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Lexicology The Science of Words

This book developed out of the course in English lexicology that I have
taught at the University of Timioara over the past few years. Its primary target
audience are students of English (as a foreign language).
The book focuses on main matters concerning the vocabulary of English, is
descriptive in nature and is written in a reader-friendly manner, with both the
specific terminology introduced and the approach to the issues discussed not
exceeding an average level of difficulty. The material is organized in seven chapters
which should, ideally, be read in numerical sequence, but may be consulted in any
other order that the readers find suitable.
It opens with a chapter that focuses on what lexicology is, attempts at
defining its object of study - the word - from various perspectives and briefly talks
about the branches of lexicology and its relationship with other areas of linguistics.
The second chapter provides information about the sources of the English
vocabulary. After a brief look at its evolution - since the fifth century, through the
Middle and the Early Modern stages, on to the Modern period - and at its main
features during these intervals, the focus switches to where the current lexical stock
of English comes from. Native words are discussed alongside words borrowed from
Latin, Greek, French, Scandinavian and other European and non-European
languages. The adaptation of the loan words to the recipient language is also
touched upon.
The overview of the sources of the English vocabulary is completed, in
chapter three, with details about word formation processes that lead to the
enrichment of the language, starting from elements available on its own territory.
The means by which new words come into being derivation, compounding and
conversion are enlarged upon, but minor ways of word formation such as clipping,
contraction, back-formation, folk-etymology, deflection, change of accent,
abbreviation, etc are also given their fair share of attention.
Chapter four builds on a semantic approach to words. Basic theories of the
linguistic sign Saussures double-sided view of it, Ogden and Richards Semiotic
Triangle and Bhlers Organon Model lead the way to the discussion of aspects
connected to denotation, sense, connotation and markedness. A lengthy part of this
chapter is dedicated to sense relations between words synonymy, antonymy,
hyponymy, meronymy, homonymy and polysemy. The details about them are
followed by those about semantic change, extra-linguistic and linguistic causes of
this phenomenon and its results extension, narrowing, elevation and degradation
of meaning being the matters under scrutiny. Considerations about the transfer
of meaning based on similarity, whose result is metaphor, and about that based on
contiguity, whose result is metonymy, round off the fourth chapter.
Multi-word lexical units collocations, idioms, multi-word verbs,
binominals and proverbs are talked about in chapter five, special emphasis being
laid on their classification and characteristics.

Words about Words

Lexical strata of English are approached in chapter six, from a diachronic
as well as a synchronic perspective. Archaisms and neologisms are examined to
illustrate the diachronic perspective, while geographical, ethnic, social, written and
oral varieties are enlarged upon from a synchronic one. Thus, the way English
varies according to the part of the world where it is used is discussed in terms of
Kachrus theory of inner, outer and expanding circles. Inner circle varieties of
English are exemplified by describing the most obvious features of American
English, outer circle varieties are illustrated by speaking about Indian English,
while varieties belonging to the expanding circle are tackled with reference to
English used in Romania as the most important foreign language, to the effects its
having this status has had on Romanian itself and to the adaptation of the English
loan words to our language. The approach of lexical strata of English from an
ethnic viewpoint prompted the discussion, in short, of African American
Vernacular English and of Chicano English, while viewing the matter from a social
angle brought forward details about Standard English and slang. Some remarks on
written and spoken English, with an emphasis on how electronic communication
has influenced the once clearly cut distinction between the two, close chapter six.
The last chapter of this book is dedicated to lexicography. After types of
dictionaries are introduced, the history of their making in Britain and America is
focused on, special attention being paid to landmark English monolingual
lexicographic works printed here. In the last part, general bilingual (English
Romanian and Romanian English) dictionaries and dictionaries for specific
lexical elements are brought to the fore. In order to illustrate the evolution of the
former, a comparison is drawn between two editions of (initially) the same general
dictionary, printed half a century apart, while two dictionaries of collocations are
referred to in more detail so as to demonstrate the usefulness of such instruments
not only for learners of English as a foreign language, but also for translators and
various categories of linguists.
The authors hope is that the topics covered in the seven chapters of this
introductory course will arouse its readers interest in lexicology matters, will stir
their curiosity to find out more in the field, and, ultimately, will equip them with
information that may help them use English not only correctly, but also creatively.

Loredana Fril


1.1. Lexicology
As its name shows (the term lexicology comes from the combination
of the Greek words lexis, meaning word and logos, meaning science),
lexicology is, broadly speaking, the science of words. Starting from this very
simple definition, attempts have been made at providing others, enlarging
upon various aspects connected either with its word part or with its
science part. Thus, some of the definitions of lexicology found in general
dictionaries of English include the following:
the study of the form, meaning and behaviour of words (The
New Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005);
a branch of linguistics concerned with the signification and
application of words (Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary,
the branch of linguistics that deals with the lexical component
of language (American Heritage College Dictionary, 2002).
Numerous linguists have also provided definitions of lexicology in
their books. For Bejan and Asandei (1981: 110), lexicology is the part of
linguistics dealing with the vocabulary of a language and the properties of
words as the main units of language. Mc Arthur (1992: 5) defines
lexicology as an area of language study concerned with the nature,
meaning, history and use of words and word elements and often also with
the critical description of lexicography, while Jackson and Amvela (2007)
suggest that it represents the study of lexis, understood as the stock of
words in a given language, i.e. its vocabulary or lexicon (from Greek lexis,
word, lexikos of / for words).
Once we have seen that there is general agreement upon the fact
that words represent the object of study of lexicology, it would be useful to
answer the question of what words themselves are.

1.2. The word

Unlike lexicology, the word has not been given very clear definitions,
the lack of clarity being due to the multitude of angles from which it has
been approached. Things have got more and more complicated since
Bloomfield suggested in 1926 that the word is a minimum free form,
meaning that it is the smallest meaningful linguistic unit that can be used
independently to convey meaning. For example, child is a word that cannot
be divided into smaller units that can convey meaning when they stand
alone; if we contrast it with the word childish, we notice that the latter is

Words about Words

made up of the independent meaningful word child and the particle ish,
which no speaker of English recognizes as capable of conveying some
meaning when used in isolation (though, according to the Oxford English
Dictionary, it means something like having the qualities of).
One of the endeavors to shed some light upon what is understood by
a word belongs to Katamba (2005), who bases his explanations on
recognizing a number of different senses in which the term word may be
used. Before proceeding with the explanations proper, he usefully
introduces the term word-form, the physical form which realizes or
represents a word in speech or writing (Katamba 2005: 11).

