In silico

57916_2‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a saying that languages have always ignored. Judging by the number of English words that have been adopted by other languages over the last century or so, its status as one of the top ‘lenders’ must be unchallenged. But a borrower?  Yes, a number of new ‘English’ words are borrowed from other languages, too – Japanese, for example, has given us more than just emoji, kakuro and sashimi – most recently manga and mecha. We even borrow and then refashion words. The Italians have given us many words to do with food (which we mangle grammatically as well as in the pronunciation – think of ‘a panini’) and, enjoying so much good weather, they may like to dine al fresco. We borrowed that expression a long time ago – it sounds so much more exotic than ‘outside’. But even those of us who can’t even make it to the park at lunchtime can console ourselves by giving the expression a humorous twist and eating al desko.

It might seem surprising, though, to import new words from a dead language. And yet there are a number of words queuing up to get into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that look very much like Latin. Latin hasn’t been spoken as a vernacular for more than a millennium, so why would we want to import new words from it into English? Well, Latin is still around us, e.g. in specialist fields, viz. medicine, science, and so on, ergo if we need a new expression to fit in with terms we already use, yes, we make up some Latin.

We all know from science about in vivo and in vitro but nowadays experiments can be conducted without living creatures or even cultures in Petri dishes. They can be done virtually, using computer simulations, or in silico. When I was at school, ‘dissection’ meant cutting up a smelly fish in a biology lab – now science is so much more sophisticated:

Single-cell sequencing data enables in silico dissection of the drosophila embryo.

Scientists are turning to ‘in silico biology’, building computer models of the intricate processes that take place inside cells, organs, and even people.

Understanding how humans function is not just a matter for biology, but also for economists. In evolution, we are familiar with the progression from Homo habilis through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, but when commentators wanted to define the type of person who would rationally choose the solution which provides the greatest benefit, they called him Homo economicus.  Although the term has been around for about a century, apparently Homo economicus has turned out to be a mythical creature, because modern humans – thankfully – do not typically behave this way. But modern human beings are not totally blameless creatures. In fact we are having such an effect on the planet that a new geological term has been suggested to describe our times, the Anthropocene period. The epoch we are currently in is called the Holocene, which followed the Pleistocene, but it has been suggested that we need a term to reflect the fact that the geology of the world is now more affected by the activities of humans than anything else. So to fit the pattern already established a new word has been made from the Greek anthropos, ‘human being’ and kainos, ‘new’.

In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary we have an example at language:

Why study Latin? It’s a dead language.

But the classical languages haven’t met their nemesis yet!


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. NB she taught languages for ten years before joining OUP and working on learner’s dictionaries e.g. the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Das Groβe Oxford Wörterbuch, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, q.v. for an explanation of these abbreviations!

Modal verbs: how their use has declined in recent times

mustAs is well-known, English has a number of core modal verbs, including can/could, will/would, shall/should, may/might, and must. These make it possible for us to express meanings such as ‘possibility’, ‘necessity’, ‘obligation’, ‘permission’, and the like. In an earlier blog post I discussed the declining use of the modal verb must over recent decades. A very likely reason for this is that speakers have become less willing to appear to be telling others what to do, even in situations when they are entitled to do so.

What about the other modal verbs in English? The table below shows how their use has declined across the board in written and spoken British English between the 1960s and the 1990s:*

grammar_1
Changes in modal usage, calculated as a percentage change per million words of text. Bold figures are statistically significant.

Notice first of all that the rate of change is different for the various modals in written and spoken English. For example, the use of can has increased more in spoken than in written English. This may be due to speakers using this verb more often to ask for permission than may, which has declined in use.

Let’s now take a closer look at shall, which is much more common in British English than in American English. Like must, it has also dropped dramatically in use. When used with first person subjects shall alternates with will:

I shall look into this.

I will look into this.

Is there a difference between these two ways of talking about a future event? From a stylistic point of view there is: the first of these alternatives sounds more formal, and is more likely to be used by older speakers. However, there is really no difference in meaning: both sentences are used to speak about a situation in the future.

Not everyone would agree with what I just wrote. Some writers would say that with first person subjects (I/we) will should be used to convey the idea of ‘wanting’, whereas shall should be used to talk about a neutral future. With other persons (he, you, they, etc.) shall should be used for promises/guarantees (Cinderella shall go to the ball), in ‘regulatory language’ (Students shall not enter the premises after midnight), or to express something that the speaker wants (You came for the action, and action you shall have). The journalist Simon Heffer explains the difference with a well-known anecdote in his book Strictly English (2012):

The Victorian schoolmaster had a way of impressing this distinction upon his charges, with the story of the boy who drowned: for he had cried out ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me’.

