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Showing posts from February, 2011

Why do we call Academy Awards Oscars?

There is no definitive answer to this.

The name was first publicly used was in an article by Hollywood columnist about Katharine Hepburn's first Best Actress victory at the fifth annual ceremony in 1934. By 1939 the word was universally know - but the origins remain unclear.

One theory is that the name came from an early Academy director, Margaret Herrick, in 1931. According to this legend, Herrick thought that the statue looked like her Uncle Oscar. Another is that Bette Davies named it after her husband - but that was in 1936.

A good example of how a nickname can survive long after its source is forgotten.

Is the general standard of English declining?

Or  has there 'never been a time when English was not thought to be going to hell in a handcart'? Complaints about English are (a) as old as the hills, (b) based on no linguistic logic, and (c) ultimately futile, since no one can stop language from varying and changing.  In The Language Wars, Henry Hitchings argues there has never been a time when English was not thought to be going to hell in a handcart. He cites what sounds like a contemporary essay on "the growing illiteracy of American boys" and invites us to guess when it was written. The answer turns out to be, in 1896 – and the boys whose illiteracy so alarmed the essay's author were not hillbillies or slum children, but Harvard undergraduates. Source But aren't young people today reading far less?  Is the Internet destroying our 'book culture'? Adam Gopnik summarises the different approaches to this question:
Never-Better: The internet is opening up a new information democracy. Everyone gains by …

Who manages the English language?

There is no official academy of English as there is with French, Spanish and other European languages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the closest we have to such an authority. 


How does the OED decide which words to include?
It accepts a new word if it is commonly used over a period of time.  More on how this works here

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 
Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary (Dictionary & CD ROM)
Concise Oxford English Dictionary: 11th Edition Revised 2008
Oxford English Dictionary: 20 vol. print set & CD ROM

What is the King's Speech?

This may seem obvious but in British English it has a precise meaning which is slightly confused by the film title.  See this definition from the BBC

Written by the government and delivered by the reigning monarch, the Queen's Speech sets out the legislative agenda for the year ahead and is the centrepiece of the state opening of Parliament.Each session of Parliament begins with this royal address and covers the following year.In most years it takes place in November.But every time there is a general election, Parliament is dissolved and the Queen's Speech takes place shortly after the government comes to power.In the film the climax is a speech or address that the King gives rather than the King's Speech. 

Which words are beautiful? And which ones ugly?

Depends what you mean by beautiful? Or ugly for that matter. This brave blog has attempted a list of 100 'beautiful and ugly words'. The writer suggests:

One of the many fascinating features of our language is how often words with pleasant associations are also quite pleasing on the tongue and even to the eye, and how many words, by contrast, acoustically and visually corroborate their disagreeable nature
All pretty subjective but interesting to see that there are far more 'beautiful' words on the list than 'ugly' ones. Full list here:

Beijing or Peking?

This is a question which still causes great confusion. Is the name change essentially political, an assertion of Chinese nationalism? Then why is still Pékin in French and Pekín in French?

The Economist's Johnson Blog (named after the great dictionary pioneer) confidently put forward a theory last year - only to quickly withdraw it after protests from commentators. I personally go with the idea Peking is the Cantonese form of the word.  This is what I was told when I lived in (Cantonese speaking) Hong Kong and seems to make sense.

Anyway, Kung Hei Fat Choi (a Happy (Cantonese!) New Year

Why do we say Iraq War but not Afghanistan War?

Not another debate over the rights and wrongs of those wars but a peculiar linguistic quirk pointed out by Jay Nordlinger
My colleague and I were talking about this, too: We say “Iraq War”; but “Afghan War.” Those are unequal. We would never say “Iraqi War” or “Afghanistan War.” Strange. We refer to the “Korean War.” But we would never say “Vietnamese War.” We say “Vietnam War” — and not “Korea War.” It is curious. My theory is that we instinctively reach for the adjective but collectively abandon this rule for multi-syllable countries. So 'Korean' but not 'Vietnamese'.
Not very scientific but when did that stop me ....

Eight nations without an official language?

According to Henry Hitchings new book Language Wars there are only eight nations which do not have an official state language. Can you guess what they are?

Here's a clue to help: three of the countries are in Africa and two in Europe. Two are very surprising!

Answer/explanation here:

Does language shape the way we think?

Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts? Or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?Provocative article is WSJ from Stanford psychology professor challenging - or at least refining - Chomsky's theory of a 'universal language'.
How do we come to be the way we are? Why do we think the way we do? An important part of the answer, it turns out, is in the languages we speak. Full text here


On Nature and Languag by Noah Chomskye

Are you a maven of the blogosphere?

New technical terms are a source of great irritation to the casual reader. They are a way of creating an exclusive club of those ‘in the know’, what George Bernard Shaw called a ‘conspiracy against the public’. Nonetheless, new processes and ideas create the need for a new vocabulary to describe them.

Most online linguistic innovation originates in the USA  – the epicentre of web production and consumption. As a result new words and phrases tend to draw on American cultural references. The three main sources are: politics, academia and sport.

Some of these terms – like blogosphere in the title of this post – are pretty self-explanatory. Others are mystifying. Do you know what a maven is? Or a meme? When something is inside the Beltway? Or inside baseball?

Answers here

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