The link below is to an article that takes a look at the origins of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the power of dictionaries.
The link below is to an article that considers the role of the Oxford English Dictionary in the digital age – can it survive?
Words and expressions come and go. Sometimes you can understand why they don’t linger. It’s hard to imagine there was ever much call for peristeronic, “suggestive of pigeons” – and there’s no evidence that gymnologize, “to argue whilst naked”, or decacuminated, “having the tops cut off”, have even been used.
Words of such spectacular pomp and pointlessness only ever had lives inside dictionaries (early lexicographers were notorious for making them up).
But sometimes we seem to let extremely useful expressions drop by the wayside. Humans suffer from a kind of congenital leximania, an irresistible passion for creating new words (such as leximania). In our lust for neologisms we lose sight of those expressions already doing a very fine job.
Here is a handful of such words – they have political applications and are today as apt and as ept as they ever were.
Political smutting and besmearing
Now is not the time to let roorback go – a neatly packaged expression that covers any false report, or slander, propagated for political purposes.
It derives from the name of a fictitious author Baron von Roorback. Published in 1844, his account of a gang of slaves destined for the Louisiana sugar mills was intended to disgrace James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. The humbug was exposed, but usually the timing of roorbacks is such that they can’t be detected before voters go to the polls.
Clearly, spreading disparaging furphies for political gain is not new. The word was popular throughout the 19th century, even used a little into the 20th century, before it quietly shuffled off the lexical coil.
But today’s digital world is providing the perfect ecosystem for the roorback to flourish. A word for “political dirty tricks” – how could we let that one go?
Monumental talknophical assumnacy
Snollygoster is another wonderful creation to come out of the USA (around the same time as roorback). It could refer generally to smart people without principles, but its reference narrowed rather quickly to the crafty and unprincipled politician. The definition provided by the Columbus Dispatch (October 28, 1895) is worth repeating in full:
A snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.
Whenever I ponder the phrase “monumental talknophical assumnancy”, I’m reminded of Alice’s words on hearing the poem Jabberwocky: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are.” Talknophical assumnancy – there’s a lot of it about.
The delightful name snollygoster conceals its nasty origins. The word is probably connected to snallygaster, a reshaping of Pennsylvania German schnelle Geister (“quick spirits”) – dragon-like creatures which, as folklore describes, made a practice of stealing children and chickens from unsuspecting farm folk.
The shift from “grotesque gargantua” to “political shyster” is telling. But it’ll take more than a hex sign on a building or rabbit’s-foot talisman to keep these modern-day snollygosters at bay.
A flourishing of ocracies
The Oxford English Dictionary overflows with words that have been created (most during the 1800s) to tilt at governments of various sorts. One stands out and that is kakistocracy, the creation of English writer Thomas Love Peacock for “government by its most unprincipled citizens” (from Greek kakistos “the worst”). In fact little needs to be done to rehabilitate his word.
Its comeback of late has been spectacular, with headlines heralding a new era of kakistocratical rule.
So will we be seeing a reappearance of other “ocracies”? Foolocracy and kleptocracy spring to mind.
Trumpery and puffery
Though strictly not a political term, the old word trumpery has always had close links with political shenanigans, even before it acquired its extra significance today.
The word appeared in English in the 1400s, meaning “deception; fraud”. It derives from the verb trump “to deceive; cheat” – not to be confused with the other trump verb around at that time meaning “to blow a trumpet” or “break wind audibly” (though it seems to me these trumps have always been tightly linked).
Trumpery then shifted to mean “something of less value than it seems” before extending to “something of no value at all” (applied to abstract things, objects and people).
Of course, trumpery has deception at its root, but the -ery ending adds that extra layer of unscrupulousness (bringing to mind trickery, humbuggery, jiggery-pokery and a pile of other seedy “ery” words).
And while there is the other positive trump (that appears in expressions like turn up trumps), it’s worth highlighting that this trump is nothing more than a corrupted form of triumph (an alternative pronunciation that appeared in the 1500s).
The two trumps are currently on a collision course, and we know from experience that rarely do positive meanings prevail when senses coincide in this way. Besides, there’s always been a dishonest whiff around even the trump card in its extended uses — and, as the behaviour of words over time shows, dishonest whiffs will just get whiffier.
Trumpery, kakistocracy, snollygoster and roorback are words worthy of a phoenix-like re-application — let’s pick them up, dust them off and put them to work.
There’s a new arrival on the dictionary scene – the much-anticipated second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, known fondly as AND.
As I recently wrote, these beautiful two volumes should certainly put to rest any fears people might have about the continued place of “tree-dictionaries” in an age of e-books and digital libraries.
These more than 16,000 Australianisms have generated lots of excitement – and not surprisingly. Words are the most observable part of any language and English-speakers seem fascinated by the ins and outs of expressions.
Look at the media attention when dictionaries announce the winner of their Word of the Year competition. There’s nowhere near the same excitement with other aspects of the language.
