Like lemmings to the slaughter?

One of the mysteries of English is why this diminutive creature has become a byword for impulsive herdlike behaviour, even mass hysteria. These appealing northern rodents are the victims of a bad press—or at least a very inaccurate one.

Not a computer game…

For many people the word will first bring to mind a computer game created in 1991 and as unstoppably addictive as such games easily become. The aim was to save the critters in their headlong rush to mass self-destruction. Their supposed suicidal urges were also the inspiration for a 1985 advertisement launching Apple Macintosh’s Office. Suited businesspeople were shown walking blindfolded and in single file up to a cliff edge, from which they hurled themselves into the abyss, until the last in the line took off his blindfold to the voiceover, “You can look into it. Or you can go on with business as usual.”

A potent urban myth

That lemmings deliberately self-destruct en masse is a complete myth, but one that has a powerful hold on the popular imagination. It is one of those many mistaken things that we all “know” (in the same way that we “know” that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow). And it is a myth firmly embedded in English as a way of symbolizing people who unthinkingly follow what the crowd are doing, often with dangerous, if not downright fatal, consequences.

Where did the myth originate?

I remember being struck by a compelling sequence from a 1958 Walt Disney short nature film entitled White Wilderness. It purported to show wave after wave of lemmings plummeting unstoppably over precipitous cliffs into the Arctic Ocean. Accompanied by a portentous commentary and melodramatic music, that film helped sear the idea of rodents with an unquenchable deathwish into the public’s consciousness. It was, however, a cruel fake. Clever camera angles and good editing made it look real, but the (actually rather few) lemmings were cascading into a river, not into the sea, and they were, it seems, being launched from a rotating turntable. If you watch that footage—which now looks very much of its era—you will understand immediately why lemmings became such a powerful metaphor for unthinking, self-destructive mass behaviour.

“The science bit”

Lemming describes twenty species subdivided into six genera and belonging to the same superfamily as rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters. They are widespread in the cooler north of Eurasia and North America and range from three to six inches in length. Far from succumbing to suicidal groupthink, these creatures live solitary, hermitic lives, only associating with others, as they must, for mating purposes. Unlike other rodents, which have inconspicuous coats, their pelts are variegated. They are also aggressive towards predators. The Norwegian lemming, Lemmus lemmus, travels considerable distances in its migrations.

Populations fluctuate wildly

Lemming populations fluctuate wildly for reasons not fully understood, and when population density reaches a critical level, they migrate collectively. Since they can swim, they may attempt to cross stretches of water that are beyond their natatorial abilities, and consequently drown.

History of a simile

The OED gives the first example of the metaphorical use from a 1959 book (“Home-going office workers…potent in mass as a lemming migration“), but Google Ngrams throws up an example from the 1930s: “…logicians fling themselves headlong in hordes, like lemmings; and suicidally discuss the import of ‘propositions’ such as ‘The King of Utopia died last Sunday…,” from The Principles of Art by the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood.

On a more pedestrian level, but more dramatically, Life of 5 January 1942 reported that “Men and Women are swarming out of the Navy Building, the War Department, Labor, Interior, Commerce, not with the orderliness of ants but like lemmings swarming blindly toward the Baltic.”

These examples predate the Disney film, and suggest that the myth was current well before it.

How the simile works

Typically, an explicit comparison is made using the preposition like. Tendentiously, as in:

At present, all countries of the world are marching like lemmings over the philosophical precipice to collectivism.

Financial Sense Online, Editorials 2005.

Or slightly naughtily, as in:

…the run of articles about how being tall and good looking and banging Playmates who line up like lemmings ready to fall over his penis made Michael Bay…

The Hot Button, 2002.

In the first the reference to cliffs is explicit, in the second it is (punningly?) implicit. In a minority of examples with like, the word cliff actually appears in the context:

Sky One’s audience has been deserting it, disappearing like lemmings over a cliff, according to Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks.

Sunday Times, 19 September 2004.

