newsCO Book Reviews | An ‘Accidental Dictionary’ Explores How Errors Created The English Language

October 27, 2017

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2017-10-27 14:59:52

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If you see it in the dictionary, it’s so: This deferential trust seems to be the general attitude toward dictionaries, whether it’s the Oxford or the Merriam-Webster. You can’t get Scrabble points for your clever conjugation unless it’s in the official dictionary, and teachers tend to reach for red pens when neologisms crop up in term papers. 

But while the dictionary offers neat columns of words, followed by clear and definitive meanings, it is a haphazard document at its heart. Language itself is a constantly shifting, changing thing, so any guidebook to it also reflects those shifts and changes ― and over time, the book itself must be edited and reedited to reflect an evolving linguistic reality.

That’s the premise of The Accidental Dictionary, writer and etymologist Paul Anthony Jones’ latest book. (Jones, who runs the @HaggardHawks Twitter account and blog, has written several engaging books about etymological curiosities over the past few years.) “Under scrutiny,” writes Jones in the introduction, “the dictionary reveals an unpredictable network of etymological crossed paths, U-turns, and forks in the road.” The Accidental Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary ― a 100-word dictionary ― and adds that scrutiny, revealing the many lives each word has lived. 

“Clumsy” once meant “numb with cold.” “Hallucinate” once meant “deceive,” and “prestigious” once meant “deceitful.” “Queen” once meant “wife.” (Viewed from a relatively enlightened, feminist era, that one is rather disappointing.) Somehow, these words were shunted sidewise, rejiggered or tweaked; though they’re still familiar to us today, their meanings have entirely changed.

Though we might conceive of rapidly shifting slang and improper usage as ailments of our modern society ― and, you know, kids these days ― Jones’ work is a potent reminder that the words we use have never been static. English speakers have been molding and playing with the language for centuries, and that’s not changing any time soon. In a few hundred years, who knows what our accidental dictionaries might look like?

In an interview with news, Jones spoke about our changing language in the age of the internet, the patchwork foundation of modern English, and some of his favorite odd etymologies:


Rather than having an ongoing narrative or argument, this book really is in dictionary format. How do you think it should be read?

I’m one of those strange people who reads dictionaries for fun, but even I don’t read them cover to cover! And so I had presumed that readers would dip into The Accidental Dictionary like any other reference book, reading a few entries here or there. But since the U.K. edition came out last year I’ve had a lot of emails and tweets from people saying that they have actually sat down and read it from start to finish ― each word’s little potted history works like a single short story I guess, so the book has ended up acting like an etymological anthology.

Do you see the book as having an overarching takeaway or argument? What can we learn about our language from these stories?

If there’s one thing to take away from this book it’s that the language is always changing. It’s easy to think that once a word finds its way into the dictionary it’s set in stone, but that’s of course not the case. Not only are new words being coined and old words being lost every day, but existing words are being molded and mutated, and knocked into different shapes to better fit what we need them to mean. If this book only serves to prove that the English language is still very much active and alive, then it’s done its job.

Which word’s story do you find the most delightful or surprising?

I have to admit I have a few personal favorites: I love the fact that a cupboard was originally a table, and that pink was originally yellow (and in that sense probably derives from pinkeln, an old German dialect word meaning “to urinate”). But the stories I keep coming back to are those of words like man, girl and bimbo. These have not only changed their meaning over time, but in doing so have essentially changed their sex.  

Man originally meant “human” (as it does in words like mankind and manslaughter), so was once used of both men and women. Same goes for girl, which originally meant just “child,“ and so could be applied to both girls and boys. And a bimbo was originally a burly, thickset man ― like a gangster’s heavy, or some enormous brutish bully. In the sense of someone who is appreciated more for their physique than anything else, bimbo eventually came to be applied to an attractive woman, and thanks to some (cringingly sexist but no less popular) music hall songs in the mid-1900s, this eventually became the word’s only surviving meaning. So much so, in fact, that a word for a male equivalent, the “himbo,” had to be “re-invented” in the 1980s. Although we might expect words to change over time, for them to change their gender in the process is quite startling I think. 

How did you compile the list? Was it a long-term project of adding as they came up, or did you set out to find these words?

A lot of the words on the final list had come up before in blogposts and tweets on Haggard Hawks, so the book really offered the opportunity to dive into their histories in more detail. But once I’d started researching this all more broadly, I ended up with a shortlist of about 200 possible entries culled from etymological dictionaries and glossaries. I eventually whittled that down by half by focusing just on the words whose stories I thought represented the greatest or most surprising changes.  

