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Today I had my final time-specific academic obligation for 2017: invigilating the midterm for the US politics course I am helping to teach.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be grading two sets of midterms and preparing and submitting my response to the comments from the research ethics board on my dissertation project.

I am seriously behind on almost everything, so here’s hoping the general structurelessness of the holidays proves reasonably productive this time.

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Collars

2017-12-16

in Photo of the day

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Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym. Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean to cut in half or stick together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off. If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it. To ravish means to rape or to enrapture. Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years. Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing. A blunt instrument is dull, a blunt remark is pointed. Occasionally when this happens the dictionary makers give us different spellings to differentiate the two meanings—as with flour and flower, discrete and discreet—but such orthological thoughtfulness is rare.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 70–1

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In English, in short, there are words for almost everything.

Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. Doesn’t that seem a useful term? Or how about slubberdegullion, a seventeenth-century word signifying a worthless or slovenly fellow? Or ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting? It has lasted half a millennium in English, was a common synonym for horrid until well into the last century, and can still be found tucked away forgotten at the back of most unabridged dictionaries. Isn’t it a shame to let it slip away? Our dictionaries are full of such words—words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcane of distinctions.

And yet there are odd gaps. We have no word for coolness corresponding to warmth. We are strangely lacking in middling terms—words to describe with some precision the middle ground between hard and soft, near and far, big and little. We have a possessive impersonal pronoun its to place alongside his, her, and their, but no equivalent impersonal pronoun to contrast with the personal whose. Thus we have to rely on inelegant constructions such as “The house whose roof” or resort to periphrasis. We have a word to describe all the work you find waiting for you when you return from vacation, backlog, but none to describe all the work you have to do before you go. Why not forelog? And we have a large number of negative words—inept, dishevelled, incorrigible, ruthless, unkempt—for which the positive form is missing. English would be richer if we could say admiringly of a tidy person, “She’s so sheveled,” or praise a capable person for being full of ept or an energetic one for having heaps of ert. Many of these words did once have positive forms. Ruthless was companioned by ruth, meaning compassion. One of Milton’s poems contains the well-known line “Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth.” But as with many such words, one form died and another lived. Why this should be is beyond explanation. Why would we have lost demit (send away) but saved commit? Why should impede have survived while the once equally common and seemingly just as useful expede expired? No one can say.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 67–8

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Photo by Myshka Smallwood

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Some of the most interesting theories about language development in recent years have been put forward by Derek Bickerton, an English-born professor at the University of Hawaii, who noticed that creole languages all over the world bear certain remarkable similarities. First, it is important to understand the difference between pidgins and creoles. Pidgins (the word is thought to be a Chinese rendering of the English word business) are rudimentary languages formed when people from diverse backgrounds are thrown together by circumstance. Historically, they have tended to arise on isolated plantation-based islands which have been ruled by a dominant Western minority but where the laborers come from a mixed linguistic background. Pidgins are almost always very basic and their structure varies considerably from place to place—and indeed from person to person. They are essentially little more than the language you or I would speak if we found ourselves suddenly deposited in some place like Bulgaria or Azerbaijan. They are makeshift tongues and as a result they seldom last long.

When children are born into a pidgin community, one of two things will happen. Either the children will learn the language of the ruling class, as was almost always the case with African slaves in the American South, or they will develop a creole (from French créole, “native”). Most of the languages that people think of as pidgins are in fact creoles… Feel free to smile. But it would be a mistake to consider these languages substandard because of their curious vocabularies. They are as formalized, efficient, and expressive as any other language—and often more so…

So creoles are not in any way inferior. In fact, it is worth remembering that many full-fledged languages—the Afrikaans of South Africa, the Chinese of Macao, and the Swahili of east Africa—were originally creoles.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 27–9

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