Boathouse Words

Q: What’s the difference between having a SQUIRREL FACE and having a FACE SQUIRREL?

A:

                    

Generally speaking, if you want a word for a MORP that has FUZ, you call it a FUZ-MORP, right? And if there’s a FUZ that gets rid of your MORPS, you call it a MORP-FUZ. That’s just how our language works when it wants to compress things that affect other things into one noun. What term goes first or second is governed by what’s called headedness, and it’s neat, once you notice it (which you don’t, because language).

A recent xkcd comic proposes that we ditch lexical precision in favour of compound headedness:

The <x> that is held by <y> is also a <y><x>, so if you go to a food truck, the stuff you buy is truck food. A phone that's in your car is a carphone, and a car equipped with a phone is a phonecar. When you play a mobile racing game, you're in your phonecar using your carphone to drive a different phonecar. I'm still not sure about bananaphones.

[I enter the quibble that “lifeboat” is not in fact a boat that holds boats; rather it is a boat held by boats — this shipship is a boatboat in the sense the chart implies — but that is by the by.]

Now, by nature or by accident there must be plenty of words like “boathouse”, which have  a “houseboat” counterpart firmly established in the lexicon. (Whether by nature or accident might be something for a linguist to probe). Read More


Insinuendo: OED’s Opinions

The Oxford English Dictionary is rightly regarded as a dispassionate authority on English words, recording without fear or favour as many of those little beasts as it can. But OED editors have not always been above a bit of prescriptive snark. Here is a list of opinions Robert Burchfield, editor of the Second Supplement, decided […]


The Life of Words Anthology 2018

Every year we run a poetry competition, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and the English Department of St Jerome’s University. We invite submissions from all Ontario high school students, on a topic to do with language or linguistics. This year we received over 200 poems from all over the province. We […]


Gender Shifts in American Names

Lately I’ve been working with several different gender-inference tools, tweaking them here and there to serve my purposes. Since I’m working with a historical dataset with about eight million records, from 1800 to today, once of the packages I’m using is the gender library for R by Lincoln Mullen, which uses historical US census and […]


Paul Muldoon’s Soundprint

Paul Muldoon’s virtuosity with rhyme is often commented upon by critics (“virtuosity” is a frequent epithet where his rhymes are concerned, as are “bravura”, and “high-wire act”). One grand old man once wittily remarked that Muldoon could rhyme “cat” and “dog”, which is nice because while on the surface it suggests some kind of magical […]


Poetry Competition 2018

April is coming! And that means poetry is on the way… Now in its third year, The Life of Words hosts an annual poetry competition, open to all high school students in Ontario. Last year’s theme was “write a poem about language.” This year we’re narrowing things down a bit (but not too much), to […]


“Juvescence” and other poetical “Errors”

This morning on the Twitter came this from @nemoloris: OED says “juvescence” is “irregular”, not “erroneous”, but (notorious TSE fan) Robert Burchfield himself called it a malformation (in his Eliot memorial lectures, I believe). Eliot’s defensive letter, sourced by @rngould, is worth keeping in mind: irregular needn’t be erroneous, and sometimes poets are looking to […]


Englishing Non-European Words

My last post focussed on words that are formed within English from other English words with non-English origins. I mostly concentrated on European donor languages, because they make up the overwhelming majority, and show the most variation. But English Englishes wherever it goes, and non-European languages have contributed plenty of English words over the years. […]


The What and When of English’s Englishing

In my previous post, I used OED3’s etymologies to chart the languages that gave English its words, noting that most English words come from other English words.  I then dug deep into all the non-English sources of English. Today I’ll take a closer look at the etymological sources of English words developed within English. Lexical […]


European and Non-European English Etymons

This weekend I’ve been poking around in OED3’s etymologies, and it occurred to me that an interesting thing might be lay out all English words according to when they are first attested, and what language they come from. This morning I made a bunch of graphs, below. Before having a look, it’s worth mentioning that […]