Tag Archives: words

Excellence


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

English revels in the bad, sad, seamy side of life – any slang thesaurus, for example, will provide far more words for misery and failure than for happiness and success. Which means synonyms for ‘excellence’, as in the title of the SfEP’s newsletter Editorial Excellence, should be particularly cherished.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of historical superlatives well worth resurrecting. We’ve sadly lost, for example, ‘lollapalooza’, a gem from the US for anything outstanding in its field. It sits alongside the equally expressive ‘humdinger’, another US term for something so good it positively zings.

Something may be such hot stuff it’s ‘mustard’, a 19th-century term of approbation implying piquancy and zest, best known in the expression ‘cut the mustard’ (‘cut’ here works in the same way as ‘she cuts a fine figure’).

Close up of yellow mustard flowers, with a yellow field of mustard flowers behindA person of brilliant attainments, meanwhile, might be a ‘diamond’ – a glittering example in their field. Or they may be ‘peachy’, a simple play on something sweet and juicy. Their brilliance might even have once led to the epithet ‘carbuncle’, rarely associated with positivity these days but originally described as a precious stone (rather than a swelling) of blazing, fiery red.

More obviously wonderful is a ‘corker’ – something so fizzy it pops – and a ‘ripsnorter’ – anything remarkable in terms of size, vigour or appearance. Alternatively, you might describe something first-rate as a ‘spanker’, ‘tip-topper’, ‘phoenicle’ (a little phoenix), ‘bobby-dazzler’, ‘beaut’, ‘pippin’, ‘bosker’ or ‘killer-diller’. Or possibly a ‘screamer’, too, once another name for the exclamation mark. All of which are ‘bonzer’, a classic Australian adjective that’s an alteration of ‘bonanza’ and comes ultimately from the Spanish for ‘fair weather’.

Finally, let’s not forget the fanciful phrases we’ve come to love for any acme of excellence or pinnacle of success. Joining the ‘bee’s knees’, back in the 1920s, were the ‘kipper’s knickers’, the ‘caterpillar’s kimono’, and the ‘elephant’s adenoids’. These, of course, were born out of our love of fanciful word play, but there is another favourite in the list that once enjoyed a very different life before joining the lexicon of distinction. ‘The dog’s bollocks’ was first recorded among printers, who used it to refer to the typographical colon-dash :-, thanks to its shape.

Excellence: something to strive for, if not always easy to achieve. At least we’ll have plenty of ways to describe it once we get there.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Round-up of the ten most popular SfEP social media posts in February

SfEP logoSocial media moves very quickly, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are no different. So, to ensure you don’t miss out, here’s a summary of our ten most popular posts in February:

  1. 33 signs that were vandalised with the most hilarious responses ever. Pulptastic. (Posted on Facebook 20 February.)
  2. The wonderful names Chinese tourists have given British attractions. i100 from The Independent reported on the results of a campaign that asked people on China’s most popular social media sites to come up with names for 101 British attractions. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 19 February.)
  3. Happy Friday – Is there a copy-editor on board? SfEP (Posted on Facebook 6 February.)
  4. Ten things people once complained would ruin the English language. From the io9 blog. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 9 February.)
  5. Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain. The Guardian reports that reading from a hard copy improves concentration and that taking longhand notes rather typing onto laptops increases conceptual understanding and retention. (Posted on Facebook 25 February and Twitter 26 February.)
  6. 40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally. Volunteers from the TED Open Translation Project share their favourite idioms from their mother tongue and how they translate literally. (Posted on Facebook 12 February and Twitter 13 February.)
  7. Editor confession: the things I hide from writers. A contributor to the copyediting.com blog admits to hiding some things from writers when editing their work. (Posted on Twitter 20 February.)
  8. When in Rome… read some place name idioms. The Oxford Dictionaries blog explores the reasons why some locations become proverbial. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  9. Language and words in the news – 21 February. The Macmillan Dictionary blog shares a list of popular links related to language and words in the news. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  10. Anybody can be a proofreader, can’t they? A link to the SfEP self-test in proofreading proved popular in February. (Posted on Twitter 9 February.)

Joanna BoweryJoanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she offers freelance marketing, PR, writing and proofreading services as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an entry-level member of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Anna Black.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Patric Toms.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.