Were there any words you wanted to include that didn’t quite make the cut, and why did they get axed?

Oh, plenty! Jackpot was one I was sorry to cut out. Originally it referred to a pool or “pot” of cash in a card game that accumulates until a player can open the betting with a pair of jacks or better. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for etymologies that are staring you in the face like that. A few, like the fact that a secretary is literally a “keeper of secrets,” made the final cut ― but this one seemed just a little too straightforward alongside the other 100 in the book. I was also sorry to leave out the fact that fizzling originally meant breaking wind, but with G-strings and feces both making the final cut, that was just one questionable entry too many!

Did you find any base-level theories for why words change in meaning? Is it just happenstance, or widespread ignorance of a word’s original meaning, or perhaps an ideophonic affinity between the word’s sound and the meaning it acquired?

I don’t think there’s one solid rule or explanation for why words change, but because the book covers entries from Old English right through to the modern day, what did become clear is that the impetus for these changes has itself changed over time. So way back in the Old English period, many changes were driven by the fact that the English vocabulary was growing so enormously, particularly with influence from French words borrowed after the Norman Conquest. The fact that English adopted the word boy from French, for instance, is probably the reason why girl came to change as boy began to encroach on its meaning. 

In the Middle Ages and beyond, you can see literature start to play a bigger part: writers, authors and poets bending the meanings of words to suit what they want them to mean. And to an extent, that has continued in the modern era through journalism as well as fiction: it was newspapers, for instance, that popularized the figurative use of the word blockbuster to describe something extraordinarily impactful or successful in the 1940s. Before then, it was the name of a huge aerial bomb developed by the RAF that was capable of literally destroying a block of buildings. 

Being a language born of various roots, is English more prone to evolving in this way than a language with a more homogenous history? Or do we see it just as much in other languages?

I think all languages certainly see elements of evolution over time: people are naturally curious and inventive, and as no language exists outside of its speakers and users, if they begin to use a word in a new context or adopt or invent words to replace others then the language as a whole will change to accommodate them. 

But you’re right ― the English language has such a checkered, sprawling history that I think it is likely more liable to change than most. If you think about how lengthy its history is, how much of the world it has touched and been imposed upon, and just how numerous and how diverse its speakers are today, you start to see just how unlikely it is that English would remain unaltered, at any point in its history. 

This seems like something of a rebuttal to prescriptivism, showing that even words we feel we know very well have evolved over time. Do you think this book makes a case for a descriptivist approach?

I certainly wouldn’t want say this book actively argues for descriptivism or against prescriptivism ― it’s just recording the facts. But you’re right that seemingly the facts here just so happen to support a descriptivist approach to language more than the prescriptivist one. If every time a word was used in a new or innovative way or context a prescriptivist approach quashed the change and slapped the word back into place, the language would never have evolved in the way it has and we would doubtless be left with a less rich vocabulary as a result.  

Is there any value, in your eyes, in a prescriptivist approach? Is there anything to gain by trying fix words’ definitions in place rather than rolling with the evolutions that arise?

I think there can be value in formalizing a language certainly, and if that comes even in part from a prescriptivist approach then so be it. After all, it’s by establishing rules and norms that languages become mutually intelligible among all their speakers, and are both translatable and learnable to speakers of other languages. 

What does not have value in my eyes is using those rules to make judgement calls on other people’s use of the language, or to point out “mistakes” other people may have made, which is what the prescriptivist cause is often commandeered to do. One of the very first things I was ever taught when I first started studying language more than a decade ago was that there is no such thing as right and wrong; there is standard and non-standard, and they are in no way the same. You can break as many rules as you want ― all that matters is that you’ve communicated what you need to communicate effectively and have been understood. Does it really matter that you’ve split an infinitive or used “disinterested” instead of “uninterested” in doing so? Not one bit. 

A lot of these word-change stories go back centuries. How is the Internet impacting how, and how quickly, words evolve?

The internet and social media age is probably coining as many new words as it is altering existing ones, but either way I think it’s undoubtedly accelerating the process. Say a word gets used in a certain way on a reality TV program. People watching it then tweet about it. Fans start using it. Then journalists and academics (and people like me) start writing about it. And suddenly the word has changed or gained an entirely new meaning, all within a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. 

This recently happened over here in the U.K. with a (terrible but still massively popular) reality show called “Love Island.” The contestants on there started using the word “muggy” to mean “untrustworthy” or “deceptive.” That meaning has certainly found its way into millennial slang, and if it continues to be used will doubtless begin to find its way into some dictionaries. The question is whether it will ever oust the existing meaning of muggy from the language.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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