Heffer regrets the fact that speakers no longer know how to use shall and will in the right way. Maybe it’s true that a useful distinction in English is lost. However, another way of looking at this development is to recognize that the language has changed in such a way that the difference between shall and will (other than in questions) is slowly disappearing because speakers no longer sense a meaning difference between these verbs. This would mean that speakers need only one verb, and it looks like will has won out. The increased use of will shown in the table above supports this hypothesis, but the increase is not as high as you would expect, so perhaps the table only offers a partial explanation for the trends in usage. What’s interesting is that the decline of shall is slightly higher in spoken English than in written English. This may well mean that the decline will spread in the future because changes in spoken language often make their way into written language.


Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is a founder of the Englicious website which contains free English language teaching resources and writes the blog Grammarianism for teachers of English.

* The data are from Bas Aarts, Jill Bowie and Sean Wallis (2015) Profiling the English verb phrase over time: modal patterns. In: Irma Taavitsainen, Merja Kytö, Claudia Claridge and Jeremy Smith (eds.) Developments in English: expanding electronic evidence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) and from Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith (2015) Change in contemporary English: a grammatical study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

 

Life is a contest – how idioms evolve

baseballIn their classic book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson argued that the whole way we view the world – the way we think, act and live – is governed by underlying concepts which are metaphorical in nature: for example ‘argument is war’ or ‘time is money’. We often think of metaphors as something unusual and poetic, challenging us to look at things in a different way, and literary metaphors may do just that. Everyday metaphors – idioms – on the other hand, may do the opposite. New idioms catch on because they fit into the way we already view the world.

The language of sport is a very fertile source of idioms. We love to view life, business or politics in terms of a game or contest. For Americans, the national sport above all others is baseball. Inside baseball means expert knowledge about baseball but it is also used for technical information about any subject (especially when there is too much of it, as in Don’t give me all the inside baseball.) Batting average is a term in both cricket and baseball but only in American English does it also mean ‘the level of success or achievement that a person or company has in an activity’. (The company’s batting average with new technologies has been spotty recently.) Wheelhouse has spread from its literal meaning in sailing to idiomatic uses in both baseball and life: right in your wheelhouse is the area where it’s easiest to hit the ball and also where you feel most comfortable and in control. If the situation gets more challenging, however, you may need to put on your game face (= a serious expression) so as not to let your opponent know what you are thinking. And if things get really serious, you may even find that life has stopped being a game and become a battlefield. If you are lucky you will manage to dodge a bullet but there is always a risk that innocent people will get caught in the cross hairs.

A conceptual metaphor that we can apply to language itself is the survival of the fittest. Words and expressions must adapt or die. There are many examples of idioms that have outlived their literal meanings. Some recent idioms reference items that are already old-fashioned or obsolete. Others have extended their use by changing their form. Some people keep repeating the same thing over and over in a way that is very annoying like a broken record (but who actually listens to records any more?) ‘What’s that in old money?’ we Brits of a certain age might ask when faced with ‘newfangled’ measures like kilograms. (The UK and Ireland decimalized their currencies in 1971.) new words_1A long time ago people used to wear hats in all weathers and to take your hat off to somebody was a sign of respect. The expression I take my hat off to you survived even when it became a metaphorical hat, not a literal one. Now there’s a new twist: in electronic communication, the preferred form of this expression is the ultra-concise hat tip, as in Hat tip to Jen Bradbery for the link to this blog.

Other new idioms reflect the activities and concerns of the time. During the 2016 elections for Mayor of London there was much discussion of dog whistle politics. It is well known that dog whistles sound at frequencies that dogs can hear but humans can’t. The term can be applied to a political message that is only intended for and heard by a particular group of people. (He made use of the dog whistle on issues like immigration and crime.) And President Obama popularized the mic drop. This is the act of deliberately dropping your microphone at the end of a performance or speech that you think you did particularly well. If there’s no microphone, never mind, you can drop it metaphorically: Wow! Boom! Mic drop! The US now has a new president and we may be entering a new era of fake news, post-truth and extreme vetting – three of the most recent items to be added in this update. Preliminary analyses in the media of Donald Trump’s language suggest he favours simplicity, repetition and hyperbole over metaphor. Is this the new normal?

