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.Email this Post