There were no breaking news stories when linguists announced developments affecting the conjunction “because” (for example, “I’ve been missing out on sleep because binge-watching Game of Thrones” or “I missed the ending because fell asleep”).
Dictionary editors are among the new celebrities, answering questions like: what is the longest word in the language? Is there a word to describe those who drink their own bathwater? How many words do speakers know? And, perhaps the thorniest question of all – when should new expressions enter the dictionary?
Vocabulary changes more than other aspects of language and lexicographers are constantly redrawing the exclusion boundary for marginal vocabulary items. “Yeah-no” has been around since the 1990s, but is only now appearing in dictionaries.
And while many original misspellings now have entries, such as “miniscule” (with its erroneous “i”) and even “nucular”, an entry for “accomodation” (with one “m”) seems a long way off.
It’s not easy for dictionary-makers. They are seen as the guardians of the language and when they take on board expressions like “yeah-no” and “nucular”, we hear howls about declining standards. Yet people will usually discard dictionaries if they don’t keep up-to-date.
Dictionary-making was more straightforward for early lexicographers, who sourced words almost exclusively from books. So, it was formal written language that typically made it into dictionaries.
Words were written on cards each time they were used and, when there was a substantial collection of cards, it could be established that a word was in general usage. So, they were largely respectable expressions, and anything that snuck under the radar would be well and truly branded (originally with symbols like asterisks or daggers, and later with more precise usage labels like “low”, “barbarous”, “vulgar”, as appeared in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary).
These days it’s all very different. Lexicographers consider an array of different language forms, including newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, menus, memos, TV and radio broadcasts and, of course, emails, chat-room discussions and blogs.
So it’s not surprising to find that the informal aspect has been significantly boosted in the new-look AND. Of course, this reflects the strong attachment to the vernacular in Australia, but it’s also in keeping with the marked shift towards informal ways of speaking and writing generally – even public language is becoming progressively more casual and everyday.
So dictionaries are now much faster to take up “slanguage”. In the Collins Official Scrabble Words, even “innit” (“isn’t it”), “grrl” (“feisty female”) and “thang” (“thing”) have the stamp of approval. Once it could take years and years for such colloquialisms to appear in print, perhaps then to be picked up by lexicographers and placed in some dictionary — or perhaps never.
So like many other dictionaries these days, AND shows an assortment of distinguished entries and boisterous slang. Additions from the world of economics and politics, for example, include sedate terms-of-art (“aspirational voter”, “economic rationalism”, “negative gearing”, “scrutineer”) as well as colloquialisms (“keep the bastards honest”, “Hawkespeak”, “hip-pocket nerve”, “wombat trail”).
And the current editorial team has continued the AND tradition and not tagged these entries with labels like “colloquial” or “slang” (though “-ist” language is occasionally labelled derogatory).
So don’t believe the concerned hype that accompanied the 2014 edition of Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. It added only three new Australianisms (“tockley” for “penis”, “ort” for “buttocks” and “unit” for “bogan”), prompting a frenzy of headlines like:
The rise and fall of Australian slang.
I’m not sure how Thorne missed “selfie”, Australia’s contribution to the international lexicon – after all, it was the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2013.
Articles expressed the fear that the glory days of Australian slang were over. AND should help to quell such fears – “hornbag”, “budgie smugglers”, “grey nomad”, “chateau cardboard” are among the many treasures you will find there.
Some of these entries appear so scruffy that you might wonder at the wisdom of the editors including them at all (“snot block”, “ranga”, “reg grundies”, “ambo”, “rurosexual”, “seppo”, “trackie daks”, “spunk rat”, “goon of fortune” come to mind). Of course, slang is in the eye of the beholder – even Samuel Johnson included a few (unbranded) personal favourites, like “belly timber” for “food”.
But in this case, you can take comfort in the fact that these expressions will have been tracked and meticulously analysed. They aren’t newly minted coinages and wouldn’t be there unless they “had legs”.
It seems to me almost impossible for printed dictionaries to keep up with the changing nature of vocabulary these days. People just love creating words.
In fact, scientists have recently discovered that learning the meaning of new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating, the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum.
The surge of excitement when we encounter a new word is the recently coined “neologasm”. And that really says it all.
A new edition of the Australian National Dictionary has just been published. It contains 16,000 words and while the first edition (published in 1988) included about 250 words from 60 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, the latest has more than 500 words from 100 languages.
Conventional wisdom has it that borrowings of this kind usually occur in the initial “contact” period. In 1770, for instance, James Cook and Joseph Banks collected the word kangaroo from the Guugu Yimithirr language in the area now known as Cooktown in Queensland, and it immediately came into use in English.
Soon after the initial batches of convicts arrived in Sydney from 1788 onwards, words from local languages were taken up, especially for new flora and flora and for things associated with the Indigenous people: koala, wallaby, kurrajong, waratah, woomera, corroboree. Later, the language of the Perth area provided jarrah, kylie (a word for “boomerang”), numbat, and quokka. The language of the Geelong area provided the mythical monster the bunyip.