Nonetheless, there’s a golden thread that runs through all of this. That’s an idea or feature that is present in all parts of something, holds it together and gives it value. It’s that language can express anything in human experience. If there is no word for the precise idea you want to convey, you can use your creativity and make one up. Metaphors are an easy way to do this, because of the extent to which we already view the world in metaphors. If other people recognize the concept behind your new expression, they may start using it too.

Finally, and on a completely unrelated note: buggy, glitchy, laggy, spammy, techie. Do you notice a trend in these new informal adjectives connected with computing? Which is the odd one out? Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here.


Reference

Lakoff G. and Johnson M., Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press; 1980, 2003

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurusa dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

No-platform

shutterstock-9929686In February 2016, equal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell found himself on the receiving end of accusations of racism and bigotry. Fran Cowling, a National Union of Students representative on LGBT issues in Britain, asked for Tatchell to withdraw from a university debate, saying she wouldn’t share a platform with him.

Tatchell defended himself vigorously, mobilizing support from other veterans of radical campaigns from the 1970s and 80s. In the end Ms Cowling was the one to step down, but not before a ferocious debate had been launched about the NUS no-platform policy and the limits of free speech.

So what is no-platforming?

Originating in the 1970s, the no-platform policy was designed to prevent racist, far right organizations from promoting their views on university campuses, and was a feature of student politics in the 70s and 80s.

It has come alive again recently, but this time veteran progressives such as ex-politician George Galloway and feminist writer Germaine Greer have found themselves under scrutiny for their outspoken opinions. New student leaders say that they are simply upholding the no-platform tradition of the 70s and 80s, to prevent social reactionaries (regardless of their past credentials) from spreading hatred and bigotry. The older generations accuse today’s student activists of being part of a ‘snowflake generation’, which is oversensitive and unable to face the challenges of free speech. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the argument between two generations of radicals has been very public and very acrimonious.

The word no-platform is not only of interest for its topicality but also linguistically, because it showcases the way words in English can transition from one part of speech to another. (Notice how I’ve cleverly shoehorned in examples of nouns that are now also used as verbs.)

The possibility of making verbs from nouns is a long-standing feature of English. What’s particularly interesting about no-platform is that it’s not a simple noun, but a two-word phrase that has been transformed into a verb. What’s more, it’s used as a transitive verb – you can ‘no-platform someone’. In fact, corpus data suggests that this use of the verb, and particularly the passive form, is a recent occurrence. See, for example, this headline:

Ignore the excuses – Peter Tatchell has been no-platformed.

This type of transformation isn’t limited to nouns or noun phrases. There are even examples of adverbial phrases being turned into verbs. For example, these two words come from the area of business (which seems to be a particularly rich source of this kind of linguistic change):

offshore: Thousands of these jobs have been offshored.
onboard: My focus has been restructuring how we do things when we onboard a client.

It’s hard sometimes not to wince (inwardly at any rate) when you hear some of these usages. But is that the right reaction? Should we decry their use as a decline in standards among contemporary speakers of English? Or should we embrace these words as a sign of the flexibility and creativity of English? It’s rather like the argument about no-platforming – what is offensive to some is a matter of freedom for others. And like that argument, it’s a debate that is likely to run and run.


Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department. Although he has authored books and online resources for learners of English, this is the first time that he has blogged on grammar.

Eish!

 

eish_main-picWhat do you say when you stub your toe? In English, we exclaim ouch, ow or yeow when we hurt ourselves. The Germans and Dutch say something similar: autsch or au, in the case of German, and au(w) in Dutch. Sudden pain provokes a different sort of sound (variations on /aɪ/) from French, Arabic and Chinese speakers: aïe (/aɪiː/), آيْ (/aɪ/) and 哎哟 (/aɪ jəʊ/). The Japanese word for ouch is even further from the English: 痛い ( /iˈtai/ ).

What about when you’ve escaped something bad? For English speakers, phew can express relief. /u:f/ is the sound several other languages use to express the same emotion – French, Russian, Arabic and Dutch among them.

And how do you express disgust? If we discovered a fly in our soup, we might exclaim yuck, ugh or eww, while the French would say berk, the Germans and Dutch bah, the Russians фу (/fuː/) or брр (/brr/) and the Egyptians خْس (/xs/).