The comparison is also lexicalized in the adjective lemming-like:

After the Diana nonsense, when complete strangers lemming-like threw themselves into publicity-driven grief, through Charles and Camilla’s redemption, we are now spoon-fed the William and Kate Show.

Daily Telegraph, 2012, quoting MSP Christine Grahame.

Like lemmings to the slaughter

As I was writing this, I wondered, “Has anyone changed ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ to ‘like lemmings to the slaughter’”. And, sure enough, they have, but the phrase is not terribly common. A google for those exact phrases throws up under 3,000 for the rodent one, but over 650,000 for the ovine one. The one with lemmings seems slightly odd, since they are not exactly slaughtered by another agent, but it’s an interesting example of a blend of two phrases. Pedants might consider it a sort of malapropism. However, the examples seem to suggest that it is different from “lambs to the slaughter”. Whereas the latter emphasizes that the victims go meekly into a situation of whose dangers they are unaware, the lemmings simile foregrounds the idea of people blindly rushing to do something foolish or dangerous.

In one example it’s the heading to a blog (spamdalot) that continues as shown: “Like Lemmings To The Slaughter. One thing I’ve noticed about Portland is that the pedestrians here have a deathwish…“. In another it’s also a heading, this time in a post on an investment website (Stanford Brown): “Like lemmings to the slaughter………at our April Insight we highlighted that individuals make such poor investors principally because of our insatiable appetite to buy high and sell low. The exact same pattern is happening again“.

Not the only myth

But the suicide myth is not the only one that has attached to lemmings. For a long time they were thought to fall from the sky. In 1555 the Swedish Catholic cleric Olaus Magnus, then exiled in Rome, published in Latin his History of the Northern Peoples (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus), detailing Swedish history and customs.

About lemmings he wrote: “Quod…in Noruegia…euenit, scilicet vt bestiolæ quadrupedes, Lemmar, vel Lemmus dictæ, magnitudine soricis, pelle varia, per tempestates & repentinos imbres è cœlo decidant“.
(Translation) “Which…happens in Norway, namely that little four-footed creatures, called Lemmar or Lemmus, of the size of shrewmice, with variegated hide, fall from the sky through storms and sudden showers.”

This account was repeated almost verbatim at the word’s first appearance in English, in The historie of four-footed beastes, by Edward Topsell, who was, it seems, much given to plagiarism:

There are certaine little Foure-footed-beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes.

So, where does the word come from?

The word lemming is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, borrowed straight from Norwegian, and has not been modified in English. Swedish and Lapp have similar words — lemmel and luomek — and it is possible that the word is related to words meaning “to bark”, such as Latin lātrāre and Lithuanian lōti. Certainly, when they are angry one of the noises they make sounds not dissimilar to the bark of a small dog, as you can hear here.

Other Norwegian loanwords

Lemming is not the most common word English has borrowed from Norwegian. Leaving aside the obvious fjord, that honour must surely go to ski, first recorded as a noun in 1755, and as a verb only as late as 1893. skis
It is interesting that in Norwegian the sk is pronounced sh, the pronunciation reflected in Italian sciare. It was also the English pronunciation Fowler recommended in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Norwegian has also given the skiing world the term slalom, the downhill race, from slalåm, (from sla sloping + låm track).

The Kraken Wakes

The lemming myth mixes fact and fiction, but another Norwegian loanword (1775) plunges us into the world of entirely mythical and terrifying sea creatures: the kraken. This creature was reputedly so enormous that when it dived it created a whirlpool big enough to engulf even the largest ship. Its most famous English incarnation is probably in the title of the 1953 sci-fi novel The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham.

It also found its place in 19th century poetry in a sonnet by Tennyson that is somewhat unusual in having fifteen lines rather than the normal fourteen.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Finally, those who in Scotland are bitten by vicious clegs (i.e. horseflies) will be gratified to know that they have been wounded by an Old Norse beast, kleggi, or klegg in Modern Norwegian.

Lovely Lady Mondegreen

Has this happened to you?

