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By Michelle Waitzman
Most people take dictionaries for granted. They are available to us, at home or at school, from the time we first learn to read. Those of us who work with words rely on them regularly. But few of us spend much time thinking about how a dictionary is put together and kept up to date. It’s almost as though we expect them to spring into existence, fully formed. The truth is much more complicated—and fascinating.
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer,* and her book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s best-known dictionary publishers: Merriam-Webster. Sound boring? It’s not! Stamper takes us on a memorable journey through the ways in which the English language has evolved (and continues to evolve), the lengths that lexicographers go to in order to describe current usage, and the backlash that can result from a seemingly innocuous definition.
Each of the book’s chapters is named for a word chosen to illustrate the topic of that chapter. For example, the “Irregardless” chapter is about words that many people argue are not “real” words at all; the “Take” chapter discusses the challenges of defining small words that are used in a multitude of ways; and the “Nuclear” chapter is about differences in pronunciation.
Crystal against crystallization
by James Harbeck
(Oxford University Press, 2017)
How can we have crystal-clear language spoken by people with a crystal-clear understanding of how it works? For one thing, don’t try to crystallize it—just Crystal-ize. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, by David Crystal, is for anyone who wants to get Crystal clarity on the function and uses of English. Crystal is a world-renowned British linguist, academic, and author. He is one of the leading lights of popularizing linguistic understanding; he has written, co-written, or edited more than 120 books, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, The Stories of English, Language and the Internet, and, most recently, a series of books beginning with Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, continuing with Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, and now adding Making Sense, which gives us what is effectively an introductory course in English linguistics—syntax, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, and history—written for people who want something readable and usable. And he adds some extra details that you’re more likely to get in a course in effective writing.
It can be difficult to review a book that has nothing wrong with it. Honestly, in real life I would normally just say, “If you’re interested in grammar, read this book; if your work in any way involves grammar—and of course it does—read this book; even if you know a lot about grammar already, it will still be worth your time.” But let me give you some more details so you know why I’m recommending it. (more…)
(Oxford University Press, 2017)
By Christine Albert
Some words are so familiar that it feels as though we instinctively know what they mean. And when we don’t, we use a dictionary to read its definition and determine how it can be placed alongside other words to form cohesive narratives. But how often do we think about the history behind the word itself, the changes it’s gone through and the nuances it provides the English language and the topics being discussed?
In The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language, David Crystal examines the verb to be, highlighting the meanings created and used throughout its long history. A linguist, editor, and prolific writer, Crystal is well-known for his research in English language and has published over 100 books and almost 500 articles on topics such as religious language, Internet language, and clinical linguistics. Each chapter of The Story of Be is dedicated to a specific function of the verb, ranging from the more philosophical (“existential be”) to the scatological (“lavatorial be”). In the latter chapter, for instance, Crystal muses on the origins of the saying “Have you been?” to denote using the washroom, delving into past literature to see when this phrasing began. Alongside these explanations are numerous examples from a variety of sources, including literary, pop culture, religious, and technological. And sprinkled throughout the book are text boxes that focus on the history of the word’s various tenses, showing their development from Old English to modern times and their regional uses. (more…)
The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, blog posts, and podcasts. If you read or hear something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].
By Carol Harrison
Need a five-minute break from hacking and chopping and cursing the English language? Open Culture features a short lesson by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowern on the roots of English. A sweet, simple, and smart TED Talk, cheekily animated by Patrick Smith.
Speaking of roots, The Independent’s Natasha Salmon reports on how the French language is facing a backlash on gender-neutral words.
I’m a big fan of Words to that Effect, “a literary podcast of the intriguing, the curious, and the unexplored” hosted by Conor Reid from Dublin, Ireland. In episode 9, “Imaginary Countries and the Ruritanian Romance,” Conor talks about making up place names. Lovely stuff!
And for those days when you’ve run so low on dilithium crystals that your flux capacitor just goes kablooey, consider listening to “Technobabble” on Imaginary Words. In this episode, scientists and screenwriters team up to get the words right. It’s the droid you’re looking for.
Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at CPA Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.
This article was copy edited by Afara Kimkeran.
The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].
By Carol Harrison
Blimey! The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi reports that data shows the Americanization of English is rising.
“Friends with benefits” and other idioms that may not translate: or that time The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi made her mom guess the meanings of English expressions.