Some exclamations are less like normal words than just sounds that we make: groans, shouts, yelps, snorts and so on. They help us convey a vast range of emotions and reactions to things: surprise, shock, pleasure, excitement, disgust, anger, pain, uncertainty, scepticism, cold … and more! They can be onomatopoeic; and as such their spelling is often tricky and variable.

eish_1
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary lets you know when more than one spelling is possible, as you’ll see with the entry for ugh.

How much exclamations are characteristic of particular languages, and not human sounds generally, is apparent when we compare equivalents in different languages: sometimes they are similar, often not. As well as differences in expressing emotions, we might also express what we hear differently too. While cats sound similar across many languages, words for other animal sounds can be very diverse. Take dogs, for example: they say woof in English, ouah in French, гав (/ɡʌf/) in Russian, عَوْعَوْ (/‘aw ‘aw/) in Arabic, and 汪汪 (/wæŋ wæŋ/) in Chinese.

eish_2

And different varieties of English, e.g. North American English, Indian English and Scottish English, also have exclamations that are specific to them. Here are some examples from the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

US:

eish_3

Irish:

eish_4

Scottish:

eish_5

Indian:

eish_6

South African:

eish_7

Let’s look in detail at another South African exclamation that has gained currency in the last couple of decades: the exclamation eish. It is pronounced /eɪʃ/ and is used to express a range of emotions such as surprise, annoyance and pain.

Exclamations like these that are specific to particular varieties of English, can tell us interesting stories about the places they come from. Eish has come to English via mixed languages that include words from Afrikaans and African languages. And these mixed languages developed as youth and street languages in the townships of South Africa – a township under apartheid being an area in which non-white people lived, e.g. Soweto, near a white-only community where they went to work.

While the word eish started its life as township slang, since the abolition of apartheid in 1991, it has been used more and more widely throughout South Africa, particularly among the younger generations.

It is a versatile word which can be used alone, at the beginning or end of an utterance, or be inserted for emphasis in the middle of a sentence. Here are some citations from the Oxford English Corpus showing something of the word’s richness and range:

Eish ja, we did start off with cold feet, I must be honest.

Eish man, love at first sight.

Is it possible to get a link for the tribute show they did on Monday? I missed it and I soooo wanted to see it eish.

It is really good eish.

I know as a fan I should defend her but eish sometimes it’s hard, cause she does things I don’t agree with.

The variety, versatility and expressiveness of exclamations make them an exciting part of the English language and an interesting point of comparison with other languages. If exploring these words makes you go ‘wow!’, you might want to go and look at the ‘More Like This’ cross references on exclamations and animal sounds. You will find sets of similar expressions, and Premium users can download activities to practise them.

Eish is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but is coming soon.


Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries & Reference Grammar department. She has been editing bilingual dictionaries and grammar reference materials for learners of English for more than 20 years – wowee!

FLOTUS

Earlier this month, Melania Trump became the 45th FLOTUS or First Lady of the United States. Other firsts she can claim include being the first FLOTUS not to speak English as her first language, the first foreign-born FLOTUS since Louisa Adams (FLOTUS from 1825-1829) and the first FLOTUS in quite some time to delay her move to the White House.

white-house

That opening paragraph would have been 25 words longer if I hadn’t used FLOTUS, which partly explains why the word exists. FLOTUS is an abbreviation; the short form of a word, often used to save time, effort or space (particularly in writing). In general, an abbreviation can be formed from any of the letters in a word or phrase. With forms of address, for example, ‘Captain’ can be written as ‘Capt.’ and ‘Mister’ is almost always written as ‘Mr’. We usually pronounce an abbreviation in the same way we would the full form of the word, so /ˈkæptɪn/ and /ˈmɪstə(r)/, not /kæpt/ and /mɜːr/.

One particular type of abbreviation is the initialism. Instead of making a short form from any of the letters in a word or phrase, initialisms are formed from the first letters of other words. To pronounce them, we say each of the letters individually. You might see D.O.B. on official forms, RSVP on invitations or RIP on gravestones. These everyday initialisms are taken from English, French and Latin respectively and have become so much a part of the English language that their origins might well be forgotten.

Related to the initialism, FLOTUS is another type of abbreviation – an acronym. Like initialisms, acronyms are made from the first letters of longer names but unlike initialisms, they’re pronounced as words in their own right. Instead of saying each letter of FLOTUS individually, it’s pronounced to rhyme with lotus.

[British English]

[American English]

This makes FLOTUS easy to use in everyday speech. The word has spread from insider slang used by secret service agents to refer to Nancy Reagan (FLOTUS from 1981-1989) into much wider use in popular TV shows, news reports and general conversation as a way of referring to all subsequent First Ladies of the United States. There’s a mild irreverence to FLOTUS that means it’s used to talk about them rather than to them but it certainly isn’t an offensive slang term. In fact, it is now used by (former) First Ladies to refer to themselves, as can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s mini Twitter biography.

The popularity of FLOTUS has continued to grow so much that the word is now enjoying its latest incarnation as an official Twitter handle, created for Michelle Obama (FLOTUS from 2009-2017 and @FLOTUS from 2013-2017). In fact, FLOTUS has become so well established online, in print and IRL that rather than altering the word itself in anyway, people have humorously speculated what the ‘L’ might be made to stand for if a female President of the United States is ever elected. When it looked like Hillary Clinton might become POTUS, one suggestion was that her husband – former President Bill Clinton – might become ‘First Laddie of the United States’.

Although First Laddie isn’t likely to catch on, other names or phrases created for existing acronyms – rather playfully known as backronyms – have fooled people over the years, along with many examples of folk etymology. As convincing as they might sound though, ADIDAS is not an acronym of all day I dream about sport, posh is not the short form of Port Out, Starboard Home and golf does not stand for gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. To enjoy accurate etymology, we’d recommend using the Word Origin section in OALD entries.

sos

FLOTUS is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Danielle Gee is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP, she gained a BA in English and volunteered for VSO in PNG. 

Fangirls and fandom

Have you ever found yourself ‘fangirling’ over a celebrity? Which ‘fandoms’ do you belong to? Do you ‘ship’ any characters in your favourite TV show?

If the above questions have left you feeling flummoxed, I’m here to decode them for you, with this handy guide to the language of being a fan.

Fandom

The word ‘fandom’ was added to our Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in December 2015, and can be used in two senses:

  1. to refer to the state of being a fan of something (‘25 years of fandom’)
  2. to refer to the fans of something as a community (‘the Twilight fandom’).

fangirl-1In recent years, online forums and social media sites have provided spaces where the fandoms of TV shows, bands, celebrities, books and more can go and enthuse together, whether by ranking their favourite Doctor Who companions, by writing fan fiction (works of which are also known as “fanfics” or just “fics”), or by begging their favourite band members for a retweet.

Among other things, the explosion in fandom culture has led to the creation of several new words and linguistic innovations. One of my personal favourites is the concept of shipping. ‘Ship’ is a shortened form of relationship’, and when used as a verb it means (according to the Oxford English Dictionary – this one hasn’t made it into our Learner’s Dictionaries yet) ‘support or have a particular interest in a romantic pairing between two characters in a fictional series, often when this relationship is one portrayed by fans rather than depicted in the series itself’. From this, we get ‘ship names’, which are names for real or imaginary couples formed by blending the names of the two characters, or sometimes celebrities, in question. The Harry Potter fandom alone has given the world such gifts as ‘Drarry’, ‘Hinny’, ‘Dramione’ and ‘Bellamort’ (I’ll leave you to work out which characters each of those refers to), while ‘Brangelina’ is a more old school – and now obsolete – example.

Fangirls and fanboys

The words ‘fangirl’ and fanboy aren’t technicallyfangirl-2 new – the Oxford English Dictionary records that ‘fanboy’ was first used in 1919 and ‘fangirl’ in 1934. However, these terms have enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, as the rise of Internet fandom has spawned a new breed of fans whose passionate commitment to their fandom of choice goes above and beyond the usual admiration from a distance. The revival of the terms ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ seems to reflect a need to label these extreme enthusiasts as something other than mere fans.

While adding -boy or -girl to the end of a word can often just mean that the person being referred to is a child (e.g. schoolgirl, choirboy), in this case the fans being referred to are often adults, and so the suffix could be seen as infantilizing – it suggests that their enthusiasm is immature, and that they are behaving like overexcited children or teenagers. Looking at real-world examples of the usage of both words, I came across many instances where they were used in a very negative and condescending way: fangirl was often preceded by words such as rabid and creepy’, and fanboy by desperate and pathetic’, suggesting that these more extreme fans are often viewed with strong disapproval.

