Nouns as adjectives: one of the funnest changes in English

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word fun as follows:

Diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure.

Which word class does fun belong to? Well, it’s a noun, of course. What else could it be? The OED agrees.

However, the latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary allows for fun to appear before nouns, as in this example:

There are lots of fun things for young people to do here.

Could fun be regarded as an adjective in this example? Well, maybe, but we mustn’t forget that, although adjectives are indeed typically placed before nouns, it is also possible for nouns to occur there, as in the phrases lunch menu, mattress protector, business trip, and so on, so this particular example doesn’t conclusively show that fun can be an adjective.

However, the dictionary has two further examples:

She’s really fun to be with

This game looks fun.

shutterstock_6335350In the first of these examples fun is preceded by really, and this proves that it is an adjective, because the adverb really cannot modify nouns. In the second example fun occurs after look, and this again shows that fun is an adjective because only adjectives can occur after this verb (the same is true for seem, appear, smell, and taste).

An even more persuasive bit of evidence for the claim that fun can be an adjective is the fact that it is now also found with the comparative and superlative endings –er and –est, so that can we hear people say this:

There’s nothing funner than those new video games.

This is the funnest thing we’ve ever done together.

Not everyone would use the words funner and funnest. Indeed, after I wrote these sentences, red squiggles immediately appeared underneath them, indicating that my word processing software doesn’t like them either! Nevertheless, it seems that these days the evidence that fun can be used both as a noun and as an adjective is quite convincing.

Are there any other examples of nouns used as adjectives in English? I came across this sentence recently:

We have to be adult about this.

Here the noun adult is used in the sense ‘grown-up’. This is less frequent than fun used as an adjective, but language users are experimenting with new usages all the time, as this passage from the Huffington Post shows:¹

Look at me adulting all over the place. Although I still look to adultier adults (i.e. my husband, who is the adultest) for advice, as I look back on the last almost-decade of my life, I realize I actually have learned a ton of lessons.

The passage is interesting, because its author manages to use adult both as a verb (adulting) and as an adjective (adultier, adultest). There is again a red squiggly objection coming from my word processor to warn me that these examples are unusual. Maybe this guidance is not unreasonable, because most English speakers would regard this as playful language.

The new uses of fun and adult again demonstrate that English is constantly changing, and that some words do not exclusively belong to only one word class over time.


¹ http://bit.ly/2wtNZeE


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.

Trepidatious

Some words aren’t ‘real’ words. But if they look, sound, and behave like real words, they may gradually infiltrate the language and before you know it everyone just assumes they were real words all along.

And who is to say what is a real word and what is not? Not the dictionary, whose role is to describe the language, not to prescribe what should or should not be used. No, it is users of the language who decide – which means you!

So is trepidatious a real word? It is not in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, but should it be? I will present its case and leave it to you to decide.

Actually, my case is getting off to a very bad start, as my computer program adds a red wavy line underneath the word trepidatious every time I type it. Clearly my word-processing software does not approve. However, I will ignore that and press on.

shutterstock_123271231

A common and accepted way to create new words is through derivation, or adding prefixes or suffixes to existing words to make new ones. Thus the verb entertain becomes the noun entertainment with the addition of the noun suffix -ment. So, we should start with the noun trepidation, which describes a fear that something bad might happen, for example:

He knocked on the door with some trepidation.

She set off up the mountain with fear and trepidation.

This noun is a fine alternative to the more mundane fear or the less formal nervousness, and no one will bat an eyelid if you use it, in fact probably the reverse – people will be impressed by your wide range of vocabulary. Talking of which, how many other English words for fear do you know? We’ve got lots! I’ve listed 15 synonyms or near-synonyms of fear at the bottom. Give yourself a point for each noun you can think of and see if you can score over ten points!

Most of our ‘fear’ nouns have adjectives to go with them: we have apprehension/apprehensive, nerves/nervous, worry/worried, fear/fearful, phobia/phobic just for starters. So why can’t we have an adjective trepidatious for our noun trepidation?

The formation of the adjective is grammatically sound. We turn other nouns ending in -ation into adjectives ending in -atious, for example flirtation/flirtatious, ostentation/ostentatious, vexation/vexatious. Trepidatious follows the pattern and allows us to create sentences such as:

I was feeling trepidatious as I approached the door.

