Twenty Words We (Probably) Don’t Owe to William Shakespeare
A 31 January posting on the Mental Floss website has been making the rounds of Facebook and other social media sites. The post, by Roma Panganiban, lists twenty words that Shakespeare allegedly coined. The post is unadulterated bardolatry. Yes, Shakespeare was the greatest English playwright and a pretty darn good poet as well, but he was not a literary superman, and claims that he coined thousands of words have been around for years. Panganiban claims some “2200 never-before-seen words” that can be attributed to Shakespeare, although I have no idea where she gets this number.Read the rest of the article...
Video: History of the Possessive
This is a fun video, and at first blush seems pretty accurate.
ObQuibble: I question the use of the year 450 as the benchmark for Old English. That’s about the time the first Anglo-Saxons were landing in England. Most of our evidence for the language comes from several centuries later. The earliest texts of any length we have are from the eighth century. And virtually all the poetry that survives was copied down in the tenth or eleventh centuries. So it’s not really a thousand-year jump from Old English to Chaucer in the late fourteenth. It’s more like 500–700 years.
Close, But No Cigar
The phrase close, but no cigar is traditionally uttered when someone falls just short of achieving a goal. The phrase comes to us from the early twentieth-century practice of giving out cigars as prizes for winning games of chance or skill at carnivals, fairs, and other attractions. As I am writing this, the earliest known use of the phrase is from 1929, although the phrase is almost certainly older, and antedatings may yet be found.Read the rest of the article...
The Violence Must End
Books Read, 2012
Like last year, I’m publishing a list of the books I’ve read over the previous year. There are about as many titles as last year, but the total word count is lower given that many of them are poems. But then, many are also in Old English, so reading is much slower and more intensive.
Many of the books were on my PhD special field reading list or critical works I read in preparation for that exam.
Those marked with an asterisk are re-reads. I’ve read them before.Read the rest of the article...
Spitting image or spit and image (sometimes reanalyzed as splitting image) stems from the metaphor of spitting out an exact likeness of oneself.
The metaphor appears as early as 1602 when Nicholas Breton writes in his book Wonders Worth Hearing, “twoo girles, [...] the one as like an Owle, the other as like an Urchin, as if they had beene spitte out of the mouthes of them.”
whole nine yards, the
Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the phrase, the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The origin of the phrase has long been a mystery, but recently researchers Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro have uncovered the phrase’s origin, or at least gotten as close to the origin as anyone is likely to get. And in what may be a surprise to many (but perhaps not to those with long experience researching slang terms), the phrase doesn’t refer to anything in particular. The “nine” holds no significance, nor does “yards” measure anything in particular.Read the rest of the article...
Hyphens: A Rant (So To Speak)
Although Jen Doll calls her piece a “rant,” it really isn’t one. It’s rare that a mass-market publication like The Atlantic prints a thoughtful article that effectively deals with the niceties and subtleties of punctuation, but this one on the hyphen is just that. Judging from my students’ essays, the hyphen, along with its cousin the dash, is probably the most misused punctuation mark, and Ms Doll’s article addresses the proper usage with understated wit and charm. If only more articles about pet peeves were like this one.
Plus, I learned something from this article. I had no idea that that an en dash was the proper mark to use in the adjective pre–Civil War. It seems, at least according to Chicago, that an en dash is used instead of hyphen when linking an open compound (i. e., Civil War) with another adjective or prefix.
[Tip o’ the Hat to Andrew Sullivan]
Ben Zimmer has a nice piece in today’s Boston Globe on how writer Tony Kushner came up with the authentic language used in Spielberg’s Lincoln.
OED Editing Drama
There’s nothing like the excitement generated by a good story about dictionary editing gone wild.
The Guardian ran this piece on Monday about the OED “covertly” deleting words because they came from sources outside England.
The only problem is, that it doesn’t seem to be true. Yes, the dictionary deleted words, and these were disproportionately words from non-UK varieties of English, but there was nothing covert about it. The dictionary clearly explained its editorial policy and under what circumstances words would be struck from the dictionary. The words weren’t deleted because they were foreignisms, but because the evidence for their use was not substantive enough. At the same time, the editors were adding many more foreignisms that were better researched and clearly established. When dealing with a print dictionary, there is only so much room and such editorial decisions need to be made. Furthermore, the book on which The Guardian bases its article apparently does not make the claims the newspaper says it does.
Jesse Sheidlower has a response on the New Yorker’s blog.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton