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.

Ghosting

Halloween sweetsHave you ever been ghosted? Or perhaps you’ve been the ghoster? If you haven’t come across these terms before, you might think these questions have something to do with the paranormal, especially given that the date of this post coincides with Halloween, the evening when children in the US, Canada and Britain often dress up as ghosts, witches and other spooky characters and go trick or treating. Ghosting in this sense doesn’t in fact relate literally to apparitions and spirits, although that’s not to say that being ghosted won’t leave you haunted by the emotional after-effects. The act of ghosting involves abruptly withdrawing from all communication with a partner or friend, and thereby ending the relationship – with the ghoster in this scenario being the person who purposely ‘disappears’.

As shown in these examples, a ghoster can ghost a relationship as well as a person:

Not only did she leave him, she straight up ghosted him.

… if your bestie has just ghosted you for someone, make sure to tell them, honestly, about your feelings.

I ghosted my last relationship.

Evidence from our corpus (= the language database that we use to track how words are used) reveals that the preposition on is sometimes added in, turning the expression into a phrasal verb:

He complained that girls were ghosting on him and standing him up.

You might be surprised to learn that before this meaning of ghost materialized, the word already had two verb senses. Ghosting a book or written piece means ghostwriting the work (or writing it for someone who then publishes it as their own):

He ghosted the autobiography of a famous pre-war footballer…

In its intransitive form, the verb ghost can also mean to move from one place to another without making a sound:

They ghosted up the smooth waters of the river.

The most recent use of ghost probably derives its meaning from the fact that the ghoster takes on the ghost-like quality of being present yet unreachable. Ghost Mode, a feature that was recently introduced on Snapchat, also plays on this idea. Enabling this mode prevents other users from being able to see your location, which in a sense makes you ‘invisible’.

Of course, as I’m sure anyone over the age of twenty will confirm, the ghosting phenomenon existed long before we started using this word to describe it. However, maybe it’s no coincidence that ghosting has become a hot topic in this digital era, when many daters are using online dating apps and websites that not only make it easier to meet potential mates but perhaps also make it easier to vanish into the ether when it doesn’t work out.

Ghosting is by no means the only word with creepy connotations to come into use with the rise of online and app dating. Take, for example, the verb haunt. As you may already know, when a ghost is said to be haunting someone, the ghost is seen or heard regularly by that person:

He said he would come back to haunt her.

Increasingly though, the verb haunt is being used in the context of relationships. If a ghoster from your romantic past is haunting you, that person has recently reappeared in your life (or has metaphorically ‘come back to haunt you’) via some indirect form of interaction, such as liking a post on one of your social media feeds. This practice is also known as zombieing, drawing a semi-humorous comparison between the ghoster and a zombie – in this sense, a fictional creature often depicted as having come back from the dead.

If all this talk of ghosting, zombieing and haunting hasn’t spooked you, look out for these words in future updates of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. As the world of dating continues to evolve at a somewhat frightening pace, you might well find that these aren’t the only new terms to add to your dating vocabulary list.


Leonie Hey is a Development 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.

Trigger warning

shutterstock-101581390In March this year, the entertainment company Netflix released the television series 13 Reasons Why. The fictional series, based on a novel by Jay Asher, involved graphic depictions of rape and suicide, prompting viewers to petition Netflix to add clear trigger warnings to the series’ opening credits.

Also in March this year, British prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, beginning Britain’s two-year exit process from the European Union.

The link between these two seemingly unrelated events, if you haven’t already worked it out, is the word trigger. First used solely as a noun (‘A movable catch or lever the pulling or pressing of which releases a detent or spring, and sets some force or mechanism in action’), trigger first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1621 as tricker and this form was still commonly used until around 1750. Trigger originates from the Dutch ‘trekken’, which means ‘to pull’. Hence, we pull a trigger.

For a long time, trigger was only used in the literal sense to talk about the trigger of a gun or another mechanism. It wasn’t until around 1978 when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an official diagnosis that the figurative sense of the noun trigger became common. In psychological terms, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a PTSD sufferer to be emotionally transported back to their original trauma. It could be a particular sight, sound or smell, for example a song on the radio or the smell of a brand of perfume or aftershave.