She was trepidatious but also excited about future challenges.

Such sentences are used in real life. Just the other day I heard the following on a radio podcast from a film critic who was about to watch a much-hyped new movie:

I went into this slightly trepidatious.

There are almost 200 examples of trepidatious being used in real life in our newest corpus (= our collection of written and spoken texts as of February 2018), which is admittedly not a very large number. For comparison, there are 8,000 instances of the noun trepidation and 10,000 of the adjective apprehensive, so there is a long way to go before it becomes common usage. But there were no examples at all in our older corpus (up to 2014), so usage is certainly growing. The Oxford English Dictionary cites examples going back as far as 1904, so perhaps the word fell out of common usage and is now making a comeback.

My final point in favour of trepidatious is that it is easily understood. If you know the word trepidation, then you will not be confused if you come across the word trepidatious, even if you’ve never heard it before. This may be why the word is creeping in under the radar, as its use does not cause a problem with communication.

As we have already seen, we’ve already got lots of synonyms for afraid. The closest in meaning to trepidatious is probably apprehensive, so you may feel that that is perfectly adequate and trepidatious is just surplus to requirements. Or do you think we should welcome new ones, in the spirit of ‘the more the merrier’?

Synonyms of fear:

Agitation / Alarm / Anxiety / Apprehension / Concern / Dread / Fear / Fright / Hysteria / Nervousness / Panic / Paranoia / Phobia / Terror / Trepidation / Worry


Jennifer Bradbery has worked on many dictionaries and other reference materials for learners of English, including the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, a dictionary of synonyms.

Virtue signalling

January 7th 2018. At the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, many of Hollywood’s most famous female actors wore plain black dresses instead of the usual extravagant examples of haute couture. Their aim was to show support for the #timesup and #metoo campaigns against sexual harassment. When the same campaign ran during the BAFTAs ceremony in the UK a month later, the Daily Mail newspaper called it ‘virtue signalling: the sequel’.

You may not agree with the Daily Mail’s opinion but it raises an interesting question. It became apparent that many actors were aware of unacceptable behaviour in their industry but almost none of them had spoken out at the time.

shutterstock_129038348That is the essence of ‘virtue signalling’ – publicly expressing a view that demonstrates your good moral character, but not doing anything practical to change the situation. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to join a Twitter campaign with millions of others. It’s much harder to take action when you come across the problem in real life.

The term ‘virtue signalling’ may sound as if it comes from the field of social sciences, but the Oxford New Words Corpus* reveals that it is used mainly by journalists writing opinion pieces in blogs or newspapers, especially those with right-wing sympathies such as Fox News or Breitbart.com. The corpus shows that it is primarily used to denounce politicians who express liberal opinions on issues such as climate change, gun control, Brexit or feminism.

The term is a recent addition to the language with about 150 examples in the corpus since 2015. But if you search for ‘virtue signalling’ on Twitter, you will find hundreds of examples within the last few weeks alone. In fact, on Twitter it seems to have become the new word for ‘political correctness’.

A good example comes from the British journalist, Piers Morgan, who recently wrote: ‘How dare you kill off mankind, Mr Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist.’ This was after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently used the term ‘peoplekind’ to replace the word ‘mankind’.

Not all examples of virtue signalling refer to politics. When the physicist Stephen Hawking died recently, #RIPstephenhawking trended on Twitter. Clearly most people had never met Hawking. It’s also unlikely that they could tell you anything about the complex scientific theories that he had developed. So why did so many people use the #RIP hashtag? The accusation is that they hoped to enhance their public image simply by associating themselves with a great person.

There is something quintessentially 21st century about the use and the tone of the term ‘virtue signalling’. If you look through the list of other words that have recently been added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, it’s easy to see the influence of social media. Among these words are, for example: clicktivism, ghosting, lurker, Remoaner. One of the striking things about these new words from social media is that so many of them are pejorative. If you go to the original source and read the full articles or tweets, the tone of the debate is almost relentlessly negative. Maybe it’s time to start a hashtag campaign to treat each other with respect on Twitter. Or would that just be another example of virtue signalling?


*The Oxford New Words Corpus was started in early 2012 and now totals approximately 7 billion words collected from recently published web pages.


Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

Food: words that reflect our lifestyle

Many new words added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online recently involve food. Not just types of food, although there are always plenty of those to add as our eating habits become ever more international, but words that describe ways of life.

