Wednesday, 12 December 2007

It's the end of the year and we know it....

As happens at this time of year, people begin to create lists which are supposed in some way to sum up the year that's passed. One such list is that created by Merriam-Websters' dictionary in the US, which is roughly equivalent in standing as the OED is here. Their top ten words of the year, as voted for by visitors to their website (a completely useless grading criteria - I mean, who visits dictionary websites? oh, yeah, me) are:
1. w00t (interjection)
expressing joy (it could be after a triumph, or for no reason at all); similar in use to the word "yay"
w00t! I won the contest!

This comes from 'l33t' speak. ('l33t' is short for 'elite' and is an annoying online game-player language used to exclude people who don't understand it. It's a form of e-language, supposedly quicker, whose features include the replacement of 'e' with '3' and 'o' with '0' (that second one's a zero in case you can't tell from my font). W00t is also an acronym (what a feast for language change enthusiasts) standing for 'we owed the other team' - see the l33t roots?

2. facebook (verb)

As in 'I facebooked her'. It can mean, variously, looking someone up on facebook, messaging them through facebook, etc etc etc. If you don't know what facebook is, you're sooo 2006 ;)

A tribute to the rise of the social networking site - so language change because a new phenomenon requires a new name, with facebook itself being a new compound of... face and book. Starting off as a noun, it has rapidly moved word classes to become a verb - another common mode of language change - can you think of any others?

3. conundrum (noun)

There doesn't seem to be a particular reason why this is a word of the year - I think it's just been someone's favourite word. According to Merriam-Webster, the word has been around since 1645. It can merely be a difficult problem, or a question whose answer is purely conjectural, or a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun. Countdown conundrum anyone?

4. quixotic (adjective)

Again this has been around for a while. It comes from the name of the eponymous character Don Quixote (pronounced Key-oh-tay but the adjective is pronounced as it appears), and describes people who are like the hero from this 1718 novel. It suggests one who is foolish and impractical in the pursuit of romantic ideals, or likes to behave like a knight of the round table. Here's another good way words are brought into the language - via eponyms. I bet you know at least two more, though these are nouns. One you'll have in your cupboard at home and use to clean the floor, and another you'll have in your pencil case.... yes, that's right, give it up for Messrs Hoover and Biro. Interestingly I heard a discussion on the radio the other day about the use of names as brands. The ideal is to get to the point where everyone identifies the name and brand, but not so far that they become everyday words for the genre of object, because at that point you lose your trademark.

5. blamestorm (verb/ noun)

This is not totally new, but it's fairly recent and will be familiar to anyone who has looked at 'management speak' in Language and Occupation. The definitions given by Merriam-Webster are:
(verb) : Gathering around in a group to discuss why a deadline was missed or a project failed and who is to blame or responsible.
All the managers were locked up in a meeting for the all day blamestorming about the lost contract.

(noun) : A meeting held in order to come up with a name of a person to assign guilt to a certain incident.
The board of directors where exhausted after a four hour blamestorm which finally resulted in two names for the chopping block.
It's obviously formed on analogy from the now-considered-politically-incorrect 'brainstorm' and has the advantage of internal rhyme with the base word. It's a piece of jargon which is becoming more widespread, from the ever-growing middle management/ business type environment.

6. sardoodledom (noun)

This was an entirely new one on me so I offer you Merriam-Webster's entry in its entirety. Goodness knows why this was a word of the year, but I quite like it's alliterativeness and it illustrates another method of lexical change.

Main Entry: sar·doo·dle·dom
Pronunciation: sär-ˈdü-dəl-dəm
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): sar·doo·dle·doms
Etymology: sardoodle- (blend of Victorien Sardou died 1908 French playwright criticized by G. B. Shaw died 1950 English playwright for the supposed staginess of his plays and English doodle) + -dom

: mechanically contrived plot structure and stereotyped or unrealistic characterization in drama Sardoodledom -- John Mason Brown>

7. apathetic (verb)

Again an old one here, from 1744, meaning having little or no interest or emotion. It's typically used of students about politics. Interestingly, if you look at its formation which is the prefix a-. meaning 'not' or 'no' with 'pathetic', it throws some light on the way in which 'pathetic' comes to mean what it does.

8. Pecksniffian

Similarly to quixotic, this is based on the name of a character in a novel - in this case Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. It means 'unctuously hypocritical' - doesn't sound very nice. The kind of word you could use when you don't want someone to know you're insulting them.

9. hypocrite

You know who you are.

10. charlatan

This is someone who pretends to have knowledge or ability which they do not, usually conning people in the process. Interestingly the etymology of this is the Italian ciarlatano, alteration of cerretano, literally, inhabitant of Cerreto, from Cerreto, dated 1618. I'd really like to know what they did to annoy their neighbours!!

So, a list, and lots of ways that language can change, or form, or be used in different ways. Keep an eye out for the OED's list - their annual 'language report' by Susie Dent is usually worth a read and quite funny.

