Saturday, 7 January 2012

Bibs and bobs

These were submitted as blog entries for the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library; as most of them have now been removed I take leave to repost them here, in slightly altered form:

Ctailing words

I was very pleased to read in the Metro (Weds 17th November 2010) in Siobhan Murphy’s review of George W Bush’s memoirs, the spelling of ‘freem’ and ‘moxy’ to transcribe that gentleman’s pronunciation of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.  This especially as I am currently reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, in which ‘ministry’ and ‘archbishop’ become ‘mincery’ and ‘ardship’.  English has dropped bits of words over the centuries – ‘chancery’ is described by the OED as a ‘worn-down’ form of ‘chancelry’ or ‘chancelery’, and ‘cheat’ used to be ‘escheat’.  How long before we become the British Libry?

Further to words losing bits, they can also add bits.  ‘Mischievous’ spawned its variant ‘mischievious’ in the sixteenth century, but is still ‘non-standard’ according to the OED.

Words for the Boys

We had a suggestion form a mixed-gender London sixth-form on the first day of the Evolving English workshops that certain words are more used by boys than girls.  ‘Skeen’ and ‘random’ are boy’s words.  ‘Skeen’ is also more likely to be heard in London and the South than further north.  They are both very passé now, at least in London.

Changing Voice

One of the first groups in for a workshop was a sixth-form from south-west London. We were discussing accents - one of the girls said that she speaks with a south-east accent at school but at home uses the accent from her family, who come from near Glasgow. Not just her accent, her vocabulary changes too, so that she goes shopping with her friends, but with her family she goes to get her messages.  Babies greet at home, but cry away from home; at home she says ‘heid’ and ‘wa’er’, and at school ‘head’ and ‘water’.  She says she switches automatically, and her friends confirmed this.  What happened if she hit her thumb with a hammer, I asked; what came out, south-east or Scots?  ‘It depends where I am’, she said.


The Riot Act has been read.  This eighteenth-century poster has provoked a lot of discussion, particularly the full-stop.  How often do you see a full-stop in a poster?  In workshops our interpretation of this has generally been that it means ‘end of’, that it acts as a marker of the fulfilling of legal and moral responsibility – basically saying ‘shutup and go away’.  Curiously, it means almost the same in current text messaging.  If at the end of a text conversation you get a message ‘ok’, that’s fine.  But ‘ok.’ is different – it means ‘ok, and now shutup’.  One girl said, ‘my Mum uses full stops at the end of text messages all the time.  I hate it.’

We are used to teenagers being the movers and shakers in language change, but maybe weren’t expecting it with punctuation.

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