In some cases these are not lifestyle choices but necessities, such as food pantry, an organization that distributes food to food banks to provide for those who cannot afford to buy food. Food security, the state of having reliable access to enough nutritious food, has declined in many developing countries, leading to the opposite, food insecurity. While I regret the need for such words, perhaps their existence is at least recognition of the conditions of people whose employment and income are insecure, the precariat.

shutterstock_325346537Some words, such as clean eating, imply approval or disapproval, with implicit criticism of the opposites. If there is ‘clean’ food, then this suggests that other food is ‘dirty’, bad in some way and therefore unacceptable. Clean eating is about choices, choosing certain food groups, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, often organic, and nuts, pulses and whole grains, while rejecting others, mostly processed foods, and those high in fat or sugar. Followers can become obsessed with restricted diets, leading to a condition known as orthorexia, in which they consider all other foods to be harmful, and become ill through lack of a balanced diet. Like anorexia, orthorexia is derived from the Greek -orexia – ‘appetite’, and combined with ortho – ‘correct’, from Greek orthos – ‘straight, upright’. The popularity of energy bars and energy drinks plays further upon people’s desires to eat in the right way, or at least to believe that they are doing so. The sporty, healthy sound of these belies the fact that they can be packed with sugar.

The obsession with health, especially size and weight, is also reflected in body fascism, body shaming and fat shaming. All three terms are concepts involving criticism of someone’s appearance. The media, especially social media, has a lot to answer for, as those are the forums where such actions chiefly take place, either in personal comments or in journalism:

Body fascism is undoubtedly a factor in television casting.

Celebrities joined the fight against cyberbullying and body shaming.

Instead of embracing her figure and all its curves, and standing up to fat shaming, she caved in and gave in to peer pressure.

As well as pressure to conform to body image, there is also pressure to behave ethically in buying food and to dispose of leftovers thoughtfully. We can support fair trade by buying goods from employers who offer decent working conditions and a living wage. Is your leftover food compostable? If so, don’t throw it away, adding to landfill or causing pollution. Discarded cooking oil contributes to the creation of a fatberg, a large mass of solid waste found in the sewers beneath us.

Thinking of pleasanter matters, you might enjoy cooking up specialities, such as mousselines and other cheffy dishes involving complicated recipes and methods:

The five-course lunch included dishes such as poached eggs with artichoke mousseline.

Others prefer comfort food, often associated with childhood or home cooking:

Stews are the ultimate comfort food, particularly in cold weather.

My comfort food – the food that reminds me of being a child – is egg and chips.

And if you don’t want to cook, you could enjoy one of many takeaways available, for example a shawarma, another name for a doner kebab, a Middle Eastern food that’s popular all over the world.

How do new words come about? Words like shawarma and mousseline have been adopted into English from other languages, here Arabic and French, along with the food itself. Others, like orthorexia, are created to describe a new condition. Where medical and scientific terms are concerned, the origins are often Latin or Greek. Many new words are compounds where two or more words are put together, such as food hall, food security, food insecurity, comfort food, fair trade, body fascism, clean eating. They might have started as collocations, such as fair trade, or they might have been deliberately put together to create a concept, such as clean eating. Others are new meanings added to existing words, such as banger, which is not just a sausage (see Word of the Month, January 2018).

Eating habits and ways of life are constantly changing, adding flavour and colour to our expanding vocabulary. Check out all the new words and meanings recently added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site here.


Victoria Bull taught English in Sussex and London before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 2004. She has worked on a number of dictionaries including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the ESU award-winning Oxford Student’s Dictionary. She is the editor of Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Oxford Primary Dictionary for Eastern Africa and the Oxford Children’s Picture Dictionary for learners of English.

Brexiteers, Remoaners and frenemies

boy-in-union-jack-capThe referendum of 2016 brought about a new division in the UK: between Leavers and Remainers, or put more informally, between Brexiteers and Remoaners. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of both sides – and will try not to reveal my own position! – but want to look instead at some of the new words generated by the discussion around Brexit.

Back in May 2016, we published a blog post on the new word Brexit. That was before the referendum, in which votes in favour of leaving the EU (European Union) outnumbered votes to remain, by a slim margin. Since then, as the British government struggles to negotiate with the EU exactly what Brexit will entail, the split of opinion and passions surrounding this issue continue to be strong. Language has evolved to help convey some of those emotions.

