of sensitivity to fine nuances in English which all lexicographers need, in an exceptionally highly-developed form. He was also knowledgeable in a wide range of other fields. But one of his most striking qualities was his capacity for hard work, which once again deserves to be called prodigious. Throughout his time working on the Dictionary it was by no means unusual for him to put in 80 or 90 hours a week; he was often working in the Scriptorium by 6 a.m., and often did not leave until 11 p.m. Such a punishing regime would have destroyed the health of a weaker man, but Murray continued to work at this intensity into his seventies.

Somehow he managed to combine his work with a vigorous family life; another image of him which deserves to be just as well known as the studious portraits in the Scriptorium is the photograph showing him and his wife surrounded by their eleven children, or the one of him astride a huge ‘sand-monster’ constructed on the beach during one of the family’s holidays in North Wales. He also found time to be an active member of his local community: he was a staunch Congregationalist, regularly preaching at Oxford’s George Street chapel, and an active member of many local societies, and frequently gave lectures about the Dictionary. It is just as well that his conviction of the value of hard work was combined with an iron constitution.

But there is one image which vividly captures another, crucial aspect of this remarkable man, an aspect which arguably underpins his whole approach to life and work. Tellingly, it is not an image of the man himself, but of one of the slips on which the Dictionary was written. The winter of 1896 saw one of Murray’s numerous marathon efforts to complete a section of the Dictionary, in this case the end of the letter D. Very late in the evening of 24 November he was at last able to put the finishing touches to the entry for the word dziggetai (a mule-like mammal found in Mongolia, an animal which Murray would never have seen, and an apt illustration of the Dictionary’s worldwide scope). At 11 o’clock, on the last slip for this word, he wrote: ‘Here endeth Τῷ Θεῷ μόνῳ δόξα.’ The Greek words mean ‘To God alone be the glory’, a phrase which is to be found several times (in various languages) in his writings. For Murray his work on the OED was a God-given vocation. He certainly came to believe that the whole course of his life appeared, in retrospect, to have been designed to prepare him for the work of editing the Dictionary; and perhaps it was only his strong sense of vocation which sustained him through the long years of effort.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

Peter Gilliver is an Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and is also writing a history of the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number.

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7. How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

By Lynne Murphy

For 20 years, 14 of those in England, I’ve been giving lectures about the social power afforded to dictionaries, exhorting my students to discard the belief that dictionaries are infallible authorities. The students laugh at my stories about nuns who told me that ain’t couldn’t be a word because it wasn’t in the (school) dictionary and about people who talk about the Dictionary in the same way that they talk about the Bible. But after a while I realized that nearly all the examples in the lecture were, like me, American. At first, I could use the excuse that I’d not been in the UK long enough to encounter good examples of dictionary jingoism. But British examples did not present themselves over the next decade, while American ones kept streaming in. Rather than laughing with recognition, were my students simply laughing with amusement at my ridiculous teachers? Is the notion of dictionary-as-Bible less compelling in a culture where only about 17% of the population consider religion to be important to their lives? (Compare the United States, where 3 in 10 people believe that the Bible provides literal truth.) I’ve started to wonder: how different are British and American attitudes toward dictionaries, and to what extent can those differences be attributed to the two nations’ relationships with the written word?

Constitution of the United States of America. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Constitution of the United States of America. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our constitutions are a case in point. The United States Constitution is a written document that is extremely difficult to change; the most recent amendment took 202 years to ratify. We didn’t inherit this from the British, whose constitution is uncodified — it’s an aggregation of acts, treaties, and tradition. If you want to freak an American out, tell them that you live in a country where ‘[n]o Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea’. Americans are generally satisfied that their constitution — which is just about seven times longer than this blog post — is as relevant today as it was when first drafted and last amended. We like it so much that a holiday to celebrate it was instituted in 2004.

Dictionaries and the law

But with such importance placed on the written word of law comes the problem of how to interpret those words. And for a culture where the best word is the written word, a written authority on how to interpret words is sought. Between 2000 and 2010, 295 dictionary definitions were cited in 225 US Supreme Court opinions. In contrast, I could find only four UK Supreme court decisions between 2009 and now that mention dictionaries. American judicial reliance on dictionaries leaves lexicographers and law scholars uneasy; most dictionaries aim to describe common usage, rather than prescribe the best interpretation for a word. Furthermore, dictionaries differ; something as slight as the presence or absence of a the or a usually might have a great impact on a literalist’s interpretation of a law. And yet US Supreme Court dictionary citation has risen by about ten times since the 1960s.

No particular dictionary is America’s Bible—but that doesn’t stop the worship of dictionaries, just as the existence of many Bible translations hasn’t stopped people citing scripture in English. The name Webster is not trademarked, and so several publishers use it on their dictionary titles because of its traditional authority. When asked last summer how a single man, Noah Webster, could have such a profound effect on American English, I missed the chance to say: it wasn’t the man; it was the books — the written word. His “Blue-Backed Speller”, a textbook used in American schools for over 100 years, has been called ‘a secular catechism to the nation-state’. At a time when much was unsure, Webster provided standards (not all of which, it must be said, were accepted) for the new English of a new nation.

American dictionaries, regardless of publisher, have continued in that vein. British lexicography from Johnson’s dictionary to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has excelled in recording literary language from a historical viewpoint. In more recent decades British lexicography has taken a more international perspective with serious innovations and industry in dictionaries for learners. American lexicographical innovation, in contrast, has largely been in making dictionaries more user-friendly for the average native speaker.

