English 3.0

Joe Gilbert has created English 3.0, a twenty-minute documentary on the state of the English language, featuring the likes of Tom Chatfield, David Crystal, Robert McCrum, Fiona McPherson and Simon Horobin.

English 3.0 from Joe Gilbert on Vimeo.

It’s quite good. One comment mentioned by several of those interviewed that I have my doubts about concerns the “revolution” in language due to the internet. The claim is that the language is changing faster than ever. I’m not so sure that is true. Rather, we may simply be noticing the change more. People are coining (and abandoning) new words at the same rate they always have. But now with the internet, we see them, where before the new coinage was confined to a small coterie of the coiner’s friends and acquaintances. The impact on lexicography is the danger that these words will be ephemeral and the dictionary will become filled with obsolescent coinages that had a brief flash of existence—words that never would have risen to the attention of lexicographer fifty years ago because they died too quickly.

(Tip o’ the Hat to Stan Carey over at the Sentence First blog.

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reeve, sheriff

I’ve lived in Toronto for over four years now, and still differences between how English is spoken here and how it is spoken down south in the States keep surprising me. Today I was reading one of my favorite blogs (Lowering the Bar, a blog on legal humor) and saw a reference to the reeve of Hanover, Manitoba. The blog helpfully defined reeve as “mayor.”

Now I’m a medievalist, and I’m familiar with the word—one that is primarily known from Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales—but I had no idea the term was still in use other than in historical contexts. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Canadian political lexicon has several such fossilized terms; another being riding, or a Canadian voting district. Reeve is just another example.

The word comes from the Old English gerefa, a title for a local official or magistrate, often one who supervises the financial affairs of a shire, county, or estate. The -ref root is of unknown origin. The phonological shift from /f/ to /v/ is a common one and in this word can be seen as early as the late Old English/early Middle English period.

In modern use, reeve is mainly a historical term, used to reference medieval officials, but it still survives up here in parts of Canada and in certain pockets of England as a title for modern officials. But the modern use that is probably most familiar is the word sheriff , which comes from the Old English scirgerefa, or shire-reeve.


“reeve, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2009.

“sheriff, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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Best Animal Name Ever

Meet Osedax mucofloris, the bone-eating snot-flower worm.

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sheriff, reeve

See reeve.

Women in The Guardian

Maddie York, an editor at The Guardian, has penned an article for that paper’s “Mind Your Language Blog” in which she objects to the use of woman as an adjective, as in woman doctor or woman writer. The subheading for the blog post—which York may not have written, as headlines are often not written by the reporter—reads:

‘Woman’ is not an acceptable adjective, any more than ‘lady’ once was. Let’s eradicate this misuse and give language a nudge in the right direction.

But this general proscription is just wrong. There is nothing, and never has been anything, wrong with using woman as an adjective.

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I was listening to a podcast in which the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson stated that he was under the impression that the discipline of ergonomics arose when the baby boomers started growing old and began feeling aches and pains. Of course, I had to immediately research the origin of the term, and it turns out Tyson’s impression is incorrect. (To be fair, Tyson wasn’t stating it as fact and expressed his own skepticism as to whether or not it was true.)

It seems the term ergonomics was coined in 1949 by British psychologist K. F. Hywel Murrell (1908–84). That same year Murrell as several colleagues founded the Ergonomics Research Society. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of the term in a published work is from the 1 April 1950 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, when that journal made mention of the society that Murrell had founded. The word is modeled after economics, but uses the Greek ἔργον, or ergon, meaning work, as the root.

So the term comes much too early to be the result of aging baby boomers, the first of whom were only toddlers when the term and the discipline came into existence.


“ergonomics, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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Footnotes in the Digital Age

Last week Tim Parks posted in the New York Review of Books Blog on the need, or rather lack thereof, for formal reference citations in scholarly literature. Parks contends that with the advent of the internet and databases like Project Gutenberg, there is no longer a need for footnotes that give the source of information. Everything is simply a few key or mouse clicks away, and it’s easier for all concerned just to Google something rather than follow a footnoted reference.

Parks couldn’t be more wrong, and his argument betrays the biases in his work. His scholarly work is focused on contemporary literature and on translation. While it may, in many cases, be easier for him to Google something than look for a footnote, that is not necessarily the case in other fields.

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ASL Poetry

Gretchen McCulloch has a nice post on how to rhyme in sign language over at Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog. Of particular note is this video:

More generally, this falls under the category of “how to translate poetry.” Whether the target language is spoken or signed, the same basic issue arises: How do you translate verse while remaining true to the source?

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The Problem of Defining Genocide

Stéphanie Giry has an article in the New York Review of Books, The Genocide That Wasn’t, discussing the application of the term genocide to the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Giry outlines the problem that occurs when the generally accepted definition of a term clashes with the legal one and points out that genocide has become the ultimate crime in the eyes of the world public.

In this case, the Cambodian people, and most others around the world, consider what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people as genocide. But because the actions of the Khmer Rouge were not directed against an ethnic or national minority, the crime doesn’t fit the legal definition of genocide. Instead, the Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of crimes against humanity, which is perceived as a lesser crime. (Even though the penalty is the same, life in prison.)

Analogous cases where popular definitions of terms conflict with technical ones are common, but the moral stakes here make this case a special one.

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Genocide is a rare case of a word where we know who exactly coined it, a lawyer and law professor named Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin formed the word from the Greek word γένος (genos, race or tribe) and -cide (killing). Lemkin used the word in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, defining it as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” (Lemkin had argued as early as 1933 for an international law banning genocide, but I haven’t found evidence that he used the specific word before his 1944 book.)

In a Washington Post editorial from December 1944, Lemkin is quoted elaborating on what he meant by the term, broadening its application:

Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

There is a flurry of citations of the word from December 1944, the result of a 26 November 1944 report by the U.S. War Refugee Board that for the first time made known to the U.S. public the full extent and horror of the Nazi war crimes.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the crime as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Holocaust of WWII is the prototypical example of genocide and the event that caused the word to enter into common lexicon, but many other events, before and since, have been classified as genocide, including the extermination of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda, the mass killings in Darfur in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the actions of the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia in the 1970s, and the mass killings of Armenians by the Turks in 1915. The application of the term to any particular case, except that of the Nazis, is usually controversial to some degree, with some claiming the crimes do not warrant the label of genocide or because, as in the case of Cambodia, the crimes do not fit the strict definition outlined in international law.


“genocide, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

“Genocide,” The Washington Post, 3 December 1944, B4.

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