It’s interesting that an originally gender-neutral word, ‘fan’, has come to be assigned suffixes that differentiate fans by their gender. The examples I looked at pointed to a clear difference in the way the two words were used. The word ‘fangirl’ mostly came up in relation to celebrities, especially boy bands, and to TV and book series. ‘Fanboy’, on the other hand, was often used about those expressing strong loyalty to certain software and technology brands (the examples in the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary entry refer to ‘a Nintendo fanboy’ and ‘Linux fanboys’), and about fans of the stereotypically nerdy side of popular culture, such as comics, video games and sci-fi. Interestingly, men expressing excitement about celebrities were sometimes described as ‘fangirling’ rather than ‘fanboying’, suggesting that the object of the fandom or the way it is expressed may matter more than the gender of the fan. ‘Fangirl’ often seems to be used to refer to a more overexcited and frivolous sort of fan than ‘fanboy’ – the kind who speaks in SHOUTY CAPITALS and takes any opportunity to ‘squee’ (‘Squeal in delight or excitement’, according to the OED). Dismissive or derogatory uses of ‘fangirl’ could be seen to carry sexist undertones, reinforcing old stereotypes of women – and especially young women – as hysterical and irrational.

However, there’s evidence to suggest that the connotations of the word are shifting. Some of the more recent examples of usage I found showed ‘fangirl’ being used in a much more positive way (“when I call it the nerdy fangirl network, it’s a compliment”), or simply as a neutral term (“She’s amazing, I’m a huge fangirl of hers”), indicating that many people are now happy to embrace the word and define themselves as fangirls. A young adult novel entitled Fangirl which portrayed a self-proclaimed fangirl in a sympathetic and subtle way was published a few years ago, and may have helped to turn the tide for this much-abused word. I, for one, am all for letting our inner fangirls run wild – after all, a little squeeing never hurt anyone.

Fangirl is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Laura Shanahan is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP earlier this year, she studied French and Italian at university, and spent a year abroad teaching English in Italy. She has also worked at a translation agency, a bookshop and a library. She can often be found fangirling over fictional characters.

Languages change all the time

If you have studied the English language at school, college or university you will know that it has changed since its beginnings to the present time. The following are the opening lines of Beowulf, written in Old English between 700 and 1000:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon

Unless you have taken a course in Old English, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand this passage. English gets easier to understand over time, so that Chaucer’s Middle English is not as hard to read as Old English, and Shakespeare’s Early Modern English is not all that far removed from Modern English.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure famously made a distinction between studying a language diachronically, i.e. over time, and synchronically, i.e. at a particular time in its history. The distinction seems to be a useful one when we compare Beowulf with any piece of modern writing. However, in recent times linguists have questioned De Saussure’s distinction, and have pointed out that languages change all the time, even within the life span of individuals, and we can therefore speak of changes in progress, sometimes called ‘current change’. Nowadays, with the advent of large collections of language data (called corpora) tracking such changes has become easier.

Languages can change in many different ways.  The kinds of changes we can observe include sound changes, changes in the meaning or frequency of use of words, and changes in grammar. Let’s have a look at some examples.

Sound changes played a very prominent role in English, especially between 1350 and 1600 when the Great Vowel Shift took place. However, even in the present time changes in pronunciation happen. This is very obvious when you listen to announcers in old cinema newsreels: they sound distinctly different from present-day newscasters. Even the Queen’s pronunciation has changed over recent years, as recent research from a German University has shown.

In a post on my blog Grammarianism I discuss how the use of modal verbs has changed over the past few decades. Especially notable is the decline of must, which we can use to tell others to do something (“You must arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”). Most likely as a result of our society becoming less hierarchical, speakers of English now tend to use different ways of making requests of others, without sounding too authoritarian. For example, they might use have to (“You have to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) or need to (“You need to arrive by 6 p.m. at the latest”) instead.

As another example of changes in the use of particular words Catherine Soanes writes about the decline of the word whilst on the Oxford Dictionaries blog. She suggests that the reason for this decline might be that it sounds somewhat old-fashioned and pretentious, at least in the US. As for the UK, she observes:

In British English, whilst’ incurs less opprobrium, but guides and dictionaries usually advise that ‘while’ is preferable, given that it’s the most common form and may sound more up to date.

