January 14, 2018

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life was as a professional writer.

I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.


When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2015

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.


March 9, 2015

I went for a long ride on the #20 and then the #9 (and return) followed by lunch at The Dime today, which allowed me lots of time to finish up a wonderful book called “Alphabetical” by Michael Rosen.

This thick 400+ page tome has 27 chapters, one for each of the letters in the English alphabet plus a chapter on word games at the end.  Each of the first 26 chapters gives a brief history of each letter and a summation of its use in English, followed by a short essay on a subject that is more or less related (for example “C is for Ciphers”, and “P is for Pitman”).  Academic snobs might pooh-pooh the lack of footnotes and specific citations, but this is a lively read full of fascinating detail and personal anecdotes about all things alphabetical.

The author, Michael Rosen, knows whereof he speaks. He is an accomplished poet and host of the BBC Radio show about language, “Word of Mouth“.

I enjoyed this immensely and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in language and symbols.

On Dictionaries

January 25, 2015

While suffering — though definitely not in silence — from some nasty bug that has laid me low for three days now and shows few signs of abating, I have at least had a chance to rest and read. One of the most interesting pieces I got to spend time on is this marvelous Slate piece about the creation of the 4th edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary — the OED of American English.

Merriam-Webster have caught up with the times:

More than half a century after it was published, the company’s landmark book—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, known in lexicographic circles as Webster’s Third, W3, the Unabridged, or the Third—is getting an overhaul. The Third is a behemoth—4 inches thick, 13½ pounds, 2,700 pages—that falls like a crashing wave when opened. A fourth edition, by contrast, might never exist as a physical object. This latest revision, a project Merriam-Webster hopes will secure its dominance in the tenuous business of commercial lexicography if not ensure its future survival, is happening entirely online.

The article includes some fascinating snippets about the history of dictionary-making in America, and provides insights into how the old and the new are melding in the current production. For example:

The New Words file contains about 1,700 nominees for word-dom. But it isn’t the sum and substance of the Unabridged revision. Merriam plans to re-examine and when necessary—and it’s usually necessary—rewrite each of more than 476,000 entries from the most recent printing of the Third, in 2002, when the original 1961 edition, plus its seven addenda, was first made available online.

An incredible task and not without its risks from a business perspective. After all, with no physical book to sell, the potential revenue streams are more difficult to assess:

On its face, this might sound like a terrible plan. Merriam has tasked the majority of its employees with rewriting a book that likely won’t generate revenue the old-fashioned way, through hardcover sales. The project involves the subscription-only Unabridged site, not Merriam’s free online dictionary, which is based on its smaller desktop book, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So there’s no guarantee it will find enough customers willing to pay $29.95 a year to turn a profit. Plus, the work could take decades to complete. By the time the Third gets close to being a Fourth, it’s not clear how people will use a dictionary, or even what a dictionary will be.

This is a wonderful piece for anyone interested in the future of vocabulary and the use of dictionaries. Thoroughly recommended.

English As She Is Not

December 19, 2014


I just love this. It is from the always creative Michael Ciancio.


December 15, 2014

That “English” has become the predominant language around the world might seem to us, lazing around on the west coast of North America, as a truism.  But Robert McCrum and other watchers of the cultural milieu have noticed something far more subtle.  The language they see as taking over is called “Globish”, a de-politicized non-Anglo Saxon version of English with a basic vocabulary of about 1,500 words.  McCrum quotes Times journalist Ben McIntyre who

waiting for a flight from Delhi, had overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. “The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me.  Only now,” he concluded, “do I realise that they were speaking ‘Globish’, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”

McCrum traces the history:

British English had enjoyed global supremacy throughout the 19th century in the days of empire. Then, broadly speaking, its power and influence had passed to the Americans in the 20th century (through the agency of two world wars). After that, during the cold war, Anglo-American culture and values became as much part of global consciousness as the combustion engine. From 1945 to 1989, hardly a transaction in the modern world was innocent of English in some form – but its scope was always limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the pax Americana. Now that seemed to be all in the past … Things had changed … English language and culture were becoming decoupled from their contentious heritage, disassociated from post-colonial trauma.

McCrum concludes that “the emergence of English as a global communications phenomenon which can celebrate a real independence from its Anglo-American roots is potentially decisive”, especially on the Internet.  Interesting stuff.

A Question For Etymologists

March 1, 2014

I am looking to find the ultimate origin of the English word SKULK which, in the southern England that I grew up in, means to hang around, in a semi-concealed fashion, for some underhanded purpose.  “That burglar is skulking around the neighbourhood.”

In all the etymological dictionaries that I have examined, the word origin is given as Scandinavian from the 12th or 13th century.  For example: Danish “skulke“, Swedish “skolka“, and Icelandic “skolla.”  Those derivations are from Walter Skeat’s Dictionary, and similar derivations can be found at various online dictionaries such here, here, and here.  Normally that would be that; all the sources agree.

However, today I have been reading a 1985 PhD dissertation on the settlement of 6th and 7th century northern Italy by the Langobards who came from Pannonia which is roughly Croatia, and northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzeogivana.  In a discussion of military organization, the author mentions: “the sculca, denoting a spying or reconnaissance group or look-out … it was of Germanic origin which passed into Byzantine usage.”

Sculca as spies or look outs and skulking seem awfully close in both meaning and sound.  Could the Scandinavians have picked up the earlier word via the Germanic tribes between Lombardy and the Baltic?  Or perhaps both words derive from a proto-Germanic or even PIE original. Is there any debate on this anywhere?