Oxford & Cambridge: is punctuation the new battleground for an old rivalry?

OCrace

The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is coming up on Sunday (it will be a closed event on the River Great Ouse). Will Oxford take the trophy back from Cambridge, who were victorious in their last encounter (in 2019)? Tension is mounting in the historic rivalry between the famous British universities – and today it goes beyond the coxes and crews and the battle of the Blues. As reported this morning in the Cambridge Herald, Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma.” Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford or serial comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — i.e. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the Cambridge Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, texts, DMs and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full Cambridge Herald article here.

We didn’t see this one coming!

***

When Irish words are smiling (in English)

Another favorite from the Glosso archives, posted again to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. What do galore, slew, hooligan and boycott have in common? Glossophilia celebrates 13* colorful words in common English usage that we got from the Irish.

Banshee: in Irish folklore, a type of female fairy believed to foretell deaths by singing in a mournful, unearthly voice, 1771, from the phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sidhe (“female of the Elves”) from bean “woman” + Irish sidhe (Gaelic sith) meaning “fairy” or sid meaning “fairy mound”.

Boycott: From Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Quickly adopted by newspapers in languages as far afield as Japanese (boikotto). The family name is from a place in England.

Brogue: A type of Celtic accent, 1705, perhaps from the meaning “rough, stout shoe” (made of rawhide and tied with thongs), of the type worn by rural Irish and Scottish highlanders (1580s), via Gaelic or Irish, from Old Irish broce “shoe.” The footwear was “characteristic of the wilder Irish” [Century Dictionary], thus the noun might mean something like “speech of those who call a shoe a brogue.” Or perhaps it is from the Old Irish barrog, meaning “a hold” (on the tongue).

Galore: 1670s, from the Irish go leór, and equivalent Scottish Gaelic gu leóir, meaning “sufficiently, enough,” from the Old Irish roar, “enough”. The particle go/gu usually means “to,” but it is also affixed to adjectives to form adverbs, as it is here.

Gobslang for “mouth” 1540s, from the Irish gob, meaning “mouth”.

Hooligan: 1890s, of unknown origin, according to OED, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the variant form of the Irish surname Houlihan, which figured as a characteristic comic Irish name in music hall songs and newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s.

Leprechaun: c. 1600, from Irish lupracan, a metathesis of the Old Irish luchorpan meaning literally “a very small body,” from lu (“little, small”). The variant leithbragan is probably Irish folk etymology, from leith (“half”) + brog (“brogue”), because the spirit was “supposed to be always employed in making or mending a single shoe.”

Sheila: The Australian slang for “woman” comes from the Irish name “Síle”, the Irish equivalent of Celia, a shortened form of Cecilia, the feminine form of Cecil. A standard Irish women’s name since 1828; slang for “girlfriend, young woman” dates from 1839.

Slew: meaning “large number” 1839, from the Irish sluagh meaning “a host, crowd, multitude”.

Slogan: 1670s, earlier slogorne (1510s), “battle cry,” from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm meaning “battle cry” used by Scottish Highland or Irish clans,” from sluagh (“army, host, slew” — see slew above), from the Celtic and Balto-Slavic slough (“help, service”). Second element is gairm meaning “a cry”.

Tory: Colloquial name for a member of the British Conservative Party: 1566, “an outlaw,” specifically “one of a class of Irish robbers noted for outrages and savage cruelty,” from the Irish toruighe, “plunderer,” originally “pursuer, searcher,” from the Old Irish toirighim (“I pursue”) from toir (“pursuit”) from Celtic to-wo-ret (“a running up to”). In about 1646, it emerged as a derogatory term for Irish Catholics dispossessed of their land (some of whom subsequently turned to outlawry); in c.1680 it was applied by Exclusioners to supporters of the Catholic Duke of York (later James II) in his succession to the throne of England. After 1689, Tory was the name of a British political party at first composed of Yorkist Tories of 1680. It was superseded in c.1830 by Conservative, although it continues to be used colloquially. As an adjective from 1680s.

Shamrock: 1570s, from Irish seamrog, the diminutive of seamar meaning “clover.”

Whiskey: 1715, from Gaelic uisge beatha “whisky,” literally “water of life,” from the Old Irish uisce, meaning “water”. Note that the spelling distinction between Scotch whisky and Irish and American whiskey is a 19th-century innovation.

***

And here are two words that are commonly thought to be of Irish origin but probably aren’t:

Dig? Some people think the slang word dig — meaning to understand or “get it” — comes from the Irish tuig. However, read Frank McNally’s dig into the word dig in the Irish Times a decade ago: it’s a complicated subject, and probably not of Irish heritage after all.

Hillbilly? It’s commonly thought that the pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the U.S., especially around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially came from 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. However, as Michael Montgomery argues in his From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English: “In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emigrants, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect. … In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.”

* Don’t worry: we’ve got the luck of the Irish on our side.

***

Happy 10th Birthday, Glossophilia!

