Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Kate Burridge in Daylesford

Language change is interesting, so I considered myself lucky to be in Daylesford recently for the Words in Winter festival and able to attend a talk on this topic by Professor Kate Burridge, linguist and radio commentator.

She started by showing us the rate of change is not constant.

For centuries the norm was rapid change in spoken English. For instance, between the times of Chaucer (fourteenth century) and of Jonathan Swift (early eighteenth century) there was such a massive change that Swift's readers would have had difficulty reading Chaucer.

She read the first lines of the Prologue from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales - in the accent of the time, I might add!
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
When Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye
That sleepen al the night with open ye -
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
In contrast, when she read the opening to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, we had no trouble understanding the text.
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, and eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.
Out of interest, after typing this quote, I spell-checked it, and Word thinks it is acceptable modern grammar.

The rise of written English as the pre-eminent form is the reason behind this slowing of the rate of change. When most business and study and social interaction occurred through spoken English, people didn't mind language changing, as long as they could understand each other. But we, with almost universal literacy, are strongly influenced by the way a word is written, visualising it as we say it, and this makes us resist change.

It was a great talk and has given me lots to think about.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

a lady's private place is in her boudoir

A friend told me today that the original meaning of the word boudoir is a place where a lady goes to sulk. Seeing my friend is a lover of words, I presumed she had told me the correct etymology.

But, of course, I checked online...

In the search for confirmation I've come across a fabulous site, Webster's Online Dictionary, where I found not only the meaning, but translation of the word into a range of languages.

A feature of the Websters site is an extended definition of words. Here's what is says about boudoir:
A boudoir is a lady's private bedroom, sitting room or dressing room. The term derives from the French verb bouder, meaning "to pout"[citation needed].

Historically, the boudoir formed part of the private suite of rooms of a lady, for bathing and dressing, adjacent to her bedchamber, being the female equivalent of the male cabinet. In later periods, the boudoir was used as a private drawing room, and was used for other activities, such as embroidery or entertaining intimate acquaintances.

In Caribbean English a boudoir is the front room of the house where women entertain family and friends.

Latterly, the term boudoir has come to denote a style of furnishing the bedroom that is traditionally described as ornate or busy. The plethora of links available on the internet to furnishing sites using the term boudoir tend to focus on Renaissance and French inspired bedroom styles. They have, in recent times also been used to describe the 'country cottage' style with whitewashed styled walls large heavy bed furniture and deep bedding.

In photography

Boudoir is also used in photography as a term to describe a revealing style of photography. Implied nudity is common, as is the subject showing part of their undergarments while still dressed. The is now a very clear blurring of the lines between soft porn and boudoir images, where it is more than just the undergarments peeking out.
The Free Dictionary offers translation also, but only into three languages - German, Spanish and French.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

origin of the word 'boredom'

I was watching QI on television just now and Stephen Fry said Charles Dickens coined the word boredom.

Many sites on the internet agree that Dickens was the first to use this word in print, in his novel Bleak House, giving as the date 1852, but Language Log says the word was first used in print in 1864.

I hadn't realised that Dickens invented words, but of course it's obvious he would have, as all good writers try to find new ways to express their ideas. According to Words That Teem With Meaning; Copenhagen Views on Lexicography, Dickens did indeed invent (or use for the first time) lots of neologisms. Some, like gunpowderous, had a short life, but we still use allotment garden and casualty ward today.

A journal called Charles Dickens:Linguistic Innovator looks interesting and can be purchased online.

Update 6 June 2016. Thanks to a comment by Paul Vargas, I've learned that Dickens was not the first to use this word in print. I've made a new post to explain what he told me.