A year in the Macmillan Dictionary Blog: highlights of 2012

Posted by on December 31, 2012

Back at the beginning of 2012, a throwaway remark by Madonna sent readers hurrying to the Macmillan Dictionary. Commenting on a song by Lady Gaga, Madonna said ‘It feels reductive’, and when asked to clarify, she just smiled and said ‘Look it up’. Thousands of people did, making reductive our most looked-up word in January. At the other end of an eventful year, we’re getting a lot of look-ups for fiscal cliff, the key term in a financial and political story which is still unfolding in the US and which has been covered, from different angles, by Kerry Maxwell in her BuzzWords column and by our resident blogger Stan Carey in one of his many excellent posts. These sudden peaks in dictionary activity typify the interaction between language trends and what’s going on in the real world. And the real world was the subject of an investigation by corpus linguist John Williams, in a three-part post which teased out the complex ways in which this expression is used. The only reliable way to discover what something means is to observe numerous communicative events which it occurs in, and see if any recurrent patterns emerge. Which is exactly what John did, to provide a fine-grained description of the five or six different meanings of the real world. This is what the blog does so well, giving us the opportunity to dig a little deeper and provide a level of information which can’t be accommodated in a standard dictionary entry.

Which brings us to the field of pragmatics, a hugely important area of language which, it’s fair to say, has not been adequately covered in print dictionaries. Since pragmatics deals with more subtle aspects of meaning – it’s not so much about ‘X means Y’, as about the attitudes and intentions revealed by a speaker’s choice of words – traditional dictionaries haven’t generally had the space to give a good account of it. This is something we plan to address now that the Macmillan Dictionary has become a fully digital resource. In the meantime, the blog provides a great forum for discussing this issue. Orin Hargraves got the ball rolling with an introduction to the key concept of ‘speech acts’, explaining how the formulas we use in order to warn, advise, thank, or agree can often ‘convey a meaning very different from the one they’re usually used for’. Several subsequent posts dealt with other aspects of pragmatics such as irony and politeness, while Stan’s post on ‘linguistic inflation’ examined the reasons why speakers resort to exaggeration. Was it getting out of hand, he wondered, when something as banal as a cheese dip could be described as ‘insanely amazing’? At any rate, Stan’s reflections on this subject struck a chord with readers, sparking dozens of comments.

Apologizing is another kind of ‘speech act’. A thought-provoking take on the subject came from guest bloggers Simon Williams and Jules Winchester, whose post looked at recent public apologies by political and corporate leaders. In particular, they analysed statements made by the CEOs of BP and Toyota, whose companies had both been involved in unfortunate incidents. Williams and Winchester’s study of the data concluded that ‘both Toyota and BP show themselves to be contrite, but the way they do this follows different conventions’. Cultural factors, it appears, influence both the manner and effectiveness of apologies like these.

Another regular feature of the blog is posts on what you might call the fun side of English – the quirks and eccentricities of language history and language change. Stan’s post on ‘reduplicatives’ (words like lovey-dovey, dilly-dally, and fuddy-duddy) was a tour de force, while Katherine Barber managed to demonstrate an etymological link between the Queen and disco dancing. Still on the etymological theme, Orin Hargraves explored the Latin origins of names for pasta, and showed how ‘a stroll down the pasta aisle of the supermarket can … expand your knowledge of several [English] word families’. Elsewhere, Robert Lane Greene pondered the anisomorphism of go. Well, he didn’t call it that, but his point was that the English verb go – in its basic meaning – doesn’t always have an exact equivalent in other languages. Mystifying, since you might think that the concept of going was, as Lane put it, ‘an atomic unit of thought’. But as etymological guru, Jonathan Marks, noted in a comment to Lane’s post, ‘something can be an atom in one language but a molecule in another’. As well as writing a fascinating post on a 19th century campaign to replace Latinate English words with their Germanic equivalents (substituting bendsome for flexible, wordcraft for eloquence and so on), Jonathan contributed numerous erudite comments on other people’s posts – some almost as detailed as the posts themselves. Is there anything he doesn’t know about?

