Category Archives: Linguistics

Fifty-Five English Words for Snow

Snowflake                   snow/single Frost                           snowflake/having formed flatly on surface Flurries                        snow/falling Precipitation              snow/and+or other/falling Snowfall                      snow/having fallen Accumulation             +quantity snow/having fallen Snow drift                   piled snow/by wind Snow bank                  piled snow/by man (with machine)

The Reality we Face

From today’s transcript of the Rush Limbaugh show, the game-changing words of the Mayor of Realville, the Mayor of Literalville himself: That’s the reality we face. The reality we face is that what’s real isn’t, and what isn’t real is. […] I really meant to get a phone call in here. But when you make […]

Walking Wound

On NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, Stephen Colbert said of his television show character, also called Stephen Colbert: He wants to have a champion that he can champion and that just doesn’t exist in Mitt Romney right now. He’s just a walking wound. [link] As a figure of speech, to me this is both compelling and […]

OED Curiosity Rovers

As part of some computer housekeeping, I’ve made up a little inventory of the Python programs I’ve developed to have a peek inside the massive text file that is the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Here’s a list: 1. Field Comparison Tool – Look for Intertextuality in poems *I discussed some this program in the […]

Longest Etymologies

One of the most important improvements to the ongoing OED3 revision is occurring in the etymology sections, which are being greatly expanded. Yesterday’s Languagehat discusses two such expanded etymologies – those of ‘admiral’ and ‘to be’. The second is claimed by the current editors to be the longest etymology in OED3, coming in at 1,765 9,672* […]

The most and least poetic alphabetical ranges in the OED

In my presentation at DH2012 I made a couple of comments on Giles Goodland’s paper ‘OED Online’s Single-Quotations Entries: an Analysis‘, mostly about the sampling method that Goodland employs, and which everyone else has employed so far when trying to say something about the OED that isn’t facilitated by whatever the current online functionality happens […]

Discovery: the most poetic word in the English language

Now that I’ve tagged more than half of the evidence quotations in OED2 for genre [see here and here for a discussion of this process], it’s time to start having a poke around in the data. A question that occurred to me last night was: ‘is there anything interesting about the relative density of poetic vs. […]

‘Occupy’ Drift: Belfast

Seen on the corner of North St and Royal Ave in Belfast this week: The slogan takes on somewhat complex shades of association in the present context.

More Common: ‘Foot’ or ‘Etymologically’?

The OED’s etymology sections are jammed full of technical terms like ‘aphetic’, ‘stem’, and ‘neut.’; commonish words that are overrepresented here because of context, like ‘whence’, ‘obscure’, ‘adoption’, and ‘origin’; and generally very common words like ‘the’, ‘of’, and ‘is’. So what is the most common root sense in OED2 (1989)? It may be ‘stone’, […]

Oxford English Dinner

Some OED entries badly need revising. A friend who teaches in Oxford just posted this to her Facebook status (I’ve noticed younger British academics in the midst of that end-of-year slow torture called ‘marking’ like to post little gems like this on social media for relief, or therapy): Most telling student error of the year: […]

Noah Webster was a terrible phonologist

I’ve been in the NYPL last week looking at Noah Webster’s papers. One of his handwritten lectures reminded me of what a bad phonologist he was. Objecting to John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), Webster singled out the grouping of p, l, t, s, k, and th (as in ‘think’) together under the epithet ‘sharp’, […]

‘Poetical’ Etymologies?

This post is more about how the term ‘poetical’ tends to be used pejoratively, and how it corresponds to the term ‘etymologies’, rather than about any actually poetical etymologies, or etymological poetry, both of which I do think exist. This morning’s Language Log brings us a post called ‘Poetical Etymologies‘, which reproduces this Wondermark cartoon:

Ways of Looking at “The Windhover”

Gotthold Lessing is credited (among other things) with pointing out that it’s weird for Classical writers to describe the art of poetry in terms of the visual arts, since poetry happens sequentially in time, and painting happens statically in space. But Lessing is wrong, or at least overly categorical. Before a word is read, a […]

Literally Etymologically

Etymologically, ‘literal’ means ‘Of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet’. To be precise about what I mean by ‘etymologically’ here, I’m referring to the earliest English use of word as recorded in OED3 (John Trevisa, a1398). I don’t mean the prior senses of Middle French literal, […]

Literally Truly

Or, whence the Literalville Contradiction? In the comments to LL’s repost of my “Literally Metaphorically” , Jeff Carney writes: D-AW has missed the boat here. Don’t think I like Rush, but nowhere in the transcript we’re linked to does he contrast being literal with being figurative. He seems to equate being literal with being true. […]

Literally Metaphorically

Rush Limbaugh, modern Epimenides? Wikipedia tells me that Limbaugh lives in West Palm Beach, FL. Yet for years now he has been telling listeners something different: Now, look, folks, as I’ve told you countless times, I live in Literalville.    [Transcript, 10.9.2010] It’s an outright lie, and I know this because Rush doesn’t do metaphor. In […]

Poetical Lexicography

The OED was conceived as a dictionary ‘on historical principles’. The practice employed from the beginning was to illustrate the several sense definitions of a word over time with quotations from published material across the lifespan of that sense. Currently I’m engaged in trying to quantify the extent of poetical sense illustration in the OED.  […]

Poems in the OED

Computer scientists at the University of Waterloo were responsible for digitizing the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2), in the late 1980s. Initially available on CD-ROM, this eventually became the OED Online. The database has quickly replaced the printed dictionary as a first point of call for the word-curious, primarily because the extensive mark-up of […]


In 2011-13, I’m investigating questions about poetry, value, and accident, in the context of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, intended to ‘enable the development of new research questions, as well as experimentation with new methods, theoretical approaches and/or ideas’. The questions and methods I’m exploring all have something to do with why contingency, or accident, […]