The use of trigger in a PTSD context has also helped form the term trigger warning, which was added to oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com early last year. Trigger warning is defined by oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com as a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. that warns readers or viewers that the subsequent media contains material that they may find upsetting. Advisory labels and cautions are not a new phenomenon. We are used to seeing age guidance ratings on films and hearing the words ‘with scenes some viewers may find upsetting’ before a particularly dramatic episode of our favourite soap opera. But the digital age and our increasing reliance on the Internet created the need for a simple term that could preface any social media post containing potentially upsetting content. Step forward trigger warning, or TW for short.

Whilst the term trigger warning originated online, it soon moved offline. Recently there have been calls for trigger warnings before university lecture material, on book covers, and, as highlighted above, at the beginning of television programmes. With such strong demand for the series 13 Reasons Why to carry clearer trigger warnings, Netflix had no choice but to comply. In May 2017 a trigger warning was added to the opening credits of the first episode in the series to caution viewers about the graphic content and to point them towards possible sources of support if necessary. Material can now be described as being ‘triggering’, an adjectival form to describe content that, intentionally or unintentionally, causes emotional distress.

As mentioned above, Article 50 was controversially triggered in March this year. Why was Article 50 triggered rather than activated or launched? I suspect it’s because trigger is the only word that successfully and neatly communicates the idea of the official start of something, much like pulling the trigger of a starting pistol in a race. The most appropriate synonyms tend to be phrasal verbs such as set off, give rise to, and set in motion, all of which would be less succinct than simply trigger, and the latter two would take up extra precious character spaces in tweets, Facebook statuses and news headlines. A cardinal sin in a world where we commonly read articles on six-inch mobile phone screens.

It seems safe to say that over the past 400 or so years trigger has managed to trigger a lot more than just the movable catch of a lever. Who knows what it will trigger in the next 400 years…


Stacey Bateman is a Production Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Spain and worked for a sports and local interest publisher in Derby before joining OUP in 2011.

Heart

Do you heart new words? Even when they are symbols? Or does a heart meaning the word love, but spoken as heart, irritate you as much as it did this writer back in 1983?

I’m delighted to see there’s finally been a revolt against the annoying use of a stylized little red heart in place of the word ‘love’—as in ‘I (heart) New York’.

200px-I_Love_New_York.svgUnfortunately for him/her, the revolt was not successful, and the symbol and verb to heart is now part of everyday speech, particularly popular with designers of mugs, T-shirts, baseball caps, etc.

The use of this symbol for love isn’t new. In the art world the heart has appeared in religious iconography over the centuries, usually as a bleeding or sacred heart of a suffering god or saint, representing sacrificial love. Less artistically, we’ve also seen it as a symbol of romantic love, pierced with an arrow linking two names, as in ‘Romeo 💘 Juliet’, and inscribed on walls, carved in trees and scribbled on notebooks all over the world. Here it’s usually read as loves and not hearts. This simple symbol has moved from fine art through graffiti and now into print, where its use as the verb heart seems to irritate people.

57249English is a very flexible language, and there’s nothing new about nouns being used as verbs. The use of heart as a verb goes back to Old English, and the eleventh century poem of Beowulf, although most of the various meanings are now obsolete. Shakespeare, that most inventive and innovative user of language, used heart as a verb in Othello, though with a different meaning (= being fixed in the heart):

I hate the Moor, my cause is hearted, thine has no less reason.

We’re still making new verbs from nouns. Have you architected, diagrammed or databased anything recently? How did this impact your work? Sometimes these words seem little more than substitutes for other perfectly good verbs, such as build for architect or affect for impact, but there may be good reason for their use. Architect in this sense refers to the making of programs and systems (by a data architect) rather than building physical structures; impact, with its connotations of hit, sounds stronger than affect, or perhaps it’s just simpler to use, when affect can be all too easily confused with effect. The verbs diagram and database are used here as shortcuts for ‘to represent something in a diagram’ and ‘to put something in a database’. Some might call this usage laziness, others might say it’s poetic.

The digital revolution gives almost everyone the opportunity to write and publish online, where websites, blogs, forums, social media are open to all, and so language is changing faster than ever. Readers and writers react quickly, keying (first recorded 1964) or texting (1998) their views, and often language is reworked, abbreviations are used, shortcuts taken. Some changes are passing fads, but others catch on, are copied and become established, entering the ever-expanding lexicon of the English language.


Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining Oxford University Press in 2004, she taught English in London to adults from many countries.

Fur baby

shutterstock_136164980_croppedMy children are a little different to the children of my friends and colleagues… The most obvious distinction is probably that my two boys both have four legs, a tail and a thick coat of fur. These are not conventional children – these are my fur babies.