Monday, 10 December 2007


ps. no sestinas yet? you disappoint me. ;)

Eggcorns and mondegreen

All you lovely people out there are undoubtedly sick and tired of your English teachers correcting spellings or even (heaven forbid) sniggering at particularly amusing howlers. Those of you in A2 English Language may even have tried arguing that it's 'Language Change in action.'

And here's the good news - sometimes, sometimes, you're right. Only when it makes sense, though.

Mondegreens are the more traditional form - coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright - and the term itself is a mondegreen, that is to say, the hearing of a word or phrase as a homophone or near-homophone in such a way as it acquires new meaning. It usually involves reanalysing where the word divisions are. The term comes from an article in Harper's Magazine where Wright wrote:

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.

The fourth line should in fact be 'and laid him on the green' - it's a 17th century ballad. So next time you make up a really bizarre line to a song you've only partially heard, you know what to call it.

However, eggcorns are slightly different. You all know what one meaning of 'eggcorn' is - it's those little things from which great oaks grow. Yes, that's right, acorns. Someone not quite sure of how to spell acorn came up with a reasonable spelling which - crucially - sounds as though it might be etymologically believable or explicable - at least if you're not an etymologist. Other examples might be 'restbite' for 'respite' where you appear to be having a 'rest' from your troubles 'biting' you. The point is, you have to be able to come up with a defence of why your spelling is correct in terms of a folk etymology or metonymy. No simply trying to palm off they're/there on your teacher.

So, two words of the day and a small excuse to argue with your teacher.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Do you know a sonnet from a sestina?

So, Ofsted have managed to offend government and teachers once more as they complain that all this preparing for examinations teachers unreasonably do means we're not getting enough poetry in classrooms these days. Michael Rosen, the Children's Laureate, leaped to the attack as well.

The thing which worried me most about the whole report was the way no-one seemed to notice the contradiction between their criticism that pupils were only encountering 'relatively easy' poems - ie fun modern ones - and their desire that poetry teaching should be about kindling a love of poetry. Now, personally, I think shoving a load of 'classic' poems down people's throats is a sure fire way to lose them forever.... However, far be it from me to disagree with Schools' Minister Lord Adonis (who seems to be more commonly known as 'Andrew Adonis' now, in a nice, socially equal kind of a way. He said: "I want to see a generation of young people who know their poetry from Auden to Zephaniah and their sonnets from sestinas."

Well, I am sure you know Auden (W.H. Auden - wrote 'stop all the clocks' from 4 weddings and a funeral? aha, yes I thought you would) and Zephaniah (Benjamin, fabulous dreadlocks, well known for writing in dialect - great poem about being kind to your turkeys at Christmas) and a sonnet (14 lines - Shakespeare wrote a LOT of them) but what about a sestina? No, well, I am surprised. Or not, actually. It's a 39-lined poem. Fairly impossible to do a lot of those in an hour's English lesson and the chances of you being able to write one for homework, also fairly slim. But because this blog is good for you, here's what one is.

Definition of the Sestina
--from the Encyclopedia Britannica (

An elaborate verse form employed by medieval Provençal and Italian, and occasional modern, poets. It consists, in its pure medieval form, of six stanzas of blank verse, each of six lines--hence the name. The final words of the first stanza appear in varied order in the other five, the order used by the Provençals being: abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca. Following these was a stanza of three lines, in which the six key words were repeated in the middle and at the end of the lines, summarizing the poem or dedicating it to some person. The sestina was invented by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel and was used in Italy by Dante and Petrarch, after which it fell into disuse until revived by the 16th-century French Pléiade, particularly Pontus de Tyard. In the 19th century, Ferdinand, comte de Gramont, wrote a large number of sestinas, and Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Complaint of Lisa" is an astonishing tour de force--a double sestina of 12 stanzas of 12 lines each. In the 20th century, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden wrote noteworthy sestinas.

Did you get that? Well, basically, all the lines end in one of six words, in varying order. There's an example below, by Ezra Pound. And because it's Christmas time, a competition for you. Try writing a sestina of your very own, submit it via the comment button and I'll put you up in the main body of the blog... Fame, adulation, wealth... well, moral wealth anyway. Good luck.

Example of a Sestina

Sestina: Altaforte
by Ezra Pound

Loquitur: En Bertrans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer-up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again? The scene is at his castle, Altaforte.
"Papiols" is his jouleur. "The Leopard," the device of Richard (Coeur de Lion).


Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let¹s to music!
I have no life save when swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair,purple,opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howel I my heart nigh mad rejoying.


In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When tempests kill the earth¹s foul peace,
And the light¹nings from black heav¹n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven God¹s swords clash.


Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour¹s stour than a year¹s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there¹s no wine like the blood¹s crimson!


And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears throught he dark clash
and it fills my heart with rejoycing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might Œgainst all darkmess opposing.


The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But it is fit only to rotin womanish peace
Far from where worth¹s won and the swords clash
For the death of sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.


Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There¹s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle¹s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges Œgainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"


And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought "Peace"!