The Oxford English Dictionary. Courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries. Do not use without permission.

The Oxford English Dictionary, courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries. Do not use without permission.

Local attitudes: marketing dictionaries

By and large, lexicographers on either side of the Atlantic are lovely people who want to describe the language in a way that’s useful to their readers. But a look at the way dictionaries are marketed belies their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.

Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority. (The closest is the Oxford tagline ‘The world’s most trusted dictionaries’, which doesn’t make claims about what the dictionary does, but about how it is received.) None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words. They think you’re unsure about language and want some help. There may be a story to tell here about social class and dictionaries in the two countries, with the American publishers marketing to the aspirational, and the British ones to the arrived. And maybe it’s aspirationalism and the attendant insecurity that goes with it that makes America the land of the codified rule, the codified meaning. By putting rules and meanings onto paper, we make them available to all. As an American, I kind of like that. As a lexicographer, it worries me that dictionary users don’t always recognize that English is just too big and messy for a dictionary to pin down.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Lynne Murphy, Reader in Linguistics at the University of Sussex, researches word meaning and use, with special emphasis on antonyms. She blogs at Separated by a Common Language and is on Twitter at @lynneguist.

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8. Can the Académie française stop the rise of Anglicisms in French?

By Joanna Rubery

It’s official: binge drinking is passé in France. No bad thing, you may think; but while you may now be looking forward to a summer of slow afternoons marinating in traditional Parisian café culture, you won’t be able to sip any fair trade wine, download any emails, or get any cash back – not officially, anyway.

How so? Are the French cheesed off with modern life? Well, not quite: it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” terms themselves that have been given the cold shoulder by certain linguistic authorities in favour of carefully crafted French alternatives. And if you approve of this move, then here’s a toast to a very happy journée internationale de la francophonie on 20 March. But just who are these linguistic authorities, and do French speakers really listen to them?

The Académie française

You may not be aware that 2014 has been dedicated to the “reconquête de la langue française” by the Académie française, that esteemed assembly of academics who can trace their custody of the French language back almost four centuries to pre-revolutionary France. While the recommendations of the académie carry no legal weight, its learned members advise the French government on usage and terminology (advice which is, to their chagrin, not always heeded). The thirty-eight immortels, as they are known (there are currently two vacant fauteuils), maintain that la langue de Molière has been under sustained attack for several generations, from a mixture of poor teaching, poor usage, and – most notoriously – “la montée en puissance de l’anglo-saxon”. Although French can still hold its own as a world language in terms of number of speakers (220 million) and learners (it’s the second most commonly taught language after – well, no prizes for guessing), this frisson of fear is understandable if we cast our eyes back to 1635, when the Académie was formally founded.

At that time, French enjoyed considerable cachet throughout Europe as the medium of communication par excellence for the cultural elite. But in France, where regional languages such as Breton and Picard were widely spoken, the académiciens had the remarkably democratic ambition of pruning and purifying their national tongue in order that it should be clear, elegant, and accessible to all. They nobly undertook to “draw up certain rules for [the] language, and to render it pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with arts and sciences”. In practical terms, this meant writing a dictionary.

The Académie française, Paris.

The Académie française, Paris.

Looking up le mot juste

Published nearly 60 years later in 1694, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française was not the first dictionary of the French language, but it was the first of its kind: a dictionary of “words, rather than things”, which focused on spelling, syntaxregister, and above all, “le respect du bon usage”. Intended to advise the honnête homme what (and what not) to say, it has survived three centuries and nine editions to finally appear online as a fascinating record of the evolution of the French language.

You may be tempted to draw parallels between the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (DAF) and our own Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but in many ways they are fundamentally different. In the English-speaking world, there is no equivalent of the Académie française and its sweeping, egalitarian vision. The OED was conceived (centuries after the DAF) as a practical response to the realization that “existing English language dictionaries were incomplete and deficient” and is generally regarded as a descriptivist dictionary, recording the ways in which words are used, while the DAF is more of a prescriptivist dictionary, recording the ways in which words should be used. While the OED’s entries are liberally sprinkled with literary citations as examples of usage, the DAF has no need for them. And as a historical dictionary, the OED doesn’t ever delete a word from its (digital) pages, whereas the DAF will happily remove words deemed obsolete (and is quite transparent about doing so). Consequently, the OED, with roughly 600,000 headwords, is around ten times bigger than the DAF.

Faux pas in French

However, the digital revolution has allowed both dictionaries to reach out to their readers, albeit in tellingly different ways. While the OED staff appeal to the public for practical help with antedating, the académiciensfaithful to their four-hundred-year-old mission, have pledged to respond to their readers’ questions on usage and grammar in an online forum dedicated to “des esclaircissemens à leurs doutes”.The result, “Dire, Ne Pas Dire”, is a fascinating read, ranging from semantics (can a shaving mirror actually be called a shaving mirror, given that it is not used as a razor?) to politics (a debate over the validity of the trendy English phrase “save the date” on wedding invitations). And it doesn’t take long to see that the Académie’s greatest bête noire by far is the “menace” of the “péril anglais”.