For many readers, the practically-oriented ‘Learn English’ channel remains a firm favourite. In addition to weekly language tips, there are plenty of useful teaching ideas, including, this year, advice from two guest bloggers on using newspapers in the language classroom. As teachers source more and more of their materials from online media, Roberta Facchinetti made a case for the good old-fashioned newspaper. A single paper, she argued, will contain a wide variety of text types, including news reports, features, reviews and editorials, each with their own linguistic features. Karen Richardson followed up with some questions teachers need to consider in order to ‘decide whether an article has classroom potential’ and whether there is sometimes a case for simplifying the original text.

One of the strongest arguments for moving dictionaries from print to digital media is that it enables us to keep fully abreast of language change. On the Macmillan site, we have a number of options for recording new vocabulary as it appears: the dictionary itself gets several updates each year, the weekly BuzzWords column focusses on specific new words or uses, the Open Dictionary (with over 1300 entries at the last count) receives a constant infusion of new language data sent in by readers, and the blog itself includes regular posts on emerging language trends and on the linguistic fallout of events in ‘the real world’. Two nice examples were Orin’s reflections on the use of words like signature, bespoke, and handcrafted in the world of catering (he had bought a ‘signature burrito’ for lunch), and Liz Potter’s review of vocabulary associated with one of the year’s big events in the UK, the Olympic Games. Most of the Olympic language wasn’t strictly ‘new’: it was more a case of the terminology of particular sports (like the cycling terms keirin, derny, and peloton) becoming common currency for a few weeks. And inevitably, some nouns got used as verbs (we heard of athletes who had podiumed or medalled), giving new life to a debate which will be familiar to our regular readers.

Keeping the dictionary up to date means, first of all, identifying new words and phrases as they emerge, and language technology can help us to do this more efficiently. Paul Cook described a computational method he devised with colleagues at Melbourne University, which searches through hundreds of millions of tweets every day to find evidence of new lexical blends. Traditionally, ‘trying to find a needle in a haystack’ meant embarking on a search that was almost sure to be futile. Not any more: with smart computer programs, tiny nuggets of information can be extracted in a few seconds from massive quantities of language data. Another example of language technology, Google’s ”Ngram Viewer’, was relaunched this year with several useful new features, and Stan explained why this is such a powerful tool for any variety of language research. As a digital reference resource, the Macmillan Dictionary now belongs to the wider world of ‘search’, and we benefit from all the research going on in this area. The language technology theme in the blog is aimed at keeping readers up to speed with significant developments in the field.

Back on the subject of language change, it’s tempting to imagine that, while the vocabulary of a language is constantly renewing itself, at least the grammar remains stable. But in a series of intriguing and entertaining posts, Gill Francis showed how wrong this assumption is. She argued that, if explaining new vocabulary is an important function of an online dictionary, ‘the real challenge is posed by the inexorable reshaping of the more frequent words and phrases of English … [including]  the multi-faceted “grammar” words’. If you thought prepositions never changed their meaning, think again: Gill’s corpus-driven analysis demonstrated that around, up to, ahead of, and across have all acquired new uses in recent years. On a similar theme, Orin discussed changes he had observed in the use of as far as, and Stan ended the year pondering the differences between try to and try and.

So, from the building blocks of the language to words in the news that may turn out to be ephemeral, the Macmillan Dictionary Blog has covered a lot of ground in 2012. And what distinguishes these contributions is that they are always firmly based on empirical evidence of language in use – while at the same time retaining a pedagogical slant which makes them recommended reading for teachers, learners, and anyone with an interest in how language works. A big thank you, then, to the dozens of writers, teachers, and researchers who have contributed their insights, expertise, and humour to the blog this year, including regular bloggers Stan Carey, Orin Hargraves and Gill Francis, and of course the ‘home team’ of Kati, Laine, Liz and Stephen.

Very best wishes to all our readers, and we look forward to enjoying your company in 2013.

Comments (4)
  • Thank you for highlighting and reminding us of these memorable blog events in this eloquent year-end review.

    It struck me, though, as I read the last paragraphs on the subject of change, that changes in the area of the orthography of the English language were left out out of the list. It seems to me that spelling errors (if we can call them errors as they are often better phonetic representations of the “correct” spelling) continue to challenge –dare I say– confuse writers. It is true that spell checkers have helped in fixing things. Maybe, competent readers on this and other learned sites do not link the issue of spelling irregularities and rise in illiteracy rates, but the reality –in schools– is that the struggle is more violent than ever in that regard. Of course, governments and leaders can fool the public in thinking that all is under control, as they throw more taxpayers’ money and more teachers to stabilize the disabled patient and its casualties. Is the patient the spelling system or is it the kids who must conform to its rules and considerable lists of errors! Is he or she a victim?

    Is it possible to have a debate on this subject because we know how flawed the English spelling system is. Right? Everything can change in English, but its orthography? One more anomaly to contend with, I suppose!

    Posted by Pewter Mare on 5th January, 2013
  • Dear Pewter Mare: thanks for your comment. Our ‘Learn English’ posts occasionally touch on spelling issues, but you’re right that this isn’t a topic we have covered much in the blog. You ask: ‘Is it possible to have a debate on this subject because we know how flawed the English spelling system is?’ By all means let’s discuss this. You’ll be aware I expect that there have been numerous attempts to ‘regularize’ English spelling which – because of the language’s complex origins and influences – bears a less obvious relationship to speech sounds than you find in most other languages. There’s an interesting Wikipedia article on the history of proposed reforms…and their repeated failure. I suspect it’s too late to change the spelling of English,so the question is how to make life a little easier for people using the language (and I don’t just mean second-language learners, since most mother-tongue speakers find it difficult too). All ideas welcome!

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 7th January, 2013
  • This blog should be considered to be one of my favourite blgos.
    I am not much of a blogger.
    Still, I do appriciate the hard work of people doing the blog informative, funny and competative.
    I adore the professionals of Macmillan blog Dictionary.
    Happy new year and Merry christmas to you.

    Posted by Tetiana Anokhina on 8th January, 2013
  • Thank you, Michael! First, I would like to correct the spelling of my name which was erroneously imputed after I explained to one of your staff members that I could not publish my comment. I am using Firefox now in the hope that I will finally be able to publish a comment, on my own, at last! :)

    I thank you for this interesting link, Michael. Bear in mind that I have spent the last 3 years or so in researching the matter. I am well aware of the few attempts to reform the spelling code and its difficulties in implementing them. It is my view that these proposals neglected to take into account the fundamental nature of human beings and their aversion to change that would –in effect– making their life more complicated, at least initially. Learning to spell and read in English is extremely hard. I would imagine that the mere thought of having to learn a new code would be extremely frustrating and daunting. THIS is not what I propose, however. I suggest that, instead of asking billions of people to re-learn a new code, when the old code works for them, that we phase in, in schools, over 15 years, starting starting in 2020 (as in seeing –and reading– 20 20), a program of regularizing the old code. I am confident that by 2035 most people who can read this post will no longer need to re-learn the new code to get or keep a job. Beside, it is likely that one would be able to “transcode” a text from an e-reader, with just one click, if that. My proposal would be using the existing 91 spelling rules (if need be). Hence, my proposal is to correct the existing English spelling system, something that authors on this and other websites are very keen. I would therefore expect that they would be just as eager to make the spelling code as correct as it is possible like they are so keen when speakers err and misuse words or fail to follow grammar rules. It also follows that they would realize that shaving off 2 or 3 years of rote learning list of words and their chaotic spellings and enable teachers and learners to learn more important matters would be be beneficial to their pocket book (fewer teachers = less tax = more money in their pocket) and beneficial to their country, raising its competitiveness. It demands, of course, a higher degree of intelligence, eliminating all visceral reactions that this change could engender. I am confident that people will see that this is a balanced solution to combat exorbitant and rising education budgets used to deal with the issue of illiteracy. Finally, at last, English spelling would be adhering to its inherent rules. I would like to invite the readers to read my blog on the matter. So, Michael, I am hoping that soon we will be able to have an article on the matter and bring this matter to the public. After all, there are thousands and thousands of words in the English language that are very badly misspelled ! Finally, we will be able to construe that right is wrong and wrong is right! What a concept!

    Posted by Peter Mare on 8th January, 2013
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