All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Translation: A History of Synonyms

oath-sarum-william

William the Conqueror

When you take something from one language and put it into another, there’s a word for the activity: translate. It’s a nice carry-across from Latin by way of French, and its components amount to just that: “across” for trans, “carry” for late. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1300, in a history book known as Cursor Mundi: “This same book it is translated into English tongue to read.”

What did we say for “translate” before that? At the History of the English La…

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Killer Compounds

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 5.43.02 PMEnglish, like many other languages, abounds with compounds. Take two words and join them to create an inseparable unit, and you have a compound. There are compound verbs like undergo and overcome, compound adjectives like makeshift, compound adverbs like thereafter.

Especially abundant are compound nouns, like jumpsuit and strawberry, wristwatch and bookend. nutcracker and football. All those are noun + noun combinations, but you can have, among others, adjective + noun (software, greenhouse), …

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Nibbling Away

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer…

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A Nation of Hackers

Hack, hack, hack!

What’s that?

It’s the sound of a nation of hackers. That’s us in the 21st century.

Not so long ago, in the previous century, a hack was just a term at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an ingenious solution to a problem. Those who invented the solutions were hackers.  As computers came along, hacks and hackers came along too, spreading the terminology beyond MIT into general use. Hackers were those who found hacks for computers, ways to stretch their limits or detou…

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Spelling Out the Consequences

William-Shakespeare-007

In Shakespeare’s day, one could get by with spelling variations; not any more.
Image: Oli Scarff/Getty

A language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once supposedly said. We could update that to say a language is a dialect with an army, navy, and Silicon Valley, and it’s that, not any intrinsic merit, that makes English the dominant language of the world so far this century.

English certainly didn’t get there on the strength of its spelling system. On the con…

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A Really Bad Spell

bad_spellingThere are bad spellers, and then there are really bad spellers. Most of the time when we gripe about bad spellers we mean the first kind, who are actually for the most part pretty good.

It’s like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, with its motto “Wretched writers welcome.” Wretched they may be, but they actually have to be  pretty skillful to come up with parodies of Bulwer-Lytton’s fulsome 19th-century prose. Here’s the 2014 contest winner, by Betsy Doorman:

“When the dead moose floated into vi…

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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Our Own Devices

From The Scottish Pulpit, 1838, courtesy of Google Books:

“For should He, by whom kings reign and  princes decree justice, withdraw that secret influence by which he directs the thoughts of men to the accomplishment of his own objects; … should he surrender the guidance of our concerns solely to the exercise of mere human talents, at the expense of  the glory due to God, even yet, without the imposition of famine, or pestilence, or sword — those more immediate executioners of divine judgm…

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May Day! May Day! May Day!

Today isn’t just any day. It’s May Day, the first of May.

Geoffrey Chaucer knew it was special. In “The Legend of Good Women,” he wrote that he tossed his book aside when May came:

On bokes for to rede I me delyte . . .
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok, and my devocioun!

And on the first day of May, from before Chaucer’s time to our own, northern countries have celebrated the end of …