“Bastard” goes legit! (and has some babies of its own)

The June 2019 update to OED3 has many lovely lexicographical additions: the first three listed are ‘ayuh’, ‘bae’, and ‘ball sack’ (if that gives any indication). Twitterati have commented on ‘upper-class twit’ and ‘you (wee) dancer’. But what caught our eye was the adjacent article by senior editor Matthew Bladen on revisions to “bastard, n.” Bladen writes:

bastard has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 150 years, in which a strand of meaning that was still marginal at the time of the first edition of the OED has become central to the word’s existence.

There follows a detailed story of semantic drift, which starts with ideas of suspect marriages and ends with semantically emptied terms of abuse.

But the word’bastard’ itself has (what I’ve called elsewhere) “dubious parentage”. That is, no one knows where it comes from. As Bladen recounts it:

It was once believed that bastard, denoting an illegitimate child, was coined in allusion to a perceived tendency for such people to be conceived on a ‘bast’, or packsaddle, serving as a temporary bed (an early reference to the supposed proclivities of the commercial traveller). However, this is now generally considered to be unlikely, and a more plausible explanation is that Read More


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, […]


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 […]