Monday, 30 November 2020

What can't you bear?

I belong to an online Forum called Gransnet. There is quite a lot of grumbling on Gransnet, especially about fairly hopeless-sounding husbands. And a lot of the Grans get on very badly with their daughters-in-law - and vice versa. But they also like to have rants about language.

This was a recent post, headlined "English language - where is it going to?"

"Maybe I'm being unreasonable and very menopausal but there are words that are getting under my skin.

* "Co-worker" seems to be a new word for colleague.

* "Super" this and "super" that instead of "very" or "huge", etc.

* "Denied", e.g. as in "he/she was denied entry" - instead of "refused entry", or other cases where the world "refused" would make more sense than the word "denied".

* Where has the word "donated" gone to. It's now "gifted".

* I get confused when reading a newspaper or magazine article where people are now referred to by their surnames only without the Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms. I lose the plot as to who is who confused. I'd prefer to referred to as Mrs Surname or my first name." 

                                                            A cow worker or a co-worker?

This one got a lot of replies (195 in fact). Here are some of the words and expression that Grans just won't be having with:


My bad

Meet with


Task (as a verb)

Going forward


Off of

Gift (as a verb)


At this moment in time

Fur baby (for a pet)

                                                        Credit: Nancy Wong Is this a fur-baby?

Can I get ...?

Reach out (for contact)

Park up

Invite (as a noun)

Beginning sentences with "so."

You can see they are a militant, not to say belligerent gathering of grans.

                                                        Raging Grannies by Grant Neufeld

A lot of the dislikes are for American expressions: "meet with," "reach out" (which I've seen elsewhere is OK if you are one of the Four Tops, otherwise not), "woke," "Can I get...?" "Awesome." But there was a lively discussion about "gotten," which is an American import that was originally an English export. Tricky.

A lot use an unnecessary preposition in post-position: "off of," "inside of."

But over to you. What are your pet language hates?

Word of the week: Celebrity

A noun that used to mean "fame" but now means "someone famous."  It was Chris Patten who defined it in 2011 as "someone I've never heard of." There was news today that the NHS is planning a series of ads with celebrities, serious ones, advocating having the Covid-19 vaccine. Who would you choose? I think John Craven, Trevor MacDonald, Judi Dench, Marcus Rashford, David Attenborough, Mary Berry, Juliet Stevenson.


Monday, 23 November 2020

OED word list 2020

Not a word of the week, nor yet a word of the year, which the OED usually decide on at this time, but a whole list of words, over forty of them. Not surprisingly, most are linked to the Coronavirus pandemic. But others relate to political activism, like "allyship" and "BLM."

Some, like "Veronica bucket" and "sanny" are quite new to me. How many do you know and use and do you think the OED has left any out that you would have included?

allyship n. active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it

anthropause n. a global slowdown of travel and other human activities

anti-masker n. a person who opposes the wearing of face masks

anti-vaxxer n. a person who is opposed to vaccination

BC. before Covid/before coronavirus

Black Lives Matter n. a movement formed to campaign against systemic racism and violence against black people.

blended learning n. a style of education in which students learn via electronic and online media as well as traditional face-to-face teaching

BLM. Black Lives Matter

Blursday n. a day of the week that is indistinguishable from any other

bubble n. (during an outbreak of an infectious disease) a restricted group of people whose members are allowed to be in close proximity when maintaining a physical distance is otherwise required

cancel culture n. a culture in which there is a widespread practice of publicly rejecting or withdrawing support from people or things regarded as promoting socially unacceptable views

circuit breaker n. (a) an automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit as a safety measure; (b) an automatic, temporary halt placed on stock trading, typically as a means of inhibiting panic selling; (c) a short period of lockdown intended to inhibit the spread of an infectious disease

community transmission n. transmission of an infectious disease or pathogen between members of a community, especially as a result of casual contact

coronavirus n. any of a group of RNA viruses that cause a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological diseases in humans and other animals; (specifically) a coronavirus responsible for an outbreak of serious respiratory disease in humans, especially the major pandemic beginning in 2019 

Covid-19 n. an acute disease in humans caused by a coronavirus, which is characterized mainly by fever and cough and is capable of progressing to pneumonia, respiratory and renal failure, blood coagulation abnormalities, and death, especially in the elderly and people with underlying health conditions; (also) the coronavirus that causes this disease

covidiot n. (depreciative) a person who disobeys guidelines designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19

decolonize v. to free (an institution, sphere of activity, etc.) from the cultural or social effects of colonization

defund v. to cease to fund (something)

doomscrolling n. the action of compulsively scrolling through social media or news feeds which relate bad news

flatten the curve v. to take measures designed to reduce the rate at which infection spreads during an epidemic, with the aim of lowering the peak daily number of new cases and extending the period over which new cases occur

furlough originally associated with members of the armed forces going on leave, and was chiefly used in the US. In March and April 2020 though, when it started to be used in other countries as employers were given grants to pay employees who were not working, usage shot up

hygiene theatre n. cleaning practices which give the illusion of sanitization without reducing the risk of infection

infodemic n. a proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety

Juneteenth n. 19 June, celebrated as a holiday commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves in Texas on that date in 1865.