Ten years ago today, this little hobby-blog tip-toed onto the internet, taking an informal, irreverent, trans-Atlantic look at language use and abuse in all its glory. A decade on, it’s flourishing. With visitors from every country in the world bar five, the blog recently celebrated its millionth reader. Its lively Facebook page has a flock of 28,000+ followers, and our fledgling podcast spin-off is warmly appreciated on both sides of the pond. It’s thrilling to know that there are glossophiles loving their lingo in every far-flung corner of the planet. (Read more about the blog below.)

Continue reading

Come one, cum all!

Originally posted in 2013, and then updated in 2018 when it came back into the news, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

2018 update: The word “cum” is back in the news today, with a censored cake that went viral.

The censored cake / Facebook

*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * 

Original post in 2013: I was watching Masters of Sex the other night on Showtime, and it struck me that Masters and Johnson were using the word come a lot. And they weren’t meaning the opposite of go. (It didn’t escape my notice that they also seemed to be coming a lot — but that’s another story…) I know these ground-breaking sex researchers of the 1950s and ’60s were famously ahead of their time, but not in their word choices — and their use of this particular piece of sexual terminology sounded weirdly anachronistic to me. I really thought that this word “come” was a more modern invention… Continue reading

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge with a "Stay Woke: Vote" tee shirt in 2018

“Woke”

Update in March 2021: Back in June 2017, Glosso reported that the word woke had officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary (and I believe it also entered Webster Merriam that same year). A further post in September 2019, which is reposted below, delved more deeply into the word’s etymology and nuanced history. Has the figurative adjective evolved further in the past year-and-a-half, given its prominence and ubiquity in the Black Lives Matter movement and other areas of social justice consciousness? Has its meaning shifted again, taking on a mocking or pejorative insinuation, in addition to the conscious and righteous sense that makes so many people – if not a whole generation – “woke and proud” today? Continue reading

Best language podcasts & blogs on National Grammar Day

A grammar of the English tongue, with notes, Giving the Grounds and Reason of Grammar in General. … For the Use of the Schools Of Great Britain and Ireland. 1712. Wikimedia Commons

“Grammar do’s all the Art and Knowledge teach, According to the Use of every Speech … ” (1712)

Updated on March 4, 2021 … It’s National Grammar Day! What better way to celebrate than to take a journey through the podcasts, blogs and tables* of grammar and language-usage land. A lot of the old familiar grammar and usage blogs — like so many of the planet’s blogs — have sadly fallen by the proverbial wayside. However, others pop up, with new, fresh voices, and as long as Earthlings continue to write and talk, there will be people talking and writing about how we do just that. Here’s a guide to some of the most lively and articulate grammar and usage commentators whom you can listen to, read — or even meet on the street … Continue reading

Is there a difference between “inoculation” and “vaccination”?

Fluzone vaccine
Fluzone vaccine; image Wikimedia Commons/CDC

In a recent family Zoom call, my mum (who’s now in her 80s) made an interesting observation: the main topic of conversation these days – because let’s face it, what else is there to talk about? – is vaccines and vaccinations; but back in the day, when my sibs and I were infants and littlies, the talk was more of inoculations. I still have my old “inoculation” booklets for myself and for my own children when we were babes in arms or toddlers; these were the jabs to prevent diseases like Diptheria and Tetanus, Measles, Mumps and Rubella (“MMR”) that we all had to get before going to school and taking part in the big party called life. But then there’s my yellow “vaccination” booklet, which first started getting stamped with names like cholera and smallpox and yellow fever back in the late ’60s when my family started to travel and live abroad. Do those two words – inoculation and vaccination – have essentially different meanings? Is it to do with what exactly is being injected or ingested, or perhaps to do with their respective goals or the way they are being delivered? Or are they in fact synonymous, with vaccination simply being more trendy in our pandemic-torn times?

Continue reading
Language of death and dying

The Language of Death and Dying

The third episode of Glossophilia’s podcast series addresses a sensitive but sadly pertinent subject: how we talk about death and dying. With the US recently passing the grim milestone of 500,000 lives lost from COVID-19, we explore the enduring difficulties we all have in discussing the matter of death.

For more about the language of death, see Glosso’s earlier post from 2014: The Language of Death and Dying.

Episode credits and resources:

Sound mixer & engineer: Aytac Aybak

Interstitial music: “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord Is Ended” arranged and performed by Doug MacGowan

Outro music: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult cover performed by Kaeli Fletcher

Books about death and dying discussed in this episode:
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Poems read in this episode:
Paul read “Afterwards” by Thomas Hardy
Louise read “Dirge without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Photo image: ‘Reeds’ by P. Moran

* * * * *

Celebrating International Mother Language Day on 21 February

Procession march held on 21 February 1952 in Dhaka / Wikimedia Commons

“A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life.” So explained UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay three years ago on February 21: International Mother Language Day.

What follows is a brief history of the UNESCO international day that was inaugurated in 1952 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.

Continue reading