1.2.1. Orthographic words

The easiest way to recognize a word is to consider it the strings of
letters (and orthographic signs) occurring between two blank spaces in
written language. Seen from this perspective, the word may be considered
an orthographic word.
However, as simple as this approach may seem, it is not universally
valid. There is a degree of flexibility in the way words are written down.
Being or not being separated by a space may in itself not be a sure sign of
words status. Attention should be drawn upon the fact that, if, for example,
compound words, either solid or hyphenated (e.g. blackboard, schoolboy,
bedroom or mother-in-law, forget-me-not) may be correctly identified as
single units of the vocabulary on the basis of the orthographic criterion,
what are known in linguistics as clitic groups may not. A clitic group is
made up of a host word and the clitic itself. There are two classes of clitics
in English: the class 1 clitic the s genitive, and the class 2 clitics the
reduced auxiliaries ll, re, m, d coming from shall / will, are, am, had /
would and the contracted negation nt for not. All of these clitics are
appended to full words, the host words, but do not function as words
themselves (although the full lexical items whose reduced forms they are do
so). One more reason for which clitics do not qualify for word status is of a
phonological nature in order for a group of sounds to qualify for a word in
English, there must be a vowel among them. The requirement that words
must contain vowels not being met, clitics cannot function as independent

1.2.2. Phonological words

Words as physical objects exist not only in writing, but also in
speech. Seen from this perspective, they are known as phonological words.
The recognition of spoken words seems to be a more difficult task
than their recognition in writing, primarily due to the fact that the readily
identifiable breaks at the boundaries of a written word are no longer
present in speech. When spoken, words are not separated distinctly from

Lexicology The Science of Words

each other, they come in a torrent, they overlap. Yet, even if individual
words do not stand out discretely in the flow of speech, separated by a
pause that could be equated to a space in writing, speakers are able to
identify them. There are hundreds of pages written on speech recognition
but, for the purpose of this book, it will suffice to say that the process of the
identification of a spoken word begins with the phonetic stage, when the
listener hears a number of noises. S he then goes through the phonological
stage, when s/he identifies what sound a particular noise represents and
then, on the basis of his / her linguistic competence (s he is unlikely to be
conscious of), the relevance of the sounds uttered for the actual context in
which they are produced and the syntactic-semantic environment of those
sounds, s he is able to instantaneously retrieve a word with the appropriate
meaning from the tens of thousands of vocabulary items stored in his / her
mental lexicon.

1.2.3. Words as vocabulary items

Lexicology distinguishes between words as word-forms and words
as lexical items or lexemes. The lexeme is an abstract entity with
different variants that is found in dictionaries and that has a particular
meaning. Word-forms are the concrete objects that we write (orthographic
words) or utter (phonological words), whenever we use language. The
relationship between a lexeme and its word-forms is, according to Katamba
(2002: 20) one of realization, representation or manifestation. For
example, the lexeme ring occurs in dictionaries as such and may be
represented when language is actually used by one of the following wordforms: ring, rang, rung, rings, ringing. The lexeme good may manifest
itself in actual speaking or writing as good, better, the best. The lexeme
child may be realized as child or children, etc.
The distinction between word-forms and lexemes is not difficult to
understand. It is a matter we, as language users, are aware of even at a very
early age and it is the distinction on which word-play in puns and in
intentional ambiguity in everyday life depends. In their Ladybird Book of
Jokes and Rhymes, the Youngs (1981) suggest the following joke,
illustrative in a very clear way of the difference between words as lexical
items and words as word-forms:
Waiter, do you serve shrimps?
We serve anyone, sir. We dont mind what size you are!

The humor lies in recognizing that the word-form shrimp can

belong to two different lexemes with unrelated senses: one meaning an
edible, long, slender crustacean and the other meaning, in colloquial
English, tiny person. The word serve may also be given two
interpretations: to dish up food and to wait upon a person at table. If we

Words about Words

combine meanings 1 and 2 of each of these words, we get completely

different meanings of the short conversation. Thus, word-play exploits the
lexical ambiguity arising from the fact that the same word-form represents
two distinct lexemes with very distinct meanings.

1.2.4. Grammatical words

Seen from a grammatical perspective, words play an essential role in
syntax, since sentences contain strings of words. A word as a lexical item
with a particular meaning and certain morphological and syntactic
characteristics is referred to as a grammatical word.
The same word-form of a lexeme may be used as different
grammatical words, a phenomenon known in linguistics as syncretism. If
we consider sentences (1) and (2) below:
(1) She paid the telephone bill yesterday.
(2) She has paid the telephone bill.,
we notice that the verb pay is realized by the same word-form, namely
paid in both sentences, although in sentence (1), paid, as a grammatical
word, indicates that the action took place at a definite moment in the past,
while, in sentence (2), it indicates that the action has been completed
recently. In sentence (1), paid is described grammatically as the past tense
of the verb pay, in sentence (2), it is described as the past participle of the
same verb.
Syncretism does not characterize verbs only. It may be the attribute
of other word classes as well. Sentences (3) and (4) below illustrate the
phenomenon of syncretism in the case of nouns:
(1) I saw a sheep and a deer.
(2) She saw two sheep and two deer.

Although the word-forms sheep and deer belong to the same

lexemes and are unchanged in form in both sentences, in sentence (3), they
realize the words with the grammatical properties [+noun, +singular],
while in sentence (4), they represent the plurals of the same nouns.
According to Katamba (2002), grammatical words are characterized
by positional mobility on the one hand, and by stability or internal
cohesion on the other. By positional mobility, the author means that
words can be shifted around in a sentence, without affecting its global
grammatical meaning, but with giving it a somewhat different emphasis, as
it can be seen from the sentences below that contain the same words, but
have different word orders and slightly different grammatical features:
(5a) The Roman army started the war, unfortunately.


Lexicology The Science of Words

(5b) Unfortunately, the Roman army started the war.
(5c) Unfortunately, the war was started by the Roman army.
(5d) The war, unfortunately, was started by the Roman army.

However, if the position of words in a sentence may be changed to

suit the speakers or the writers communicative intentions, the elements
inside a word itself occur in a rigidly fixed order e.g. in a word such as
impossibility, the order of the component elements im-, possible, -ity
cannot be reversed to ones liking. *Possibleimity, *ityimpossible,
*ityposisbleim are not acceptable words in English. This is what Katamba
(2002) means by stability or internal cohesion of grammatical words.
Thus, a generally acceptable definition of the word, based on the
four approaches mentioned above, may be that suggested by Bejan and
Asandei (1981: 8): The term word denotes the basic unit of a given
language resulting from the association of a particular meaning with a
particular group of sounds [and letters] capable of a particular grammatical

1.3. Branches of lexicology

Lexicology has two main divisions, established according to the
degree of generality in tackling phenomena specific of words. The general
study of words and vocabulary, irrespective of the specific features of any
particular language, is known as general lexicology. Special lexicology
concentrates on the description of the characteristic peculiarities of the
vocabulary and its specific phenomena in a given language. This book is an
introduction to such a study.
Both these major branches of lexicology may be further divided into
at least two other sub-branches. On the one hand, the approach of the
vocabulary of a language from a diachronic point of view forms the domain
of investigation of historical lexicology, which counts at length on
etymology, the study of meaning, origin and development of individual
words. Descriptive lexicology, on the other hand, operates
synchronically, i.e. it deals with the characteristics of vocabulary at a given
stage in its evolution. A third sub-branch of lexicology is lexicography, the
compilation and writing of dictionaries.