Because, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that idioms can be annoying: So say The Globe and Mail readers.
On people, language, and respect: Alex Kapitan writes about person-centred language in the blog The Radical Copyeditor.
It is my great honour to introduce a new honorific: Merriam-Webster on Mx.
So, does this mean my computer will swear back? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance writes about how AI has created its own language.
Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at FRAS Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.
This article was copy edited by Ellen Fleischer.
Interview conducted by Jennifer D. Foster
A career as an editor is often a solo adventure, especially if you’re a freelancer. So we thought one way to better connect with fellow editors was to ask them the W5: who, what, where, when, and why. Read on for some thought-provoking, enlightening tidbits from those of us who choose to work with words to earn our keep.
Please tell us a little about yourself, Marnie, the kind of work you do, and how long you’ve been an editor.
My first paid editing job was at the, then named, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, in Hull, Quebec. I was hired during the summer when I was doing my master’s degree in English literature. (I won’t tell you how many years ago that was!) The job was quite a coup for a student, considering that most of my classmates stacked books at Chapters or worked as teaching assistants in mandatory English courses for unruly engineering students.
After I graduated, I left Indian Affairs and pursued other goals over the next few years (including a second master’s degree, this one a combined creative writing and English literature program). I then worked for a year as an editor for a professor at the University of Ottawa before moving to Toronto. I freelanced for a few months and then landed a position as a catalogue editor for an advertising agency that produced all of Sears’s advertising. I remained in that job over five years before making one of the best decisions of my life in September 2009, when I left the agency to start my own freelance editing business, Ewe Editorial Services.
Since then, I’ve completed a Publishing certificate at Ryerson University and watched my business blossom. I work mainly in book publishing, with scholarly, educational, and trade publishers. My specialties are permissions research, indexing, copy editing, and proofreading. Like most other freelancers, I love the variety and the freedom that comes with being my own boss.
Outside of editing, I have many hobbies and not enough time to pursue them! My passion is writing fiction. Several of my short stories have been published in Canadian literary journals. My first book, a preteen/teen novel named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, has just been published by Iguana Books, the publishing company of Editors Canada past president Greg Ioannou. (more…)
(Chronicle Books, 2016)
By Jaye Marsh
Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s oft-quoted words from his book The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden have stayed with me: “Sanskrit has 96 words for love, ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” Given the English language’s predilection for absorbing new words from many cultures, it still has a paucity of beautiful and concise terms for the eternal and universal concepts of love, pain, and the sublime. In her search for the sublime in language, Yee-Lum Mak created Other-Wordly in which we find “komorebi: the sunlight that filters through the leaves and trees” and “hiraeth: a homesickness for a home which maybe never was”. Mak is from California and currently completing advanced English studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her love of words began when she stumbled across the Portuguese term for “the love that remains” (saudade), which sparked her search for other “strange and lovely” words.
Some words are striking, respectfully highlighting different cultural norms. Others show a sense of humour about the human condition. Two paired Japanese words let us peek at cultural values: “tatemae: what a person pretends to believe” and “honne: what a person truly believes.” A lovely Spanish word describes my favourite activity, “sobremesa: the time spent around the table after dinner talking to the people with whom you shared the meal.” Not wanting to spoil the joy of discovery, I expect most of us in the editorial world can relate to page 13: buying books, hoarding books, books piling up – there are words for that! (more…)
Correct usage of language is paramount to effective communication. The education system—from primary through post-secondary—does not offer students the tools needed for communicating effectively, whether verbally or in writing. The webinar is based on a workshop that was originally developed for the Canadian Authors’ Association national conference, and has since been presented to numerous groups, from university professors to public relations experts to journalists. It returns to the basics of language: when and how to use me, “myself, and I; clarifying appropriate adjectives and adverbs such as effective versus affective; avoiding split infinitives; the possessive apostrophe versus the contractive apostrophe; and dangling modifiers, among many other common usage issues.
The key concept of the webinar is that participants will gain (or possibly regain) a sense of the importance of correct usage of grammar and punctuation in the written and spoken word.
Date: Thursday, May 25
Time: 2 p.m., EDT / 11 a.m., PDT
Length: 1.5 hours
Member price: $56.25
Non-Member price: $75
Melanie Scott is freelance writer and the editor of the Low Down to Hull and Back News, an award-winning community newspaper based in Wakefield, QC.