Added to Oxford Dictionaries online in 2015 (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website), fur baby is an informal term for ‘a person’s dog, cat, or other furry pet animal’. The phrase has positive connotations, at least in the eyes of animal lovers, and a corpus search reveals that fur baby is often combined with such favourable adjectives as beloved, adorable, precious and beautiful. By employing the term, we devoted pet parents can demonstrate to others just how important a role our animals play in our families and in our lives.

It must be acknowledged that some people will find the notion of fur babies very strange, especially those from cultures where animals are not treated in this way. While they may question whether a direct comparison can (or indeed should) be drawn between one’s biological children and one’s pets, I would argue that fur babies are in many ways very like their less furry, human counterparts. We welcomed a new puppy into our home last October and so ensued many a sleepless night, troubles with toilet-training, teething and picky eating, and tantrums galore, to say nothing of the difficulties we ran into when our little boy hit adolescence. Sibling rivalry is also a concern and we are still trying to reconcile the cat to having a younger canine ‘brother’.

Although fur baby may be a relatively recent coinage, the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals is not a new one. We even have a word for this concept: anthropomorphism. Defined in OALD as ‘the practice of treating gods, animals or objects as if they had human qualities’, anthropomorphism and its related adjective anthropomorphic and verb anthropomorphize are derived from the Greek anthrōpomorphos, itself from anthrōpos meaning ‘human being’ and morphē meaning ‘form’.

We don’t only anthropomorphize in everyday life: anthropomorphized animals figure very prominently in literature. Some classic examples from English literature are The Tale of Peter Rabbit (and Beatrix Potter’s other creations), Winnie-the-Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. While anthropomorphism is more prevalent in children’s literature, a famous work aimed at an adult audience, in which the majority of characters are anthropomorphized animals, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

There are also many examples of stories that anthropomorphize from other traditions. Aesop’s Fables, accredited to the Greek storyteller Aesop, and the Indian Panchatantra are collections of fables (= stories that teach moral lessons) about animals which behave in a human way. Anthropomorphic animals are also commonplace in fairy tales and folk tales, such as the traditional European story Little Red Riding Hood (versions of which were included in the compilations of tales put together by Charles Perrault of France and the Brothers Grimm of Germany), the West African folk tales (which later crossed to the Caribbean) about Anansi the trickster spider, and the Brer Rabbit stories of the southern United States.

Anthropomorphism is a well established linguistic device, with device in this sense being understood to mean ‘a form of words intended to produce a particular effect in speech or a literary work’. The OALD entry for anthropomorphic contains a link to the topic dictionary for Linguistic devices, where you can explore many more such terms, including others also of Greek origin, like chiasmus and zeugma. (Our topic dictionaries are groups of words related to common subject areas. You can browse all of our topic dictionaries here.)

So, whether in life or in literature, it is certainly not uncommon to ascribe human traits to animals and I, for one, am all for promoting our pets to full-blown family members: fur babies.


Kallah Pridgeon is mummy to Ludo the dog and Arthur the cat. When not tending to her fur babies, she works as an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.

Biscotti

Lee Blaylock Food StylistHave you ever found yourself in a restaurant or café, having made your choice but facing the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce it? Menus in English are often peppered with words borrowed from different languages; after all, just like our language, our cuisine draws on influences from throughout the world. And like the food itself, the words have become anglicized as our prowess in foreign languages falls a little short of our multilingual neighbours.

To the chagrin (or bemusement) of Italian speakers, ordering a panini is far from the only time we misuse foreign food words. An example soon to be added to OALD online in this category is biscotti – but the Oxford English Corpus quotes ‘I grabbed a latté and a biscotti’, a faux pas not uncommon among native English speakers. Both biscotti and panini are plural nouns in the original Italian, but even English plurals can be a source of inaccuracies, and can be found with a scattering of decorative apostrophes on menus and signs, so it is hardly surprising that we stumble over asking for bruschetta – is it /bruˈʃetə/ or /bruˈsketə/? You’re less likely to be understood in English-speaking countries if you pronounce it correctly, /bruˈsketə/. And what’s worse, you risk looking rather pedantic.

And this risk isn’t limited to ordering food – perhaps at your next coffee klatch with friends you might stumble over what to drink, too. If you search for latte in OALD, it will redirect you to caffè latte, which would be understood in Italy. But in English-speaking countries it has become the norm to ask for a latte (pronounced by most /ˈlɑːteɪ/), which might confuse an Italian. Why would a fully-grown adult just be ordering milk? But not only this; sometimes we go even further in our attempts to be exotic, adding superfluities such as the accent you might have noticed sneaking in above (‘I grabbed a latté…’).

