Book Review: The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has been making something of a career of late writing books about the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1998 he wrote The Professor and the Madman (British title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne) and has now penned The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. This latest is something of an unofficial history of the OED. The book was suggested to Winchester by the editors at Oxford University Press and is based on the research Winchester conducted for his 1998 book.

While the story of the OED is not one of high drama or cracking adventure, The Meaning of Everything is a book of great interest to anyone interested in words and lexicography. The creation of the OED was one of the monumental achievements of the Victorian age. (Although it was not completed until 1928, the OED is essentially a Victorian work.) It is also a story of bureaucratic and academic infighting and about how books get published.

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Word of the Month: Mafia

This past month, Home Box Office, or HBO, a US subscription television service began broadcasting the fifth season of The Sopranos. The Emmy-winning series dramatizes the life of a New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano and his two “families”—his wife and children and his business associates. Unlike earlier mob-dramas like The Godfather, this series does not treat mobsters as men of honor; Tony Soprano is a violent sociopath, a thug who abuses and mistreats those closest to him. The series has earned host of awards and consistently high ratings.

Because of the premiere of what will probably be the penultimate season of the popular series, our word of the month is mafia, n., a criminal organization; originating in Sicily, but with offshoots operating in the United States; from the Italian, probably a back formation from mafioso, a member of the organization, the ultimate etymology is unknown; 1866.

What interests us here is not the violence of the show or even the nude women who dance in Tony’s strip club (being a subscription cable service, HBO is not limited by same broadcast standards of terrestrial television networks), but rather the language of the show. The series is replete with mob jargon and Italian words, usually spoken using the Sicilian-American pronunciation.

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Words of 2003

It seems as if every linguistic group or web site comes up with its own annual list of words of significance for that year. So why should we be any different? What follows is a selection of words that we believe exemplifies and symbolizes 2003. While some of these words and phrases were coined in 2003, most were not. But they all represent some aspect of the past year.

axis of weasel, n., those countries which led opposition to the war in Iraq, especially France and Germany. Interestingly, the phrase was first coined on Usenet 2002 referring to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. In 2003, the term was either picked up or re-coined with the newer meaning. The term is a play on Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Bennifer, n., a 2003 vogue term for celebrity couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

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Annual Foot In Mouth Awards

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been awarded the “Foot in Mouth” prize by Britain’s Plain English Campaign for the most baffling comment by a public figure in the past year. The Campaign is an independent group of some 3,500 members who advocate for clear, easily understood English in public statements and documents.

Each year the campaign gives awards to examples of clear and well-constructed prose, but they also give two awards, the Foot in Mouth and Golden Bull, for impenetrable prose.

Rumsfeld won the award for the following statement, made in a February 2002 news briefing:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

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Word of the Month: Marriage

The issue of gay marriage has been much in the news of late and the topic promises to be a hot-button political issue in the 2004 US presidential election. At issue are the questions of whether and how the state should recognize homosexual unions.Therefore, our word of the month is:

marriage, n., the condition of being husband and wife, since 1975 sometimes applied to same-sex couples. Also applied to the ceremony and celebrations associated with the beginning of such a union. Also applied to other forms of relationship, often with a modifer, e.g., plural marriage. Since c.1400, the word has been applied figuratively to any close union or blending of any two things. The word dates to c.1300 and is from the Anglo-Norman mariage. Ultimately it is from the classical Latin verb maritare, to marry, used to refer to people, animals, and the crossing of grapes in viticulture and the nouns maritus/marita, husband/wife.

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