learning modality n. a method of delivery of teaching and learning

lockdown n. a state of isolation, containment, or restricted access, usually instituted for security purposes or as a public health measure; the imposition of this state

mail-in adj. designating ballots, surveys, etc., in which results are collected by mail

moonshot n. an extremely ambitious and innovative project

net zero n. a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

pandemic n. a disease which is epidemic over a very large area and affects a large proportion of a population; an outbreak of such a disease

personal protective equipment n. clothing and equipment designed to provide the wearer or user protection against hazardous substances or environments, or to prevent transmission of infectious diseases

plandemic n. a planned pandemic

PPE = personal protective equipment

R number n. reproduction number, the average number of cases of an infectious disease arising by transmission from a single infected individual

rona n. (informal) coronavirus; Covid-19

sanny n. (chiefly Australian) hand sanitizer

self-isolate v. to undertake self-imposed isolation for a period of time, typically in one’s own home, in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

social distancing n. the action or practice of maintaining a certain physical distance from, or limiting physical contact with, another person or people (especially family and friends), especially in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

superspreader n. an individual infected with a (pathogenic) microorganism who transmits it to an unusually large number of other individuals

systemic racism n. discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group (typically one that is a minority or marginalized), arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within society or an institution

take a knee v. to go down on one knee as a peaceful means of protesting against racism

twindemic n. the simultaneous occurrence of two pandemics

unmute v. to turn on (a microphone or the audio on an electronic device), especially after having temporarily turned it off

Veronica bucket n. a type of sanitation equipment consisting of a covered bucket with a tap fixed at the bottom and a bowl fitted below to collect wastewater

virtue-signalling n. (depreciative) the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue

wet market n. (South-East Asian) a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce

wokeness n. the fact or quality of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice

workation n. a working vacation; a holiday during which one also works

Zoombombing n. the practice of infiltrating video conference calls on the Zoom application, and posting violent, pornographic, or offensive content

Monday, 16 November 2020

Hearing voices

Today's topic is Voice, an aspect of the Verb.

Perhaps you are already familiar with the difference between the Active and Passive voice? Here's a quick refresher:

"The dog bit the man" and "the man bit the dog" are both sentences in the active voice. They have the same grammatical structure, even though the event described is different.

"The man was bitten by the dog" and "the dog was bitten by the man" are both in the passive voice. They are describing the same incidents as in the first two sentences but with a different grammatical structure. (Followers of Chomsky might say they had the same Deep Structure as the first two).


All clear so far? 

What about these examples:

"The wine cost £10 a bottle"

"This dress washes at 40 degrees"

"The cake cooks well in the fan-assisted oven"

"Her books sell well"

"I photograph really badly" 

                                              Image: PETER LUNGILE CHIDOTHE

They are neither active nor passive. When I started to learn Classical Greek I was charmed to discover it had a Middle Voice that fitted the above examples perfectly. (It also has an extra number - dual, an extra mood - optative, and extra tense - the aorist, though it sadly lacks one case in  noun declension - the ablative. You have to use the genitive absolute in Greek, which sounds vaguely rude).

Once you have noticed the middle voice, you will see it everywhere.

Word of the week: Nocebo

Here, I was at first inclined, like Polonius, to exclaim, "vile phrase!" But it is a perfectly "cromulent" word as The Simpsons would say. It crops up in a report about people's reactions to taking statins. It is:

"a word that means in Latin "I will harm," as placebo means "I will please." A placebo makes patients feel better for reasons unrelated to the specific healing properties of the treatment. A nocebo makes patients feel worse (or does other harm) in the same way." Harvard Health


Monday, 9 November 2020

Harold be thy name

This is a post about "mondegreens," which is in some ways linked to the one on malapropisms

A Mondegreen results from a mis-hearing of a phrase or word in a poem or song lyric. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing that as a girl, when her mother read to her from Percy's Reliques, she had misheard the lyric "layd him on the green" in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray, as "Lady Mondegreen."

 I'm sure many of you have heard of the mondegreen, "Gladly, thy cross-eyed bear," taken from mis-hearing a hymn line: "gladly thy cross I'd bear." And I've always liked "Our Father, which art in Heaven/ Harold be thy name. (I like to think of God's real name being Harold). 

But I hadn't realised how widespread they were and that they work in other languages than English too. Wright said that the point about them and why they needed a term coined for them was that they are often better than the original wording.

"They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen" 

does make one wonder about Lady Mondegreen and why she had to die too! 

Yet the mishearing of The Star-spangled Banner to produce the nonsense adverb "donzerly light" perhaps doesn't quite make up in mystery for the lack of meaning.

A Monk Swimming by Malachy McCourt is so titled, according to Wikipedia, because of a childhood mishearing of a phrase from the Catholic rosary prayer, Hail Mary. "Blessed art thou amongst women" became "a monk swimmin'." And I can just see that monk doing the front crawl to approach the BVM.

Likewise, Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children's book by Vivian Walsh, which borrows its title from a mondegreen of the line, "all of the other reindeer" in the famous Christmas song about Rudolph. 