Plus ça change

There may be a sense of déjà-vu here for the académiciens, because grievances over the Anglicization of the French language date back to at least 1788. Some stand firm in their belief that French, with its rich syntax, logical rules, and “impérieuse précision de la pensée”, will eventually triumph again over English, a “divided” language which, in their opinion, risks fragmenting anarchically due its very global nature: “It may well be that, a century from now, English speakers will need translators to be able to understand each other.” Touché.

But many have reached an impasse of despair: the académiciens regularly deplore the “scourges” inflicted on their native tongue by “la langue anglaise qui insidieusement la dévore de l’intérieur” (the English language which is insidiously devouring it from the inside), rendering much French discussion into a kind of “jargon pseudo-anglais” with terms like updatercustomiser, and être blacklisté brashly elbowing their way past their French equivalents (mettre à jourpersonnaliser, and figurer sur une liste noire respectively). One immortel fears that the increasing use of English is pushing French into a second-class language at home, urging francophones to go on strike.

The Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie

And académiciens are not alone in their attempts to halt the sabotage of the French language: other authorities, with considerably more legal power, are hard at work too. The French government has introduced various pieces of legislation over the past forty years, the most far-reaching being the 1994 Toubon Law which ruled that the French language must be used – although not necessarily exclusively – in a range of everyday contexts. Two years later, the French ministry of culture and communication established the Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie, whose members, supervised by representatives from the Académie, are tasked with creating hundreds of new French words every year to combat the insidious and irresistible onslaught of Anglo-Saxon terminology. French speakers point out that in practice, most of these creations are not well-known and, if they ever leap off the administrative pages of the Journal officiel, rarely survive in the wild. There are, however, a few notable exceptions, such as logiciel and – to an extent – courriel, which have caught on: the English takeover is not quite yet a fait accompli.

Vive la différence

It’s worth remembering, too, that language change does not always come from a conservative – or a European – perspective. It was the Québécois who pioneered the feminization of job titles (with “new” versions such as professeure and ingénieure) in the 1970s. Two decades later, the Institut National de la Langue française in France issued a statement giving its citizens carte blanche to choose between this “Canadian” approach and the “double-gender” practice (allowing la professeur for a female teacher, for example). While the Académie française maintain that such “arbitrary feminization” is destroying the internal logic of the language, research among French speakers shows that the “double-gender” approach is gaining in popularity, but also that where there was once clarity, there is now uncertainty over usage.

Perhaps yet more controversially, France has recently outlawed that familiar and – some might argue – quintessentially French title, Mademoiselle, on official documentation: “Madame” should therefore be preferred as the equivalent of “Monsieur” for men, a title which does not make any assumptions about marital status”, states former Prime Minister François Fillon’s ostensibly egalitarian declaration from 2012.

Après moi, le déluge

Meanwhile, the English deluge continues, dragging the French media and universities in its hypnotic wake, both of which are in thrall to a language which – for younger people, at least – just seems infinitely more chic. But the académiciens need not abandon all hope just yet. The immortel Dominique Fernandez has proposed what seems at first like a completely counter-intuitive suggestion: if the French were taught better English to start with, then they could “leave [it] where it ought to be, in the English language, and not in Anglicisms, that hybrid ruse of ignoramuses,” he asserts. Perhaps compulsory English for all will actually bring about an unexpected renaissance of the French language, the language of resistance, in its own home. And if we all end up speaking English instead? Well, c’est la vie.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Joanna Rubery is an Online Editor at Oxford University Press.

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Image: The Académie française via iStockphoto via OxfordWords blog.

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9. Word histories: conscious uncoupling

By Simon Thomas

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (better known as an Oscar-winning actress and the Grammy-winning lead singer of Coldplay respectively) recently announced that they would be separating. While the news of any separation is sad, we can’t deny that the report also carried some linguistic interest. In the announcement, on Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop, the pair described the end of their marriage as a “conscious uncoupling.” So … what does that mean?

The phrase was picked up by journalists, commentators, and tweeters around the world. Some called it pretentious, some thought it wise, others simply didn’t know what was going on. Let’s have a look into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and see what we can learn about these words.

Conscious is perhaps the less controversial word of the pair. A look through the Oxford Thesaurus of English brings up adjectives like awaredeliberateintentional, and considered. But did you know that the earliest recorded use of conscious related only to misdeeds? The OED currently dates the word to 1573, with the definition “having awareness of one’s own wrongdoing, affected by a feeling of guilt.” This sense is now confined to literary contexts, but it was only a few decades before the general sense “having knowledge or awareness; able to perceive or experience something” became common. The idea of it being used as an adjective referring to a deliberate action came later, in 1726, according to the OED’s current research.

Portrait of Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve in the Regiment of Princes

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve in the Regiment of Princes

The verb uncouple has an intriguing history. The current earliest evidence in the OED dates to the early fourteenth century, where it means “to release (dogs) from being fastened together in couples; to set free for the chase.” Interestingly, this is found earlier than its opposite (“to tie or fasten (dogs) together in pairs”), currently dated to c.1400 in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In c.1386, in the hands of Chaucer and “The Monk’s Tale,” uncouple is given a figurative use:

He maked hym so konnyng and so sowple
That longe tyme it was er tirannye
Or any vice dorste on hym vncowple.

The wider meaning “to unfasten, disconnect, detach” arrives in the early sixteenth century, and that is where things rested for some centuries.