How often do we ask someone to repeat something we didn’t quite catch? Then sometimes we don’t ask and we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It must have happened to everyone at some point. An extreme example is when someone is hard of hearing. A contributor to an online forum mentioned her somewhat deaf father’s hilarious mishearings: asked for a passage from scripture he understood a boa constrictor.

One form of language that is easy to mishear or misinterpret is songs, hymns, and anthems. The often-quoted classic example is Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky being understood as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Wikipedia suggests that Jimi knew about this mishearing and played up to it.

gladly-cross-eyed-bearAnother example, possibly mythical, is Gladly, the cross-eyed bear for Gladly my cross I’ll bear from a late nineteenth-century hymn.

Keep Thou my all, O Lord, hide my life in Thine;
O let Thy sacred light over my pathway shine;
Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I’ll bear;
Hear Thou and grant my prayer, hide my life in Thine.

From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.

Kids often do it

We always want to make sense of what we hear. So if the sounds that reach our ears don’t make sense to our brains, we reinterpret them or fill in the gaps with words we do know. Adults don’t have to do that too often, because they know a lot. Children know less about the world, and fewer words. That’s why they can interpret words new to them in strange ways.


What did you learn at school today?


I know a song about rabbits!


Oh? Can you sing it…?


Oh yes! it goes – Speed, bunny boat, like a bird on the wing…!

A special name for slips of the ear

Slips of the ear of this kind are known as mondegreens. The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the word in 1954, and she explained why:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen’”. But the exact words of the ballad are (in the closest I can find to the original Scots):

YE highlands, and ye lawlands, Oh! quhair hae ye been? They hae slaine the Earl of Murray, And hae laid him on the green.

Her mishearing of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” illustrates the mistaken analysis of word boundaries that is typical of mondegreens. Technically, it is known as metanalysis. Historically, metanalysis has produced an adder from a nadder and a newt from an ewt. Ultimately, it gave us an orange from the Arabic nāranj.
Perhaps Lady Mondegreen looked as sad as this when she lost her Earl of Murray.

The celebrated columnnist William Safire commented on mondegreens and similar here. I blogged previously about the similar phenomenon of eggcorns.

What on earth is an “eggcorn”?

There are hundreds of quaint British folk practices and events, from Gloucestershire cheese rolling to Morris Dancing and Derbyshire well-dressing. Hunting for eggcorns is not a folk tradition, but it can be an entertaining linguistic pastime. “Eggcorn” is the term for

a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting another, with an element of the original being replaced by one which sounds very similar.

Eggcorns must by definition sound similar or identical to the original. They are “slips of the ear”. But they must also make sense in their own terms. A common eggcorn that sounds exactly like the original is to the manor born instead of to the manner born (from Hamlet). Eggcorns that diverge from the original by only one sound are miniscule instead of minuscule and mute point for moot point. My favourites include to have a poncho for something, the Nuke of the North (Nanook of the North), and to go off on a tandem.

What are yours?

Why are they called “eggcorns”?

Try saying “acorn” in a slow, southern-US-states drawl, and pronounce the c like a g, and it will probably sound like “eggcorn”. This spelling is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from as far back as 1844, in a letter:

“I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon”

John Sutter, A.L. Hurtado, 2006.

There are two points to note about this spelling. First, it made complete sense to the writer. Semantically egg corn fits well, because from acorns come trees, as chickens do from eggs; acorns are vaguely egg-shaped; and an acorn in its cup could conjure up the image of an egg in its egg cup.

The second point is that people quite often twist words and phrases into new shapes in a similar way. So widespread is the phenomenon that the linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum coined this term “egg corn” for it in 2003. Since then, the term has become widely used in linguistic discussions, and there is even an online database of examples.

Why do eggcorns happen?

Eggcorns often affect obscure or archaic words or meanings. A good example is the conversion of the original Shakespearean in one fell swoop into in one foul swoop. Fell as an adjective no longer exists, and is therefore not meaningful to speakers, whereas foul conveys the perceived meaning of the phrase, which often describes undesirable events. In a further “eggcornization”, the phrase also appears as in one fowl swoop. guinea-fowl-photo-04

Uneducated slips or educated guesses?

