Category Archives: Dialects

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Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?

A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, b…

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Oh, Man

I did a mental double take the first time I heard my wife, Gigi, say the word policeman. She gave the second and third syllables roughly equal stress and said -man with an ash sound (what was traditionally referred to as a short vowel), represented in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /æ/. It came out the way I would say Batman or milkman. To me, the -man in policeman has a reduced stress and a schwa vowel (/ə/ in IPA), as in woman.

I actually must have done a physical double take because…

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Mewling Quim

Loki

Loki

It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post…

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Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

lain_shot

The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…

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Comprise Yourself

wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos…

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‘Dibs’: the Great Northern Parking Tradition

Say the magic word, and it’s yours.

Please? No, not please. The magic word that truly cements ownership, at least for a lot of us, is dibs.

If you’re not familiar with dibs, you can look it up. For this word, the grand new Dictionary of American Regional English has first dibs for lookup. There we find dibs (always plural) defined as “a claim; rights; right of priority—often used as exclamation.” And DARE presents examples of use going back to 1930 in South Carolina. Likewise,  the Historical Di…

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Nice Going, Genius

Scalia: Sarcastic

Scalia: Sarcastic

In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by…

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Garage Sociolinguistics

Read the above title aloud before you continue. I have a real problem about pronouncing it. Let me explain. In the fall I was quite unexpectedly forced to move house. my_garage_3 My new home has not only an off-street parking spot but also a standalone structure (pictured at left) intended for storing an automobile (but actually occupied by garden tools, boxes, unused furniture–you know how it goes). Uttering the name for this outbuilding plunges me into a sociolinguistic minefield.

The suffix -age that te…

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Not by a Long Chalk

As I have mentioned here before, my hobby is writing and maintaining a blog about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. I know, I know. Listen, it keeps me off the street.

Anyway, not long ago, Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, opened a piece this way:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The opening of the second p…

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O Canada! in New Orleans

LouisiCANADA“I’m so New Orleans, when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian.”

A joke, right? No, it seems that, contrary to all expectations, a certain Canadian pronunciation is beginning to emerge in the Big Easy.

I heard about it in a talk by Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech at the annual gathering of linguists this month in Portland, Ore. She found “when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian” on Facebook, together with this response: “most people don’t come out and say, ‘are you canadi…