One new word is Brexiteer, defined here by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

brexiteer-definition

Brexiteer has overtaken Brexiter, another new word meaning the same thing but more neutral in connotation.

What does the suffix -eer convey? In some words it simply signifies a person that does something connected to the noun it’s attached to – for example: auctioneer, engineer, mountaineer, puppeteer, volunteer. -eer is also the suffix in some loanwords that have come into English from French – for example: buccaneer (French: boucanier), mutineer (French: mutinier), pioneer (French: pionnier), musketeer (French: mousquetaire). This category of words often describe a daring, dashing (= usually of a man: attractive, confident, elegant) or swashbuckling (= especially of a hero from the past: adventurous, fighting with a sword, etc.) sort of person. Additionally, -eer marks several nouns as pejorative (= disapproving) – for example: profiteer, racketeer.

So which category does Brexiteer belong to? Who uses it about whom?

People in the Leave camp were, particularly at the outset, cautious of the words Brexit and its derivatives Brexiteer/Brexiter. Brexit, at least since the Prime Minister Mrs May insisted after the referendum that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, has established itself as an ordinary term in discussions. It is even used freely in other languages:

Pour comprendre ce qu’est le Brexit, il faut d’abord expliquer ce qu’est le Royaume-Uni. [from Libération, 7 April 2017]

Mit dem Brexit will Großbritannien auch aus dem Europäischen Binnenmarkt ausscheiden. [from Zeit Online, 28 March 2018]

Bruksela odrzuca model pobrexitowych stosunków między UE i Wlk. Brytanią, który premier Theresa May zapopronowała w ub. tygodniu. [from wyborcza.pl, 7 March 2018]

Brexiteer hasn’t gained the same neutral function as Brexit. Whether it has a positive or negative ring (= quality) depends on the speaker. Clearly some Leave supporters are happy to embrace it as a positive description:

‘Brexiteer brings to mind buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer,’ says Michael Gove. ‘It lends a sense of panache (= the quality of being able to do things in a confident and elegant way that other people find attractive) and romance to the argument.’ [from The Spectator, 24 September 2016]

Notice Mr Gove did not add mutineer to his list, as that word carries with it a sense of rebellion without the more attractive attributes of a pioneer, etc. However, Brexiteer is also used by those who oppose Brexit to suggest someone who is recklessly putting the country’s future at risk. One thing a Brexiteer has is a passionate commitment to the cause. Corpus evidence shows Brexiteer used with adjectives such as ardent and convinced. For the more extreme variety of Brexiteer there are adjectives such as hard, hard-line and arch – there are many fewer soft Brexiteers in use.

Three pro-Brexit ministers in Mrs May’s post-referendum cabinet – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox – were dubbed (= to give somebody/something a particular name, often in a humorous or critical way) The Three Brexiteers and portrayed in media illustrations as the legendary Three Musketeers.

Remoaner is a pejorative and humorous new word that Brexit supporters use of their opponents, criticizing them for failing to accept the result of the referendum with their talk of second referendums, and ongoing forecasts of doom (= death or destruction; any terrible event that you cannot avoid) once Brexit is in place. Here is the new entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

remoaner-definition

It replaces -main- in the neutral term Remainer with moan (= to make a long deep sound, e.g. expressing unhappiness or suffering). Remoaner is made even more negative by the addition of adjectives such as miserable, whinging or bleating.

While this play on words started life as a noun, it has given rise to a few derivatives, especially the gerund and present participle:

When will the remoaners stop remoaning and accept the fact that the UK is leaving the EU? [from Yahoo Answers]

… if ‘remoaning’ means standing up for EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK … [from The Mirror]

Remoaner is a blend or portmanteau word in that it combines elements of two separate words, but is different from classic blends in that it sounds more like a distortion of a known word – a distortion of Remainer.

The blend word frenemy will most probably come in handy more and more in discussing post-Brexit relations:

friend + enemy = frenemy

Here is its entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

frenemy-definition

This word is actually not anywhere near as new as Brexiteer and Remoaner: its first use is recorded as being in 1953. But its usage has increased in recent years.