Eggcorns explain phrases that can, at first sight, look like bizarre mistakes, such as the Delhi lama, the Dahlia Lama, Asparagus syndrome (Asperger’s syndrome), above/beyond approach (above /beyond reproach), and countless others. Once you knows about eggcorns, it can be entertaining to listen and look out for them. To do so is even, perversely, a way of celebrating the playfulness of language.

While eggcorns do cause mirth, it would be condescending to be superior and view them as signs of poor literacy. Many fit specific phonetic patterns, and illustrate systematic phonetic trends. They also display people’s intelligence and ingenuity in making sense of what they hear, which is, after all, what we do all the time with any speech we hear.

An eggcorn grows a folk etymology


Eggcorns can even develop their own folk etymology in that word’s meaning of inventing a colourful but incorrect origin for a phrase. British novelist Jeannette Winterson reported a delightful example:

‘…I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.” “The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly…where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’”.’

Times, 13 May 2006

An “autological” word

The term eggcorn is a rare example of a word that is “autological”, namely a word that is itself a member of or has features of the category it describes. Other examples of autological words are short (the word itself is short) and sesquipedalian (“having many syllables”).

The legendary aardvark. First word in the dictionary?


Everyone knows the word, but how many have ever seen the animal? The definition

medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites

does not make the beast sound immediately prepossessing, yet some people find this Cyrano de Bergerac of the animal kingdom cute. (The wording of that Oxford English Dictionary definition also suggests somewhat surreally that it is the critter’s tail which feeds solely on ants and termites).

The aardvark is not mythical, like the phoenix, since it really exists, but it has its own urban myth. Ask anyone which word comes first in a dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark”. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word is…

That honour usually goes to the letter A, as in theOxford English Dictionary (OED). You might think a simple letter would be child’s play to define. In fact, the OED divides it into no fewer than 33 senses, including everyday meanings such as the musical note, and more technical ones such as A as a socio-economic grouping and A for Ångström.

Dozens of abbreviations follow before the next entry, the humble but indispensable indefinite article (aka ‘general determiner’) a. It is followed by numerous entries for a in different guises, such as Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin”, as a prefix (asexual), and as a Latin or Greek suffix (idea, data).

Finally, we strike gold with the first truly lexical entry. And it is? (A very muffled drumroll for) aa, meaning a stream or watercourse, last spotted in 1430 and marked as not only obsolete but rare. Several more curiosities, including some that may be useful for Scrabblists, intervene (aal, from Hindi, the Indian mulberry tree, aapa, from Urdu, meaning older sister) before we get back to our ant-eating, ground-digging mammal with its thirty-centimetre-long tongue.

Why “aardvark”?

South African Dutch, which became Afrikaans, is the language from which English borrowed aardvark, originally written as aardvarken. The aard- part is the Dutch word aarde, which means ‘earth’ and comes from the same Germanic stock as the English word. (The connection between the two is easier to see by looking at the medieval Dutch form of the word, which was ertha.) The -varken part means ‘pig’. And the animal is also called earth-hog and earth-pig in a loan translation.

Another sign of how English and Afrikaans are ultimately related can be seen in the word Apartheid. It meant literally ‘apart-ness’, and the -heid element matches the -hood of childhood, priesthood, and other “-hoods”.

Other Afrikaans words in World English

south_african_flagAfrikaans is an offshoot of Dutch, and is one of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Its gifts to World English include trek as a noun and verb, and commandeer. Commandeer is multiply borrowed, a bit like a parent’s car, in that it was borrowed from Afrikaans kommandeer, which borrowed it from Dutch commanderen, which borrowed it from French commander. It rose to prominence in British English during the First Boer War of 1880-1881. It was first used to mean ‘to force into military service’, as The Times reported on 5 February 1881:

The night previously the Boers had commandeered the natives…and compelled them to fight.

Its more metaphorical meaning of taking arbitrary possession of something came later:

The naïve claims put forward by the Boers to some special Providence—a process which a friendly German critic described as “commandeering the Almighty”.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1900.

