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Archive for March, 2012

My Favorite Dictionaries

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Here is a question I often receive: “What is or are your top choices for an English dictionary? I’d much appreciate hearing from you!”

That one is easy. My favorite hard-copy dictionary is the American Heritage Dictionary. It is the easiest to read and understand and it has extended etymoloties. None of the online versions of this work carries the etymologies by Calvert Watkins of Harvard. Of course, I use the Oxford English Dictionary but the best version of it is now on line (www.oed.com) and by subscription only.

The most comprehensive dictionary on line is www.thefreedictionary.com. I used it recently in updating our English frequency list and it consistently had words in it that others did not. It also contains Wikipedia articles on some of the more arcane words, but that is OK: it saves a separate search.

Others I use include yourDictionary.com, which I founded. It now apparently has the exclusive rights to Webster’s New World Dictionary by Wiley Publishers. It, too, has the American Heritage Dictionary as a secondary source though, as with the Yahoo version of AHD, it does not carry the excellent etymologies by Calvert Watkins.

For etymologies I rely on Etymonline by Douglas Harper, just up the road from me in Pennsylvania. This etymological dictionary is great for Romance language borrowings. For native English terms the Oxford English Dictionary is still the best online source. I use other hard-copy etymological dictionaries in my library but they are mostly in foreign languages.

The Easiest Dental Sounds [th] > [t]

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Rudy Marinacci recently wrote:

“I enjoyed your ‘How is a Hippo like a Feather‘ article and chart very much. Could you tell me why my mother and her brother, both from Southern Italy (Reggio Calabria) could not pronounce ‘th’ and said tin iunstead of thin and tick, not thick?”

Sure can. It is because [th] is more difficult to pronounce than other English linguistic sounds. It is an “interdental” sound, which means the tongue goes between the teeth to pronounce it. It is relatively more difficult to get your tongue in between your teeth and out again before the following vowel.

The pronunciation of [t] is not that far away. It is a dental, which means the tongue goes to just behind the upper teeth to pronounce it. Much easier. The tongue remains where it is in pronouncing all other linguistic sounds (phonemes): behind the teeth. This is why people from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Deep South make the same sound change.

There is another problem your mother faces: she gets no help from Italian. This is because there simply is no [th] in Italian. In fact, this sound does not appear in any Romance languages. (Diego is right about the difference between English [th] and the Spanish dental fricative.)

Don’t worry about your mother’s pronunciation. As I said above, people from Brooklyn, Queens, and throughout the rural regions of the South (where I come from) face the same problem. She is in the company of native speakers of English around the world.

The Best Ways to Build Vocabulary

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

James Van Hoof recently wrote:

“Earlier this morning, I listened to a podcast of Dr. Katherine Albrecht interviewing you recently on her radio show. I enjoyed listening to your comments and insights on the subject of words and language!”

“In the past I’ve attempted, without success, to identify a book or other resource that is effective in assisting one in expanding one’s vocabulary. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to expand one’s vocabulary and or a resource that would be of value in assisting one in doing this.”

It is a fair question, one that I have been asked many times by students who want to build vocabularies and spell the words in them correctly. I offered the same reponse to Mr. Van Hoof as I offered them

I have three sure-fire ways of increasing your vocabulary:

  1. Read
  2. Read more.
  3. Read even more.

Our active vocabularies are unconscious and the only way to reach them is by reading or talking to people with large vocabularies. Memorizing lists of words simply does not work because all that work is conscious. You may pick up one or two words that way, but for massively building your vocabulary, reading is your best bet.

Read novels written by intelligent authors. Read some poetry, too. Poets like to show off their vocabularies.

Oxymorons are not Antonyms

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Stuart Gordon recently wrote:

“I dont think all your examples are oxymorons: Still moving is not. “Still” has two meanings but its meaning in this example is not “to be not moving”. Like wise hot chili. Chili is not the same as the homophone chilly. These are plays on homonyms.”

Thanks for your comment. In fact, all oxymorons are polysemous: one or both words have other meanings.

It affects the classic oxymoron, jumbo shrimp. Jumbo here means simply “large” and shrimp means here, well, “shrimp”, too, as well as “small person”. This applies across the board to almost every oxymoron in our list:

  • civil war
  • divorce court
  • irate patient
  • long shorts
  • holy hell

Civil means simply “in one country” in the first of these, not simply “civil”. Court means here “court” and not “engage in courtship”. “Patient in irate patient is, of course, the noun patient and not the adjective. Shorts are pants, not the adjective and holy hell is an exclamation. This may be the only one that was intentional. Exclamations are, after all, meaningless. They serve to express our attitude toward something.

We wouldn’t use oxymorons if they absolutely contradicted themselves; it would lead to too much confusion. There has to be a sensible interpretation of all of them.

We post these oxymorons because they are fun. We say them without thinking and it is fun to take stock in them. They are posted under our “Laughing Stock”, after all.

Hy-wire is a Haywire Name for a Car

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I was reminded of this incident by a suggestion that we make haywire a Good Word from Albert Skiles. (Keep an eye open for this word soon in our series.)

When I was at yourDictionary.com back in 2002, we received a telephone call from the GM marketing department. They were interested in buying commercial names for their cars. We agreed and sold them seven (which, to my knowledge, were never used).

Then they called us back to ask us for help naming their new experimental car. It was a hydrogen fuel cell car with electronic stearing, braking, and acceleration. It had four motors, one on each wheel. They had temporarily named it the Hy-wire, combining hydrogen and (drive by) wire. We contributed four names to this project.

When we didn’t hear from them for a month, we called, and they told us that they had decided to stay with the name they had already chosen, the Hy-wire. That name, we were told, was the product of the 11-year-old daughter of the vice president in charge of naming.

I wrote an e-mail back to our contact, saying that if they came out with that name, only the employees at GM would use it. The general public would call it the Haywire.

Moreover, it was a bad idea to mention wire, since potential customers would picture a wire coming out of the roof that plugged into an electrical outlet. This was at the time that GM and all other automakers had stopped making electric cars and were collecting them all and grinding them in to bits and pieces because sales had never caught on.

Finally, I pointed out the fact that a high-wire act was an extremely dangerous act, exactly the connotation that they should avoid. This is not the impression to be given potential buyers, given the fact that this was a new kind of car that runs on hydrogen, a fuel the general public knew little about.

I never received a reply to my e-mail. You may read more about the Hy-wire here. Hy-wire is the worst commercial name I have even encountered. Worse even than the California pool servicing company called Poolife.

OED: On English Borrowing

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries, bringing the total to 180,976. Subtracting the archaic words leaves us with about 133,826 current words.

Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter, adjectives, and about a seventh, verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

Only 25% of the words in the English language are of native origin. Here is a list of the languages from which most of the remainder were borrowed from.

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

Of course, the OED, like all dictionaries, is just a sampling of the English lexical treasure, chosen by the editorial staff. As I have shown elsewere, the words of a language cannot be counted. However, the percentages are telling testimony of the English obsession with borrowing. (Source: the OED itself, of course.)