“I’m going to work”

You wake up and complete your morning routine. You say to your partner:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting in your car/bus/train. Your phone rings. Someone asks you where you are. You say:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting at your desk at 9.02 reading a non-work-related website. Your boss passes by and reminds you of the time. You say:

I’m going to work!

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Ms, Miss and Mrs

Yesterday I filled in and submitted a mail redirection form with Australia Post. In the list of names I wrote MR my name, MRS my wife’s name and MS our niece’s name. The clerk checked the form and asked ‘What is that? M-Z?’. I said ‘M-S’. She asked ‘So she’s been married and divorced?’. I said ‘No, never married’. She said ‘I’ll change that to MISS, then’.

I was already mildly annoyed for various reasons, and thought that arguing the point would only result in unpleasantness, so I didn’t.

So 1) an Australia Post clerk doesn’t know what MS represents. 2) an Australia Post clerk thinks it’s appropriate to change MS to MISS. 3) it is quite possible for people to receive mail address to different courtesy titles – MS and MISS, MRS and MS, DR and MR/MRS/MS/MISS or PROF and DR (and MR/MRS/MS/MISS). (It is even possible for people to receive mail addressed to two different names. We knew Dr Susan Green / Mrs Susan Prince (name slightly disguised). Not to mention many mis-spellings of names.*) 4) postal deliveries don’t rely on courtesy titles anyway. Australia Post doesn’t even use them. A few minutes ago I stumbled on their letters to my wife and niece in October notifying them that their mailing address had been changed by someone (me). Both are addressed to GIVENNAME SURNAME and there is no salutation. (*Apropos of not much, one of my sisters once worked as a secretary in a very small town. One day the post office delivered a letter for her boss addressed to “Grandpa, [name of town]”.)

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Brethren and sistren

Last weekend I got a card for our new local library and borrowed a book about language and the DVDs for the tv science-fiction series Firefly, which I have read small amounts about over the years but never seen. The series mixes futuristic science fiction with wild west settings, as the outer planets and moons of a complex solar system (or an inter-related group of solar systems; it isn’t fully explained) were terraformed to a basic level but the settlers are otherwise expected to fend for themselves.

In one episode the lead character unexpectedly finds himself married by local custom to a young woman who may or may not be what she seems (semi-spoiler: she isn’t). At one point she refers to “my sistren” in “the maiden house”. 

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rhyming slang

The tv comedy Mind your language ran from 1977 to 1979. I use it occasionally in class to illustrate vocabulary, grammar and communication. One episode (“Many happy returns”) is largely about money. It starts with Sid the college caretaker asking Gladys the tea lady for a free cup of tea, because he’s (something). She replies “You’re always skint, Sid!”. The subtitles (whether auto-generated or created by a human – some episodes are better than others) have “I’m a bit glacier mint”, but audibly that’s not what he says. I had always guessed that it is rhyming slang, as several other episodes show him using that, and even attempting to teach it to the students (one of whom refers to it as “cockeyed slanging rhyme”).

Fast-forward to a few days ago, when I was browsing through a book which I’ll donate or throw away soon. It has a section on Cockney rhyming slang, and one of the items is boracic lint. That is indeed what Sid says, but what is it? Wikipedia explains, quoting its entire article:

Boracic lint was a type of medical dressing made from surgical lint that was soaked in a hot, saturated solution of boracic acid and glycerine and then left to dry.

It has been in use since at least the 19th century, but is now less commonly used. When in use, boracic lint proved to be very valuable in the treatment of leg ulcers.

The term “boracic”, pronounced “brassic”, is also used as Cockney rhyming slang for having no money – “boracic lint” → “skint”.

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illumine v illuminate

One of the prayers for Christmas morning asked God to “illumine” us or some people or the whole world (I can’t check because I didn’t bring the service sheet home). Illumine and illuminate are both valid English words. Both are from Latin illuminare (verb) and lumen (noun). According to Dictionary.com, illumine is earlier  (1300-50), but it is defined only as “to illuminate”.  Illuminate dates from 1400-50, and –ate is certainly a more common verb ending. 

Illumination covers actual and metaphorical light. Sometimes the Bible talks about actual light and sometimes about metaphorical light, and sometimes it is hard to know which is meant. This morning’s Gospel reading was from John 1, which includes “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it” (vv4-5 NIV, see also vv8-9).

Even though illumine is the older form, Google Ngrams shows that it was very rarely used until about  1700. From about 1750 to 1900, it hovered around a quarter of the frequency of illuminate, after which illuminate has grown and illumine has declined in use.

To me, illumine sounds more poetic, and more metaphoric (no doubt the growth of actual illumination after 1900 largely accounts for the growth of illuminate). While it is possible to ask God to (metaphorically) illuminate us, it would be very unlikely for a movie director or director of photography to ask the gaffer (chief lighting technician) to (actually) illumine the set in a certain way. 

Unlike preventive and preventative, where I would unhesitatingly recommend the shorter alternative, here I would recommend the longer version, illuminate.

eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading

rabbit holes, dudes, weir-poles and emulosity

Oh the rabbit holes of language-related website and blogs, words and meanings!

I was reading Niall O’Donnell’s latest post and noticed at the side a picture of Jeff Bridges’ character in The big Lebowski (which I have never watched, but recognise most allusions to). Niall’s Instagram post says “Probably from the Scottish word for clothes ‘duddies,’ where we also get the word ‘duds.’”

On the other hand, dictionary.com says “An Americanism dating back to 1880–85; origin uncertain” (but being an Americanism doesn’t stop it being “from Scottish”). The first dudes were “excessively concerned with clothes, grooming, and manners”, which hardly describes Bridges’ character; partly because of this movie, one would now expect a dude to be rather scruffy and laid-back.

The five contemporary examples and three of the historical examples are unexceptional, thought we might have to think for a moment whether the writer means a ‘fastidious dude’, a man from an Eastern US city vacationing on a ranch, a ‘scruffy dude’ or just ‘any dude’’ll do.

The two others caught my eye, not for dude, but for something else in the sentence:

I allow you to—er—ornament my weir-pole, and ’tain’t every dude I’d let do that.
Cape Cod Stories [1907, short stories, scroll down to The mark on the door]
Joseph C. Lincoln

Having a dude puncher on our range kind of stirred up my emulosity.
Out of the Depths [1913, a western novel, scroll down to chapter XXI]
Robert Ames Bennet

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