1.4. The relationship between lexicology and

other branches of linguistics
As Ttaru (2002) points out, it is clear, from the manner in which
the word has been defined, that lexicology relies heavily on other
mainstream branches of linguistics: phonology, morphology and syntax,


Words about Words

semantics. In addition to these, etymology, lexicography, pragmatics,

dialectology, socio-linguistics and psycholinguistics may also relate to
Phonology accounts for the ways in which words are spelt and
pronounced. Morphology dictates the acceptable combinations of particles
that generate words. Functionally, it accounts for the different morphosyntactic values of words and, consequently, for their status as parts of
speech. The relationships between words, both along the syntagmatic and
along the paradigmatic axis (to be enlarged upon later in the book) can best
be defined in context. Therefore, syntax also plays an important role in a
lexicological study. Semantics deals with the meaning of words, a kind of
study without which the compilation of dictionaries would be impossible.
Etymology studies the history of words, with an emphasis on their origin,
while lexicography, which Jackson (1988) considers applied lexicology,
plays an undeniably important role in the writing and compilation of
dictionaries. Pragmatics goes beyond the surface level of words and teaches
us, for example, how to infer the right meaning of a word in a particular
context. Dialectology studies the peculiarities of words from a given region
or from a given historical period, for example. Socio-linguistics shows, for
instance, how the use of words is determined by the characteristics of the
participants in a linguistic exchange, while psycholinguistics deals with
matters such as how words are stored in our brains and how it is possible
for language users to retrieve the right word at the right time from this
These are only some of the possible ways in which lexicology
interacts with other branches of linguistics. They are by no means
exhaustive, but they suffice to demonstrate that an introduction to
lexicology carries the advantage of offering insights into other areas of
knowledge and investigation of words as well.



2.1. Historical development of the English
The most important intervals in the development of the English
vocabulary are the Old, the Middle, the Early Modern and the Modern
periods. Each of these will be briefly described below, following Jackson
and Amvelas (2007) description.

2.1.1. The Old English period (450-1066)

The first Old English (OE) manuscripts were nothing more than a
few inscriptions, unable to offer much information about the characteristics
of the language, brought by the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and the sixth
centuries. Only after the arrival of the Christian missionaries from Rome
(587), did the literary age modestly begin, with a number of glossaries of
words from Latin and their translation in OE, and a few inscriptions and
poems. The most important literary work that survived from this period is
the heroic poem Beowulf, written around the year 1000. Together with it, a
number of shorter poems, some with Christian topics, others reflecting
Germanic traditions, have been preserved.
Although a greater number of OE texts were written after 900, when
many Latin texts were translated, including Bedes (731) Ecclesiastical
History, the corpus of such texts remains reduced. As Crystal (1995: 10)
points out, the number of words in the corpus of OE compiled at the
University of Toronto, which contains all the texts, is only 3.5 million the
equivalent of about 30 medium-sized novels.
The alphabet used in these writings resembles the one still in use
today quite closely. Major dissimilarities are the absence of capital letters in
OE, the different shapes of a few letters and the inexistence of the letters j,
v, f, q, x and z in the older times. The spelling of OE was rather inconsistent,
with variations within the same text and even on the same page of a
OE is characterized by the frequent use of coinages, known as
kennings, a terms from Old Norse used to describe colourful figurative
descriptions often involving compounds. Sometimes, the meaning of
kennings is transparent, but there are cases when it is rather obscure and
its interpretation is not a straightforward endeavour. Famous kennings
include hronrad, whale-road for the sea, banhus, bone-house for the
body. Often, phrases and compound words are used as kennings. God is,
for example, described as heonfonrinces weard, i.e. guardian of heavens
kingdom or as moncynnes weard, i.e. guardian of mankind.


Words about Words

Besides spelling and the extended number of kennings, OE exhibits

a number of other characteristics that make it differ from the present day
situation in the language.
On the one hand, the Anglo-Saxon preference for synonyms and the
ingenuity of forming compounds exceeds by far that found in Modern
On the other hand, the absence of an extensive number of
loanwords, forced OE to rely on word-formation processes based on native
elements to build the lexical items needed. The consequence of this is the
fact that OE had much larger families of morphologically related words
than Modern English does.
Thirdly, late OE was characterized by the introduction of numerous
calques or loan translations. These are lexical items obtained by word-forword translation of words belonging to another language (eg. superman is a
calque of the German Ubermensch). Examples of calques from Latin in
OE include (as quoted by Jackson and Amvela 2007: 29):


Fourthly, grammatical relationships used to be expressed mainly

with the help of inflections in OE (unlike they are today, mainly by word
order). The explanation Jackson and Amvela (2007) offer for the
disappearance of OE inflections is that it became increasingly difficult to
hear them because of the way words came to be stressed with the evolution
of Germanic languages. By placing the stress at the beginning of words,
their different endings, especially the ones that were phonetically similar,
became more and more inaudible until they disappeared completely (e.g.
en, on, an in faren, faron, faran).
Finally, the OE corpus is believed to have numbered about 24,000
words which were, however, different from the words English speakers use
today. About 85% of the OE lexical items have fallen out of use.
Furthermore, only about 3% of the words in OE were borrowed from other
languages, compared with over 70% in Modern English. While the OE
vocabulary was predominantly Germanic, this is no longer the case in
present day English.

2.1.2. The Middle English period (1066-1500)

As compared to OE, Middle English (MidE) has a much richer
documentation. At the beginning of the period, the number of public and
private documents increased due to the national and local surveys made by


Sources of the English Vocabulary

the newly centralized monarchy. Having been written in Latin and French,
these are of a lesser documentary value for the evolution of English (the
only English data that can be selected refer to personal and place names).
Materials in English started to appear beginning with the thirteenth century
and increased in number in the next one hundred years, under the form of
translations of Latin and French texts and textbooks for teaching these
languages. Beginning with the fourteenth century, ME enriched under the
influence of the literary works written by authors such as John Gower, John
Wycliff, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland. It is this body of literature, in
the modern sense of the word, that bridged the transition from MidE to
Modern English.
Like in OE, spelling in MidE was quite diverse. Variation even
within the same text continued to be a feature of the language for some
time: variants of neuer, never, such as naure, noeure, ner, neure could be
found within the same text. However, the more the period progressed, the
more spelling changed to approximate that of Modern English.
Unlike OE, MidE is characterized by intensive and extensive
borrowing from other languages (in particular, the Norman Conquest, in
1066, paved the way for massive borrowing from French into the English
vocabulary). Loan words that entered English affected the balance of the
vocabulary in such a way that, while in early MidE, 90% of the words were
of Anglo-Saxon origin, at the end of the period, the native stock decreased
to 75%. However, loan words were by no means the only source that led to
the enrichment of the English vocabulary. Word formation processes, such
as affixation and compounding, already established in OE, continued to be
active and were extended in various ways.

