A life beyond fiction

by Colin McIntosh

Justin Pumfrey/Caiaimage/Getty
Justin Pumfrey/Caiaimage/Getty

Some works of fiction achieve remarkable popularity by creating entire alternative worlds that seem to exist fully formed; a few even have their own languages, or conlangs. And often, particularly in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and children’s literature, these books create new vocabularies to talk about their new worlds. Many of these words only exist in the realms of fantasy, but some gain a new life and are taken up in the real world. When this happens, they are added to the Cambridge Dictionary. Continue reading “A life beyond fiction”

What’s in a name?

by Colin McIntosh

Tim Macpherson/Cultura/Getty
Tim Macpherson/Cultura/Getty

When we give names to new inventions, discoveries, places, and a host of other things, inspiration often comes from the names of the people who came up with the inventions, made the discoveries, and so on. In other cases the name can be a tribute to the person in question, even though that person had no hand in the thing’s creation.

The words for these things are called eponyms and many of them have been added to the Cambridge Dictionary. Continue reading “What’s in a name?”

Feeling the music, seeing the words

by Colin McIntosh

Neil Hopwood/EyeEm/Getty
Neil Hopwood/EyeEm/Getty

In May 2016 Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish virtuoso percussionist, collaborated with the Papworth Trust charity to create a very special garden for the Chelsea Flower Show, where new gardening ideas are showcased every year. Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of twelve, plays her panoply of instruments by feeling the vibrations with her body, and the inability to hear in the conventional way has never stood in the way of her musical ambitions. Deaf culture, of course, has always been about ability rather than disability, and some new words connected with Deaf culture recently added to the Cambridge Dictionary recognize this fact. Continue reading “Feeling the music, seeing the words”

What planet are you on?

by Colin McIntosh

selimaksan/E+/Getty
selimaksan/E+/Getty

According to a 1992 bestseller, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. And I always thought I was from planet Earth! The book attempted to help men and women understand each other by explaining some fundamental differences between men’s and women’s psychology, and belongs to the expanding genre of self-help literature.

The growth of psychology, the academic study of the mind and behaviour, in the 20th century was felt far beyond the walls of academia. Its ideas were popularized and taken up by many writers and caring professionals, some with no background in the study of psychology. The vocabulary associated with some of these ideas has recently made its way into the Cambridge dictionary. Continue reading “What planet are you on?”

When dictionaries attack

by Colin McIntosh

zmeel/E+/Getty
zmeel/E+/Getty

Do you have problems remembering your passwords? Do you change them on a regular basis? Or do you write them down on scraps of paper, then lose them? Computer passwords need to be secure and memorable, but often if they’re secure, they’re not memorable, and vice versa.

With so many devices and systems now needing to be password-protected, password strength is more important than ever. The Cambridge Dictionary is welcoming several new password-related words to its pages.

The purpose of passwords is to make a computer system secure by providing access control: you need to verify your identity by typing your username and password, and only once the combination of these two has been authenticated can you access the system. Continue reading “When dictionaries attack”

cn u txt?

by Colin McIntosh

Acronyms speech bubble
LadyDart/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty

The advent of social media has seen a huge increase in the use of informal abbreviations, many recently added to the Cambridge Dictionary. We have always had abbreviations, of course. Well-known examples include IOU (for “I owe you”), used to give an informal written guarantee that you will pay back a sum of money, and x for a kiss, for example at the end of a letter.

The fact of using a small screen or keyboard to write means that we look for even more efficiency in how we write. Email communication first introduced a few, often semi-formal abbreviations, which are now often used out of context in speech in a playful or ironic way:

Fyi (= for your information), my weekends are for relaxing, not clearing up your mess!

Our anniversary is still May 12, afaik (= as far as I know)! How could you forget? Continue reading “cn u txt?”

Bottoms up!

by Colin McIntosh

Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Getty

Have you heard the one about the vineyard in Scotland? It has never produced a drop of drinkable wine. Not a joke but, sadly, a true story. Wine from Chateau Largo, in Fife, was described as “undrinkable” – by its owner. Despite global warming, Scotland’s climate is not yet ready to make it the world’s next wine-producing region.

The wine world has expanded, though, and this is reflected in some new arrivals in the Cambridge dictionary. In the days when Britain’s national drink was tea, back in the 1950s, British oenophiles (wine connoisseurs) considered themselves lucky if they could find a decent claret (the English word for wine from Bordeaux, now somewhat old-fashioned), and the definition of wine was a drink from France. Not surprisingly, most wine-related vocabulary came from French. Wine was produced in chateaux; a waiter in a restaurant who specialized in wine was a sommelier; extra-dry champagne was described as brut. In the 1960s, tastes started to spread to Italy, Spain, and Germany; and then the revolution started. The New World (the Americas and, in a wine context, Australia and New Zealand) started to supplant Old-World wines, and some of the vocabulary began to change. A wine-producing farm in an English-speaking country is called a winery; instead of a bouquet (the characteristic smell of a wine), tasters can talk about the nose. Table wine is used in preference to vin de table. Continue reading “Bottoms up!”

Capital M, small c, capital I…

by Colin McIntosh

camel
Credit: Getty

ABBA, iPad, e e cummings, Schadenfreude: a strange list of words, but one thing they have in common is an unconventional approach to capitalization.

English speakers assume that having small letters and capitals is a natural state of affairs, but many languages, including classical Latin and languages with non-alphabetic scripts, don’t have such a distinction. The Romans had one style for inscriptions in stone, which gave our capitals, and another for handwriting, which gave our small letters, but they were never combined in the same text. Gradually, capitals were introduced into normal text to emphasize, for example, nouns, proper names, and the first word of the sentence.

English no longer capitalizes all nouns, whereas German does. For this reason German nouns borrowed into English are often written with a capital letter. Examples in the Cambridge dictionary include Schadenfreude, a feeling of pleasure when something bad happens to someone else, and Realpolitik, a type of politics that is decided more by the urgent needs of the country than by moral principles. This rule is often ignored for German words that are more integrated into English, like rucksack and strudel. Continue reading “Capital M, small c, capital I…”

Listen up, you guys!

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

Many of the world’s languages have more than one word for “you”. English is unusual in having just one. In other languages there is often a distinction made between singular and plural – i.e., when speaking to one person or to more than one person. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese   is singular and nǐmen is plural. Another common distinction is between informal and formal pronouns (as in  and usted in Spanish).

The distinction between singular and plural has been lost in English. Thou took the role of singular until it fell out of use by the 17th century in most places, and you came to perform both functions. But 21st-century speakers often seem to feel that something is missing in the language, and several substitutes for a plural pronoun have crept into modern English – and now into the Cambridge dictionary. Continue reading “Listen up, you guys!”

Watching the detectorists

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

You could be forgiven for thinking that old-fashioned hobbies that don’t involve computers have fallen out of favour. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the internet has made it easier for people with specialist hobbies from different corners of the world to come together to support one another in their enthusiasms. This has generated a crop of new words, some of which are now making their first appearance in the Cambridge dictionary.

One new general word that has recently arrived in Britain from the US is hobbyist. This fills a gap in providing a neutral word for an enthusiast of a particular hobby; some of the words used in the past have been less than flattering. Anorak, for example, is used to refer to a boring person who is too interested in the details of a hobby and finds it difficult to socialize with other people. Anorak is used in British English; its origin lies in the typical clothing worn by an outdoor British hobbyist: practical, warm, and able to protect you from the British rain. American equivalents of anorak include nerd and geek, which also had similar unflattering connotations – until it became cool to be considered a geek. Continue reading “Watching the detectorists”