Ironically, we seem to think this lends more authenticity to a foreign word. Here’s another example from the Oxford English Corpus:

There’s a salsa bar of sorts from which you can choose your heat, from mild to habañero. The place feels authentic.

Well, perhaps it feels authentic to those who don’t know that Habanero has no tilde – but maybe the confusion comes from the similarity to jalapeños, which, like fajitas and tacos, English speakers make a good stab at pronouncing authentically. Having taught modern foreign languages to secondary school students, I became more aware of this rather endearing tendency to pop an accent on a word to make it seem less like an English word whose translation has been guessed at. Or we go to the other extreme and treat foreign borrowings as English, such as adding the regular ending to make the French past participle sauté an English one, to make sautéed potatoes.

And speaking of confusion, a recent TV cookery competition in the UK sparked debate (even anger) over the pronunciation of chorizo, with the sausage being pronounced in three different ways: /ʃəˈriːzəʊ/, /tʃəˈriːtsəʊ/ (perhaps because people think it’s Italian?) and /tʃəˈriːθəʊ/. We seem to be able to pronounce churros, so why not the /tʃ/ of chorizo?

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry that languages are not really our forte: the English language is a melting pot of words borrowed and tweaked from others throughout the centuries, why stop adding to the mix now?

(Incidentally, forte comes from French, so why do we pronounce it as though it were Italian?!)


Isabel Tate is Dictionaries Assistant in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Learning languages is her forte and, when not sipping lattes and baking lasagnes, she has taught languages in the UK, France and Italy, and biscotti-making in Peru.

Awks

You know the situation when you and a friend are talking about someone, and that person overhears you?

In the past, you might have described this situation as ‘awkward’, but now you can describe it as ‘awks’, as in ‘OMG, she was standing right behind me! Awks!’ (pronounced /ɔːks/).

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After all, why use a whole word when just half a word will do? It’s fewer letters to write, and a whole syllable shorter to speak, thereby saving valuable nanoseconds in our busy, 21st century lives! It’s also fun to play around with shortening words in this way, and there’s a lot of it about.

As usual, this is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been shortening words for centuries. Contracted words such as bye, phone and exam are so thoroughly entrenched in our everyday vocabulary that we barely notice them as such, although in a formal or technical context we may use the word ‘examination’ instead of exam, and might prefer ‘laboratory’ to lab. One of the earliest recorded examples of word shortening is that of gent (for ‘gentleman’), which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as occurring as early as 1564. And we’ve been happily slicing bits off words left, right and centre ever since, leaving a trail of unwanted syllables and letters. Any part of the word could be rejected in the trimming process:

influenza

omnibus

veterinarian

refrigerator (at least this one gets an extra ‘d’ to compensate for the loss of eight other letters: fridge)

It seems that nowadays we are abbreviating words with a new energy; and we’re no longer just lopping off syllables, we’re modifying those that are left and tweaking spellings accordingly:

So ‘awkward’ becomes awks (/ɔːks/), ‘totally’ becomes totes (/təʊts/), ‘natural’ becomes natch (/næʧ/), and ‘jealous’ becomes jel (/ʤel/). Even ‘emotional’ can become emoshe (/ɪˈməʊʃ/), and ‘casual’ cazh (/kæʒ/).

For now, these truncated words can only be used in informal English – in informal spoken conversation between friends, in light-hearted social media postings, etc. For example:

This is embarrassing but I was totes asleep.

He passed all his exams, natch (= of course).

I’ve got a new phone, my friends are gonna be well jel (= very jealous)!

For now at least, these newer clipped words and others like them have not quite made it into the mainstream, and many people will not be familiar with any of them. There’s actually been an entry for totes in OALD online for a couple of years now; we also have entries for comms and even fam – two more words that can lose their endings in our modern-day, quick-fire language. However, there’s nothing in OALD yet for awks or jel. Will they make it into a future update? And will long, polysyllabic words eventually become a thing of the past? Surely not, at least not for an extremely long time. For now, we can amuse ourselves and each other by cropping some of our words down to just one or two syllables – fab!


Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Before joining OUP, she spent many years teaching students and training teachers.

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!

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.

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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.

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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:

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Irish:

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Scottish:

eish_5

Indian:

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South African:

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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!