2.1.3. The Early Modern English period (15001800)

Early Modern English (EME) represents a period of transition from
MidE to Modern English. However, while the existence of this period is
generally acknowledged, there seems to be disagreement as to when its
beginning should be set. Some consider an earlier date, around 1400 or
1450, others speak about a later date, around 1500, to mark its beginning.
But many consider the printing revolution, initiated in 1476, when Caxton
set up his printing press in Westminster, the safest starting point of Early
Modern English.
The introduction of printing by Caxton lead, on the one hand, to
more and more books being published and spread over wider areas and, on
the other hand, to spelling and punctuation starting to become
standardized. Furthermore, in the sixteenth century, scholars began to
discuss language problems more seriously, making observations on
grammar, vocabulary, the writing system and style.
EME encompasses the Renaissance (which runs from the middle of
the fifteenth century to around 1650), a period of revived interest in the


Words about Words

classical languages, rapid development of sciences and the arts and

exploratory voyages to Asia, Africa and the Americas. All these factors had a
major impact on the vocabulary of English, especially under the form of
new loan words having been introduced from languages the Brits entered in
contact with. Writers began to borrow from other European languages to
refer to the new concepts, techniques and inventions originating in Europe.
As explorations developed worldwide, words came into English from
languages spoken on the other continents as well, some directly, some
indirectly, via other European languages. Moreover, thousands of Latin and
Greek words were introduced as a result of the English translators inability
to find precise equivalents for these terms, especially in fields such as
medicine and theology. The massive influx of foreign words was, in fact,
considered the most prominent feature of English in the Renaissance,
despite the opposition it was faced with on the part of purists supportive of
the native stock of English.
The last decades of the Renaissance witnesses the two most
important influences on the development of the English language in the
EME period: the works of William Shakespeare and King James Bible of
1611. The former offers valuable information on areas such as
pronunciation, word formation, syntax and language use and plays an
important role in the development of the English lexicon, by having
introduced and promoted thousands of new words in the language. The
latter, however, had an opposite impact. It contributed to the preservation
of the native stock by opting for a more conservative style than
Shakespeares and for older forms of the language, even when modern
alternatives were available. Many phrases in King James Bible entered both
literary and everyday English and have been preserved and extensively used
ever since (at places, with minor changes): can the leopard change his
spots, an eye for an eye, fight the good fight, if the blind lead the blind, a
wolf in sheeps clothing, money is the root of all evil, the skin of ones teeth,
new wine in old bottles, a thorn in the flesh, etc.
Between 1530 and 1660, the lexicon of English grew very fast.
Borrowings continued to enter the language at an accelerated pace, new
words were formed by various internal means and many of the existing
ones underwent semantic changes. With such a rapid and extensive
development, the need was felt to stabilize the language. Unlike in France
and Italy, where linguistic norms were imposed by the Academy, neither
Britain nor the United States resorted to such a body to preserve the
stability and consistency of the English language. Instead, grammars,
spelling and pronunciation guides and dictionaries were produced by
various scholars.
In 1604, Robert Cawdrey published the first dictionary of hard
words, which comprised about 3000 entries of difficult words in English,
mostly borrowings. His work was followed by Nathaniel Baileys A
Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721). This represented an


Sources of the English Vocabulary

improvement as compared to its predecessor work, with more numerous

and extensive entries. However, the definitions were still not relevantly
enough illustrated and the author offered little guidance on usage.
The first really remarkable dictionary of English is Samuel
Johnsons Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. As
Crystal (1995) points out, although this was a smaller book than Baileys, it
is considered more wide-ranging. The preface to the alphabetical entries
contains an outlining of the authors aims and procedures, a short history of
the language and a grammar, with sections on orthography and prosody.
Johnson changed the earlier prescriptive approach into a descriptive one,
since, as he himself pointed out in the preface to his dictionary, his aim was
not to form, but to register the language, a principle which marked the
beginning of a new era in lexicography. The 1755 Dictionary of the English
Language, the first attempt at a truly principled lexicography (Crystal
1995: 75), remained an authoritative work for almost a century, until it
began to be criticized.

2.1.4. The Modern English period (from 1800

The Modern English (ME) period is characterized by three main
features: an unprecedented growth of the scientific vocabulary, the
establishment of American English as a dominant geographic variety and
the emergence of other varieties known collectively as the New Englishes.
On the one hand, English scientific and technical vocabulary has
been developing steadily since the Renaissance, but, in the nineteenth
century, the rhythm of growth accelerated, as an outcome of the industrial
revolution and the period of scientific exploration and discovery following
it. With a higher and higher level of education, people became more and
more interested in science and technology and, consequently, more
knowledgeable of their specific terminology. By the end of the nineteenth
century, one could speak of the English of science as a well-defined
variety of the language, whose characteristics were highlighted quite often
in grammar books and in the style sheets of scientific journals.
On the other hand, the strength American English gained may be
explained, at least partly, by the fact that the United States became the
leading economic power of the twentieth century. The assertion of
American English is made even stronger by the fact that the Americans are
the most numerous speakers of English as a mother tongue. In fact, as
Jackson and Amvela (2007) point out, the USA has nearly four times as
many speakers of English as a first language than the UK and, according to
Crystal (1995), these two countries comprise about 70% of all the native
English speakers in the world.
The impact of American English on British English as well as on
other (European) languages is felt especially in the lexical area, under the


Words about Words

form of borrowings from the former into the latter. It is true though, that
British English and these other languages have also input words to
American English. This two-way transfer of words is due to the
improvement of the communication systems and the development of the
mass media beginning with the twentieth century, to the USAs enhanced
involvement into the world affairs and to the opening of various countries
to the American culture.
Thirdly, a number of new Englishes have developed during the
modern period in the colonial area, as a result of the adaptation of British
English to the regional linguistic and cultural needs of the speakers in
countries such as India, the Philippines, Singapore, Cameroon, Ghana or
Nigeria. The part of the language in which the peculiarities of these new
varieties of English are best identifiable is vocabulary.
In addition to the geographical varieties of English, those based on
subject matter have also known an accelerated development in the ME
period. Of these, some, such as the language of computers or that of
telecommunication and business are relatively new, other such as the legal
and religious varieties originate in earlier periods.

2.2. Sources of the English vocabulary

English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European
family, which includes the following: Hellenic, the mother of ancient Greek,
Germanic languages (e.g. German, English, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans,
Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic), Romance languages (e.g. French,
Italian, Spanish, Romanian - all descendants of Latin), Celtic languages
(e.g. Breton, Welsh, Welsh, Irish), Slavic languages (e.g. Russian, Serbian,
Ukrainian, Czech) and Indo-Iranian languages (e.g. Sanskrit, Hindi,
Punjabi, Kurdish, Persian).
Languages of the same family inherit from the parent language
phonological, morphological and syntactic features as well as core lexical
items (the more closely related two languages are the greater their
Being a Germanic language, English has preserved its Germanic
inheritance, which, together with the Old English and Anglo-Saxon
elements, lie at the core of its present day vocabulary.

