A Surfeit of Canadian Slang
There is a particular genre of news article in which a columnist attempts to pack in as many slang words into the available space as possible. The news “value” of such an article is that it supposedly shows “how weird our language is” or “what the cool kids are saying.” In actuality, there is little value in the articles. They’re usually written by going through lists of slang terms and constructing sentences that use as many of the words as possible, so language researchers find little value in them. And, since no one in the real world ever uses so many slang terms at once, these articles give a false impression of how slang is actually used. In real speech, when one comes across an unfamiliar slang term, it’s meaning can usually be deduced from the context. By packing in as many weird words as possible, all context is lost. If there was any context to begin with, since, after all, the point of the article is to make use of random words.
Yet, these articles can be fun.
One such appeared yesterday in The National Post by Dave Bidini that features Canadian slang and regionalisms. A sample from the opening paragraph:
I got off the chesterfield, threw on my old housecoat and thongs, hucked a forty pounder, half-sack of swish and mickey of goof in a Loblaws bag over my shoulder before leaving my bachelor apartment to head due west past fire halls and hydros and parkades and corner stores in the direction of Dead Rear, Oilberta looking for some kind of joe job — cleaning eavestroughs; stitching hockey sweaters; packing Smarties; anything! — although damned if I knew whether I would find work once I got there.
I’ve been living in Canada for almost three years now. I can understand roughly half of the article.
Interactive Map of San Francisco Toponyms
Noah Veltman, a Knight-Mozilla News Fellow at the BBC, has created an interactive map that displays the origin of place names (mostly street names) in San Francisco. It’s well-designed and easy to use.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy, which is notoriously difficult to achieve with toponymic etymologies, but if the account in this KQED article is correct, it’s probably as accurate as can be: “Reliability was an issue, he said. He tried to cross-check all his facts, because often one source would tell one story and another source would tell it slightly differently. ‘It’s a lot of just manual legwork,” Veltman said. “Looking at old archives, school books, old newspaper articles from The Chronicle, checking out historical society pages. There were certainly no shortcuts.’”
[Tip o’ the Hat to Mic Michelsen]
Review: How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps
How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps
Scribendi (Karen Ashford), $2.99 (Kindle e-book)
I’m always on the lookout for good sources of writing advice that I can pass on to my students. So when given the opportunity to review How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps I jumped at the chance. (Like most reviews, I get a free copy.) Unfortunately, while this book is adequate, it does not offer much that is new or that makes it stand out from the crowd. It is filled with run-of-the-mill advice that you can find just about anywhere.Read the rest of the article...
DARE Needs Your Support
The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is the crown jewel of North American lexicography. It’s a six-volume dictionary of regionalisms gathered from across the United States. The sixth and final volume was published this year, but its work is not yet done. The dictionary’s staff is hard at work creating a digital version that will not only make the work more accessible, but will be the home for future updates and additions. Or would be except DARE’s work has been threatened by a sudden loss of funding. The foundation that has long funded the project has declined to renew the grant, and the University of Wisconsin, where the dictionary is housed, is itself in severe financial straits due to cuts in government funding.
DARE editor Joan Houston Hall reports that the staff will be laid off as of July and that her own position disappears in January. The dictionary is on life support and reduced to begging for scraps in order to stay alive long enough to win another grant.
If you are able to contribute, you can do so here.
Originally a noun (and still a noun in some isolated uses), the adjective dismal comes into English, like many of our words, with the Normans, a compound formed from the Old French phrase dis mal, which in turn is from the Latin dies mali or “bad days.” The noun dismal, meaning bad or unlucky days, appears in English c. 1300. For example, around 1369 Chaucer writes in The Book of the Duchess, lines 1206–07:
I trowe hyt was in the dismalle,
That was the .x. woundes of Egipte.
(I believe it was in the dismal,
that was the ten wounds of Egypt.)
The dismal, also called the Egyptian days because they were first calculated by Egyptian astrologers, consisted of two days per month on which it was unlucky to start a journey or begin a venture. In the Middle Ages, the days became associated with plagues of Egypt described in Exodus, hence the Chaucer quote.