The twentieth century saw another couple of uncouples – one of which is applicable to the Paltrow-Martins, and one of which refers to a very different field. In 1948, a biochemical use is first recorded – which the OED defines “to separate the processes of (phosphorylation) from those of oxidation.” But six years earlier, an American Thesaurus of Slang includes the word as a synonym for “to divorce,” and this forms the earliest example found in the OED sense defined as “to separate at the end of a relationship.” Other instances of uncouple meaning “to split up” can be found in a 1977 Washington Post article and one from the Boston Globe in 1989.

So, despite all the attention given to the term “conscious uncoupling,” people have been uncoupling in exactly the same way as Gwyneth and Chris – and using the same word – since at least 1942. So perhaps not quite as controversial as some commentators suggested.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Simon Thomas blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book.co.uk.

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10. The Oxford Comment: Quickcast – BADA-BING!

With the Academy Awards right around the corner, we thought it might be fun to look at the lexical impact of films and some words that were actually coined by movies. Joining us for this Quickcast are two “excellent” members of the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary team.

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Featured in this Episode:

Katherine Connor Martin, Senior Editor – OED

Matt Kohl, Senior Editorial Researcher – OED

And should you be interested in getting a hippopotamus for Christmas

*          *          *
Lights, camera, lexicon: the language of films in the OED

By Katherine Connor Martin

Film, that great popular art form of the twentieth century, is a valuable window on the evolving English language, as well as a catalyst of its evolution. Film scripts form an important element of the OED’s reading programme, and the number of citations from films in the revised OED multiplies with each quarterly update. The earliest film cited in the revised OED, The Headless Horseman (1922), actually dates from the silent era (the quotation is taken from the text of the titles which explain the on-screen action), but most quotations from film scripts represent spoken English, and as such provide crucial evidence for colloquial and slang usages which are under-represented in print.

Scripts as sources

It is therefore no surprise that, although the films cited in OED represent a wide range of genres and topics, movies about teenagers are especially prominent. The film most frequently cited thus far in the OED revision, with 11 quotations, is American Graffiti, George Lucas’s 1972 reminiscence of coming of age in the early 1960s; second place is a tie between Heathers (1988), the classic black comedy of American high school, and Purely Belter (2000), a British film about teenagers trying to scrape together the money to buy season tickets for Newcastle United FC. But the impact of cinema on English is not limited simply to providing lexicographical evidence for established usages. From the mid-twentieth century, the movies as mass culture have actually shaped our language, adding new words to the lexicon and propelling subcultural usages into the mainstream.

The use of a word in a single film script can be enough to spark an addition to the lexicon. Take for instance shagadelic, adj., the absurd expression of approval used by Mike Myers in Austin Powers (1997), which has gained a currency independent of that film se

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11. The government’s definition of writing is seriously out of date

By Dennis Baron

There’s a federal law that defines writing. Because the meaning of the words in our laws isn’t always clear, the very first of our federal laws, the Dictionary Act–the name for Title 1, Chapter 1, Section 1, of the U.S. Code–defines what some of the words in the rest of the Code mean, both to guide legal interpretation and to eliminate the need to explain those words each time they appear. Writing is one of the words it defines, but the definition needs an upgrade.

The Dictionary Act consists of a single sentence, an introduction and ten short clauses defining a minute subset of our legal vocabulary, words like person, officer, signature, oath, and last but not least, writing. This is necessary because sometimes a word’s legal meaning differs from its ordinary meaning. But changes in writing technology have rendered the Act’s definition of writing seriously out of date.

The Dictionary Act tells us that in the law, singular includes plural and plural, singular, unless context says otherwise; the present tense includes the future; and the masculine includes the feminine (but not the other way around–so much for equal protection).

The Act specifies that signature includes “a mark when the person making the same intended it as such,” and that oath includes affirmation. Apparently there’s a lot of insanity in the law, because the Dictionary Act finds it necessary to specify that “the words ‘insane’ and ‘insane person’ and ‘lunatic’ shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis.”

The Dictionary Act also tells us that “persons are corporations . . . as well as individuals,” which is why AT&T is currently trying to convince the Supreme Court that it is a person entitled to “personal privacy.” (The Act doesn’t specify whether “insane person” includes “insane corporation.”)

And then there’s the definition of writing. The final provision of the Act defines writing to include “printing and typewriting and reproductions of visual symbols by photographing, multigraphing, mimeographing, manifolding, or otherwise.” There’s no mention of Braille, for example, or of photocopying, or of computers and mobile phones, which seem now to be the primary means of transmitting text, though presumably they and Facebook and Twitter and all the writing technologies that have yet to appear are covered by the law’s blanket phrase “or otherwise.”

Federal law can’t be expected to keep up with every writing technology that comes along, but the newest of the six kinds of writing that the Dictionary Act does refer to–the multigraph–was invented around 1900 and has long since disappeared. No one has ever heard of multigraphing, or of manifolding, an even older and deader technology, and for most of us the mimeograph is at best a dim memory.

Congress considers writing important enough to the nation’s well-being to include it in the Dictionary Act, but not important enough to bring up to date, and now, with the 2012 election looming, no member of Congress is likely to support a revision to the current definition that is semantically accurate yet co

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12. Hollywood and The Dude

By Michelle Rafferty

Last week we prepared for the Academy Awards by discussing words and phrases coined from film (twitterpated, to bogart, party on) as well as linguistic choices in film this year (Winkelvii, ballerina lingo, The Kids are All Right, not alright) . While watching the awards last night it occurred to me that we failed to address one of the most important cinematic words of all time: dude. Or in the parlance of our time: The Dude.