2.2.1. Native words in English

The native words are estimated to represent only 25-35% of the
English vocabulary, but they form the bulk of the most frequently used
lexical items. They include most of the form words such as auxiliary and
modal verbs, some of the pronouns, numerals, prepositions and


Sources of the English Vocabulary

conjunctions and the majority of content words - nouns, adjectives, verbs

and adverbs. Native words denote, according to Crystal (1995: 124) parts of
the body (arm, bone, chest, ear, eye, foot, hand, heart), the natural
landscape (field, hedge, hill, land, meadow, wood), objects connected to
domestic life (door, floor, house), members of the family (mother, father)
divisions of the calendar (day, month, moon, sun, year), animals (cow,
dog, fish, goat, hen, sheep, swine), natural phenomena (rain), common
properties (black, dark, good, long, white, wide) and actions (do, eat, fly,
go, help, kiss, live, life, love, say, see, sell, send, think).
The words that arrived with the Germanic invaders and are still
used in modern English are usually short. According to Crystal (1995: 18),
the most frequent two hundred words, both in British (BrE) and in
American English (AmE), are monosyllabic. There are a few two-syllable
words (40 in AmE and 24 in BrE) and a handful of trisyllabic forms (3 in
AmE and 2 in BrE) which have a concrete meaning and a great wordforming power. There is only one four-syllable item in AmE, the word
American itself, while, in BrE, there is none.
Native words are also concrete and have a great word-forming
power. They tend to be preferred in everyday speech due to their being
vague enough to convey many shades of meaning, as opposed to borrowed
words, which are more precise and concrete and less easy to handle.
Furthermore, as Jackson and Amvela (2007: 54) point out, native English
words are considered more human and emotional, whereas many
polysyllabic loans from Greek, Latin or the Romance languages are
considered cold and formal. For example, in an informal everyday situation,
when faced with the choice between initiate, commence and start, or
between nourishment, nutrition and food, most people would opt for the
short, Anglo-Saxon word. In formal situations, however, it may seem more
appropriate to allude to a nauseating odour or even an obnoxious
effluvium rather than a nasty smell.

2.3. Borrowed words in English

Apart from the native stock, English is a mosaic of words borrowed
from a number of other languages, in various moments along its
development (reference will be made to the periods in its evolution
mentioned above, to highlight the most generous sources from which
English has taken some elements of its vocabulary). Lexical items from
other languages have been borrowed into English for various reasons, some
of which are analyzed by Katamba (2005). His ideas in this respect will be
summarized in the following section.


Words about Words

2.3.1. Reasons for borrowing

One of the reasons for borrowing vocabulary items from one
language into another is identity. Language is not only a means of
communication but also a symbol of its users identity. By using a particular
language, a speaker suggests ways in which s/he perceives herself / himself
and would like to be perceived by the others. Thus, if in a Spanish doctors
surgery in Great Britain or the United States, a patient of the same
nationality initiates a discussion in Spanish, s/he might want to signal
solidarity, to emphasize their belonging to the same ethnic group.
Alternatively, the two may resort to code-switching, i.e. to interspersing
English with Spanish words. In mentioning the role played by codeswitching in the process of borrowing, Katambas (2005: 139) opinion is
that if foreign words are used habitually in it, they may pass from one
language into another and eventually become fully integrated and cease
being regarded as foreign. That is probably how words like chutzpah
(brazen impudence), schlemiel (a very clumsy, bungling idiot who is
always a victim), schmaltz (banal sentimentality) and goyim (gentile)
passed from Yiddish into (American) English. The fact that there is no
elegant English equivalent to these Yiddish words was no doubt also a
factor in their adoption.
Closely connected to identity is prestige. The desire of some to
signal that they are related to a fashionable foreign culture, they are
modern, the crme de la crme, manifests itself in these peoples using
words belonging to the language of that culture. French, for example, has
been a source of such loan words for English as well as for other European
languages. Katamba (2005: 139) quotes the words of Shakespeares
Mercutio, who, in his parody of the pardonnez-moi brigade, emphasizes
this point succinctly:
Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should be thus
afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardonnezmoi, who stand so much on the new form that they cannot sit at ease on the
old bench? O, their bons, their bons!
(Romeo and Juliet, II, iv).

Another reason for borrowing is to fill a gap created by the

unavailability in English of a word to refer to a particular concept, creature,
artefact, institution, religion initially belonging to a foreign culture. At
various periods in history, different civilizations have been in leading
positions in a particular domain and, as a normal consequence of this, their
language in that domain has become the lingua franca of the field.


Sources of the English Vocabulary

Thus, in the late medieval and early modern periods, when many
voices raised against the inadequacy of English for poetry, an infusion of
Latin and Greek words was found to be the solution for the improvement of
a prosaic language that lacked the sophisticated metrical resources and
poetic devices that the classical languages boasted of. One of those who
shared this concern was Sir Thomas Elyot, who, in his The Governor, a
book meant for training the gentlemen who were going to be employed at
court, enthusiastically introduced Latin and Greek words in order to
improve English. Some such words are: devulgate, describe, attempate,
education, dedicate, esteme. Others followed in his footsteps so that words
from the classical languages flooded in: commemorate, invidious,
frequency, expectation, thermometer, affable (Baugh and Cable 2002: 214215, quoted by Katamba 2005: 140).
Not all borrowings were from Latin or Greek in the Middle Ages.
Arabic was, for example, another rich source of words that passed into
English during this period, especially in the field of science and the Islamic
religion. Examples for the former category include alchemy, alcohol,
alembic, algebra, alkali, zenith, zero, while the latter category may be
illustrated with words such as Koran, imam, caliph, muezzin, mullah,
Ramadan, etc. Many of these have made their way into English via French,
which borrowed them itself from Spanish, a very important carrier of the
Arabic science and culture to Europe, since Spain was occupied by the
For centuries, French was the language of politics, protocol,
diplomacy, the government and the military. Hence, a large amount of
words in these semantic fields that are used in English originate in French.
Katamba (2002: 141) provides the following examples to support this
Military: cordon sanitaire, barrage, hors de combat, materiel, reveille;
Diplomacy and protocol: corps diplomatique, charge daffaire,
Government and politics: ancien regime, dirigiste, coup detat, laissezfaire, agent provocateur, etc.

