A bunch of stuff about plurals

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

One of the many ways in which English differs from other languages is its use of uncountable nouns to talk about collections of objects: as well as never being used in the plural, they’re never used with a or an. Examples are furniture (plural in German and many other languages), cutlery (plural in Italian), and information (plural in French). They’re all marked U in the dictionary. They can be made countable, but they need the addition of another word: pieces of furniture, items of cutlery.

One group of words, including some that are new to the Cambridge dictionary, is slightly problematic. Mostly borrowed from Latin, these words are grammatically plural in their original language. Not having a plural –s to show that they’re plural, though, they are reinterpreted as singular (most of us are not fluent in Latin). A very careful speaker will use a plural verb with these words, but plenty of evidence can be found online for their use with singular verbs. Continue reading “A bunch of stuff about plurals”

Fifteen minutes of fame

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty

The pop artist Andy Warhol once said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Now it seems that the future has arrived: reality TV stars, rappers, chefs, and minor sports players now qualify for celebrity status. Celebs or slebs (to give them their slightly disparaging but affectionate moniker) range from A-list to Z-list, but anyone can dream of enjoying the celebrity lifestyle, even without an invitation to a red-carpet event or black-tie party.

The accoutrements of the super-wealthy are truly eye-catching: mansions in Malibu and Mallorca, complete with infinity pools, private jets, couture gowns, and children adopted from unexpected places. These all require serious money, not just celebrity, and B-listers, as well as non-celebrities like you and I, may have to make do with rather less extravagance. Still, the cult of celebrity requires everyone to at least try to make it big, whether by entering a TV talent show or being snapped up by a modelling agency scout. Continue reading “Fifteen minutes of fame”

How do you spell a sneeze?

by Colin McIntosh

sneezeNot everything we say forms part of the regular English repertoire of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on. Some can barely even be described as words, since they don’t follow the typical rules of English spelling. What do you say when you want to announce your presence discreetly to someone who hasn’t noticed you come in? In English you would make a kind of throat-clearing noise. Or when you want to express disapproval of something so bad that it doesn’t deserve a comment? You can pull down your tongue quickly from behind your teeth, causing air to be sucked into your mouth and making a kind of high, sucking, clicking noise. These sounds belong to what linguists call paralanguage: not the regular system of words with their semantic meanings, but a system of noises (and also movements and facial expressions) that communicate meaning in a different way.

These non-word noises were never normally written down, mainly because it was difficult to work out how to spell them. How would you spell the throat-clearing noise? Ways have been found of writing them down, though. And some of them are new arrivals in the Cambridge Dictionary. Continue reading “How do you spell a sneeze?”

Just who is driving this thing?

by Colin McIntosh

car_faceDo you remember Herbie the Love Bug? Herbie was a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle car in a string of Walt Disney movies. In typical Disney anthropomorphic style, Herbie goes his own way, falls in love, cries, plays jokes, and generally has a mind of his own.

While the new driverless cars, like those being trialled by Google at the moment, will probably never cry, they will take you places without you having to lift a finger. As with all new technologies, they bring a set of new words and meanings along with them, some of them new to the Cambridge Dictionary. Continue reading “Just who is driving this thing?”

Keep up with new phrasal verbs in English

by Colin McIntosh

mike_upPhrasal verbs are the stuff of many students’ nightmares. Most native speakers of English are blissfully unaware of their existence (they’re those short verbal phrases that include a little word like up or out: catch up, for example), but for those learning English, they have a reputation for being difficult to learn and impossible to use correctly. (Not exactly true – it’s more about the way they’re taught.)

Unfortunately for these learners, their number is growing all the time. The Cambridge dictionary is always on the lookout for them, and they’re added to the dictionary in the same way as other new words. Continue reading “Keep up with new phrasal verbs in English”

Thank you for the regift!

by Colin McIntosh​

upcycleMillions of tons of waste go to landfill every year, despite efforts to persuade us to recycle more. Of course there is an important green agenda here, but in these recessionary times it makes sense to cut back on waste and unnecessary consumption to save money. These changes in consumers’ habits have brought with them new additions to the Cambridge Dictionary.

One area where people are making changes is in giving presents. Have you ever received a gift from a dear old aunt that you realized straight away you would never wear? Well, someone else might love it! This is the world of regifting:

I regifted Dana those earrings I got from my boyfriend last year. Continue reading “Thank you for the regift!”

Down with skool!

by Colin McIntosh

spellingEnglish is famously difficult to spell, although its uniqueness in this respect has been considerably exaggerated. The often-quoted ghoti as a spelling of fish (gh as in tough, o as in women, and ti as in nation) would never be possible, as the values attached to those letters are dependent on their position in the word. It is true that there are some unnecessary complications, though, and there have been attempts over the years to simplify English orthography. Not many have succeeded.

If we take the linguist’s view that speech is primary and writing simply a secondary representation of speech, then spelling should not matter that much. But attitudes to spelling are extremely firmly rooted in the English-speaking world. Any attempt to make the system more logical, efficient, or practical has to get past the language mavens, those self-appointed guardians of correctness. But English has no official or regulated spelling – it’s a matter of convention. In such circumstances, it’s the dictionary’s job to guide users through the minefield and help them make the best spelling choices for the situation. Continue reading “Down with skool!”

The sharing economy: Part 2

by Colin McIntosh​

P2PIn my previous post we looked at some aspects of the sharing economy, made possible by Web 2.0 technology. This time we’ll look at new words connected with the sharing of data and content between users who are not trying to sell anything – or at least don’t appear to be. This type of sharing is sometimes called P2P, or peer-to-peer, although strictly speaking P2P involves a specific type of relationship between computers on a network, ​rather than using a ​central ​server.

At a simple level, this involves pooling resources. For example, if two people live and work near each other, it makes sense for them to find each other through a car-sharing app so that they can save on fuel and effort at the same time as reducing traffic congestion. Continue reading “The sharing economy: Part 2”

The sharing economy: Part 1

by Colin McIntosh​

C2CWhen Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, could he have foreseen how radically it would change our lives? Web 2.0 – a name for all the internet ​features, ​websites, and apps that ​allow ​users to ​create, ​change, and ​share internet content – has brought about a revolution in (amongst other things) the way our economy works. Like most advances in technology, it brings a new set of words with it, and some of these have recently made their appearance for the first time in the Cambridge dictionary. Continue reading “The sharing economy: Part 1”

Megacity life

by Colin McIntosh​

megacityIn 2011 the world’s population passed seven billion, only 12 years after reaching six billion; by 2017 more than 50% are expected to be living in cities. These statistics point to the fact that cities are growing at a phenomenal rate.

Demography is the ​study of ​changes in the ​population of a ​particular ​area, or of the world, over ​time, including numbers of births and deaths, migration, etc. A relatively new science, it has contributed several of the words and expressions newly added to the Cambridge dictionary.

Many of the new city dwellers will be living in a megacity – that is, an urban area of over ten million people. The process of urbanization (the growth of city populations compared to those in the countryside) affects every continent apart from Antarctica. There are currently 35 megacities in the world, five of them in China. Cities grow when the birth rate exceeds the mortality rate (or death rate), or as a result of internal or cross-border migration. Continue reading “Megacity life”