Saturday, February 8, 2020

Let's Talk about Lex

This week's contributions to the exploration of English are nothing to fneeze at.

Ms. Communication

feminism, titles

Kathy Pollitt wrote an interesting history of Ms. in “Excuse Me, Ms.!” for The Nation this week, and there are some surprises in there. Though Ms. didn’t really take off until the 1970s, did you know that it was first proposed in 1901? Or that Jacques Barzun argued that the -man in words like garbageman and mailman didn’t refer to “a male person”? Or that fact checkers at publications that rejected Ms. spent entirely too much time tracking down the marital status of women mentioned in their stories?

Looking back, it’s hard to believe there was much opposition to Ms. It just makes so much sense, and makes so many things so much easier.

A Historical Fnafu

etymology, printing

Texts from more than 200 years ago can sometimes be slow reading for modern readers because of the use of the long S — that S that looks an awful lot like a lowercase f. It turns out, though, that this isn’t entirely a modern problem. As Adam Aleksic, aka The Etymology Nerd, points out, the word sneeze might have come about from a misreading of fnesen, which really does begin with an F that was confused for a long S.

Lynneguist Gets Cracking

British English, breakfast foods

Lynne Murphy (@Lynneguist on Twitter and author of The Prodigal Tongue) is the purveyor of the blog Separated by a Common Language, wherein she dotes on the differences between American English and British English. She recently noticed that her blogging of late had been falling off, and she's now recommitting to posting at least once a week about the unexpected and sometimes weird differences in our shared language.

And she’s kicking off her new resolution with eggs. “AmE,” she writes, “has a vocabulary for fried-egg cooking that BrE doesn't, which starts from the assumption that if you want your eggs well-done, then you should flip them over. In UK, flipping is less common.” Unless you’ve lived in the U.K., you’ve probably never ordered a dippy egg at a caff, but you might have had the American equivalent.

Foiled Again

word history, etymology, British English

And speaking of the differences between American and British English, the editors at Merriam-Webster this week asked (and answered) the question, “‘Aluminum’ or ‘Aluminium’?

I’ve been a word guy for a long time, and have long recognized and appreciated how variable this thing we call English is around the world. I view most differences between American and British English with understanding, amusement, or even glee. But for some reason, those British words that have just a few “extra” letters, and maybe an extra syllable, always bug me. Not in an intellectual sense, but as a knee-jerk reaction. Aluminium is one of those words. So is jewellery. And speciality.

At any rate, this pair’s history was surprising to me — which means I enjoyed it. Turns out, it started as alumium.

Crash Blossom of the Week

crash blossom, headline

From Andy Bechtel:

If you aren’t familiar with crash blossoms, read this post at Language Log for an explanation of the word’s coinage. You’ll also find a lot of other great crash blossom headlines over there, too.

A Primer on Premier and Premiere

confusables, vocabulary

Understanding the difference between premier and premiere is one of the things you hire a copy editor for, so I risk losing business by pointing you toward The Grammarphobia Blog’s post about the difference. It's not that great a risk, though, because, as Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman point out, the words are still in the midst of some change — though the only change left might be for the dictionaries to catch up with the rest of us.

Ya Winsome, Ya Fulsome

etymology, word history

Editor Jeremy Butterfield (the very same Butterfield who was hired to revise Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage) spent a little time writing about the trouble word fulsome. I call it a trouble word because, as he points out early in his explication, it’s a skunked term. To some people, fulsome praise is enthusiastic and sincere, but to others it’s sarcastic, mocking, or even two-faced.
Read “Fulsome Is As Fulsome Does” to get some history and perspective, but not so many definite answers.

Featured image from The Public Domain Review.