As I often explain to my students, language adapts and evolves all the time. People invent new words, or blend old ones, to create new meanings or to explain something in a new way.
I’m always fascinated by the process, and take interest in which words are being “added to the dictionary”. Even that phrase makes me laugh, because we all know there’s more than one dictionary, and they don’t all add new words at the same time.
The article titled Five New Words To Watch comes from the Macquarie Dictionary Blog.
The Macquarie Dictionary is my favourite for a number of reasons. Macquarie University is my alma mater, and back when the first Macquarie Dictionary was being written and compiled, I had the privilege of having two of the contributors as my lecturers and tutors in English and Linguistics. More importantly, the definitions are clear and easily understandable, Australian colloquialisms are included, and the pronunciation guide is provided in the international phonetic alphabet, which I love.
Yeah. Nerdy, I know. But if you’ve been following my blog for three minutes, you’ll know I’m unapologetic about that.
I hope you enjoy this article. If you’d like to tell me your favourite newish words, or words you’ve invented, I’d be super happy for you to leave a comment!
I am still coming to terms with the fact that this post needed to be written. How do people not know these are different words?
Apparently, though, it’s an all-too-common problem. Social media is littered with posts where someone has answered with “Defiantly!” when what the responder really meant to say was “Definitely!”.
It happens in my own conversations several individuals on a regular basis. In fact, it happened again just yesterday, so I took a screenshot with this blog post in mind.
I don’t know whether autocorrect is to blame, presumably as a result of poor typing, or if it’s just plain old-fashioned ignorance. The answer to that probably varies from one perpetrator to another, but either way, continuing to mistake one for the other is inexcusable.
Definitely means “for sure” or “absolutely”. In fact, those are excellent choices for anyone who wants to agree with something, but doesn’t actually know how to spell “definitely”.
Here’s a hint, though. Definitely even sounds exactly as it is spelt: def-in-it-ely. It’s phonetically straightforward.
Therefore, anyone trying to spell it should get to the ‘a’ in ‘defiantly’ and know they’re making bad choices.
Defiantly is a word most often used by parents or teachers describing the way in which a child refused to do as they were told. Examples: The child sat in stony silence, arms crossed defiantly. “No!” Robin yelled defiantly, “I won’t apologise for being a grammar snob!”
You get the idea.
It’s definitely in your interests to get this right.
Some word confusions are understandable, especially if they sound the same when spoken. We call those homophones, and they sound the same even if they are spelt differently. Examples are peak/pique/peak or there/their/they’re.
The confusion between ’then’ and ’than’, however, is a completely different matter.
Sadly, this is happening more and more, especially on social media. I don’t even spend that much time on Facebook, but it feels like I see someone saying something like “Nothing is better then this!” or “I love you more then anything!” at least twice a day.
Yes, they are similar. However, they are clearly not the same. They don’t look the same. They don’t sound the same. If one doesn’t mix up ’then’ or ’than’ with ’thin’, there is no excuse for mistaking them for one another.
I swear, it makes my eyes want to bleed.
The two words’ meanings are so vastly different that getting them wrong just makes the person writing look either poorly educated or plain stupid, even if they are neither.
This is one of the best and most self-evident arguments in existence for proofreading what one is writing, anywhere and every time.
‘Then’ rhymes with ‘when”— which is an easy way to remember that it relates to time or sequence. Examples: He put on his shirt, then his jeans, and then his boots. She ran up the hill, then back down again. When you have tidied your room, then you can go to the movies.
‘Than’ rhymes with ‘man’ and is used for making a comparison. Examples: His piece of pizza is bigger than mine. A triangle has fewer angles than a square. I would rather stay home and read a book than go to work.
Knowing which is which, and taking care to use the right words all the time, is a simple way to protect your credibility.
And for the love of Merlin’s beard, if you call yourself an author or a teacher, get it right. It’s not that hard.
Said to me today: “I don’t want that on my conscious.” Me: “You probably don’t want it on your conscience, either.” Them: “Huh?” Me: “They are different words.” Them: “Really?” Me: “I promise you.”
These commonly confused words sound similar but they are not homophones.
Conscious is an adjective. It is a descriptive word that means awake or aware.
Examples: I’m conscious of the confusion between words that sound similar but which are very different in meaning. He passed out, but he is conscious again now.
Conscience is a noun. It’s the name given to that part of our being that tells us not to do something we know we shouldn’t, and accuses us when we have done something wrong so that we feel bad about it.
Examples: She was good at acting innocent, but her conscience was plagued by guilt. His conscience reminded him daily of the things he had done.
The difference in the way these words sound is minor, but the difference in meaning is significant.
A mistake frequently made in writing is to say that someone “did not waiver” in their faith, or from a decision they had made. What they really mean is that the person in question did not waver.
Once again, it is a failure to choose between differently spelled homophones that is the problem here.
Waiver: the renunciation or surrendering of ownership, a right or a claim Example: The council decided to waive the annual fee for dog registration. The waiver resulted in more households registering their pets.
Waver: to hesitate or falter, or to flicker, quiver or tremble. Examples: Her feelings for him wavered between passionate love and indifference. He did not waver in his support for the mayor, who was a woman of integrity. The flame of the candle wavered in the gentle breeze.
