Look it up!

by Colin McIntosh​
The British dictionary tradition has differed from the American tradition in various ways, one of which is the treatment of words with a capital letter, like Brazil, Edinburgh, and John F. Kennedy.

British dictionaries traditionally made a distinction between content that was lexical and content that was encyclopedic. Lexical content (words, in other words) was the job of the dictionary, whereas encyclopedic content (countries, cities, dead white men) was the job of the encyclopedia. Nowadays, with the advent of search engines like Google, where all types of information are accessible, people tend not to distinguish between the two, and the internet is simply seen as one huge, amorphous source of information. This obviously has meant a big change in dictionary users’ expectations.

One enormous difference for dictionary makers in the digital age is that we can see what our users are looking up (or searching for, in the new parlance). When Samuel Johnson or James Murray published new dictionaries in past centuries, they had no idea if their users were looking up words they’d added, or if they were looking up words that hadn’t been included. Now we can run regular checks of “words searched for” and “words not found”. Continue reading “Look it up!”

The generation gap

by Colin McIntosh​
generation gap
It’s a feature of younger generations through the centuries that they feel the need to give themselves an identity through their ideas, their fashion, their politics, and their language. Leaving aside their language for another post, let’s look at the labels they’ve given themselves, that they’ve given others, and that others have given them, many of which are new additions to the Cambridge English Dictionary.

The Beat Generation, born in the US in the 30s, were probably the trailblazers. Young people who thought that personal experience was more important than accepted norms, they created the pattern for future generations of disaffected youth. Like their British equivalents, the Angry Young Men, the Beats tended to have a literary focus, although the term could also be used with a wider reference.

The boomers, or baby-boomers, born in the baby boom after the Second World War, were the ones who, in Harold MacMillan’s famous phrase “never had it so good”, and they’re still thought of in this way by succeeding generations who had it worse. They’re now being blamed for high property prices, the debt crisis, and impossible university tuition fees. Continue reading “The generation gap”

Scots wha hae!

by Colin McIntosh​
Scotland has been called various things over the centuries, not all of them complimentary. Called Caledonia by the Romans, Scotia by the medieval Latinists, and Alba by the Picts and Gaels, Scotland continues to refer to itself by all of these names, depending on whether the situation calls for stirring patriotism, sentimental poetry, or down-to-earth realism. Perhaps the low point was reached after the union with England in 1707, when Scottish supporters of the union called their home country “North Britain” in an attempt to downplay Scotland’s cultural uniqueness. What would William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) have made of it?

Scotland is effectively a trilingual country, speaking Gaelic, the dominant language in the Middle Ages, Scots, the dominant language in the Early Modern period, and a distinctive Scottish variety of English, Scottish English, increasingly dominant since the union with England. Each of these three is still spoken today and each has had an impact on the speech of all the people of Scotland, as well as the English spoken by the world at large. Continue reading “Scots wha hae!”

The high price of a haircut

by Colin McIntosh​
The credit crunch started to bite in 2008, with a whole lexicon of terms, some new and some previously confined to the vocabulary of economists and bankers, making an appearance in the news. Most of them are still with us, and some brand new ones have joined them in the Cambridge English Dictionary.

Toxic debt (debts that have little chance of being paid back or of being paid back with interest) was one of the main factors that caused the crash, with subprime loans (used to describe the practice of lending money, especially to buy a house, to people who may not be able to pay it back) made by the US institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Many home owners were faced with foreclosure (having a property bought with borrowed money taken back because the money was not being paid back). Continue reading “The high price of a haircut”

Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

by Colin McIntosh​
interplanetary craft
Are you a fan of shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek? Both shows have been around since the 1960s, and, not surprisingly, have generated some of their own vocabulary, some of which has now entered the Cambridge English Dictionary.

The phenomenon of fandom, meaning “the state of being a fan of someone or something, especially a very enthusiastic one”, is a fairly recent one, but the things that these new fans are fans of are often far from new. The fans of the 50-year-old Doctor Who and Star Trek even have names for themselves, Whovians and Trekkies. These fanboys and fangirls (an informal and slightly derogatory way to refer to these over-enthusiastic fans) attend conventions and get involved in cosplay (dressing up as characters from the shows). Russell T. Davies, a writer and TV producer, was one such fanboy who later went on to become the first producer of the relaunched Doctor Who in the 21st century. Continue reading “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft”

Coffee culture

by Colin McIntosh​
coffee culture
In a study published recently and widely reported in the media, researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health found that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee per day are less likely to die from a range of diseases. Good news for coffee drinkers, who make up an ever-increasing proportion of society.

