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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at email@example.com.
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Tuesday, February 5, 2019
People are fascinated by pronunciation differences. These can be regional, individual, class-linked, or generational.
If one conducts a pronunciation survey about a given word, people love to give their two cents' worth about how they say the word.
But inevitably, if the word is borrowed from another language, someone will pipe up with
"The PROPER way to pronounce this word is as in the original [Spanish/French/Greek/Arabic/Swahili/insert foreign language here]"
This attitude is...
...how can I put this...
Do these people really think we should be rummaging around in foreign language dictionaries to see how every word is pronounced in the original language? Most of the words in English are borrowed from another language. Once they get borrowed into English, their pronunciation gets adapted to our phonetic system, and often then carries on its merry way. It may be hard for those of us who speak French to accept "kruh SAWNT" and "bree OASH" and "FOY ur", but what about all the other languages from which English has borrowed which we don't know how to pronounce?
Here's some food for thought. Did you know that the word "balcony", borrowed from Italian balcone in the 1600s, was pronounced "bal COE nee" more or less (but not exactly) like its Italian etymon, until about 1825. But then "BAL kuh nee" ("which", said the 19th century poet and self-appointed language commentator Samuel Rogers, "makes me sick") took over. I defy you to try and reinstate "bal COE nee". And so much for Samuel Rogers' pronunciation pronouncements.
This phenomenon is entirely natural, and happens when English words are borrowed into other languages as well.
Recently a pronunciation survey about the word "coyote" (which was borrowed into English almost two centuries ago) prompted someone to say "The proper way to say this is as in the original Spanish and Nahuatl. It should be co - yo - tay". Nahuatl, by the way, is the language of the Aztecs, in which the cunning canine is a coyotl. Quick, now, how many of you have a pronouncing dictionary of Nahuatl to hand?
If anyone were to say "Roadrunner is the nemesis of Wile E. co yo tay", they would be laughed at. And deservedly so.
If we were to take this approach to pronunciation to its logical conclusion, we would have to say:
I was having a [COOP] of [TAY] with a [chocko LAH tay] [bee SKWEE] (or as some call it, a [COO kyuh]). The [dess AIR] was huge, ten [sahn tee MET ruhs] across, with no nuts because I have an [al airg EE].
This is NOT ENGLISH, and would be incomprehensible.
By the way, that was
I was having a cup of tea with a chocolate biscuit (or as some call it, a cookie). The dessert was huge, ten centimetres across, with no nuts because I have an allergy.
To achieve this feat of pretentious pointlessness, you would have to know the origins of all these words, and how the words are pronounced in their original languages (French, Chinese, Nahuatl via Spanish, French, Dutch, French, French, German).
But we are not speaking those languages. We are speaking ENGLISH. Why is this concept so hard to understand? The pronunciation of a word is determined by how most people say the word in English. Not infrequently, there is more than one widespread pronunciation. Vive la différence!
For another example of this see "mauve": https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2018/07/how-do-you-pronounce-mauve.html
For more on the pronunciation of "coyote", see this post:
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Your reaction to "trainings" may have been, "But that's not a countable noun; you can't make it a plural".
This subject came up recently in an online discussion among editors, and there was a lot of hostility toward "trainings". The usual sorts of comments about shuddering and teeth grinding and laments about how common it is, and should be replaced by "training sessions".
Someone felt that "teaching" was also not used in the plural, and expressed gratitude for this oasis of "sanity". This despite the fact that we have evidence of "teachings" from 500 years ago:
1542–3 Act 34 & 35 Hen. VIII c. 1 Suche bookes, writinges..teachinges and instructions, as be pestiferous, and noysome.and no-one would bat an eye at a phrase like "the teachings of Buddha".
By the way, I hate it when people use "sanity" to describe their particular usage, with the implication that any new development in language (by someone else) is "insanity".
But the most intriguing comment implied that this irksome use of gerunds as countable nouns is something new. See the (partial) list above of very common plural gerunds.
Now, it's true that "trainings" is not as well-established as some of the gerunds I've listed above, but it has become quite common in certain fields since the 1980s, and there is no reason to object to it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if 50 years from now some editors were to comment, "Training sessions? That's so redundant! Why say that when you can just say trainings?"
What's more, this is one of these "way older than you think" usages.
