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The Word Detective

A Life In Words

John Simpson

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Until the Norman Conquest, a queen was a cwen in English. But Norman scribes didn't have a 'cw' consonant so they substituted 'qu', even though pronunciation stayed cwen, Did the same with quick and quench.

Marghanita Laski the most prolific (as in 250,000 index cards) contributor to the original OED. Very fond of detective fiction, so files quite heavily skewed towards writers such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but she also followed editor's instructions and read obscure poets and writers. The other prolific contributor was the murderer DR William Chester Minor, locked up in Broadmoor.

OED shepherded into existence, first by a lowland Scot, and then by a NZer.

'Marshal' is a good word to use when avoiding control or dictatorial overtones. Marshal comes from two Germanic words, one which comes from same root as mare (a horse) and the other, shalk, which just meant a man. So he was a man who looked after horses. But horses vitally impt in medieval life, particularly in the army, so the man in charge of horses was usuaully a trusted advisor. So by the time the word entered French, marshal had become term for any officer. In English, it became name of anyone who organised events.

The job of supervising junior editors meant you had to understand that someone else could be equally right.

The story that many labels given to Australian flora and fauna actually meant 'I don't know' is actually a UL. (Kangaroo was the native name of a local animal). Words that died out in England remain in Aust and NZ, such as fossick

Language doesn't often invent; it usually recycles and welds together what it needs from existing materials.

Pom started from immigrant -> Jimmy Grant -> jimmygrant -> pomegranate -> pom (and then to pommie bastard)

Up until C19 English was a lower prestige language so new words tended to be borrowed ones, usually from French (for scientific or miltary vocab) or from Italian (for arts). But by C20 English a high prestige language, so a donor into other (often unwilling) languages. Today less than 10% of new words are borrowings; most are domestic neologisms. Often a word created by adding prefixes or suffixes, or by welding two words together (snowboard), or blending (affluenza). Or semantic drift when existing word acquires new meaning, as in (computer) mouse.

Shakespeare coined (or first recorded) 8000 words - new nouns (partner), new verbs (waddle), new phrases (too muchof a good thing).

The more people using a language, the more it changes.

Today magazine is a periodical. But originally a storehouse, particularly for arms or explosives. Arabic makzan (a storehouse) -> Italian magazzino -> F magasin all still storehouses.

Very few Celtic words in E today. Clan and pet (animal). Germanic tribes probably intermarried with Celts, but the dominant language had prestige and pushed out Celts. And then same thing happened to them when Normans arrived. A Saxon vocab disappears from official records, though still spoken by the peasantry. But still dominates basic English - almost all the 100 most common words in E are AngloSaxon (nation only exception).

Many words formed by shortening - auto, demo, vet as in vetinarian. And then vet took on another meaning - to examine, usually a person, to see if there was anything wrong with them.

Job applications - short letters best, even 3 sentences, as long as they were crisp and intriguing. Spelling mistakes just give us a reason to jettison. Everybody claims they like reading, films and walking. And everybody has been 'honing' their skills.

The OED was digitised in 1992, and compilers had a new resource - their own material. Found hundreds of first uses pre-dating the OED citations, hidden away in other entries.

Other countries find it confusing that E is not an official language, 'controlled' by some national body. IRL it would be impossible to make the slightest change to the language bc the stakeholders are multi-international.

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