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).

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Poetry, Word histories

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.


Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Word histories, Writing skills

Hoorah! It’s the vernal equinox

daffodilsToday marks the vernal equinox. The event that ought to herald spring, despite the less than springlike weather Britain has been enjoying recently.

So what is an equinox, and why is this one vernal?

Vernal equinox sounds like double dutch. Actually, it’s double—or even triple—Latin.

An equinox, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is:

One of the two periods in the year when the days and nights are equal in length all over the earth, owing to the sun’s crossing the equator.

The -nox part comes from the Latin for ‘night’. If you go back far enough in the mists of time, night and nox are related. From nox we get several English words, but the only ones you’re likely to encounter are nocturnal, musical nocturnes, and, just possibly, noctambulism, aka sleepwalking.

The equi- part is from the same Latin word æquus ‘equal’ which has given us equidistant, equitable, and equity.

What about the vernal bit?

Think of Botticelli’s world-famous image: La Primavera. spring_bottic

Primavera means literally ‘first spring’. The -vera part comes from the Latin word for spring, ver.

From it also derives vernal, meaning ‘of or relating to the spring.’ But it’s not a word you’ll come across often outside literature.

As thick as bees o’er vernal blossoms fly.


Tagged with: ,
Posted in Word histories

National Grammar Day

Yippee! It’s National Grammar Day

You mean you didn’t know?!? Well, neither did I, till I was alerted on Twitter. Actually, it’s more an American than a British ‘thang’, started in 2008, by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.


What are we celebrating?

Before you decide to run into the street dressed as a noun, abolish capitals forever like e.e. cummings, or construct grandiose, baroque Dickensian periods, it might be worth considering exactly what is meant by ‘grammar’. After all, it’s not a word that passes people’s lips too often. But those who do tend to use it usually think it is going to the dogs.

A technical definition

For linguists, grammar is, broadly speaking, ‘the whole system and structure of a language’. Specifically, grammar usually narrows down to the rules governing how you combine words to make meaningful sentences, and the inflections of words (e.g. is the past tense of dive dived or dove?, is the plural of consortium consortia or consortiums?).

But for lay people (non-linguists) who object to certain uses of language, the term grammar is just a ragbag into which they stuff any use of language which they object to (or should that be ‘to which they object’?).


What grammar is not

I sense that is true for some editors and copy editors, whose livelihood, after all, depends on following and applying certain rules—sometimes regardless of whether those rules have any validity.

The linguistic definition of grammar, in fact, excludes most of the things that raise people’s blood pressure:

word choice

None of them are (is?) grammar.

A non-technical definition

The idea that they come under the umbrella of grammar corresponds to a different dictionary definition: ‘a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language’.

This interpretation of grammar as being about prescription has been developed over centuries as a way of marking social and group identity; of separating in-groups from out-groups.

A quotation from 1892 about aitch-dropping shows how rigorous such demarcations could – and can – be:

A very fine young man, but evidently a nobody, inasmuch as he dropped his aitches and so on.

It is reflected in the name of a slightly fascistic current book title  ‘I judge you when you use poor grammar’.

A healthy diet is good for you

To illustrate the arbitrary nature of such rules, let’s look at just one example of a use which – strangely for a British audience – can give some American copy editors the screaming habdabs. Is it ‘good grammar’ to talk of food, a diet, a lifestyle, being healthy? Many insist that the correct word in those contexts is healthful.

The reasoning behind this seems to be that if you define healthy as ‘in good health’ it must, by definition, apply only to people. A turnip cannot enjoy rude good health, and therefore another word is required to denote ‘conducive to good health’. Enter healthful. choosing-turnips

In fact, though healthful is the older word, healthy has been used to mean ‘conducive to good health’ since the 16th century. The ban on it dates only to 1881, and has been passed down as an editorial meme ever since then.

The prescription totally ignores a productive feature of English: the transferred epithet, which makes it possible, for example, to apply the word sad not only to people who feel miserable, but also to the events which give them the blues in the first place.

The sage of Walden Pond


Back to grammar. As regards the second definition I mentioned, it’s worth quoting Thoreau, writing in 1862, when prescriptive grammar held sway:

When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly … I think –

Any fool can make a rule

And every fool will mind it.

When it comes to the broader definition of grammar as our whole language system, we should certainly be celebrating the wonderful ingenuity of the human brain in developing it in the first place, and the thousands of ways in which it enriches our experience.


About Jeremy Butterfield


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

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services throughout England, especially in the following areas:

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.


Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Word histories, Writing skills

‘Lavatory fittings’. Should we flush -ize/-ise verbs down the toilet?


Many editors and other assorted word buffs have a pathological aversion to some words ending in -ize (or -ise, it doesn’ t matter which, I’ll use -ize below to stand for them both), and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English. NPG D25501; Thomas Nash after Unknown artist

Why? Sometimes it seems almost like a blood feud: just as venomous and visceral, and just as unreasonable.