But before we get to Lebowski (who, thanks to Sandra Bullock, did get a shout-out last night) let’s go back 30 years, when Hollywood gave us surfer dude. According to Matt Kohl, Senior Editorial Researcher at the OED:

The negative stigma resulted from earlier Hollywood portrayals of surf culture, which were by and large unflattering, especially with respect to intelligence. Spicoli in Fast Times (1982) is a pretty iconic example.

And then:

15+ years later, we get Lebowski from the Coen brothers. Though there are some indications of Spicoli in him: long hair, shabby attire, and a relaxed attitude toward drug-use and the law, it’s evident right away that The Dude isn’t derivative of Fast Times, Bill & Ted, or any other 80s dude convention…For the generation of viewers that fell in love with The Big Lebowski, dude took on a whole new meaning.

"Duuuude" vs. The Dude

While the Cohen brothers’ dude continues to have positive associations, religious adherence in some cases  (see: dudeism, Lebowski Fest), the surfer sense of dude has seen substantial backlash in the last 5-10 years. As Matt told me:

Now some surfers won’t use the word at all. In fact, there’s a making-of feature in Riding Giants, which is one of the more high-profile surf movies to come out recently, in which the director talks about the fact that none of the surfers featured in his movie uses “dude” or any of that beach-stoner vernacular.

Where Dude Originally Came From

Oscar Wilde, the original dude?

When the term first

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13. Mysteries of the OED

There is a lot of mystery behind the Oxford English Dictionary, but I can tell you for sure that it is not compiled in a Gringotts-style castle, all the word slips hidden in secret stone wall compartments, with a team of bearded, vitamin D-deficient lexicographers hunched over great dusty volumes. Today, the OED team is releasing new batch of updates, so I thought I’d share some videos that shed light into the revision process.

Revisions and Potato Salad

Click here to view the embedded video.

Megalosaurus (and other scientific words)

Click here to view the embedded video.

But what are the updates?

Click here to view the embedded video.

Watch more videos on the OUPAcademic YouTube channel.

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14. A short (and incomplete) history of Friday

By Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor

Yesterday I was sitting at my desk, pondering…normal things that bloggers ponder…when my friend Cassie shared this link with me.  If you haven’t seen the “Friday” music video, then perhaps the forecast just seems silly, but it inspired me to think about how fast the senses and connotations of words change. For most people, Friday is just the name of a day of the week, but for the moment it’s also the source of many inside jokes and references to Rebecca Black. She is, obviously, a big fan of Fridays because it marks the end of her school week and the beginning of the weekend. We have such acronyms to show our love for the day as TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday), and what seems to be a widespread distaste for Mondays. (*Ahem* Garfield. *Cough* Office Space.)

So the question is: did people always like Friday? Did we choose Friday as the end of the work week because it was already well-loved?

{ASIDE: I was just beginning my research when fellow blogger Levi Asher (Literary Kicks) teased me with this Wikipedia link, encouraging that I “meet [his] friend Frigg.” To this I replied, “How long have you been friends?” and he answered, “Since Thor’s Day.” Well played, Levi. Well played indeed.}

We begin with the OED.

Friday, n.
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈfrʌɪdeɪ/ , /ˈfrʌɪdi/ , U.S. /ˈfraɪˌdeɪ/ , /ˈfraɪdi/

1. The day following Thursday and preceding Saturday, traditionally regarded as the sixth day of the week, but now frequently considered as the fifth, and also as the last day of the working week and (especially in the evening) the start of the weekend. In the Catholic Church, Friday, along with Wednesday and Saturday, has traditionally been observed as one of the days for abstaining from eating meat, fish being the popular alternative. In Judaism, sunset on Friday marks the beginning of the Sabbath, which ends at sunset on Saturday.

So far, pretty simple. We see that Friday’s position in the week is appears to be most strongly connected to Judeo-Christian traditions. I didn’t really expect to discover anything spectacular, I was just satiating my own curiosity–and why bother the Oxford Etymologist with such small queries? But then I noticed a sense that was new to me.

Friday-look, n.
now rare (Eng. regional in later use). a serious or gloomy face or expression (cf. 0 Comments on A short (and incomplete) history of Friday as of 1/1/1900

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15. Linked Up: Subway Cars, Poetry, Rebecca Black

Dearest readers,

I think this might be the best collection of links I’ve ever gathered. So, you’re welcome. Have a wonderful weekend!

