Archive for Dictionaries

The future of Chinese language learning is now

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

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Lumpatious lexicography

In the latest episode of "Sam & Cat," a teen comedy on Nickelodeon, the plot takes a lexicographical turn. As Nickelodeon describes it,

Sam and Cat make a bet with the annoying older brother of a babysitting client that "lumpatious" is a real word. When they discover it is not, they must figure out how to get it in the dictionary.

Here's a clip:


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Cattle raid, spray, whatever

In a Yuletide email message, Victor Mair found holiday cheer in the American Heritage Dictionary entry for spree — not so much the definition (just "A carefree, lively outing", "A drinking bout", or "A sudden indulgence in or outburst of an activity"), but in the etymology and "Word History":

[Perhaps alteration of Scots spreath, cattle raid, from Irish and Scottish Gaelic spréidh, spré, cattle, wealth, from Middle Irish preit, preid, booty, ultimately from Latin praeda; see ghend- in Indo-European roots.]

Word History: A spending spree seems a far cry from a cattle raid, yet etymologists have suggested that the word spree comes from the Scots word spreath, "cattle raid." The word spree is first recorded in a poem in Scots dialect in 1804 in the sense of "a lively outing." This sense is closely connected with a sense recorded soon afterward (in 1811), "a drinking bout," while the familiar sense "an overindulgence in an activity," as in a spending spree, is recorded in 1849. Scots and Irish dialects also have a sense "a fight," which may help connect the word and the sense "lively outing" with the Scots word spreath, meaning variously, "booty," "cattle taken as spoils," "a herd of cattle taken in a raid," and "cattle raid." The Scots word comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic spréidh, "cattle," which in turn ultimately comes from Latin praeda, "booty." This last link reveals both the importance of the Latin language to Gaelic and a connection between cattle and plunder in earlier Irish and Scottish societies.

So, he explained, "when you go out on your Christmas shopping spree this year, you are essentially raiding the stores and bringing home the booty!"

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Japanesespanishmackerel

This will be a mini-disquisition on fish terminology, focusing on one particular species.

Reader hanmeng, after seeing a reference to bàyú 鲅鱼 (a kind of fish — discussion below) in the opening scene of the 32nd episode of " Méndì" 门第 ("family status; pedigree; ancestry; lineage; families related by marriage equal in social status" — title of a popular TV drama series), googled to find what the equivalent word is in English, and was directed to Baidu (a search engine for Chinese-language websites), where they render it as "Japanesespanishmack—erel".

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Pushing Pekingese

At the expense of English and of other Chinese topolects and languages?

We have seen that, in recent weeks and months, there has been considerable agitation against the increasing role of English in Chinese education and life in general. Supposedly, overemphasis on English is leading to the deterioration of Chinese language skills. Consequently, the amount of time devoted to English in schools is to be reduced, the weight placed upon English in college entrance examinations is to be decreased, and there are calls for children to begin to study English later than first grade of elementary school, which is the case now.

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The English language's Twitter feed

I have a piece on Fresh Air today, behind the curve as usual, on the discussion that followed the Oxford Dictionary Online's inclusion of twerk, which Ben Zimmer covered in a post a couple of weeks ago ("Getting worked up over 'twerk'"). Actually I don't care much about twerk, whose coolness and credentials Ben defended definitively. But I think it's worth looking at the whole list of new words that appeared on the ODO blog post announcing the quarterly update, headed "Buzzworthy words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online – squee!":

apols, A/W (“autumn/winter”), babymoon, balayage (“a technique for highlighting hair”), bitcoin, blondie (small cake), buzzworthy, BYOD (“bring your own device”), cake pop, chandelier earring, child’s pose (yoga), click and collect, dad dancing, dappy, derp, digital detox, double denim, emoji, fauxhawk, FIL (“father-in-law”), flatform (shoe), FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”), food baby (“a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food”), geek chic, girl crush, grats, guac, hackerspace, Internet of things, jorts, LDR, me time, michelada (“drink made with beer, lime juice…”), MOOC, Nordic noir, omnishambles, pear cider[see comment below], phablet, pixie cut, prep (v. “prepare”), selfie, space tourism, squee, srsly, street food, TL;DR, trolly dash (UK supermarket promotion), twerk, unlike (v.), vom (“vomit”)

I’ve bolded the ones that seem to me to have a chance of being still current by the end of the decade, including a few that have been around for quite a while. Some of this is pure guesswork (if you have inside knowledge about bitcoin, let me know) and others may scrape by, but it's a fair bet that the vast majority are not going to survive your hamster.