You can have reverse mondegreens too, as in the song which goes:

                     Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey

A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?


The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

This makes it clear that the last line is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?" 

This was apparently sung to me as a baby, since my mother was called Ivy (though not spelled in the standard way) and, by extension, my father sometimes called me "Mairzy doats," which makes me a sort of Lady Mondegreen myself! 

Word of the week: Mail-in ballot 

We call them postal votes in the UK and they seem a very good idea, especially in a pandemic. CNN say 'This is a blanket term for any ballot mailed to voters, though the completed forms can be returned by mail, to a dropbox or in person to officials or polling places. In three critical states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- officials weren't able to start processing any of these ballots until Election Day, which led to huge backlogs and slowed down the count."

But Donald Trump referred to them just as "ballots" which confused me, as every vote is a ballot and, when he said, "if there were no ballots, there would be no problem," he seemed to be saying, "if there were no votes, the election wouldn't be problematic."

Actually, he probably does think that at this moment. Ironically, he voted by mail-in ballot himself.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The way that you say it

This is a post about accents and dialects. Let's get one thing straight at the beginning. EVERYBODY has an accent and a dialect! There is no such thing as a neutral accent or dialect, but there are some that have been accepted (by whom?) as the norm.

In English, the way of speaking known as Received Pronunciation (RP), or BBC English or The Queen's English is an accent of the South East of the country, which has been accepted so long as some sort of gold standard that people who use it, like me, sometimes state that they don't "have an accent at all." But we do; it's just that ours has been deemed the way everyone "ought" to speak.

Even RP changes. The very clipped version known as XRP (ex-Received Pronunciation) can be heard if you listen to wartime radio news bulletins or the Queen's early broadcasts. This has mutated over time within the Royal Family, so that Prince William's accent is much closer to his non-Royal contemporaries' - even though Prince Charles still pronounces "house" to rhyme with "mice."


If you watch the Netflix series The Crown, you will hear that Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman have modified the XRP accent of the monarch and not precisely imitated it but given a impression of greater formality and inhibition in language which goes well with the role. Of course people do tailor their accents and everything else linguistic to suit their context and companions. This is known as register and maybe we can talk about that another time. 

Ex-PM Tony Blair was much mocked for adopting a glottal stop and other aspects of what is disparagingly called Estuary English, in order to sound more like a man of the people. He was also a converger, which I have some sympathy for, since I am one myself. My daughters used to say they could tell who was on the other end of the phone by the accent I adopted while talking to them. 

Anyway, accent is different from dialect, because it is about phonology and intonation. Whereas dialect is about vocabulary and syntax. Of course, it's true that people who use a regional dialect will probably have a regional accent too.

The dialect equivalent of RP is Standard English (SE).  It is possible to speak SE with a regional accent, whether from this country, the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, without using a different dialect. Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden all speak Standard English but with the accents of the countries they come from.

So who are the dialect-speakers apart from ourselves? You may well be a user of dialect yourself and not use Standard English, except in rare formal situations like a job interview. If you want to listen to English regional accents and dialects, this is a good site:

What is true of English is true of other languages too. If you are an Italian speaker and travel in Tuscany you will hear the distinctive pronunciation of "c"s and "g"s of the locals, so that "Coca Cola" sounds like "Chocha Chola" with a sound like the "ch" in "loch." 

There are well-known "dialect poets" like Roberts Burns and William Barnes who wrote as they spoke. And many examples in prose literature, which are hard to read, because they are signalled by a lot of extra punctuation and new spellings (to represent accents). You will find many examples in Thomas Hardy,  D H Lawrence, Mark Twain and Harper Lee, but it's fair to say that these last are not using their own speech patterns but those of their less well-educated and lower status characters.

When does a dialect become a separate language? The "Romance languages" (French, Italian, Spanish etc.) began as dialects of spoken Latin. Some people believe that a dialect becomes a language when it acquires a definitive written form. 

As a coda to thinking about accent and dialect, there is an even smaller sample than a region: a person's idiolect. (This is, along with zeromorph, one of my favourite linguistic terms). It covers an individual's speech patterns - both accent and intonation, choice of words, characteristic expressions and so on. It is how we can recognise immediately on the radio or in a telephone call a great range of people from celebrities to personal friends.

Word of the week: What else can in be but lockdown? Here in England today is the first of a four week lockdown, meaning not quite what it did at the end of March.


1. the confining of prisoners to their cells, as following a riot or other disturbance: The prison lockdown continues, more than three weeks after the death of a guard.
2. a security measure taken during an emergency to prevent people from leaving or entering a building or other location: The school remains under lockdown due to police activity in the area.The governor implemented a statewide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus—residents may not leave their homes for nonessential activities.The army base was on lockdown after a report of shots fired.
3. a freeze or pause: Banks aren’t lending during this credit lockdown."
Lockdown definition
The kind we are embarking on today fits the second definition, though it can feel a lot like the first.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Grammar Grandma is running late this week

Because of the new lockdown starting on Thursday and the fact that we are due to move house at the end of the month, we are rushing around like headless chickens trying to fit in what we need to do Monday-Wednesday.

I hope to post on Thursday.