Names of people, animals, birds and plants have entered English

from all kinds of languages spoken around the world: Sherpa, Gurka
(Nepal), chimpanzee (Angola), koala (Australia), zebra (Congo). The arts
and culture domain is represented in terms of borrowings by words such as
samba (Brazil), rhumba (Cuba), tango (Argentina), didgeridoo (Australia).
Numerous words referring to food have been imported in English: goulash
(Hungarian), enchiladas, tacos, nachos (Mexican Spanish), moussaka
(Greek), etc. The interference of English culture with other cultures of the
world has resulted into the formers having borrowed foreign words
referring to articles of dress as well. Included in this category are: sarong


Words about Words

(Malay), parka (Aleutian), anorak (Greenlandic Eskimo), kimono

(Japanese), shawl (Persian), etc. In principle, new words may be coined in
English to describe all of the above, but importing the object together with
its name has proved a simpler and more appropriate solution.
The same way out was resorted to in situations when English had a
word or phrase to refer to a particular person, object, phenomenon or
abstraction, but this was considered insufficiently appropriate to render all
the features of its referent. This is how French words such as chic, flair,
esprit de corps, nave, blas or mnage a trois have been borrowed into
English. Any speaker of English would agree that the loan translations a
feeling of loyalty that exists between the members of a group for esprit de
corps or a household with three partners for mnage a trois lack the
flavoured connotation of the French phrases and do not quite roll off the
tongue (Katamba 2002: 142).
Last but not least, some of the English euphemisms are borrowed
lexical items. In their case, it seems that less embarrassment is caused when
awkward things are said using words from a foreign language. Decency lies
behind the use of the euphemistic words pudenda and genitalia, of Latin
origin, and it is also the rationale behind the importation of several words
used to talk discreetly about shady sexual activities and the participants in
them. Maison de randezvous and madame from French and gigolo and
bordello from Italian are illustrative of the latter.

2.3.2. Adaptation (nativisation) of loanwords

The foreign words that are borrowed into English may undergo
changes under the influence of the recipient language or they may survive
in their original form. In the former case, depending on the degree to which
they change, we speak about completely and, respectively, partially
assimilated loan words. In the latter case, we speak about unassimilated
Completely assimilated loans have become fully integrated in the
system of English from an orthographic, phonetic and morphological point
of view, so that someone who is not particularly knowledgeable in the field
of etymology can no longer distinguish them from indigenous English
words. Many of the French loanwords are included in this category: animal,
aunt, chair, change, colour, cost, dinner, escape, flower, poor, table, etc.
On the other hand, completely unassimilated loans have preserved
all the characteristics they had in the language of origin. English has not
exerted any influence either on their spelling or on their pronunciation and
morphological peculiarities. If the recognition of the examples just quoted
as originally French words is problematic, no speaker of English would find
it difficult to identify words and phrases such as auberge, gendarme,
mistral, maitre dhotel, mauvais sujet, facon de parler as being French
imports into English.


Sources of the English Vocabulary

In between the completely assimilated and the fully unassimilated

loans, there are those which are not totally foreign but not totally Anglicised
either. Even after a long period of use in English, some words fail to
become fully adopted. Instead, they remain on the fringes, as tolerated
aliens with one foot in and one foot out of the English lexicon(Katamba
2002: 145). Loanwords that have preserved their original grammatical
characteristics or spelling but have adapted to the English pronunciation
Lat. radius-radii, bacterium bacteria, Fr. reveille (pronounced /rivli/
in English) - are such aliens.

2.3.3. Direct and indirect borrowing

If a language takes a word directly from another, as English has
taken omelette from French, we talk about direct borrowing. If, on the
other hand, a word is passed from one language to another and then to
another and to another, as it is the case of the English coffee, taken from the
Dutch koffie, arrived here from the Arabic kahva, itself an adaptation of the
Turkish kahveh, the process is called indirect borrowing (we may
consider the English coffee an indirect loan word of the Turkish kahveh).
If words are borrowed indirectly, a distinction must be made
between the source and the origin of the borrowing. The source is the
language from which a particular word or phrase has entered another
language, while the origin is the language to which the etymon of the loan
lexical item can be traced back. Thus, in the above example, the source of
the English coffee is the Dutch word koffie, while its origin is the Turkish
word kahveh.
In the case of direct borrowing, since there is no intermediary
means between the donor and the recipient language, the source and the
origin of the loan words coincide.

2.3.4. Latin words in English

To varying degrees, Latin has exerted a major influence on English
from the OE period up to the modern times.
The first borrowings from Latin date from the very beginning of the
Anglo-Saxon period and are the result of the contacts the Anglo-Saxons had
with the Roman population and, especially, with the Roman armies, on the
continent. Some of the Latin words that the former brought back to their
island were concerned with the military domain, commerce and agriculture.
Others were related to plants, animals, clothing, the domestic life, legal
institutions and religion (the last penetrated English beginning with 597,
the year that marks the introduction of Christianity in England). Examples
include: cheese, pepper, wine, butter, dish, beet, pear, lily, lion, ass, candle,
shrine, monk, nun, abbot, bishop, belt, shirt, shoemaker, city, wall, tile,


Words about Words

The process of borrowing Latin words in the OE period has modest

beginnings and it cannot boast a tremendous enlargement up to the end of
this interval either. It is generally estimated that a total of around five
hundred words passed from Latin into English during the entire period. As
Jackson and Amvela (2007) explain, this is a relatively small number if
compared with that of the Latin lexical items borrowed at later times.
Furthermore, many of the words borrowed from Latin in the OE period
were not widely employed and some of them fell out of use quite soon.
Some, however, were borrowed again later, sometimes with a slightly
different meaning. Modern English sign and giant seem not to be survivors
from the OE Latin loans sign and gigant, but rather recent borrowings from
French, where their original form is signe and geant.
Borrowings from Latin in the OE period are frequently split into two
categories in terms of register: popular and learned (Pyles, Algeo 1993:
288). The former, such as wine, plant, cat, street, were transmitted orally
and are part of the everyday vocabulary used in non-specialized
communication. The latter, such as clerk, demon, martyr, came into
English either through the church or through various classical written
sources which increased in number especially after 1000, owing to
renewed interest in learning encouraged by King Alfred and the tenth
century Benedictine monastic revival (Jackson, Amvela 2007: 40).
In the Middle English period, it was French that was the most
productive source of loan words into English. Though outnumbered by
French loans, Latin ones kept entering English. The latter belonged to fields
such as religion: mediator, redeemer, collect (short prayer); law: client,
conviction, subpoena; the sciences: dissolve, equal, essence, medicine,
mercury, quadrant; scholastic activities: library, simile, scribe. Seen from
a morphological perspective, the great majority of the words borrowed from
Latin in the Middle English period were nouns: meditation, prolixity;
adjectives: complete, imaginary, instant, populous; and verbs: admit,
commit, discuss, seclude.
A distinctive feature of Modern English is rooted in the process of
simultaneous borrowing from French and from Latin characteristic of the
time span under discussion: sets of three lexical items, all expressing the
same fundamental notion, but slightly differing in meaning or connotation.
Kingly royal regal; rise mount ascend; fast firm secure; holy
sacred consecrated are examples of such triplets. In these synonymic
series, the first element is a native word and it belongs to the common
language, the second is borrowed from French and it pertains to the literary
language, and the third comes from Latin and is considered more learned.
Borrowing from Latin continued into the Modern English period
(when words were borrowed from Greek via Latin, too). The avalanche of
Latin words that entered English between 1500 and 1800 includes:
abdomen, area, digress, editor, fictitious, folio, graduate, imitate, lapse,


Sources of the English Vocabulary

medium, notorious, orbit, peninsula, quota, resuscitate, sinecure, urban,

vindicate (Jackson, Amvela 2007: 41).
The later Modern period was the time when English fashioned the
loans from Latin in an original way, under the form of neo-classical or neoLatin words which are, at present, used not only in the international
vocabulary of science and technology, but also in other areas of modern life.
Examples of such coinages offered by Jackson and Amvela (2007: 41) are:
aleatoric meaning dependent on chance (from the Latin aleator meaning
gambler), circadian, meaning functioning or recurring in 24-hour
cycles (from circa diem, around the day), pax americana meaning
peace enforced by American power (modeled on pax romana),
vexillology, study of flags (from the Latin vexilum meaning flag).