The big band of Brexiteers includes many frenemies: people united in their wish to leave the EU but otherwise with different political views or social backgrounds. In the situation in which the UK will be cutting at least some ties with old friends, it will need new ones – and will most likely have to make some frenemies too! Which countries will prove to be lifelong friends, and which will become best frenemies remains to be seen.


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.

Catch a cold

shutterstock_511842424How are you? I hope as you read this you’re feeling better than I am as I write it! It’s the time of year when many of us suffer from coughs and colds and so when I realized that catch a cold is a new expression in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, I had to investigate. Of course the main meaning has been around for a long time, but now there’s a second sense that’s been added, one that means having more general difficulties:

catch-a-cold

The context of business and the stock market is typical. In our corpus of English, we find sentences like:

Coop Bank already messed up and caught a cold after the Britannia deal.

The stock caught a cold in February.

We’re very familiar with discussing the state of business in metaphorical ‘health’ terms. Read almost any business report in the newspaper and you will find medical analogies:

Not surprisingly, the major banks are celebrating their clean bill of health.

This time around, both the U.S. and German economies are flatlining, while that of Japan continues its slow downward spiral.

If allowed, market forces would naturally correct this, but few are willing to swallow the medicine needed to fix this mess.

With catch a cold, although many of the examples are from business, the corpus also shows us cases from sporting contexts:

It is tough rugby played on hard, fast grounds and the Lions almost caught a cold.

I assume that this has developed from expressions we’re familiar with along the lines of ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.’

This spawned all sorts of variations:

When Britain caught a cold, the periphery caught pneumonia.

When Apple sneezes, the supply chain shudders.

But now half of the pattern – the other illness – seems to have dropped away:

If China’s economy catches a cold, car sales will inevitably be impacted.

It’s not uncommon for idioms to end up truncated. Just think of ‘People who live in glass houses …

We don’t need to say the end of these expressions because people know what they mean. In fact, the older expressions may no longer be familiar to you in their full form. Can you finish these idioms?

‘What’s sauce for the goose … ’
‘If the cap fits … ’
‘Half a loaf … ’

… which goes to show that half an idiom is not to be sneezed at.


The full forms of the idioms are:

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the cap fits, wear it.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

Banger

A sausage. An old car. A loud firework. A really good song. It seems unlikely that these four things would be connected but connected they are!

They can all be described, in informal British English at least, as bangers.

Did you make the connection?

If you know the meaning of the word bang, you might be able to work out how some of these have earned their nicknames.

When sausages are fried, there’s a good chance they might go bang (= burst open with a loud noise), or at least that was the case in the past. In times when meat was scarce, sausages were bulked out with water and other fillers, making them noisier to cook and liable to burst. There is even a children’s counting song called Ten Fat Sausages, all about sausages sizzling in a pan until they gradually all go ‘pop’ and ‘bang’. While today’s meatier sausages are likely to result in a much more muted sizzle, it seems that this characteristic sound is why sausages became known as bangers. Bangers and mash – sausages with a serving of mashed potato – is as much a classic British meal as fish and chips.

An old car in bad condition might sputter and backfire as it struggles noisily along the road, so it would seem fitting to dub it a banger.

You’re not still driving that old banger, are you?

Americans would use the word beater instead, while a more old-fashioned (and more opaque) term to describe a dilapidated vehicle is jalopy.

And there are no prizes for guessing why noisy fireworks might be nicknamed bangers!

You will already find these three senses of banger in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. But what of the fourth sense, a really good song?

The loud noise denoted by bang can often suggest anger or impatience, or be perceived as an annoying sound, as you might surmise from some of the example sentences given in OALD:

She banged on the door angrily.

The baby was banging the table with his spoon.

A window was banging somewhere.

The door banged shut behind her.

This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider the etymology, or word origin, of bang:

bang_WO

A sound that is imitative of hammering is unlikely to be pleasant. Why then is banger used to describe a good song?

Well, in recent years, banging has come into use as an adjective in informal British English, with a couple of rather more positive meanings, and has been added to Oxford Dictionaries online (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website). When used to describe dance music, it means ‘having a loud relentless beat’, and when used more generally, it simply means ‘excellent’. It’s clear then how a banging song might have come to be described as a banger.

shutterstock_257634547

Unsurprisingly, considering its probable origins in banging, it seems that the term banger is primarily applied to dance music, meaning music for dancing to in clubs: there are 1,008 citations for ‘club banger’ in Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, making it the top collocate of all senses of banger. However, a quick Internet search indicates that banger can also be used to express approval of songs from other genres of music – indeed one of my colleagues said he first heard the term when his daughter, a fan of musicals, declared a 1930s show tune to be ‘a banger’.

