meta/phr(eɪ) Weekly Digest

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Torna la nostra selezione settimanale di interessanti letture, come sempre tenuta insieme da un comune denominatore: la curiosità sull’uso e sull’evoluzione della lingua inglese.

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Buona lettura!/Happy reading!

A Sample of New Dictionary Words for 2014?

Hashtag, selfie, and tweep join over 150 new words and definitions added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary in 2014, available now in print and online at These new additions to America’s best-selling dictionary reflect the growing influence technology is having on human endeavor, especially social networking, once done mostly in person.

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Via Merriam-Webster online

How many is a billion?

In British English, a billion used to be equivalent to a million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000), while in American English it has always equated to a thousand million (i.e. 1,000,000,000). British English has now adopted the American figure, though, so that a billion equals a thousand million in both varieties of English.

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Via Oxford Dictionaries


10 slang phrases that perfectly sum up their era

Lexicographer Jonathon Green selects the slang words and expressions that encapsulate the age in which they were coined.
I’ve been collecting slang and and publishing books about it for 30 years. My database contains 125,000 words and phrases and they keep coming. One thing I’ve learnt – the more slang changes, to half-inch the well-known phrase, the more slang stays the same. Politically correct, even polite: I fear not. But humanity at its most human, absolutely.
As examples I offer a selection of terms that display some of slang’s nuts and bolts.

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11 Places to Visit on a Tour of the English Language

Battle sites, architectural landmarks, birthplaces of the famous—there are many ways to get in touch with history through travel. What if linguistic history is your thing? The prolific linguist David Crystal (author of over 100 interesting books on language) and his wife Hilary have created a guidebook specifically for the tourist of the English language called Wordsmiths & Warriors. They traveled thousands of miles around Britain, tracing the history of English and collecting anecdotes and photographs along the way. The resulting book is presented as a list of 57 stops (detailed directions and parking information included) where you too can soak up a bit of linguistic lore. If you can’t get there this year, you can at least use the guide to visit from your desk. Here are some can’t-miss stops on a tour of the history of English.

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Via mental_floss
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Nursery rhymes: time capsules of language

It’s uncanny: when most of us hear the lines “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” or “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”, we find our brains mysteriously capable (how many years after our youth?) of reciting the full nursery rhyme, as if on autopilot. These are rhymes many begin to learn in the cradle from parents who had learned them in the same way from their parents—and so on and so on, across generations. Indeed, many of the most famous are hundreds of years old.
The result? Words we would never think to use in our day-to-day lives—old words, whose meanings have become largely unknown to modern minds—are preserved in the amber of these time-worn verses. Here, we take a look at some of those fossils of English past only recognizable from nursery rhymes, as well as their long-forgotten definitions.

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The Many Origins of the English Language

In Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, I examine how words borrowed from different languages have influenced English throughout its history. The above feature summarizes some of the main data from the book, focusing on the 14 sources that have given the most words to English, as reflected by the new and revised entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Using the date buttons at the top of the graphic, you can compare the impact that different languages have made on English over time. In the “per period” view, you can see the proportions of words coming into English from each source in 50-year slices from 1150 up to the present day. Compare, for instance, how the input from German has grown and then declined again from 1800 to the present day. (The earliest period, pre-1150, is much longer than 50 years, because more precise dating of words from this early stage in the history of English is very problematic).

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Via Slate
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What is English?

What is English? Ask any speaker of English, and the answer you get may be “it’s what the dictionary says it is.” Or, “it’s what I speak.” Answers like these work well enough up to a point, but the words that make it in the dictionary are not always the words we hear being used around us. And the language of any one English speaker can differ significantly in pronunciation and word order from the English of another, particularly today, when two out of three English speakers have learned English as a second or third language. In What Is English? And Why Should We Care?, Tim Machan addresses these deceptively complex questions in order to suggest the ways in which definitions of English always depend on speakers’ definitions of themselves.

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Different from? Different than? Different to?

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s a situation that crops up all the time – you want to contrast people or things, describing how one is not the same as the other, so you use the adjective different, and decide to follow it with one of three prepositions (either from, to, or than) to introduce the second element of the contrast. You then happily compose your statement, for instance:

Your goals may be different than mine.

But tread carefully! The topic of which preposition you choose has been a grammatical minefield for many years. F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows with his famous use of different from in the quotation at the start of this piece, but had he instead written ‘They are different than you and me’, some traditionalists would have started gnashing their teeth. Many people aren’t greatly enthused about the phrase different to, either.

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Elizabeth Yagoda Is Excited for a Hamburger

Where’s the outrage?
People never stop getting upset about changes in the use of pronouns (“thanks for inviting me wife and me/I”), verbs (comprise/compose), and nouns (data is/data are), but, with the exception of occasional squawks about those who say “different than” (or, in Britain, “different to”) instead of “different from,” they don’t seem to give a hoot about the pervasive phenomenon I call “preposition creep.”

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Shibboleth. Casuistry. Recondite. – Bubble vocabulary: the words you almost know, sometimes use, but are secretly unsure of.

A little while back, I was chatting with a friend when he described a situation as “execrable.” He pronounced it “ex-EH-crable.” I’d always thought it was “EX-ecrable.” But execrable is a word I’d mostly just read in books, had rarely heard spoken, and had never once, in my whole life, uttered aloud—in large part because I wasn’t exactly sure how to say it, and because the nuances of its definition (beyond “bad”) escaped me.
Since we have a trusting, forthright relationship, I decided to broach the topic. “Is that how you pronounce that word?” I asked. “And what exactly does it mean?” Here my friend confessed he was not 100 percent certain on either count. He added that, earlier that same day, he’d pronounced avowed with three syllables and then immediately wondered if it might only have two.
We’ve all experienced moments in which we brush up against the ceilings of our personal lexicons. I call it “bubble vocabulary.” Words on the edge of your ken, whose definitions or pronunciations turn out to be just out of grasp as you reach for them. The words you basically know but, hmmm, on second thought, maybe haven’t yet mastered?

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Words with Friends: the language of a sitcom

Having been one of the most-watched programmes on television for 236 episodes over ten years from 1994-2004, it was inevitable that Friends would leave its mark on the linguistic landscape, both in its native USA and elsewhere. From Chandler’s distinctive vocal inflections – “could I be any more sorry?” – to Joey’s “How you doin’?” catchphrase, via the haircut known as “the Rachel”, Friends undeniably had an impact on the world around it.
The creators of Friends, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, probably didn’t think in 1993 when they began developing a sitcom then called ‘Insomnia Cafe’, that their sitcom would end up quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. But, well, that’s what happened. Friends is credited with popularizing the apt term “friend zone”, indicating a platonic relationship where one person (in this case, Ross) wants to be more than just friends, whereas the other (Rachel) does not. Spoiler alert: they make it out of the zone. It is also cited as the first known usage of the term: “Never gonna happen… You and Rachel… You waited too long to make your move, and now you’re in the friend zone”. However, not all terms dreamt up by the Friends writers went on to have wider application: the insult ‘scrud’ (Ross: “What’s a scrud?”; Young girl: “Why don’t you look in the mirror, scrud?”) has not stood the test of time, and even the delightful portmanteau ‘frienaissance’ (friend + renaissance = a renewal of friendship, as instigated by Joey and Phoebe) has yet to enter common usage.

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