Next Stop Atlantic: a photo series documenting the hurling of MTA subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean to create artificial reefs for sea creatures. [My Modern Met]

“He doesn’t like George Michael! Boo!” This saxaphone player is committed. (I dare you not to laugh.) [Viddler]

There’s a reason you didn’t get an A+ on your creative writing homework. (Dare you not to laugh at this one, either.) [losteyeball]

Your head could look like a book. [Gizfactory]

Have you been reading The Morning News’s ‘Lunch Poems‘ series? [The Morning News]

The Word Guy gets PENsive. [Etyman]

Path of Protest: an interactive timeline of recent Middle East events [Guardian]

Nick Pitera does it again: a one-man Disney soundtrack. [YouTube]

Hilarious, ‘hardcore’, but fake Smithsonian ads [BostInnovation]

I know everyone has probably heard enough about ‘Friday’/Rebecca Black, but I have to offer up this if-you-laugh-you-lose challenge. [Johnny]

And finally, the award for Tweet of the Week goes to the Oxford Dictionaries team. [OxfordWords]

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16. Ypulse Essentials: OMG! The OED Adds Chat Abbreviations, Gaga Goes Country, Facebook Tests Ads in Real-Time

The Oxford English Dictionary (♥s shorthand. The online edition now contains text message and IM lingo like LOL, BFF and the heart symbol. Surprisingly these words date back beyond today’s teens; OMG first appeared in 1917! But does putting... Read the rest of this post

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17. A drinking bout in several parts (Part 4: Booze)

By Anatoly Liberman

Booze is an enigmatic word, but not the way ale, beer and mead are.  Those emerged centuries ago, and it does not come as a surprise that we have doubts about their ultimate origin.  The noun booze is different: it does not seem to predate the beginning or the 18th century, with the verb booze “to tipple, guzzle” making its way into a written text as early as 1300 (which means that it turned up in everyday speech some time earlier).  The riddles connected with booze are two.

First, why did the noun appear so much later than the verb?  A parallel case will elucidate the problem. The verb meet is ancient, while the noun meet is recent, and we can immediately see the reason for the delay: sports journalists needed a word for a “meeting” of athletes and teams and coined a meet, whose popularity infuriated some lovers of English, but, once the purists died out, the word became commonplace (this is how language changes: if a novelty succeeds in surviving its critics, it stays and makes the impression of having been around forever).  But the noun booze is not a technical term and should not have waited four hundred years before it joined the vocabulary.  Second, the verb booze is a doublet of bouse (it rhymes with carouse, which is fair).  Strangely, bouse has all but disappeared, and booze (sorry for a miserable pun) is on everybody’s lips.  However, it is not so much the death of bouse that should bother us as the difference in vowels.   The vowel we have in cow or round was once “long u” (as in today’s coo).  Therefore, bouse has the pronunciation one expects, whereas booze looks Middle English.  In the northern dialects of English “long u” did not become a diphthong, and this is probably why uncouth still rhymes with youth instead of south.  Is booze a northern doublet of bouse?  One can sense Murray’s frustration with this hypothesis.  He wrote: “Perhaps really a dialectal form” (and cited a similar Scots word).  It is the most uncharacteristic insertion of really that gives away Murray’s dismay.  His style, while composing entries, was business-like and crisp; contrary to most people around us, he preferred not to strew his explanations with really, actually, definitely, certainly, and other fluffy adverbs: he was a scholar, not a preacher.

Whatever the causes of the modern pronunciation of booze, one etymology will cover both it and bouse.  So what is the origin of bouse?  This word is surrounded by numerous nouns and verbs, some of which must be and others may be related to it.  First of all, its Dutch and German synonyms buizen and bausen spring to mind.  Both are rare to the extent of not being known to most native speakers, but their use in the past has been recorded beyond any doubt.  Most other words refer to swelling, violent or erratic movement, and noise: for instance, Dutch buisen “strike, knock” and, on the other hand, beuzelen “dawdle, trifle,” Norwegian baus “arrogant; irascible” and bause “put on airs” (which partly explains the sense of Dutch boos and Germa

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18. Ep. 10 – WORDS

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You can also look back at past episodes on the archive page.

Featured in this Episode:

Michelle goes on-site with former Oxford intern Caleb Madison,  the youngest person to publish a crossword puzzle in the New York Times (at the age of 15). A puzzle by his class at Sundays at JASA: A Program of Sunday Activities for Older Adults was recently published in the New York Times and featured on the Wordplay blog.

Lauren gets a private tour of the OED museum in Oxford with Archivist Martin Maw.

This slideshow features the crossword class in action, and some impressively old printing relics.

(Click the image if you would like to see it larger.)

19. Defining our language for 100 years

By Angus Stevenson Since the publication of its first edition in 1911, the revolutionary Concise Oxford Dictionary has remained in print and gained fame around the world over the course of eleven editions. This month heralds the publication of the centenary edition: the new 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary contains some 400 new entries, including cyberbullying, domestic goddess, gastric band, sexting, slow food, and textspeak.

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20. Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? OED Editor responds

We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. Richard Bailey, author of Speaking American, argues that it comes from the West African language Efik. Here OED editor Dr. Katrin Thier argues that the origin isn’t quite so clear.

By Dr. Katrin Thier

The origin of the word buckaroo is difficult to establish and is still a matter of debate. In the sense ‘cowboy’ it first appears in the early 19th century, written bakhara in the earliest source currently known to us, but used alongside other words of clearly Spanish origin. Later variants include baccaro, buccahro, and buckhara. On the face of it, a derivation from Spanish vaquero ‘cowboy’ looks likely, especially as the initial sound of the Spanish word is essentially the same as b- in English. The stress of the English word was apparently originally on the second syllable, as in Spanish, and only shifted to the final syllable later.

However, there is evidence from the Caribbean for a number of very similar and much earlier forms, such as bacchararo (1684), bockorau (1737), and backaroes (1740, plural), used by people of African descent to denote white people. This word then spreads from the Caribbean islands to the south of the North American continent. From the end of the 18th century, it is often contracted and now usually appears as buckra or backra, but trisyllablic forms such as buckera still occur in the 19th century. This word was brought from Africa and derives from the trisyllabic Efik word mbakára ‘white man, European’. Efik is a (non-Bantu) Niger-Congo language spoken around Calabar, a former slave port in what is now southern Nigeria.