Rather more colourful is scoff, the informal noun for food. It is from Afrikaans schoff, representing Dutch schoft ‘quarter of a day’, hence the four meals in a day. The OED’s first quotation comes from the 1846 Swell’s Night Guide; or, a peep through The Great Metropolis, a rather louche guide for the man about town in search of interesting nightlife, including casual sex (plus ça change):

It vas hout-and-hout good scoff, and no flies.

(The spelling is not a mistake. It presumably mimics the speaker’s accent.) And a word which demands a wider airing is stompie, a cigarette butt, or a partially-smoked cigarette, especially one stubbed out and kept for relighting later, as in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s

The whiteman stopped the bulldozer and smoked a cigarette… He threw me the stompie.


'Keep Britain Tidy' Drops 30ft Drop 30ft Cigarette Butt On Trafaler Square

At this moment in time

At this moment in time

This phrase—or cliché, depending on your prejudices—is widely ridiculed and reviled, and comes high on people’s list of pet hates. In a survey as part of marketing my bookie wookie, Damp Squid, people ranked it the fourth most irritating phrase.

(‘Which came top?’ I hear you ask: it was ‘at the end of the day’.)


A bugbear is born

The phrase has been around for over four decades. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from a Collins Crime Club novel of 1972:

What can we actually do to help at this moment in time?

Since then its rise to infamy (if something can rise to infamy) has been steady rather than meteoric, but now it is firmly established.

A ghastly tautology?

One main objection to it is that it says the same thing twice: moments are part of time, so in that sense it is a tautology.

I think it goes without saying that when used instead of a simple ‘now’ it is also long-winded and unnecessary, as in this example from a magazine:

So how and where is Pete at this moment in time?

In official or business contexts it typifies the bombastic wordiness which in his Complete Plain Words Sir Ernest Gowers labelled ‘pompo-verbosity’:

A spokesman for PIAB said: ‘Unfortunately, we are not releasing any statistical information just yet and therefore I regret I cannot give you any meaningful statistics at this moment in time’.

BBC News, Business, 2004


Avoid like the plague?

But is it to be avoided in all situations? Possibly not. For instance, often it does not stand in for a simple ‘now’, but rather for more emphatic phrases such as ‘at the moment, at present’, in which case its wordiness may be more pardonable:

Well at this moment in time you are definitely going about it the wrong way.
BBC News, Business, 2004.

Moreover, it can be a useful emphasizing device, suggesting the flow of time in a way that ‘now’ cannot; suggesting, in fact, that while things are the way they are currently, they may well change:

I’m afraid there’s no prospect of anything just at this moment in time.
Ruth Rendell, 1986

But, I do want a husband and kids. But not right now, I don’t want to be distracted at this moment in time.

Jet Magazine, 2003

In narratives of events

Apart from its emphasizing role, at this moment in time also highlights a particular moment in narratives:

There were five similar [flak] towers..but at this moment in time, they were only of passing interest.
OED example


Of course, even in that example, it could be shortened too to ‘at that moment’ or ‘just then’, as it could in the next:

When the face [of a wave] is very steep, nearly vertical, it is referred to as a wall, since at this moment in time it is a wall of water.

Paddles Magazine, 1996

What are the alternatives?


The fact remains, though, that many people detest the phrase under any circumstances, so it is as well to avoid it in any kind of serious writing. English is so rich in synonyms: it seems a waste not use them to the full, e.g. at the moment, at present, currently, just now, and so forth.

About Jeremy Butterfield

Published author, wordsmith, copywriter, editor and lover of words.

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services in the Southwest of England, including

Bristol, Bath, Avon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.

You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield

It would be great to have some more likes on my Facebook page as well.

Now is the winter of our discontentment?


A glitch in translation?

Watching Borgen, I was struck by its ability to make coalition politics in a foreign country gripping—almost.

