Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Many Flavors of English

(This is the second part of a three part series that explains the various dimensions of the OED)

The many dimensions of the OED Online


Howard Richler

(Part two of a three part series)

The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) affords word lovers a myriad of ways to explore the English language.The largest area for searches occurs in the category section that is sub-divided into four parts: Subject, Usage, Regions and Origin. Under Subject, one can check words on a plethora of topics such as Education, Military and Law.

In the Law section, there are over 8,000 words, such as recusal, abeyance, and codicil, many of which will be known to those familiar with legal terms. However, for readers who delight in arcane words, you will discover expessions such as bastardy order “an order made by a magistrate for the support of an illegitimate child by a putative father” and alnage, “the action of ... determining whether woolen cloth conforms to particular standards of shape and quality as required... under British law.” For those mining obscure legal words you'd likely find them in legal sub-categories such as Medieval, Ecclesiastical and Roman law. For example in feudal times bloodwite referred to “ a fine payable for the shedding of blood,” whereas lairwite, was a “fine for fornication or adultery with a bondwoman.” Corsned in Old English law referred to a type of trial by ordeal in which an accused person would eat a one-ounce piece of barley bread and cheese which was consecrated by exorcism. Supposedly, if the accused was guilty, his eating the holy bread would cause him to go into convulsions and choke. In days of yore, reaggravation was something best avoided as it referred to “the second warning given to a person before final excommunication.” This, however, was probably not as dangerous to your well-being as perduellion which in Roman Law denoted high treason.” Also in Roman law, it wasn't necessarily a good thing to be emancipated as this could refer to being delivered into servitude or subjugation because emancipation was often effected by fictitious sale.

The many flavours of English found in the OED Online

The Regions category demonstrates the incredible variety that marks 21st century English. And even though English is spoken virtually everywhere on this planet it may not seem like the same language to all based on distinctive vocabulary one finds in different parts of the English-speaking world.

Former British colonies often display flavourful Englishes. In Jamaica, nyam means to “eat voraciously” and Babylon is a “dismissive term for something regarded as representing the degenerative or oppressive nature of white culture.” In South Africa, skindering is a word for gossip and if you're babalaas, you're suffering from a hangover, which is probably not kwaai, a slang term for “cool.” It's also not kwaai to be a moegoe, a country bumpkin or gullible person. In West Africa you don’t remove someone from authority, you destool them which may be a result of a palaver, a “dispute.” Colloquially, palaver can be used to mean “problem,” as in “That's your palaver.” In New Zealand, you don’t attend a funeral but a tangi and if a New Zealander tells you to hook your mutton, you haven't received an invitation to dine on sheep, rather you've been told to “clear out.”

In India, you'll find that familiar words might have very different meanings. For example, intermarriage refers not only to people of different religions getting hitched but also to people from different castes. Accomplish often will have the distinct sense of “to make complete or perfect” and cabin usually refers to an office or office cubicle.If someone in India or other South Asia locales says they’re going to send you their biodata, understand the term to mean curricilum vitae, (CV). We in Canada call where we put the luggage in our car the trunk; the Brits call it the boot but in India it is called the dicky. Also certain terms that have been obsolete for over a century in England live on in India, including the verbs condole “to offer condolences” and prepone “to bring forward to an earlier time or date.” Unfortunately, the euphemistic term eve-teasing is heard all too often in India; it refers to the sexual harassment of a woman by a man in a public place. One of the more amusing descriptions of a person in East Asia is astronaut. This designation describes a “high-flying” business person, semi-permanently in transit between locales such as Hong Kong and Vancouver because his/her family has emigrated.

And even when you happen upon a country where most people speak English as a first language, don't assume you'll understand the lingo. In Australia if someone asks you where the dunny is, they’re looking for the toilet. If you've been referred to as a wowser, don't feel complemented as it means “party-pooper” as the term refers to a puritanical person who disapproves of dancing and drinking. Alas, it is not only Down Under where you may feel at a linguistic loss partying in an English-speaking area. In Scotland you are not the life of the party if you are described as fire-raising. You are accused of arson!

Nor should we Canucks regard ourselves as language purists, as in next month's issue, I'll explore one of my favourite mutations of our native tongue: Canadian English.

Richler's next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.