Given the multi-ethnic and multilingual make-up of the south of the United States, it seems conceivable that similar words of different origin could meet and interact, influencing each other to generate new forms and meanings. However, a number of difficulties remain in explaining the change of sense and also the varying stress pattern if the word of Efik origin is assumed to be the sole origin of buckaroo ‘cowboy’.

This is a word that we look forward very much to researching in detail for the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary currently in progress. We would welcome any earlier examples of the word in the meaning ‘cowboy’, if any readers know of any.

Dr. Katrin Thier is Senior Etymology Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.

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21. Mars: A lexicographer’s perspective

By Richard Holden

The planet Mars might initially seem an odd choice for Place of the Year. It has hardly any atmosphere and is more or less geologically inactive, meaning that it has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. 2012 isn’t much different from one million BC as far as Mars is concerned.

However, here on Earth, 2012 has been a notable year for the red planet. Although no human has (yet?) visited Mars, our robot representatives have, and for the last year or so the Curiosity rover has been beaming back intimate photographs of the planet (and itself). (It’s also been narrating its adventures on Twitter.) As a result of this, Mars has perhaps become less of an object and more of a place (one that can be explored on Google Maps, albeit without the Street View facility).

Our changing relationship with Mars over time is shown in the development of its related words. Although modern readers will probably associate the word ‘Mars’ most readily with the planet (or perhaps the chocolate bar, if your primary concerns are more earthbound), the planet itself takes its name from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Drawing of Mars from the 1810 text, “The pantheon: or Ancient history of the gods of Greece and Rome. Intended to facilitate the understanding of the classical authors, and of poets in general. For the use of schools, and young persons of both sexes” by Edward Baldwin, Esq. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

From the name of this god we also get the word martial (relating to fighting or war), and the name of the month of March, which occurs at a time of a year at which many festivals in honour of Mars were held, probably because spring represented the beginning of the military campaign season.

Of course, nobody believes in the Roman gods anymore, so confusion between the planet and deity is limited. In the time of the Romans, the planet Mars was nothing more than a bright point in the sky (albeit one that took a curious wandering path in comparison to the fixed stars). But as observing technology improved over centuries, and Mars’s status as our nearest neighbour in the solar system became clear, speculation on its potential residents increased.

This is shown clearly in the history of the word martian. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common early usage of the word was as an adjective in the sense ‘of or relating to war’. (Although the very earliest use found, from Chaucer in c1395, is in a different sense to this — relating to the supposed astrological influence of the planet.)

But in the late 19th century, as observations of the surface of the planet increased in resolution, the idea of an present of formed intelligent civilization on Mars took hold, and another sense of martian came into use, denoting its (real or imagined) inhabitants. These were thought by some to be responsible for the ‘canals’ that they discerned on Mars’s surface (these later proved to be nothing more than an optical illusion). As well as (more or less) scientific speculation, Martians also became a mainstay of science fiction, the earth-invaders of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) being probably the most famous example.

A century on, robotic explorers such as the Viking probes and the aforementioned Curiosity have shown Mars to be an inhospitable, arid place, unlikely to harbour any advanced alien societies. Instead, our best hope for the existence of any real Martians is in the form of microbes, evidence for which Curiosity may yet uncover.

If no such evidence of life is found, perhaps the real Martians will be future human settlers. Despite the success of Martian exploration using robots proxies, the idea of humans visiting or settling Mars is still a romantic and tempting one, despite the many difficulties this would involve. Just this year, it was reported that Elon Musk, one of the co-founders of PayPal, wishes to establish a colony of 80,000 people on the planet.

The Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mars is Ares; as such, the prefix areo- is sometimes used to form words relating to the planet. Perhaps, then, if travel to Mars becomes a reality, we’ll begin to talk about the brave areonauts making this tough and unforgiving journey.

Richard Holden is an editor of science words for the Oxford English Dictionary, and an online editor for Oxford Dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number. If you are in the US, why not give the gift of language to a loved-one this holiday season? We’re offering a 20% discount on all new gift subscriptions to the OED to all customers residing in the Americas.

Oxford University Press’ annual Place of the Year, celebrating geographically interesting and inspiring places, coincides with its publication of Atlas of the World — the only atlas published annually — now in its 19th Edition. The Nineteenth Edition includes new census information, dozens of city maps, gorgeous satellite images of Earth, and a geographical glossary, once again offering exceptional value at a reasonable price. Read previous blog posts in our Place of the Year series.

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22. “Refudiate this, word snobs!”

Here at Oxford, we love words. We love when they have ancient histories, we love when they have double-meanings, we love when they appear in alphabet soup, and we love when they are made up.

Last week on The Sean Hannity Show, Sarah Palin pushed for the Barack and Michelle Obama to refudiate the NAACP’s claim that the Tea Party movement harbors “racist elements.” (You can still watch the clip on Mediaite and further commentary at CNN.) Refudiate is not a recognized word in the English language, but a curious mix of repudiate and refute. But rather than shrug off the verbal faux pas and take more care in the future, Palin used it again in a tweet this past Sunday.

Note: This tweet has been since deleted and replaced by this one.