Since we have to read the subtitles attentively to follow what’s going on, the English is seen, rather than heard, so any oddity of phrasing has more impact—at least on me. One such oddity was the word discontentment, in episode 3. I cannot remember the exact context, but it was something like ‘there’s a lot of discontentment in the Labour Party’.

At first, I thought this must just be a quirky translation, a mistake for discontent. So then, I started to think about an explanation. (Yes, I know, I really should get out more.)

If a Dane did the translation, they might have assumed, quite logically, that the opposite of contentment is discontentment. But English doesn’t work in such a neat way: the opposite of contentment is discontent.

But if a mother-tongue speaker translated, why choose this particular variant? Stylistically, it is highly ‘marked’: it draws attention to itself as a rather unusual lexical choice.

A bit of back story

If you are asking yourself if discontentment is a ‘real’ word, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that it has been around since the last quarter of the sixteenth century, first appearing in 1579 in a translation from Italian.

In one of the first dictionaries for translating into English, John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English A Worlde of Wordes, discontentment appears more often as the translation of the corresponding Italian words than does discontent.


The OED also quotes its use in one of the major translations of the period, but this time from Latin. Discontentment also figures in a wonderful book title of 1645, The remedy of discontentment, or, A treatise of contentation in whatsoever condition.

Discontent, the normal word choice nowadays, is first recorded from a little later—1591—in a work by Spenser. And the Bard used it in 1597 in that quotation from Richard III

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sonne of Yorke;

And all the cloudes that lowrd vpon our house230px-Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portrait

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

And that’s where the cliché (first coined, possibly, by The Sun) of referring to a period of industrial unrest as “winter of discontent” comes from. Shakespeare had also used the word in Titus Andronicus (1594), and Bacon used it in a work of 1605.

It begins to look as if the two words were in competition for survival at the beginning of their careers.

(Of course, Shakespeare couldn’t have used discontentment, because it would have given his line 11 syllables, rather than 10. But perhaps his use of discontent helped to make it the dominant form in the long run.)

Survival of the shorter

But only one has thrived.

The Oxford English Corpus, containing over 2 billion words of modern text, shows that discontent occurs more than 9,000 times, while its longer sibling appears a mere 198 times.

Discontent also appears in the sort of quotations collected in quotations dictionaries, for example Matthew Arnold’s

And sigh that only one thing has been lent

To youth and age in common—discontent

Matthew Arnold

and memorably in the English title of Freud’s originally German Civilization and its Discontents.

Do they mean different things?

The OED divides discontentment into four meanings, all of which it says match a meaning of discontent, to which they are cross-referred. The OED’s main definitions of the two words are almost identical:

discontentment –  the fact or condition of being discontented.

discontent –  the state or condition of being discontented.

I scanned a few sentences from the Oxford English Corpus containing discontentment, and could infer no obvious semantic reason for choosing it. Some examples, however, suggest that people sometimes use it to balance another noun, either in form—“the root cause of disappointments and discontentment”—or in number of syllables—“disharmony and discontentment”, i.e. four syllables each.

Your point being?

I confess I haven’t answered my own question about why discontentment was used in the translation of Borgen.

One guess runs like this.Let’s assume contentment is the base form stored in the brain, and dis- is stored separately as a negative prefix to be added when required. Let’s also say that discontent is irregular because it is not a straightforward derivative of contentment. If you are writing or speaking in a hurry you might automatically output discontentment, because your brain hasn’t had time to retrieve discontent precisely because it is anomalous.

It has also intrigued me to think about how and why one alternative of a pair of English words is commoner than another. A similar competition between alternative forms is played out nowadays between such pairs as preventive and preventative, dissociate and disassociate, or educationist and educationalist.

About Jeremy Butterfield

Published author, wordsmith, copywriter, editor and lover of words.

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services in the Southwest of England, including

Bristol, Bath, Avon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.

You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield

It would be great to have some more likes on my Facebook page as well.

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Beyond Traffic: Three Stats You Should Check Today

Originally posted on News:

When you hear “stats,” most bloggers think “traffic,” and that makes sense. Many of us care about the number of views our posts receive, and want to see them grow. Blogging is never solely about numbers, though — it’s about making your voice heard, fostering relationships with others, and building a sense of community.

