Thursday, February 18, 2016


         Both the universe and the English language are expanding


                            Howard Richler

Please refrain from sexting while twerking. While it might be hyphy, fo' shizzle it is both jank and meh.

All the italicized words are recent additions to the OED which in June added almost 1000 new terms to our language. While in the past, the OED's policy was to include neologisms only after they were firmly entenched in our language, many of the additions such as twerk and sext demonstrate that the times they are a changin'.

Perhaps a little translation is in order. Sexting refers to the sending of sexually explicit pictures electronically and twerking is dancing in a provocative manner by thrusting motions of the glutus maximus and the hip. Hyphy means energetic, fo' shizzle comes from the lexicon of hip-hop music and is a variant of “for sure,” whereas jank is a variant of junk that means inferior and meh means uninspiring or mediocre.

I was surprised to discover that twerk had been added because, as a rule, the OED will usually only add a word if it has enjoyed popular use for at least ten years and I associate the word with Miley Cyrus' gyrating motions at the 2013 MTV awards show and it seemed to me that  use of the term abated dramatically by 2014.  In fact, the OED discovered that folks have been twerking for the better part of two centuries, but not necessarily in the lascivious Cyrus mode. In 1820 the word was first used as a noun to refer to a twisting motion as the word is a blend of twist or twitch with jerk and by 1850  the verb form of the word emerged.

Twenty years ago it was unfathomable that we would soon be changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and the OED reflects this revolution in our thinking about personal identity and social classification. For example, the OED made me aware that I am a cisgender person, a word I did not know existed. Cisgender is defined as “designating someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him at birth.” The prefix cis- means “on the side of” and the term cisgender contrasts with transgender.  Racial conceptions have similarly evolved. The term intersectionality originated in mathematical formulations in the 1960s but by 1989 it has been used to the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class…regarded as creating overlapping and independent systems of discrimination and disadvantage.”
In my July/August Lexpert column I pointed out that many familiar Canadian are finally getting OED recognition. This process has continued in the recent additions as these aspects of Canadiana enhance the ever-growing Canadian content of the OED.  Depanneur (convenience store), inukshuk, (a structure of rough stone used by Inuit hunters as a landmark), mangia-cake, (among Italian Canadians, a term for non-Italians),  double double (a cup  of coffee with a double serving of both cream and sugar). Resto-bar, (combined restaurant and bar) was also added and although the term is not exclusive to Canada, the OED's first citation comes from the Montreal Gazette in 1992.

It would also appear that acronyms and initialisms are flourishing judging by some of the new OED additions. I was familiar with POTUS, President of the United States, and SCOTUS, Surpreme Court of the United States but FLOTUS was a new one for me, as was FOMO, fear of missing out and SCBU Special Care Baby Unit, a designation used primarily in Great Britain.

The OED additions also highlight how quickly words can acquire new meanings and then proliferate. A good example is the word “guerilla” which traditionally only designated a paramilitary combatant. The OED explains that since the end of the 20th century it often is used to include “activities conducted in an irregular, unorthodox, and spontaneous way, without regard to established conventions, rules and formalities.” Hence we find guerilla advertising, guerilla art, guerilla gardening, guerilla knitting, guerilla marketing and guerilla theatre, to name but a few of the guerilla flavours. Amazingly, there is a citation for “guerilla advertising” in 1888. Some futuristic soul thought of this structure eighty years before anybody else thought to extend the guerilla metaphor.  Also, new meanings have been added to these words; “Kill”- do something impressively; “lipstick” -  the treble twenty on a dartboard; “chatter” - electronic communication that is monitored by intelligence agencies to combat terrorism and “double-dip,” a term that references two periods of economic decline.

An economic diet is included in the new entries. I refer to freegan which is defined as the “practice of eating discarded food typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants for ethical or ecological reasons.” My favourite new diet word was added to the OED in June 2014. I refer to flexitarian that is defined as “a person who follows a primary but not strictly vegetarian. I prefer to define it as a vegetarian who once a year cheats and enjoys a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's.

Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in April 2016.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


                     Why lovers are bird-brained


                               Howard Richler

“On wings of love and fly to me my turtle dove.” 