Later in the day, Palin responded to the backlash from bloggers and fellow Twitter users with this:

Whether Palin’s word blend was a subconscious stroke of genius, or just a slip of the tongue,  it seems to have made a critic out of everyone. (See: #ShakesPalin) Lexicographers sure aren’t staying silent. Peter Sokolowksi of Merriam-Webster wonders, “What shall we call this? The Palin-drome?” And OUP lexicographer Christine Lindberg comments thus:

The err-sat political illuminary Sarah Palin is a notional treasure. And so adornable, too. I wish you liberals would wake up and smell the mooseburgers. Refudiate this, word snobs! Not only do I understand Ms. Palin’s message to our great land, I overstand it. Let us not be countermindful of the paths of freedom stricken by our Founding Fathers, lest we forget the midnight ride of Sam Revere through the streets of Philadelphia, shouting “The British our coming!” Thank the God above that a true patriot voice lives on today in Sarah Palin, who endares to live by the immorternal words of Nathan Henry, “I regret that I have but one language to mangle for my country.”

Mark Liberman over at Language Log asks, “If she really thought that refudiate was Shakespearean, wouldn’t she have left the original tweet proudly in place?”

He also points out that Palin did not coin the refudiate word blend. In fact, he says, “A

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23. Ypulse Essentials: Emmy Wins For Intergenerational TV, SB 970, Parents Sue Over Facebook 'Like'

Jimmy Fallon, 'Glee' and Betty White (made for an "energetically hilarious" start to last night's Emmys. As for the rest of the show? Critics at USA Today and the New York Times, reg. required, gave the former SNL star mixed reviews. Plus... Read the rest of this post

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24. A Passion for Words: The Week of Dictionary Controversy

It was a lively week fueled largely by misinformation as talk about the Oxford University Press filled blogs and flooded news columns across the Web. “The king’s book may never be seen in print again,” they cried. “Did you hear about those words that were added? What could the king be thinking to allow the lowly words of mere peasants into the holy grail of dictionaries?” For anyone who thought that Dick Snary was companion only to writers and other word-geeks this hoopla was surely a wake-up call. What was the underlying reason for the ruckus? If a book is not available in print do we fear we are being denied the information? If words we consider crass are acknowledged and accepted by a credible source does that somehow dilute the “purity” of our language?

The English language has an almost limitless ability to expand and develop. This is good news for those of us who want to continue to communicate the never-ending evolution of thoughts and ideas. Our ability to express is limited only by our own imagination--or sometimes by our editor—not by printed decree of the king. This is a language created by the people; the use of which can be neither denied nor muffled. It can, however, be recorded.

This brings us back to Oxford University Press and some necessary clarifications:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has not yet been printed. The ODE just revised RH--rococoesque and added the section to their draft for the new edition. A couple hundred words were added, mostly in this category, and there were some changes made in sub-categories. The new edition will probably be finished around the year 2020. Retail cost for a published volume set is estimated at $995. No final decision has been made regarding the cessation of printed volumes. The OED is accessible online for a fee. Why pay for access to an online dictionary when you can look up a word for free? The OED is a historical dictionary as opposed to a current-use dictionary; it is more like an encyclopedic language reference.

It is the new edition the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) which was just released along with its cousin, The New Oxford American Dictionary. These works are where the 2000 new words appear including Muggle, staycation, paywall and unfriend. The ODE and the NOAD are compilations of the common usage of words.

Dictionaries reflect of our ever changing culture. They provide a window into the social habits and communications of our neighbors and a historical reference for generations to come. Consider all the many forms available to us today. We have dictionaries of medieval words, slang dictionaries in almost every language, and urban dictionaries in which everyday people post new phrases daily. Instead of worrying about what words are added to them let us celebrate what they represent-- our passion for words.

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25. Frak is a Shibboleth!

By Michelle Rafferty

127 years ago today the Oxford English Dictionary published its first volume (A to ANT), so I thought I’d pay tribute with the story of how I recently learned the word “shibboleth”:

While rubbing elbows with fancy people at the recent OED re-launch party, I had the chance to meet contributors Matt Kohl and Katherine Connor Martin. Naturally the topic of conversation came to words, and I brought up one I had been using a lot lately: frak (the fictional version of “fuck” on Battlestar Galactica). I explained that I just started watching the show (better late than never, no?) and had been testing “frak” out in conversation to pick up other fans. Matt said, oh that’s a “shibboleth.”

A whateth? According to the OED:

The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).

Matt told me that he had first heard the word on The West Wing. Martin Sheen sums it up nicely: a password. A more recent sense in the OED defines shibboleth as:

A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.

The sect, in my case, is  Battlestar enthusiasts. I e-mailed Katherine later for more examples. She said:

I think politics affords some good examples. The pro-life movement is distinguishable by its use of certain buzz-words (abortionist, abortion-doctor, etc.), and the pro-choice movement by terms like “anti-choice”. Republicans use the word “democrat” as an adjective, while Democrats use the adjective “democratic”. If you ever hear someone talk about the “Democrat Party” on cable TV, you can be sure s/he is a conservative.

Shibboleth, it’s frakking everywhere!

(Thank you to Matt and Katherine for your countless hours spent keeping the OED alive, and for helping me realize the educational value of my addiction.)

"Let's get he frak outta here!" -Kara Thrace, S4E7

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