Approaching these goals with a data-informed mindset can get you closer to achieving them. Here are three stats that can help you make smart decisions when it comes to planning your posts and finding and engaging your readers. Whether you blog from a computer, a tablet, or your phone, take a few seconds to explore these on your own blog’s Stats tab.

A quarterly review

When reviewing your stats, it’s tempting to focus on the here and now: how did I do today? How many views did yesterday’s post get overnight? Periodically, though, it’s wise to fight…

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An epicene protest

Originally posted on Arnold Zwicky's Blog:

In a bizarre response to the winning of the Eurovision Song Contest by a bearded drag queen, Conchita Wurst singing “Rise Like a Phoenix” (reported in almost every media outlet), some Russian men have taken to shaving off their beards (if they had them). The position seems to be that Wurst’s beard so poisons beards as a symbol of masculinity that real men have no way to protest except by going beardless. (The idea here seems to some degree to be similar to the position that same-sex marriage diminishes and debases opposite-sex marriage — except that in the Wurst case, the threat comes from a single case: just one, though admittedly very visible, bearded man in a dress.)

The result is paradoxical.

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English Language Day – let the bells ring out

It is English Language Day today.

English Language Day was inaugurated by The English Project in 2009 as a way of celebrating this quirky and wonderful language of ours. As their site says, the Project ‘promotes awareness and understanding of the unfolding global story of the English language in all its varieties’.

Why today?

Because of a nice little historical anecdote. It was on 13 October 1362 that the English Parliament was opened for the first time by a speech in English.

A language layer cake?

Where does English come from? One way to think of English is as a layer cake. The bottom layer, which gives us many of our most basic everyday words, is Old-English, also known as Anglo-Saxon (1). On top of that are luscious thick layers of French, Latin, and Greek words, and then the icing on the cake is made up of words borrowed from dozens and dozens of other languages, from Welsh (corgi) to Chinese (kowtow), and Inuit (anorak) to Hawaiian (wiki-).

The Latin layer.

(Or stratum, to use a Latin word.)
Latin has given us much of our abstract and literary vocabulary. As today is Sunday, and the bells of York Minster have been tolling clangorously in the background as I blog, I want to look at one that could hardly be more literary: tintinnabulation. Not a word you’ll come across every day, admittedly, but an interesting one all the same.

It means, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it: ‘A ringing of a bell or bells, bell-ringing; the sound or music so produced’.

It is a combination of the Latin tintinnābulum ‘tinkling bell’ and the suffix -ation (which is itself from Latin). Tintinnābulum sounds rather like what it means (‘tinkling bell’): in other words, it is onomatopoeic (a Greek word). Its onomatopoeia is not surprising, since it in turn comes from the Latin tintinnāre (to ring, jingle), which is what is called a ‘reduplication’ (2) of tinnīre, the Latin verb also meaning to ring (from which comes the name of the medical condition tinnitus.)

Who first used the word?

According to the OED, the word first appeared in print in Poe’s poem The Bells, which is about as onomatopoeic or echoic as it gets, with its almost manic repetitions of ‘inkle’ and ‘el’ sounds, and of the long ‘i’ sound of icy, night, etc.

The Bells!

Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

The words does not, for obvious reasons, get too many outings. However, it was a key notion for ‘Holy Minimalist’ composer Arvo Pärt at a certain stage of his musical development which gave birth to pieces such as Für Alina and the hypnotically serene Spiegel im Spiegel.york-bells-2

‘Tintinnabulation,’ the composer explains,’is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work…Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played…I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.’

(1)The only words in that paragraph not from Old English are: cake (Scandinavian), basic (ultimately Latin), luscious (probably from delicious, therefore French, as are language and dozen).
(2) Reduplication is a repetition of (a syllable or other linguistic element) exactly or with a slight change. English is full of these reduplications, e.g. hocus-pocus, hurly-burly, pitter-patter, see-saw, willy-nilly).