My own observations suggest that whilst may be making a comeback. I heard it recently in an announcement on a train platform: “Please take care whilst it is raining”. More tellingly, I hear it all the time in the speech of my 9-year old daughter and her friends. Of course, this is only anecdotal, and not solid evidence of a change, but if younger generations start re-using words, they may well be coming back into the language. Think also of the word cool which wasn’t cool for a long time, but it is now again being used by young people. Returning to whilst, interesting data on its use in the US are available in the following table from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

bas-blog-2

COCA contains 520 million words, and the data are sourced from a large number of different text categories, including spoken material (shown at the top of the table). In the right-hand portion of the table we see a slight, but steady, increase in the use of whilst per million words between 1995 and 2015.

What about changes in grammar, i.e. the syntactic patterns that we find in language? Another observation I made in the speech of my youngest daughter (she’s a great source of data!) is the emergence of what I will call the isn’t it that-construction. Here are some examples:

Dad, isn’t it that you promised to make pancakes?

Isn’t it that Sarah’s party is this afternoon?

This construction seems to constitute a new way of asking questions: rather than asking Dad, didn’t you promise to make pancakes?  the new construction seems to be a clipped version of the longer Isn’t it the case that you promised to make pancakes? It’s not clear how the new construction came about, or whether it is more widespread than just in the speech of my daughter and her friends. At present the most we can say is that changes like this are trends, and more research is needed to find out if they will ever fully become part of the English language.


Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of the Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is also a founder of the free Englicious website for teachers of English.

Hygge

hygge2People around the world have long benefited from what Denmark has to offer those who live outside its borders. Famous exports from this relatively small country include Lego™, Danish furniture design and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. In the UK, interest in our Nordic neighbours has also risen as many have become hooked on the various Scandinavian thriller series now shown on British TV, including Denmark’s The Killing.

The latest Danish offering has arrived in the English-speaking world in the form of a word rather than a product or TV show. I first came across this term as I scoured an article claiming to reveal the Danish secret to raising happy children. As a mother of two, I was naturally intrigued to know what I could do to make my young offspring as happy as the Danes. I discovered that the answer, as put forward by the writer of the article, lay in bringing more “hygge” into our lives.

Although this word has only recently come into use among non-Danish speakers, it’s already made quite an impression. With no direct translation, hygge, pronounced /hʊgə/ or /h(j)uːgə/, involves getting cosy and enjoying life’s pleasures. Unsurprisingly, retailers haven’t missed the opportunity to cash in on this trend and if you go into any modern homeware shop in Britain, you’re likely to notice a lot of Scandinavian-inspired home accessories. Soft cushions, candles, and pieces of furniture made from natural materials all help build the perfect hygge scene.

While creating a calm, homely atmosphere is one part of hygge, the concept is about more than your environment. In its true form, hygge is about taking time to savour the moment, either on your own or with the people around you. This could mean enjoying a meal with friends, taking a relaxing bath or curling up on the sofa with a good book. The key is to fully appreciate what’s happening and avoid distractions. With all this in mind, it seems hardly surprising that hygge has been linked to Denmark’s ranking as one of the world’s happiest nations. It is also perhaps no coincidence that our growing interest in hygge has come at a time of political upheaval in the United Kingdom and the United States.

While many endorsements of the art of hygge can be found on social media and in the shops, there’s also been a growing backlash. If you do a search for hygge on the Internet, you’ll see titles such as, “Enough with the hygge already!” and “Hygge: The dark side of Danish comfort…” Those who don’t agree with the hype about hygge label it as smug and boring, and point out that cosiness and a good atmosphere are not exclusively Danish qualities, but qualities that have been embraced within many cultures for centuries.

Love it or hate it, hygge is becoming more and more common in English, and even made the shortlist for 2016’s Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. It is used not only as a noun in its own right, but also before other nouns as a modifier. You can have a hygge experience or moment, enjoy a hygge dinner or visit a hygge home.

Hygge in all its forms is a loanword, the term we use for words that we adopt from other languages. Other words from Scandinavia that have recently begun to appear more frequently in English include “fika”, a Swedish word used to describe the custom of taking a break for a hot drink and often a baked treat, and “lagom”, another Swedish word, meaning lack of excess. Can you guess which Scandinavian languages these better-known loanwords come from?*

  1. troll
  2. slalom
  3. smorgasbord
  4. gravlax
  5. ombudsman

*See the Word Origin section of each OALD entry to find out.