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Getting worked up over "twerk"

Perfect lexicographical storms don't come along like this very often. On Sunday night, Miley Cyrus egregiously "twerked" at MTV's Video Music Awards, in a performance that quickly became National Conversation #1 (even outpacing Syria). About 48 hours later, Oxford Dictionaries announced its quarterly update of new words — with the Associated Press and others trumpeting the news far and wide — and lo and behold, there was twerk, defined as a verb meaning "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

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Frances Brooke, destroyer of English (not literally)

I don't have much to say about the latest tempest in a teapot over the non-literal use of "literally." It started, as such things often do these days, on Reddit, where a participant in the /r/funny subreddit posted an imgur image showing Google's dictionary entry for "literally" that pops up when you search on the word. The second definition reads, "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true." That was enough for the redditor to declare, "We did it guys, we finally killed English." As the news pinged around the blogosphere, we got such fire-breathing headlines as "Society Crumbles as Google Admits 'Literally' Now Means 'Figuratively'," "Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of 'Literally'," "I Could Literally Die Right Now," and "It’s Official: The Internet Has Broken the English Language."

The outrage was further heightened by the realization that (gasp!) pretty much every major dictionary from the OED on down now recognizes this sense of the word. So now we get vitriol directed toward the OED's lexicographers, who revised the entry for "literally" back in September 2011, coming from such sources as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. [Update: As Fiona McPherson points out on the OxfordWords blog, the usage was actually noted in the "literally" entry when it was first published in 1903. The 2011 revision reorganized the entry and expanded the historical record.]

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Ornery

Amber Woodward, an attorney for the federal government living in Dallas, TX (originally from the Kansas City area), recently had a run-in with her father-in-law when she called him "ornery". I'll let her tell her own story in a moment, but first I want to say that I personally never use "ornery" in a pejorative sense. In fact, I always use it to convey affection. For example, if I say "ornery little fellow" about a child, I mean that he is mischievous but loveable, and I'll go up and hug him after I call him that. If I say it about an animal (e.g., "ornery critter"), I intend to convey the notion that I respect it for its strength, agility, wiliness, etc., not that I despise it for being hard to handle. Even when I declare that someone is an "ornery old cuss", I usually want to let him know that I like him for being the curmudgeon that he is (cf. this Language Log comment [near the end, in red]).

By the way, I normally pronounce "ornery" with three syllables, but occasionally will lapse into two syllables ("orn-ree") when I'm relaxed or in a hurry. Oh, yeah, I'm from Ohio.

The Visual Thesaurus gives "cantankerous; crotchety" as first level synonyms for "ornery", and pronounces the word with three syllables. These seem to be standard for dictionary definitions of the word.

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A reprieve for DARE

A month ago, I posted an "SOS for DARE," detailing the impending financial threat faced by the Dictionary of American Regional English, a national treasure of lexicography. At the time it appeared that the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, where DARE is based, would be unable to provide support to offset the loss of federal and private grant money. But now there's finally some good news out of Madison, in the form of new funds from the University and external gifts.

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SOS for DARE

Many Language Log readers are no doubt familiar with the Dictionary of American Regional English, which I hailed in a Boston Globe column last year as "a great project on how Americans speak — make that the great project on how Americans speak." At the time, I was previewing DARE's fifth volume, which completed the alphabetical run all the way to zydeco.  Since then, a sixth volume of supplemental materials has also been published, and plans are underway to launch the digital version of DARE, which would serve as an online home for future expansions and revisions. But now DARE editor Joan Hall passes along some troubling news about the dictionary's financial fate.

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The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition

As soon as I heard that the 5th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) had come out, I rushed to the nearest Barnes & Noble bookstore (yes, they still exist — that was Borders that closed) and plunked down two Bens (hundred dollar bills) to buy three copies at $60 each:  one for my office at Penn, one for my study at home, and one for a friend.  The 5th ed. was actually published in November, 2011, but I was in China then, and didn't get a chance to buy my own copies until the day I arrived back on American soil.

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Panel on Digital Dictionaries (MLA/LSA/ADS)

Eric Baković has noted the happy confluence of the annual meetings of the Linguistic Society of America and the Modern Language Association, both scheduled for January 3-6, 2013 at sites within reasonable walking distance of each other in Boston. (The LSA will be at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, and the MLA at the Hynes Convention Center and the Sheraton Boston.) Eric has plugged the joint organized session on open access for which he will be a panelist, so allow me to do the same for another panel with MLA/LSA crossover appeal. The MLA's Discussion Group on Lexicography has held a special panel for several years now, but many lexicographers and fellow travelers in linguistics have been unable to attend because of the conflict with the LSA and the concurrent meeting of the American Dialect Society. This time around, with the selected topic of "Digital Dictionaries," the whole MLA/LSA/ADS crowd can join in.

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Crowdsourcing the lexicon

A recent piece by Eric Mack on CNET News begs everyone — and in particular the dictionary publishers at Collins — to "stop crowdsourcing the English language." What he's grousing about is that Collins has now included entries for a few (by no means all) of the 5,000 newly current words that readers have pointed out to them.

What do people like Eric Mack think is the source of the information in dictionaries if it does not in effect come from crowdsourcing?

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Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star

Randy Alexander sent me the following photograph and asked how long it would take for me to identify the text in the background:

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