“As clear and pure as a turtle dove
And that is what fills me with love.”

 I espied these saccharine messages recently while perusing Valentine’s Day cards and had the humdrum epiphany that the turtle dove is the quintessential symbol for Valentine’ Day. (Do not confuse the turtle dove with the reptilian turtle. The bird’s name in Old English was turtur,  an onomatopoeic rendering of the bird’s coo.)  Not only does  “turtle dove” conveniently rhyme with  “love,” but the turtle dove is also said to be a very solicitous partner that constantly dotes on its mate.  This sense is reflected in the following passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Take her for me... Jove, a cool ruttime send them. Yea, turtledove her.”

The turtle dove is but one example of the  “animalistic” nature of romance.  Lovers are referred to in other beastly ways such as  “bunny,” “kitten,” “puppy,” “sparrow,” “sparling,” “lambkin,” “tiger,” and “stallion,” and are even likened to potentially disease-infested rodents, such as a “mouse” and a “squirrel.”

The metaphorical use of animals to refer to lovers is a time-honoured practice. In his book The Lover’s Tongue, Mark Morton relates that the period from the 15th to the 18th century represented the apogee for the metaphorical comparison of one’s beloved with livestock: “People interacted with animals not just in their McNugget or Quarter-Pounder incarnations, but as fellow creatures, sharing the same plot of farmland, if not the same house.”

For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the character Pistol exclaims, “Good bawcock, bate thy rage, use lenitie, sweet chuck!”   “Bawcock” is a corruption of the French beau coq which means “beautiful cock” or more euphemistically  “fine rooster”; “chuck” here is a variation of “chick.”   In the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s 16th century verse In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht,  a woman in the poem addresses her lover thus: “My belly huddrun , my swete hurle bawsy” which translates  as “My big lummox, my sweet unweaned calf.”  I may never ever again be able to eat a steak without blushing.

Perhaps it would also be wise to avoid employing the term of endearment piggsneye, used by Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in 1388. The OED defines it as  “one specially cherished; a darling, pet; commonly used as an endearing form of address.”  It is a combined form of  “pig’s-eye” and the OED relates that it “originated in children's talk and the fond prattle of nurses.” Its last recorded usage dates back to 1941 in C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie.”

Of course, terms of endearment can transcend comparing your beloved to an animal. You can also employ nonsense rhymes such as “honey bunny,”  “lovey dovey” and “tootsie wootsie”. If you find these terms annoying, take solace that many others of this ilk are now archaic. In All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare refers to a husband’s “kicky-wicky” which transfers from its literal sense as a gray mare to a wife. Other rhyming terms that have similarly vanished are “gol-pol” (a woman with blonde hair), “crowdie-mowdie” (oatmeal and water eaten uncooked,) and the nonsensical duo of “slawsie gawsie” and “tyrlie myrlie.”

Equally grating are the variety of “–ums” words used as forms of endearment. These seem to have originated as terms for children (or cats) but were soon adopted by babbling, inarticulate lovers. Here we have the quartet of “diddums,” “pussums,” “ pookums” and “snookums.”

If you are looking for an original verb to describe your love play, try “canoodle” which is defined as “to indulge in caresses and fondling endearments.” Its origin is unknown and its first citation occurs in 1859: A sly kiss, and a squeeze, and a pressure of the foot or so, and a variety of harmless endearing blandishments, known to our American cousins under the generic name of ‘conoodling.’”  If you’re seeking even greater originality for the one you cherish, try an archaic word.  I thus recommend to the gentleman reader that he refer to his love interest as “muskin” (girl with a pretty face), “amoret” (sweetheart), “fairhead” (beauty) or as a “mistresspiece” (female masterpiece), and to employ “court holy water” (flattery) in order that she may “smick” (kiss) and  “halch” (embrace)  him.  A lady may call her beau a “franion” (gallant lover) or refer to him as “snout-fair” (handsome), and tell him that he is “frim” (vigorous and in good shape).

Whatever language you choose to woo the one of your choice  this Valentine’s Day, may your “loveship” (courtship) be full of “fougue” (ardour).