Only time will tell whether hygge, like these other words, is here to stay in the English language, or whether it will just be a flash in the pan. Whatever its fate, as the digital world draws us away from simpler pastimes and pleasures, perhaps we’d all benefit from following the example of the Danes and “hygge-fying” our lives a little more.

Hygge is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Leonie Hey is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011. She is bringing hygge to Oxford one cake at a time. 

Listicle

It’s difficult to go on any social media site without quickly coming across a link to a list of “mind-blowing facts”, “reasons why…” or “mistakes you might be making”. This increasingly popular form of online content has become known as a ‘listicle’, which, as the perceptive among you might have guessed, is a cross between a list and an article, divided into numbered or bullet-pointed sections of text that are often accompanied by pictures or GIFs. Listicles can be based on pretty much any subject matter: a quick Google search provides results that range from the generic (“67 Awesome Halloween Costume Ideas”) to the very specific (“31 Kitchen Products For People Who Seriously Love Star Wars”), from distracting fluff (“30 Baby Animals That Will Make You Go ‘Aww’”) to genuinely useful tips (“4 Ways You Can Register To Vote In Less Than 5 Minutes”). And so, without further ado:

5 Mind-Blowing Facts You Need To Know About The Word ‘Listicle’

1) It’s a portmanteau word
English speakers love making new words by blending two pre-existing words, and ‘listicle’ is no exception. Many of the new words that were added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary earlier this year are portmanteau words: you can read more about them here and here.

2) The concept predates the word
‘Listicle’ may be a new word, originating in the early Noughties, but pieces of writing structured as lists have been around for a long while, from lists of beauty tips in teen magazines to ‘Top Ten’ lists of songs or albums by music journalists. You might be surprised to learn that a 19th century example of something that looks a lot like a listicle was unearthed a couple of years ago, entitled “The 25 Stages From Courtship To Marriage” – you can read about it here (http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-25-stages-from-courtship-to-marriage/). However, list-style articles have undergone a dramatic surge in popularity with the 21st century rise of online-only media outlets such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, and the recent coinage of the word ‘listicle’ seems to reflect the increased need for a precise way of referring to this distinctive form.

3) It’s not the only new word to originate from the word ‘article’
The word ‘charticle’, while less popular than ‘listicle’, has also come into use in recent years, and is a similar portmanteau word, this time blending chart and article. It refers to an article structured around charts or infographics.

4) Listicle titles are often prime examples of clickbait
Another common feature of the listicle is a title ending in something along the lines of “number 5 will shock you!” These titles are described as clickbait because they act as virtual bait, designed to make someone mindlessly scrolling through Facebook stop and click on the link to find out what could possibly be so shocking. (And yes, ‘clickbait’ is yet another portmanteau word!)

5) Not everyone loves listicles
Listicles have been criticised as a lowbrow and dumbed-down form by some journalists, who think that their simple list structure eradicates the need for good storytelling or a coherently-linked argument. The Canadian journalist Jeffrey Dvorkin went so far as to declare that clickbait and listicles will be “the death of journalism”. Controversial as they might be, though, listicles are undeniably popular. A counterargument to the criticisms of listicle haters like Dvorkin might be that modern life is increasingly fast-paced and full of multitasking, and so we don’t always have time to sit down with a newspaper and read a lengthy, well-researched article. A listicle can be the perfect way to fill a five-minute bus journey with some easily digestible infotainment. And besides, don’t we all need to just sit back, switch our brains off and scroll through 45 cats that are too fluffy to even exist every now and again?

fluffy-kitten-croppedWhichever side of the listicle debate you’re on, it looks like the word is here to stay. The neologism ‘listicle’ is becoming almost as widely-used as the form it denotes, cropping up more and more often in mainstream discourse (the Guardian, the Independent and the New York Times have all published articles discussing listicles in the last few years), and its inclusion in the next update of the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is a testament to its newfound popularity among English speakers.

Anyway, I’d better wrap this up – I’ve got some baby animals to look at, and I need to find out whether number 17 is really so cute I’ll want to squish it.

‘Listicle’ is not yet in the online edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but is one to look out for in the next update.


Laura Shanahan is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP earlier this year, she studied French and Italian at university, and spent a year abroad teaching English in Italy. She has also worked at a translation agency, a bookshop and a library. She is an avid reader of listicles and books alike.

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