2.3.5. Scandinavian words in English

The second major influence of a foreign language on the vocabulary
of English was the result of the Vikings (mainly Danes, but also
Norwegians) raids on Britain, which began in 787 and continued
intermittently for about two hundred years. By the mid ninth century, the
Danes came to control most of the north and eastern part of England which
was named, after the invaders, the Danelaw. Further invasions in the tenth
century culminated in 991, with the English king having been forced to take
the way of exile and the throne having been taken by the Danes. England
remained under Danish rule for 25 years after this event.
The prolonged contact between the native population and the
Danish settlers had, as Jackson and Amvela (2007) explain, a threefold
linguistic consequence. First, a large number of Scandinavian place names
entered English. Second, many proper names of Danish origin were
borrowed and third, a lot of Danish common words became part of the
everyday English vocabulary.
Examples of place names of Scandinavian origin include words
ending in by, the Scandinavian word for farm or town: Derby, Grimsby,
Rugby, Naseby. Other such words end in thorpe, meaning village
(Baugh, Cable 2002: 98): Althorpe, Astonthorpe, Linthorpe, while still
others have thwaite, clearing or toft, homestead in their
composition: Braithwaite, Applethwaite, Storthwaite, Lowestoft, Eastoft,
Sandtoft, etc.
A strong Scandinavian influence on proper names is felt especially
in the north and east, in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where over 60 percent
of these seem to be the result of the native and foreign cultures having been
in contact for so long. The majority of proper names of Scandinavian origin
end in son: Davidson, Jackson, Henderson.
When the Vikings settled in England, they did so largely as equals of
the natives, a fact which resulted in adstratum influence (Allegrini 2003:
4) i.e. neither of the two languages was politically or culturally dominant.


Words about Words

They were supposedly mutually intelligible and bilingualism was most likely
fairly spread among the Scandinavians (Kastovsky 1992: 329). This,
together with the fact that the English and the Scandinavians had pretty
similar cultures, enabled a close unity between them. Moreover,
Scandinavian was mostly a spoken language in the conquered territories,
usually banned from writing on the grounds of the existence of equivalent
English forms used on paper, which were considered more formal and more
literary and, therefore, more appropriate for this variant of the language.
Consequently, many of the Scandinavian loan words were informal
everyday lexical items, belonging to the core of the vocabulary, which is,
according to Barber (2000: 133), one of the most obvious of their
Most of the words of Scandinavian origin were made to conform to
the English sound and inflectional systems. For example, as Pyles and Algeo
(1993) emphasize, very common verbs such as get and give came to be used
in Modern English not as variants of the OE gitan and giftan, but as
survivors of their Scandinavian cognates. The personal pronouns they,
them, their replaced earlier native forms. In addition, the replacement of
sidon by are is almost certainly the result of Scandinavian influence, as is
the spread of the third personal singular s ending in the present tense in
other verbs (Crystal 1995: 25).
Numerous words beginning with the consonantal cluster sc- / skare of Scandinavian origin: scathe, scorch, score, scowl, scrape, scare,
scrub, skill, skin, skirt, sky. Sometimes, the process of borrowing from
Scandinavian languages involved the mere substitution of the native word
or phrase with the foreign one (as in the case of window which replaced
vindauga). Other times, however, loan words were introduced to fill in a
lexical gap in the recipient language this was, for example, the case of
Scandinavian legal terms or words denoting Viking warship. A large
number of duplicates (pairs of words having the same referent, of which
one was native and the other was borrowed) also arose from the contact of
English with the Scandinavian languages. In some cases, the loan word was
preserved, while the native one was discarded: egg vs. OE ey, sister vs. OE
sweoster, silver vs. OE sealfor. In others, the OE word survived, while the
Scandinavian was lost: path vs. ON reike, sorrow vs. ON site, swell vs. ON
bolnen. There were situations, however, when both words made their way
in the language up to the modern times, but developed a difference in
meaning. Below are a few examples of such pairs (Jackson, Amvela 2007:





Sources of the English Vocabulary



Sometimes, in cases of duplicates that survived, one member of the

pair is used in the standard language, while the other is restricted to
dialectal use. In the following examples, the former word, of OE origin, is
considered standard and the latter, a loan from ON, is dialectal: cast
werpan, yard garth, church kirk, leap laup, no nay, true trigg.
After the 11th century, Scandinavian languages ceased to be a rich
source of borrowings for English. However, modest influences continued to
be felt along the centuries up to the period of Modern and present day
English, when words such as muggy, rug, scud, ski, geyser, rune, saga,
ombudsman have been imported.

2.3.6. Greek words in English

Though less influential than Latin, which was the language of
literature, science and religion as well as the medium of instruction for
about fifteen centuries (even longer in some parts of the world), Greek
played its role in the evolution of the English vocabulary.
Initially, words of Greek origin were imported into English
indirectly, mostly via Latin, before the Norman conquest, in 1066 and via
French and Latin from the Middle English period onwards. It was only at
the beginning of the Early Modern English period, after 1500, that English
started borrowing directly from Greek. This must have been the
consequence of the boost that Greek studies received with the coming of the
Greek scholars to Europe after Constantinopole was conquered by the
Turks, in 1453.
Greek provided English with a considerable number of technical
terms from almost all branches of human knowledge. Greek words that
were borrowed via Latin include: allegory, anaesthesia, chaos, dilemma,
drama, enthusiasm, history, metaphor, paradox, phenomenon, rhythm,
theory, zone. Center, character, chronicle, democracy, ecstasy, harmony,
machine, tyrant came from Greek via French, while acronym, autocracy,
idiosyncrasy, pathos, telegram, xylophone were taken directly from Greek.
As representatives of technical vocabulary mainly, the majority of
the words of Greek origin in English are considered learned and are
restricted to the specialized varieties of the language. A smaller part of them
managed to pass into the stock of everyday vocabulary.