At least when one waves at the waves, the spelling is the same so you can’t get it wrong!
Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens.
Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible.
Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.
It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities.
There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too.
In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.
Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.
I get really annoyed when I see people writing about peaking someone’s interest.
A mountain is peaked. A cap can be peaked. People can even look peaked: in this sense, it means they are pale. A career can peak. In fact, someone’s interest in something can peak, right before it declines again.
While they sound the same, the correct term for having caused intense interest or curiosity, is piqued.
To pique someone’s interest is to heighten or arouse it. In other words, it is to stimulate their curiosity or attention.
A fit of pique is an episode of annoyance or irritation – such as might happen, for example, if someone’s negative emotions are piqued.
A related word is piquant, which means provocative, tantalising, spicy or tangy. Food that excites the taste buds or a story that excites the imagination can both be described as piquant.
The other homophone is peeked. This is the past tense of peek: to take a quick look, or a sneaky one.
So… now that I’ve piqued your interest with my fit of pique, and you’ve peeked at my post… I’m sure your interest has long since peaked.
I’ve read a couple of different posts and even in a couple of books recently about people “pouring over” documents or books.
I wondered at first if this was one of those things Americans do with words that nobody else does, but I checked, and it’s not. It’s simply an error caused by confusion by words that sound the same even though they are spelt differently and mean completely different things.
What the people in question should be doing is poring over their books. To pore over books or documents is to be completely absorbed in what one is reading or studying. It suggests thoughtful application and concentration. The gerund is poring.
To pour over books is just going to make a mess, and probably ruin them completely. It’s really not advisable.
Most of the time, when people protest about the way the English language is abused, it’s a case of the language continuing to evolve as it has always done.
One such example is the practice of verbing, which takes the noun form of a word and transforms it into a verb form… like ‘verb’ and ‘verbing’.
Just last week, I was talking with a friend about how annoying she finds it when people say “I’m going to action that.” I’m sure she sought me out for the conversation because I’m both a word nerd and an English teacher.
“Action is a noun! A bloody noun! How can so many otherwise intelligent people get that wrong?”
“It grates on us because it’s recent,” I said. “We’ll get used to it.”
“No, I won’t! It’s just wrong!”
“You know Shakespeare did it?”
“Verbing. He did it all the time.”
“You and your Shakespeare. It’s like he’s the answer to everything.”
“You know he invented the word ‘friending’, right?”
She rolled her eyes and walked away. She didn’t even flinch at my use of the term “verbing”, which is exactly the same thing as “actioning” in terms of the language. After all, ‘verb’ is a noun, too.
It is the recent examples of verbing, such as “actioning” an idea, that we notice because we’re not used to hearing them yet. When Facebook was new, people complained the same way about “friending”, but these days nobody thinks twice about that. At some point in time, someone decided that it was okay to talk about bottling fruit, or shelving books, and now those terms are just everyday language.
It is also true, however, that some things people commonly say are, quite simply, wrong.
My pet peeve is when my students are talking about sport or some other kind of competition, and they say “We versed Team X”.
This is a common bastardisation of the Latin versus, which means ‘against’. It is commonly used for sporting matches and legal cases, and is generally abbreviated as v. or vs., as in Black v. White or Blue vs. Red.
My first response is always to ask whey they wrote poetry about another team. “You played them. You opposed them. You clashed with them. You competed with them. You did not write poetry about them.” Then I explain how the different words work, and what they actually mean.
The reason “versed” is wrong is because the words ‘versus’ and ‘verse’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Because ‘against’ is a preposition, it simply doesn’t make sense to say “We againsted them”. It is not verbing, by any stretch of the imagination.
The first time we have that conversation, they look at me with confusion. Some have a glazed look of fear, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. This never fails to entertain me. The second and third times, they roll their eyes.
Over time, the tedium of having the same grammar-nerdy conversation persuades them to start using the language correctly. They learn, I win, and so does the English language.
‘Hey nonny nonny’ is a curious little phrase found in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. The character Balthasar sings a song to the ladies in which he recommends that instead of worrying about what the men are up to, they should convert their sighs of despair into ‘hey nonny nonny’.
The phrase ‘Hey nonny nonny’ has no direct translation into modern English, but is understood from the context that it could be taken to mean a dismissal of circumstances as we do today with expressions like “whatever”, “what the heck?” or “that’s life”, or simply refer to general merry-making.
As such, it is a phrase that can be safely used in circumstances where less appropriate responses cannot be uttered. In my experience, expressing one’s umbrage using Shakespearean quotations is almost as satisfying as actually swearing anyway. There is something remarkably cathartic about speaking in Elizabethan English, although that will likely never be understood by anyone who does not appreciate and enjoy the language as I do.
I have decided to add “hey nonny nonny” into my repertoire as a worthy companion exclamation to my renowned-among-those-who-know-me question, “What manner of nitwittery shall plague me on the morrow?” In writing this post, however, I’ve come to one realisation: I will have to teach my devices that I intend to type “hey sonny sonny” or “hey nanny nanny” about as much as I ever mean to type “oh shot”.