A history of contempt

Since the 19th century usage gurus have repeatedly condemned them; and it seems that even in Elizabethan times Thomas Nashe’s use of the suffix to coin new words upset some of his contemporaries.

Lavatory fittings

The novelist, MP, and campaigner for plain language Sir Alan Herbert compared verbs ending in -ize to lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place, but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.

(He also quipped:

 If nobody said anything unless he knew what he was talking about a ghastly hush would descend upon the earth.)

Perhaps people’s antipathy to such words is simply a question of their novelty, either real or perceived.

In the 19th century jeopardize was a favourite target (of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, among others).  In the earlier 20th century finalize came in for a lot of flack.

Who now raises an eyebrow about either?

In 1982 the eminent lexicographer Robert Burchfield described prioritize as

a word that at present sits uneasily in the language

While some people still consider it an uninvited guest, it seems to have made itself at home and got its feet well under the table.

And who bats an eyelid (the idioms are galloping away with me today) about authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).

A public convenience

DiaryOne criticism of -ize verbs is that they are ugly, or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.

I would argue that most -ize verbs are a very convenient way of packaging in one word meanings and connotations that would otherwise take several.

They are beautifully (or uglily, for many) economical.

Take a word which, as it happens, is more common in British than in American English, despite probably sounding to many Brits like an Americanism; and, far from being new, was first used—albeit in a different meaning—in 1827: diarize/diarise.

It expresses ‘to put in one’s diary’ in a single word. How convenient is that?

Let’s incentivize our offering

Another current bête noire is incentivize. It is one of the more than 100 -ize verbs the Oxford English Dictionary lists as having been coined after 1950.

Again, it is conveniently economical. Compare its single-wordness with the OED definition.

To motivate or encourage (a person, esp. an employee or customer) by providing a (usually financial) incentive; also with to and infinitive. Also: to make (a product, scheme, etc.) attractive by offering an incentive for purchase or participation.


As long ago as 1996, Burchfield wisely observed:

One must be careful not to give the thumbs down to words simply because one has not encountered them before. … Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in -ization and -ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.

I agree wholeheartedly.

I’d love to hear your comments

About Jeremy Butterfield


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

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services throughout England, especially in the following areas:

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.


Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Word histories, Writing skills

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.


Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Writing skills

To home in or to hone in? Language change in action.

What’s the issue?confused-man-in-suit

Which of these two sentences is correct?

A teaching style which homes in on what is important for each pupil.


A teaching style which hones in on what is important for each pupil.

Where you live in the English-speaking world will affect your opinion.

Which also means that whichever version you use, someone somewhere will think it wrong.

Many people use hone in.

A US copywriter spotted ‘home in’ in a blog of mine, and pointed out what she thought was a typo. She was surprised when I told her it was intentional. In a straw poll in her office – this was in the US, remember – everyone agreed hone was correct.

Wearing my language purist hat, I would classify hone in as a malapropism. But wearing my descriptivist hat, I would have to say it is an example of language change in action.


Home in is a metaphor, from home used as a verb to describe how a missile or aircraft is directed to a target, as in:

The other helicopter located the dinghy by homing in on the bleeping of the emergency distress call.

To hone means ‘to sharpen a knife with a whetstone’, or ‘to improve a skill or talent’.

What data is there?

I looked in the Oxford English Corpus, which consists of about 2.6 billion words of data from US, British and several other varieties of English.

First, home in is about 70% more frequent than hone in. But there is a noticeable contrast between British and US English. In US English, home in occurs 532 times, while hone in occurs 421 times. So, home in constitutes about 56% of the total pie. In other words, usage is evenly divided.

But in Britain the picture is rather different. Of the total pie, 85% are examples with home in.

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

Lost and Confused Signpost

Oxford Dictionaries Online calls hone a mistake, as do Collins and freedictionary.com, but Macmillan lists it with no comment.

The OED doesn’t classify it as a mistake. Instead it notes that it is ‘originally US’, and gives the earliest example from 1965. Fowler’s Modern English Usage doesn’t mention it all.

On the other side of the pond, Merriam-Webster’s Concise Usage Dictionary notes the existence of hone in and suggests that it ‘seems to have become established in American usage’. The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004) gives ‘to direct one’s attention; focus’ as a meaning of hone in, while Merriam-Webster online gives it an entry, but adds a note taken from its Concise Usage Dictionary.


The hone in variant has been around for nearly half a century. It is used in many parts of the Anglosphere. Some dictionaries list it without comment, while others warn against it.

If you use it, you will not be misunderstood. However, if you do use it, bear in mind that some people will consider it a mistake, and therefore conclude that you can’t use English ‘correctly’. And others will come to the same conclusion if you use home in.

To steer clear of the problem, why not use focus on, concentrate on, zero in on, or any other synonym that suits your context?

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.


Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Word histories, Writing skills

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.