Some Aboriginal words, although noted in the early period, were not used widely in Australian English until much later. Perhaps the most startling example of this is the word quoll, which comes from the Guugu Yimithirr language, and was also collected by Cook and Banks in 1770.
When the Europeans arrived in 1788, they did not use quoll or other Indigenous names for these marsupials. Instead, they used the term native cat, preferring to construct terms based on superficial resemblances to things of their “known” world. It wasn’t until the 1960s that quoll was reintroduced, and eventually replaced native cat, largely due to the efforts of the naturalist David Fleay, who highlighted the absurdity of some of the vernacular names for Australian animals.
Many of the new Aboriginal words in this edition refer to flora and fauna, and many of these result from an interest in using Indigenous names rather than imposed English descriptive ones.
Thus, the southern and northern forms of the marsupial mole are now referred to by their Western Desert language names itjaritjari and kakarratul. The rodent once called the heath mouse is now known by its indigenous name dayang, from the Woiwurrung language of the Melbourne area. The amphibious rodent formerly known as water rat, is now more commonly referred to in southern Australia as the rakali, from the Ngarrindjeri language.
Other additions to the dictionary include (from the Noongar language of the Perth area) balga for the grass tree, coojong for the golden wreath wattle, moitch for the flooded gum and moort for Eucalyptus platypus.
The increasing interest in bush tucker has meant the inclusion of akudjura for the bush tomato, from the Alyawarr language of the southern region of the Northern Territory, and gubinge, from Nyul Nyul and Yawuru of northern Western Australia, for an edible plum-like fruit.
Other new terms reflect a renewed interest in aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and various kinds of activism on the part of Indigenous peoples.
They include bunji, “a mate, a close friend a kinsman” (from Warlpiri and other languages of the Northern Territory and northern Queensland), boorie, “a boy, a child” (from Wiradjuri), jarjum, “a child” (from Bundjalung), kumanjayi, “a substitute name for a dead person” (from Western Desert language), pukamani “a funeral rite” (from Tiwi), rarrk “a cross-hatching design in art” (from Yolngu languages), tjukurpa, “the Dreaming; traditional law” (from Western Desert language) and yidaki, “a didgeridoo” (from Yolngu languages).
The word migaloo – “a white person” – comes from Biri and other northern Queensland languages, where it originally meant “a ghost, a spirit”; many Australians are familiar with this word as a name for the albino humpback whale that migrates along the east coast of Australia.
Many of these terms begin their transition to mainstream Australian English in forms of Aboriginal English, and some of them are primarily used in Aboriginal English.
In addition to the words from Indigenous languages, there are numerous terms new to the dictionary that render Indigenous concepts and aspects of traditional culture, formed from the resources of English.
These include such terms as: carved tree, dreamtime being, freshwater people, keeping place, law woman, paint up, saltwater people, secret women’s business, smoking ceremony, songline, sorry business, welcome to country.
Others derive from more specific political contexts and political activism: Day of Mourning, great Australian silence, Invasion Day, Mabo, tent embassy, traditional ownership and white blindfold (“a view of Australian history that emphasises the achievements of white society and ignores Aboriginal society”).
This is a dictionary based on historical principles. This means that each entry maps the full history of a word, establishing its origin, and documenting its use over time with illustrative quotations from books, newspapers, and the like. Words and meanings are included if they are exclusively Australian, or used in Australia in special or significant ways.
The dictionary, edited at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University, and published by Oxford University Press, will be launched today at Parliament House in Canberra.
Oxford Dictionaries announced its latest additions on Wednesday, highlighting the things we were talking about in the summer of ’15—like angry Internet commenters, gender identity and what a sweet time of day “beer o’clock” is.
Oxford Dictionaries is the branch of the Oxford family that focuses on modern language—words that people are using now and how they’re using them—which makes their barriers to entry different than the venerable, historical Oxford English Dictionary. Their new words often arise from fresh technology and pop culture and might include Internet slang (like new entry pwnage) that would get laughed out of the OED’s admittance office.
As with every update, the additions reflect who English-speakers are. Sometimes we are microaggressivebrain-farters. At other times we are butthurt pocket-dialers. At others still, we are simply hangry fat-shamers or rando Redditors.
Among the lessons about who we are right now: The addition…
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The Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary, which means that when its editors add a phrase such as hot mess to their reference—as they did this week—they add every definition of the word they can find. The editors are like detectives, following phrases back to times when Anglo-Saxons were jabbering about peasants and overlords.
The quarterly update reveals that in the 1800s, for instance, a “hot mess” was a warm meal, particularly one served to a group like troops. In the 1900s, people used hot mess to refer to a difficult or uncomfortable situation. And in the 2000s, one used it to refer to Amy Schumer (or, as they put it, something or someone in extreme confusion or disorder).
Twerk, another new addition, might have been made famous by Miley Cyrus and a foam finger in 2013, but the editors traced its meaning back to 1820, when
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The link below is to another article looking at the future of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The link below is to another article looking at the future of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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