It is also interesting to note that banging and banger bear no relation to a couple of other informal musical terms you may have heard of – headbanging and headbanger. These words apply to fans of heavy metal, rather than club music, and the way they shake their heads violently up and down in time to music.

So now you know: if you’re ever driving along in an old car, listening to a great song, on your way to a fireworks display where there’ll be sausages on the barbecue, one word is all you’ll need.


Do make sure to look out for the new sense of banger in a future update to OALD online.


Kallah Pridgeon is an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press where she works on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.

The English progressive construction: how it is changing

The English language uses the continuous or progressive construction to express that an activity or situation is ongoing in time. Here are some examples:

I’m singing in the rain.

He was waiting for a bus.

shutterstock_106631237_croppedThe first sentence expresses that the singing is ongoing now (present progressive), and likely to continue for a while, whereas the second indicates that the waiting was happening over a period of time in the past (past progressive).

What is interesting is that the progressive construction saw a meteoric rise in use in the 19th century. This was in part due to the fact that English had no way of expressing a passive progressive such as The house was being painted. Instead, the so-called passival was used, as in The house was painting. It’s hard to believe today, but the introduction of the passive progressive was widely frowned upon, indeed detested, by some writers. R. Grant White writing as late as 1871 regards the combination is being as ‘an absurdity … monstrous … ridiculous’. He goes on to say that:

In fact, it means nothing, and is the most incongruous usage of words and ideas that ever attained respectable usage in any civilized language.

Despite numerous similar attacks on the construction, it increased in use.

Another reason for this was that other constructions which involve the progressive were being used more and more, for example the so-called progressive futurate, as in I’m playing football in the park tomorrow. English speakers use this construction when they wish to express that some activity is planned or scheduled.

Recent research has shown that the progressive has continued to increase in use in the twentieth century. Linguists Christian Mair and Geoffrey Leech have shown that in written British and American English between the early 1960s and the early 1990s the progressive increased by 18.2% and 11.8%, respectively.¹ In spoken English over the same period there is also an increase in the use of the progressive, but it is much less pronounced, as subsequent research has shown.² This may suggest that the increase is levelling out.

Many people have noticed that the progressive is now often used with verbs that previously weren’t used in that construction, for example the verbs of ‘thinking’ and ‘emotion’, e.g. understand, love and want:

I’m understanding what you are saying.

We’re all loving this weekend break in the sun.

She’s wanting to finish her class early.

This use was attested in the early twentieth century, well before a well-known fast food outlet started using it.³ Usage is uneven at the present time, and we can say that this is a good example of a change in progress. Older speakers tend not to like it, or use it perhaps only with certain verbs, whereas the younger generations use it much more. This means that in all likelihood it will be seen as normal much more widely very soon, in the same way that the passive progressive became accepted over time.


¹ Christian Mair and Geoffrey Leech (2006) ‘Current Changes in English Syntax.’ In: Bas Aarts and April McMahon (eds.) The Handbook of English Linguistics, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

² Recent changes in the use of the progressive construction in English. 2010. (With Joanne Close and Sean Wallis). In: Bert Cappelle and Naoaki Wada (eds.) Distinctions in English grammar, offered to Renaat Declerck. Tokyo: Kaitakusha. 148-167.

³ i’m lovin’ it is the English version of the famous McDonald’s™ advertising slogan.


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.

Barbacoa

21957549-LLFancy going to that new barbacoa place tonight?

Where?! That might be your reaction, but a few years down the line having barbacoa for your dinner might just be as normal as paella or sushi are today.

As globalization brings English-speaking countries into ever closer contact with other cultures, so English borrows words from these cultures. In fact, it seems the appetite of the English language is becoming ever more voracious. And because we all like to eat, and many of us like to try new foods, these loanwords are particularly common in the world of food.