1598 I. D. tr. L. Le Roy Aristotles Politiques viii. iii. 384 It appeareth, that..it is needfull to learne certaine things, and to be instructed and trained in the same, and that these instructions and trainings be vndertaken for their sakes which learn.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2019
Some words turning (at least) 50 in 2019. Some of these are older than you probably think, and some younger.
Includes a Canadian invention!
As with all words, they may well have existed a little earlier than the OED could find earliest evidence for them.
Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age; age discrimination, esp. against the elderly.
1969 Washington Post 7 Mar. a6/1 Dr. Robert Butler..believes many of his Chevy Chase neighbors suffer from ‘age-ism’.
1969 R. N. Butler in Gerontologist Winter 243/1 We shall soon have to consider..a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook: age discrimination or age-ism, prejudice by one age group toward other age groups.
autosave, n.A software facility by which a user's work is automatically saved at regular intervals. Usually attributive.
1969 J. E. Sammet Programming Langs. ix. 689 An interesting safety feature is the autosave parameters option which is used with save to request that the state of the user's work be saved periodically (and automatically) for later retrieval if there is an unexpected system shutdown.
Big Mac, n.
1955 Charleston Gaz. 10 Oct. 11/1 (Advt.) Introducing ‘big mac’ Charleston's newest sandwich A big Double-Deck Hamburger with ‘All the trimmin's’ 45c Tip Top Drive-in.
1. A proprietary name for: the largest in a range of hamburgers sold by McDonald's fast-food outlets; (hence allusively) the biggest or best of a number of related things.
1969 Life 14 Mar. 76/1 (advt.) McDonald’s introduces Big Mac. A meal disguised as a sandwich.
A technique in which a person is taught to alter normally involuntary physiological processes, typically by using equipment to monitor associated parameters such as blood pressure and heart rate. Also: feedback so obtained.
1970 Jrnl. Transpersonal Psychol. i. 3 Gardner Murphy must be given due credit for stimulating and promoting bio-feedback research..and for his effort..to establish the Bio-Feedback Research Society, which met for the first time in 1969.
1. orig. Science Fiction. A robot.
1969 R. C. Meredith in Amazing Stories Jan. 130/2 When they got my ship the only part of me that the 'bots were able to get into cold-sleep was my head, shoulders and a part of my spine.
1977 G. Benford in Cosmos Sci. Fiction & Fantasy Mag. May 25/1 ‘What's your name, little bot?’ The robot squats mutely. ‘Bot?’ Gerald asks. ‘Slang for robot. You ask him.’
1992 L. Niven & S. Barnes Calif. Voodoo Game 252 We have maintenance 'bots in there.
2001 Time 19 Nov. 87 This Pentium-powered bot uses sonar sensors to keep her from bumping into walls..as she rolls along.
2. Computing. An automated program on a network (esp. the Internet), often having features that mimic human reasoning and decision-making; spec. (a) a program designed to respond or behave like a human (in games, chat rooms, etc.); (b) a software agent (see agent n.1 5).
1990 Bot-haters Unite! in alt.mud (Usenet newsgroup) 23 Jan. The following consists of a general flame against bots.
bum, v.7orig. U.S.
1. intransitive. slang. To have an unpleasant or distressing (psychological) experience while intoxicated with a hallucinogenic drug. Also with out.Usually in the progressive, e.g. in bumming on acid.
1969 Corpus Christi (Texas) Times 16 Oct. 8/1 Mullen told them he was ‘bumming out’ and was on ‘a bad trip’.
1971 Wisconsin State Jrnl. 9 Oct. 15/1 I bummed on acid, a bad trip... When I bummed I saw vampires.
1986 U. Zero Out of Step & out of Detroit iii. 29 Dickie came over one afternoon panic-stricken, bumming on acid.
2009 J. Delingpole Welcome to Obamaland i. 14 Woodstock was a toilet.., you couldn't get anywhere near close enough to see or hear the acts, and anyway everyone was bumming out on bad acid.
a. transitive. To make (a person) feel annoyed, upset, or disappointed; to depress, sadden; to irritate. Usually with out. Cf. bummer n.7 1, bummed adj.2 2.
1970 Chicago Daily Defender 3 Aug. 19/2 The unusual number of hostile types around and the constant racket of the circling helicopters was bumming us out.