By the fifteenth century the association with the Latin dies, “days,” had been sufficiently forgotten that people started referring to them with the redundant dismal days, as in Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, written c. 1421, line 2893:
He hath pronounced [...] his Cleer conceyte [...] her dysemol daies and her fatal houres.
(He has pronounced [...] his clear understanding [...] her dismal days and her fatal hours.)
By the sixteenth century, dismal was being used as an adjective meaning unlucky or disastrous. By the seventeenth century it was being used to mean dark, gloomy, or cheerless.
Sources: “dismal, n. and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989; “dismal, n. and adj.” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
The practice of playing tricks on other people on the first of April arose in Europe and crossed the channel to Britain in the late seventeenth century. No one is certain why April first is associated with pranks, and there are numerous conjectures, but since none have any strong evidence supporting them, I won’t list them here.
The earliest known use of the phrase April fool in English is in William Congreve’s 1693 play The Old Batchelour (1.1.5):
That’s one of Loves April-fools, is always upon some errand that’s to no purpose.
But this is a general reference to a man smitten with love, rather than the victim of a prank. But within a two decades we have references to the practice, witnessed by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator in 1711:
An ingenious Tribe of Men [...] who are for making April Fools every Day in the Year. These Gentlemen are commonly distinguished by the name of Biters.
And Adam Fitz-Adam refers to April Fool’s Day in his 1753 book The World:
No wise man will tell me that it is not as reasonable to fall out for the observance of April-fool-day.
Source: The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, “April fool, n.,” September 2008.
creek, up a creek
I had no idea that British usage of creek was different from the use of the word in the rest of the English-speaking world until I was translating an Old Norse work (appropriately enough regarding the discovery and exploration of Vinland) and found that my Old Norse dictionary, produced in the U. K., translated the word vágr as “bay, creek.” Unsure what was intended, a bay or a creek, I did some digging and discovered in British dialect the two words were synonyms. (Just to be clear, there is no etymological connection with the Old Norse vágr. Creek is simply a translation.)Read the rest of the article...
Acre, the unit of land measurement, comes down to us from the Old English æcer. The word is common throughout the Germanic languages, and has cognates in other Indo-European languages too, like the Latin ager and the Greek ἀγρός ”field," and the Sanskrit ajra ”plain, open country.” The modern spelling is influenced by the Norman French version of the word.
The exact definition of acre has varied over the centuries, and originally it referred to the amount of land a team of oxen could plow in one day, as recorded in Ælfric’s Colloquy, an early eleventh century schoolbook for teaching Latin, which among other things describes various occupations. It has this to say about a plowman:
Omni die debeo aratre [read arare] integrum agrum aut plus : ælce dæg ic sceal erian fulne æþer [read æcer] oþþe mare.
(Each day I must plow a full acre or more.)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Holt, a word for a wooded area, a copse, goes back to Old English. It’s root is common Germanic, with cognates found in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, etc.
The word is found in line 2598 of Beowulf to describe how the hero’s men abandon him when faced with the dragon:
ac hy on holt bugon, ealdre burgan
(but they fled into the wood to save their lives)
Perhaps the most famous appearance of the word is in line six of “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
(When Zephyr also with the his sweet breath
has inspired in every holt and heath
There’s really not much else to say about this word. I came across it while reading an Old Norse account of the settlement of Vinland and wondered if it was a borrowing from Old Norse. The English word isn’t borrowed, it’s just cognate with the Old Norse. Although in Icelandic it means a stony hill—not many trees in Iceland. And indeed, in the account I’m reading, Eiriks saga Rauða or Þorfinns saga Karlsefnis (Eric the Red’s Saga or Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Saga), from a late fifteenth-century manuscript, the word does indeed mean hill as it is contrasted with lowlands:
Þar fundu þeir sjálfsána hveitiakra, þar sem lægðir váru, en vínviðr alt þar sem holta kendi.
(There they found wild-growing (self-sown) wheat fields where there was low-lying land, and grapevines wherever there were hills.)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton