linguistics and lexicography Love English

Dictionary labels part I: the very informal ‘bawbag’ the first of a short series of posts on the labels used in Macmillan Dictionary, Stan Carey looks at how different levels of formality are indicated.

A common perception of dictionaries is that they are collections of spellings and definitions. These are certainly major features. You encounter a word you don’t know, or about whose meaning there is some debate, so you look it up. But dictionaries provide lots of other information too; sometimes this information even makes the news, as we’ll see.

As well as offering spellings and definitions of words, Macmillan Dictionary also supplies grammatical categories, example sentences showing use in context, and audio files and IPA symbols for pronunciation. It adds notes on usage, collocates, inflection (via the ‘Word Forms’ button), and more. And it provides labels to help readers understand a word better. These labels are worth a closer look.

Taking examples from above, we find that file is labelled ‘countable’, news is ‘uncountable’, and don’t is a ‘short form’. These labels guide readers on the nature and use of a word – especially if English is not their first language. Other labels concern style or attitude, telling us something about pragmatics or about register, the type of language used in certain situations or with certain people.

Register is often about formality. Whom, for instance, is labelled ‘formal’. Because everyday communication is increasingly informal, this helps explain why whom is in decline. Gutsy and numpty, by contrast, are ‘informal’. So is the phrase buzz off, which is also labelled ‘usually in imperative’ and ‘intransitive’ (you wouldn’t say *Buzz them off). Dammit is ‘impolite’; frock is ‘old-fashioned’; dulcet is ‘literary’. All of these labels lend semantic or pragmatic nuance.

Which brings us to bawbag. The entry labels it ‘very informal’ (and ‘Scottish’) – cautioning anyone unfamiliar with the word that it’s not suitable for use in polite company or solemn contexts. Our tweet about bawbag caused a ‘bit of a media stir’, as Liz Potter wrote in her recent Open Dictionary column. It was reported in the Guardian, Scotsman, Glasgow Live, and other news outlets. All stressed the word’s ‘very informal’ status, showing the importance of this label for understanding what kind of word it is. Some described bawbag as slang, which is another way of looking at it, albeit debatable (defining slang is notoriously tricky).

Words labelled ‘very informal’ are often rude or insulting, like ponce, ratbag, and plonker. Others are not rude or insulting but are very informal in other ways, like lotta, gazillion, and freaking (adv.). Macmillan Dictionary currently labels about 200 words ‘very informal’ and about the same number ‘very formal’. See if you can find others.

In the coming months we’ll have more to say about the labels used in Macmillan Dictionary. The discussion will be informal, but not very. In the meantime, next time you look up a word, see what the labels are telling you.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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