1984 TriQuarterly Spring 311 It's the thing about being captain that bums him most.
2007 M. Carter Accidentally Engaged xi. 83 Today's horoscope is not fit to print. (Really. It would have seriously bummed you out.)
colloq. (orig. U.S.). 1. transitive.
a. To display and explain the merits, operation, etc., of (a product) to prospective buyers; = demonstrate v. 5c.
1969 Salt Lake Tribune 19 Apr. (advt.) See the new 130 and 165 hp. Chrysler I-O. Demoed at Utah Lake last Sunday.
Etymology: < modern Greek δούλα (ancient Greek δούλη bondswoman, feminine form corresponding to δοῦλος born bondsman, slave.).
A person, originally and typically a woman, who gives assistance to a new or expectant mother, either informally or professionally; esp. a person (usually without formal obstetric training) employed to provide guidance and continuous support during labour or postnatally.
1969 D. Raphael in Perspectives in Biol. & Med. 12 295/2 In working with human groups we note that the motivation for doula behavior is extremely complex. The doula may be assisting the new mother because she expects to be helped in like manner when her turn comes.
2. Hostility towards, prejudice against, or (less commonly) fear of homosexual people or homosexuality.
1969 Time 31 Oct. 61/3 Such homophobia..involves innumerable misconceptions and oversimplifications.
A proprietary name for a technique of wide-screen cinematography in which 70mm film is shot and projected in such a way as to produce an image approximately ten times larger than that normally obtained from standard 35mm film. Frequently attributive.
1969 Spectator (Hamilton, Ont.) 7 Nov. 24/3 The world's largest movie projector was unveiled at McMaster University yesterday. Known as IMAX, it's big in every way.
Deficiency of immunity (humoral, cell-mediated, or both); impairment of the function of (a part of) the immune system; an instance of this. Frequently attributive, esp. in immunodeficiency disease, immunodeficiency syndrome, immunodeficiency virus.
1969 Lancet 5 Apr. 720/2 It is relevant here to consider the role of the humoral and cellular immunodeficiency which is believed to exist in burned patients.
1. An integrated circuit; a microprocessor; (also) a tiny wafer of semiconducting material on which an integrated circuit has been or can be made.
1969 Science 11 July 104/1 (advt.) If a 6 foot microchip sounds crazy to you, don't tell us.
A very small processor; spec. one based on one or more chips to serve as the central processing unit of a calculator or microcomputer.
1969 Mechanised Accounting Nov. 54/2 Central to the entire System 21 structure is the microprocessor and its various hard-wired microprograms.
plate tectonics, n.
A theory in which the interactions of moving lithospheric plates and the spreading of the sea floor are used to explain certain of the Earth's features and processes (as mid-ocean ridges, deep-sea trenches, mountain formation, seismic activity, etc.), and which provides a mechanism for the theory of continental drift.
[1966 Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer. 77 707 The folds and faults mapped at the surface [near the San Andreas fault] are attributed to raft tectonics whereby a passive surficial plate is deformed as it rides coupled to a moving undermass.]
1969 Science 4 Apr. 64/3 If one..considers continental drift in the light of plate tectonics, displacement of the Ellsworth Mountains can readily be explained.
A specially designed vehicle with a raised viewing platform surrounded by bulletproof glass, used by the Pope in processions or parades, esp. on official visits to a foreign country. Hence: a similar vehicle used by politicians, celebrities, etc.This type of vehicle was introduced for Pope Paul VI. Originally called the papal limousine.
1969 Des Moines (Iowa) Sunday Reg. 26 Oct. 10 f/3 (heading) Popemobile. Famous parade limousine built especially for Pope Paul VI for his visit to the United States.
pro-choice, adj. (and n.)
In favour of upholding a woman's legal right to choose whether to have an induced abortion. Also as n.: a pro-choice policy.
1969 Oxnard (Calif.) Press Courier 10 Dec. 7/1 Pro-choice and anti-abortion activists..headed to the Women's Clinic.
Etymology: Back-formation < Windsurfer n.orig. U.S.
intransitive. To ride a sailboard; to sailboard.
1969 Christian Sci. Monitor 17 Nov. 17/1 Depending on the wind and water conditions, older as well as young people can windsurf.
women's lib, n.
1969 Time 21 Nov. 15 ‘My twelve-year-old son has been hearing a lot about Women's Lib lately,’ says Ruth.
For words that turned 50 in 2018, see this post:
- Katherine Barber
- Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.