Recent additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, and words we may consider adding in future updates, include foods such as arancini and pecorino (from Italian), queso and chorizo* (from Spanish), challah (from Hebrew), pad thai (from Thai) and tempeh (from Bahasa Indonesia). And then there are more words related to ways of serving food, like omakase (from Japanese), or barbacoa (from Mexican Spanish).

Let’s look at barbacoa, for example. In Mexican Spanish, and now in English too, this is a slow-cooked meat dish originally cooked in an underground oven, but in the Maya lands of southern Mexico it still refers to the oven itself – a barbacoa is a hole dug in the ground which is used as an oven for cooking.

But does barbacoa remind you of another English word? It wouldn’t be surprising if it does, because the word barbecue has been part of the English language for over three centuries. It has certainly been part of popular culture in English-speaking countries long enough to have morphed into a verb too, as nouns often do in English as they become more common. English grammar is very flexible in its ability to transform itself in this way, and this flexibility certainly helps it to absorb foreign words.

Let’s not forget that many other older words, which are now so familiar that some of us may even think of them as English words, such as restaurant, cafe and sommelier, are also of foreign origin. These older words often came from French, as France was seen as the height of gastronomic sophistication, and was therefore the source of most of our innovations in food. As our horizons have widened, though, more recent introductions are more likely to come from other languages.

But we’re getting distracted… now what’s that delicious smell? Back to the barbecue!

As well as changing their meaning, sometimes these words don’t even come from the language you might expect. Barbacoa, for example, came into Spanish from the language of the Native American Taíno people, who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus and the European colonists. If we look at the Word Origin box in the entry for barbecue in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that in the Caribbean islands of the Arawak-speaking Taínos it was a structure made of sticks used for drying fish or meat, and only when it reached the mainland of the nearby continent was it transformed into a way of cooking the fish and meat, and finally, as the word migrated northwards through Mexico and into Texas, into a specific meat dish not even cooked in a pit.

barbecue_WO

So as you can see, barbacoa is quite a good example of how words can change their meaning over time!


*Read about the confusion surrounding the pronunciation of chorizo and other culinary borrowings in our previous Word of the Month post on biscotti.


Before becoming an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, Mark Temple lived another life as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America. His professional duties included eating barbacoa of all kinds.

Snowflake

As winter and the festive season approach (in the northern hemisphere anyway – apologies to those of you who may instead be enjoying a barbie on the beach), I have chosen snowflake as the Word of the Month. Let us consider what most of us know about snowflakes:

Even to those who hate snow, an individual snowflake is surely a thing of beauty and wonder.

All these qualities have given rise to a new, figurative use of snowflake – to be added at a future update to OALD online. Parents who love their children very much, think they are special and unique, and want to protect them from any possible harm, think of them as precious ‘snowflakes’.

Except they don’t. I can find no evidence of snowflake being used in a loving and positive way by parents. Instead, this new meaning of snowflake seems to date back to the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, later adapted into a film, and containing the line:

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

The concept of the ‘special snowflake’ was negative and ironic from the beginning. If we look at lines containing snowflake in OUP’s New Monitor Corpus, we can see that it is never parents who use the snowflake metaphor about their children, but always other people:

And please can we stop making parents and their unique little snowflakes the single most important thing in Australian society.

the kind of beautiful, unique snowflake your mother always told you you were before you realized she was lying to you

She has a horrendous case of ‘special snowflake syndrome’.

Even the lines that seem to be positive are actually dripping with sarcasm:

You are a perfect snowflake and it’s everyone else who’s wrong.

58009Young people of the ‘snowflake generation’ are often criticized for being very sensitive and easily offended. These are the students who no-platform speakers whose opinions they find offensive (see the WotM for March 2017); and who request trigger warnings (WotM September 2017) when difficult issues are to be discussed in class. One lecturer at Cambridge University has recently vigorously defended his use of a trigger warning (for a lecture discussing rape scenes in Shakespeare and modern drama) after his students were – quite unfairly, he felt – criticized as ‘snowflakes’.

Call me a snowflake, but I also find the term snowflake unsettling, for two main reasons: one, because it has appropriated something innocent and beautiful and turned it into something pejorative and nasty; and two, because it seems to be an intergenerational thing – the older generation insulting the younger. It is undeniably an example of the creativeness of language and metaphor, and the power of culture in spreading memes. However, there is already a backlash against the term – the ‘snowflake generation’ may prove they are not such snowflakes after all.


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 Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.