Tuesday, 14 October 2008

one seraph is enough to sing about

Today I was listening to a beautiful rendition of 'Let the bright Seraphim' by Lesley Garrett and I thought seraphim would be a plural noun, based on the rules of the Hebrew language. But was the singular seraph?

Yes, my computer's dictionary said it was.

But it's a back-formation, a word formed by deleting the suffix from 'seraphim'. The Princeton WordNet explains a back-formation as 'a word invented (usually unwittingly by subtracting an affix) on the assumption that a familiar word derives from it.' For instance, the verb burgle came into use because of the mistaken assumption that burglar is a noun formed by adding the ar ending.

As William Safire said in the New York Times, "People do not consciously work out the backward step, but they have a sense that burgle is to burglar what sail is to sailor."

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the first use of seraph to 1667, by Milton, and suggests he formed this singular noun by analogy with cherub/cherubim.

I guess Milton wouldn't have had much experience with Hebrew plurals used in English, as they're not common. Nowadays there are only a handful in use. Laurie Bauer, in the book Morphological Productivity, says there are probably only cherubim, seraphim, kibbutzim and goyim in regular use.

After considering all this information I was left with the question: what did people before 1667 call one of the seraphim?

Maybe they just didn't talk about them.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

millionth word in English?

When is a word a word? According to most dictionaries, there are about 600,000 words in English, but the Global Language Monitor reports that it has so far tracked about 900,000, and that a new word is added to the English language every 98 minutes.

Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst at the Monitor, quotes the Middle English definition of a word as 'a thought spoken'..."which means if I say a word, and you understand me, it's a real word."

I read about this on Boing Boing. The original article at Smithsonian.com explains the difference between the methods used by traditional dictionaries and the algorithm used by Global Language Monitor, who expect the millionth English word to be coined around April 2009.

Friday, 3 October 2008

becoming a locavore

I discovered a new word just now, one that appeals to me on many levels: it was coined by women; it expresses a hopeful view of what we can do to avert climate catastrophe; and it quickly achieved inclusion in the New Oxford American dictionary. In fact, it was declared by Oxford University Press USA as the 2007 word of the Year.

The word is locavore and was invented recently by four women in San Francisco. It defines a person who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a radius of 100 miles. Such food is said to be more nutritious, to taste better, and to use less fuel in transportation.

I support the concept expressed in this new word, though I have read it can be better to transport food from a distance if it comes from a more environmentally efficient source than the local one.

Enthusiasm for the ultimate in local produce - my own garden - prompted me to browse the Net and I was researching this topic when I came across the word locavore on a site called Edible Garden.

A class at Bulleen Art and Garden last night has filled my head with plans to transform our garden into a rich harvest of vegetables and fruits. However, a little voice does whisper, 'Yes, but it has to rain!' (We've just had the driest September ever recorded.) On the other hand, there are also more classes promised, on the use of recycled water, so I guess I should stay hopeful. The teacher, Karen Sutherland, showed us photos of her own productive and beautiful garden.

I guess I'm not the only one full of hopeful plans, because I heard on the radio today that the growing of vegetables in the home garden has become hugely popular in the US, Britain and Australia.