Tag Archives: Oxford English Dictionary

Are Norwegians Literally Born on Skis?

Britons are again chortling over the misuse of the word literally, after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “You see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinary low rates of tax.”

That’s a long way to go to avoid high tax rates.

Other great uses of literally:

  • Soccer player Michael Owen described as “literally a greyhound.”
  • Norwegians who are “literally born on skis.”
  • Popular books that “literally fly off the shelves.”
  • An extremely precise weather forecast that calls for “literally just a spot or two of rain.”

Also in this week’s podcast:

Many courts in the US are cutting costs by using unqualified court interpreters. Local courts say they often can’t afford the fees for certified interpreters. But a growing number of non-English speakers are using the court system. Interpreters argue that miscarriages of justice will become more common if courts use untrained interpreters.


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Word of the Year: The Middle Squeezes its Way to the Top

The Oxford English Dictionary has revealed its word of the year: squeezed middle (hey, that’s two words!).  Don’t ask me to define it. British Labor leader Ed Miliband ran into trouble doing that. Suffice to say, it refers to a class of people, who would appear to make up more than 90% of the population– and therefore the electorate. The implication is that despite their huge numbers, they are being economically squeezed– in a vise conspiratorially operated by the very rich and the very poor.

In previous years, OED editors have named a US word and a UK word. American English and British English are, after all, an ocean apart. This year, squeezed middle is the global winner, which is odd. As political rhetoric–  which is all this phrase really is– it’s been far more popular in the UK than in the US.

Also-rans this year include Arab Spring, occupy, clicktivism, bunga bunga and tiger mother.

I’m not sure what the Pakistan government’s position might be on any of those words. (I’m guessing they’d have a problem with bunga bunga.) But in the pod, we take a look at the government’s  move– now shelved– two ban nearly two thousand words from text messaging.  Most of the words are sexually frank, the usual nasty stuff. But many others are mild or just bizarre: flatulence, period, athlete’s foot, monkey crotch.  Urdu expressions meaning nonsense (buckwaas) and foolish (bewakoof) would also have been banned.

We round off the pod with a list of mainly invented words. These appear on the title track to Kate Bush’s new album, 50 Words For Snow. Bush knows there are not 50 words for snow, in English or any other language. (Eskimo languages are often credited with having up to 23 words for snow; they don’t.)  Bush plays on this myth by having collaborator Stephen Fry enunciate 50 words. Some are poetic English: drifting, swans-a melting, vanilla swarm. Some are just poetic: terrablizza, sleetspoot’n. psychohail, spangladasha. All these words, says Bush in the pod, had to her “a sense os meaning something that was evocative of snow.”

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English sources, Italian renaissance, Spanish rebellion

The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary has just had a makeover. One of the new features is a list of 1,000 sources for English words and expressions. These tend to be authors  (Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain) or publications (Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, Geographical Journal, New York Times). This is a historical list; there is no room for, to name but one modern linguistic innovator, André 3000.

My favorite entries are for people or publications I haven’t heard of: Helkiah Crooke — what a name!– a 17th century physician and anatomist; Anne Baker, a 19th century philologist; the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue.

With budgets tight at American schools and colleges, and with a growing interest in Chinese, what happens to a language like Italian?

Once a heritage language, Italian is now more of a lifestyle choice. At Eataly — a new food emporium in New York City — TV chef Lidia Bastianich offers cooking and language classes. A latte just tastes better when you can order it in the original language, or so the thinking goes. Meantime, Italian has been canceled at SUNY-Albany, and appears imperiled elsewhere, at colleges and grade schools. It’s only through the rearguard action of people like Margaret Cuomo of the Italian Language Foundation that the language is still studied in the United States.

Also in the pod this week: Latin America is livid with the Royal Spanish Academy. That’s nothing new — there’s always been tension over how Spanish should, if at all, be regulated. But now, the academy wants to reduce the alphabet from 29 to 27 letters. The victims are a couple of couples: ch and ll, both beloved in the Americas. These sounds — or spellings — aren’t disappearing. They just will no longer have their special place in the dictionary. Those dictionary publishers will no doubt put out new editions, which will help their bottom line: they must love the Royal Spanish Academy!

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez must like the academy too: it’s given him something else to rail about. Now that ch is no longer recognized, he has proclaimed that he will henceforward be referred to Ávez. Sounds kind of cockney.

Helping us wade through the inter-Spanish linguistic warfare is Ilan Stavans, author of Spanglish, the Making of the New American Language. Listen to an interview with him on that subject here.

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