Seattle, which likes to consider itself the home of coffee, is partly responsible for this growth in coffee drinking around the world, being the birthplace of the Starbucks chain. This is the source of much of the new vocabulary around coffee drinking, which you will now find in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Most of this vocabulary comes originally from Italian, but filtered through the Seattle approach, which involves making you stay on the premises as long as possible. Central to the whole operation is the barista (the person who makes the coffee, an Italian word from bar, meaning a coffee shop). Bring your laptop, settle down, and spend the morning sipping. As well as the traditional cappuccino (which has grown to double or triple the size of the Italian original), on offer we have lattes (even bigger and milkier than a cappuccino), macchiatos (with less milk than a cappuccino, and served in a smaller cup), americanos (with added water to make it less strong) and chais (not actually a coffee, but a tea drink originally from India with milk, sugar, and spices). Variations include decaf (decaffeinated) and skinny (with low-fat milk). If you’re in a hurry, ask for it to go (served for you to drink somewhere else, usually in a paper cup):

Two skinny decaf lattes to go, please!

Continue reading “Coffee culture”

Happy shopping!

by Colin McIntosh​
Traditionally in the US, people’s minds start turning towards the holidays after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). That’s not your summer holidays, as Brits might understand it, but the December pile-up of religious and secular festivities that represents the high point of consumer spending, not just in the US, but in many countries around the world.

With Thanksgiving out of the way, Americans feel free to concentrate on preparing for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other festivals, as well as the New Year, and that usually involves a heavy dose of spending. The custom dates back a long way, but in the 1970s marketing people introduced the term Black Friday. This refers to the ​Friday after Thanksgiving, when ​shops ​reduce the ​price of ​goods in ​order to ​attract ​customers who ​want to ​start ​their ​gift ​shopping, or, in other words, to kick-start the spending season: Continue reading “Happy shopping!”

New peas in old pods

by Colin McIntosh​
One of the ways in which language is constantly  changing is by adding new meanings to existing words. Sometimes the new meaning is clearly based on the old meaning, as is the case with a computer mouse, or a dropdown menu, or an ice cream cone, but other times the relationship between the old and new meanings is less clear, or even non-existent. There is no connection, historically speaking, between nan, a British word for grandmother, and nan (also naan), a type of flat bread in South Asian cooking. The same can be said of rock (meaning ‘stone’) and rock music. They simply happen to have the same combination of sounds and letters, with very different origins.

The oldest meaning of pod, for example, is the one that refers to a part of a plant, usually long and thin, that contains the seeds. Some vegetable pods can be eaten, such as those of green beans (also called French beans and string beans); others, such as peas, contain the edible part, and are usually not eaten themselves. This meaning itself comes from an Old English word meaning ‘cloak’, so it is possible to see a connection between the two meanings – they both refer to protective coverings. Continue reading “New peas in old pods”

Protest the cuts!

by Colin McIntosh​
protest the cuts
Thirty years ago this phrase would have been meaningless to most British people. Not that 1980s trendy lefties were shy about expressing their opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to shrink state spending. It’s just that they would have said they were protesting against the cuts, rather than protesting the cuts. The transitive use of protest was reserved for phrases like protest your innocence. Now phrases like this are all over the media, imported from the US thanks to the recent exposure given to movements like Occupy Wall Street protesting (against) corporate greed and shady banking practices. The usage has recently spread to the UK, and has been taken up particularly by commentators in the media, no doubt helped by the fact that it makes sense to have a single, global (and shorter) hashtag on social media.

This fluidity in grammar patterns associated with verbs is not new. British English traditionally used the infinitive with to after help. The Royal British Legion says comfortingly but somewhat staidly:

We can help you to manage your debts… and deal with unexpected expenses

whereas the more dynamic-sounding sellmyhouse-fast-london.co.uk says:

We can help you sell your house fast! Continue reading “Protest the cuts!”


by Colin McIntosh​

The past couple of years have seen a dramatic rise in the use of the word selfie, a word which won the accolade of ‘word of the year’ two years ago, beating onesie and twerking to the top spot.

The word selfie is an abbreviation, obviously. But an abbreviation of what? Self-taken photograph? Self-portrait photograph? Has anyone ever called it that? Does it matter? In every corner of the globe, within a very short space of time, the selfie has taken over the world. The idea of the selfie is not new: Rembrandt painted almost a hundred of them; the Turin Shroud may be one of the earliest. But it is only with the rise of the smartphone and the ability to upload photos instantly to social media that it has become ‘a thing’. New technology demands a new word – otherwise how would it be possible to market it?

The must-have accessory for the selfie-snapper is the selfie stick. Living in Cambridge, I constantly risk injury when walking around the centre from tourists trying to perform the feat of extending a selfie stick while at the same time squeezing themselves into the frame of their smartphones. Several serious injuries have been attributed to the use of the selfie stick, and they have now been banned from many places, including festivals, nightclubs, and museums. In one case, though, it actually saved someone’s life, when it was used to drag a drowning teenager to safety off the coast of Massachusetts. Continue reading “Do-it-yourselfie”