2.3.7. French words in English

The most far-reaching contact that English has had through the ages
has been with French. Undoubtedly, it was the period following the Norman
Conquest in 1066 that witnessed the greatest impact that French had ever
exerted over English. However, borrowing from French took place in an


Words about Words

anterior epoch and has been an active phenomenon in the modern times as
Before 1066, the English and the French cultures got into contact
with the exile of Edward the Confessor to Normandy. Edward lived there
for twenty-five years and returned to England in 1041. Many of the French
nobles who accompanied him on his return were given high positions in
court when he acceded to the throne. Furthermore, the monastic revival
started in France and many of the English monks must have studied there.
The consequence of these upon the English language was that a number of
French words were imported into OE (though not very many). Among
them, there were: servian (to serve), bacun (bacon), arblast
(weapon), prison (prison), castel (castle), cancelere (chancellor).
Following William, Duke of Normandys accession to the English
throne, in 1066, French became the language of the government, the courts,
the church and the upper social classes. However, the lower classes of the
English society, which represented about 80% of the population, never
learned French. They continued to speak English which thus remained a
vibrant, though low-status language. In between the two ends of the social
scale, there used to be the middle echelons of the lower level officials of
both church and state [who] needed to speak to the people in order to try to
save their souls, to exact taxes from them, to administer justice to them, to
make them work in the fields of the monastery or in the lord of the manors
household and so on (Katamba 2005: 152). This relatively small group of
people were bilingual.
With the advance of the period, the situation changed. Many of the
nobles had properties both in Normandy and in England and had split
loyalties so that, in many cases, they were closer to France and the French
culture than to England and its culture. The Norman kings remained dukes
of Normandy and some of them were present in France for longer than they
were in England. Through marriage and conquest, their French possessions
expanded so much that Henry II (1154 1189), for example, was not only
king of England, but had become the ruler of almost two thirds of France.
However, gradually, through intermarriage and closer and closer contact,
the Normans were integrated into the English society.
For the upper classes, this resulted into their having learnt some
English, which however, they were able to use only within limits in the
beginning, and mostly in code-switching contexts.
Most of the borrowing took place after the middle of the thirteenth
century, after French had been knocked off its perch as the most
prestigious language in everyday use in high places and had increasingly
become a written language (Katamba 2005: 153). About 10,000 French
words made their way into English in The Middle Ages, most of them in the
area of government: president, government, minister, territory, counselor,
council, people, power; nobility: sovereign, royal, monarch, duke, prince,
count, princess, principality, baron, baroness, noble; law: assizes, judge,


Sources of the English Vocabulary

jurisdiction, advocate, jury, court, law, prison, crime, accuse; war: peace,
battle, admiral, captain, lieutenant.
In the period 1200 1500, further steps towards reviving the
fortunes of English were recorded. Not least among them was King Johns
loss of Normandy in 1204. Yet, it was the Hundred Year War between
England and France, which began in 1337, that put an end to the linguistic
hegemony of French. The ruling classes were forced to take on the task of
learning and using English properly, as a consequence of giving up their
French interests and becoming truly English having been imposed on them.
The adoption of French words that followed the Norman Conquest
continued unabated in contemporary English. The reasons behind this
phenomenon are talked about by Chirol (1973), quoted by Katamba (2005).
She suggests that using French projects upon the speaker or upon the
matter or object talked about a positive image of France (Katamba 2005:
155). In broad lines, this image is that of the French way of life, of high
culture, sophistication in dress, food and social relations (Katamba 2005:
The French contribution to civilization as a whole is widely known
and acknowledged. France is perceived as the land of the arts of
literature, music architecture, ballet, painting and sculpture. Therefore, it is
natural that many of the technical terms used in the vocabulary of arts
should be French. Examples of such terms in English include, in literature:
ballade, brochure, genre, denouement, rsum, dada, faux amis, pastiche;
in painting: critique, avant garde, art nouveau, collage, baroque,
renaissance, salon; in music: rverie, ensemble, bton, musique, concrete,
conservatoire, suite, pot-pourri; in ballet: ballet, pirouette, gavotte, pas de
deux, pli, tutu, jet, etc.
Society, refinement and fashionable living are also believed to be
domains in which the French occupied a leading position. Hence, the
borrowing of words and phrases such as the following, which enabled
English speakers to take on the elegance of French: finesse, bizarre, tte-tte, rendez-vous, lite, protg(e), savoire-vivre, personnel, fianc(e),
dbutante, prestige, nouveau riche, lan, blas, chauffeur, facile, cest la
vie, touch, etc.
Victorian values encourage the hypocritical No-sex-please-wereBritish mentality. Figures in public life in Britain are hounded out of office
and governments may collapse because of sexual peccadilloes. Probably this
is why there is a secret admiration for the French who do not have such
hang-ups about sex. The British admire the sexual prowess of the French
or, more precisely, the French attitude to sex, Katamba says (2005: 157).
This must be the reason for the borrowing of quite numerous words of
French origin connected to love and sexual life. Among these, there are:
amour, beau, belle, chaperon, liaison, affaire de Coeur, madame, etc.
The French have always been renowned for their cuisine, so, many
French words having to do with food and cooking have also been borrowed


Words about Words

along the ages. Some were anglicized, others preserved their original form.
On the menu, the latter always add to the quality of the gastronomic
experience and are deemed to be worth an extra pound or two on the bill
(Katamba 2005: 157). The cuisine French words and phrases that have
been imported into English count among them examples such as: mustard,
vinegar, beef, sauce, salad, cuisine, haricot, pastry, omelette, meringue,
haricot, cognac, crme caramel, ptisserie, liqueur, clair, flan, nougat,
glac, saut, flamb, garni, brasserie, la carte, entre, rtisserie, horsdoeuvre, etc.
French fashion has also been held in high esteem for centuries.
Therefore, the list of loans from French includes words in the area of
clothes, hair, cosmetics, etc, such as: coiffure, blonde, brunette, lingerie,
bouquet, bret, chic, boutique, haute couture, aprs-ski, culottes, brassire.
Some fashionable means of transportation get their names from
French as well: coup, cabriolet.

2.3.8. Words from other European languages in

Besides French, English has borrowed from a number of other
modern European languages.
Starting with its Early Modern period, it has taken over words
from Dutch and German, in the context of the commercial relationships
that have been established between the Flemish / Dutch and the Englishspeaking peoples. As a consequence of the Dutchs skillfulness in seafaring
activities, English enriched with terms connected to sea life and navigation
such as: bowline, bowsprit, buoy, commodore, cruise, deck, skipper,
smuggle, yacht. The Dutch and the Flemish have also been famous for their
cloth making and the commercial activities connected to it so that English
borrowed terms in this area as well: cambric, duck, jacket, nap, spool.
Loanwords from other Low German dialects include: boor, broke, isinglass,
luck, snap, wagon, etc.
The contact of the Americans with the Dutch settlers, especially in
and around New York, resulted into a number of words referring to Dutch
American food having been imported into English. Among these, there are;
coleslaw, cookie, cranberry, waffle. Lexical items from various other fields
may be added to the list: boodle, boss, caboose, dope, Santa Claus, spook,
from Dutch spoken in America, and apartheid, commandeer, commando,
kraal, outspan, spoor, trek, veld, from Dutch spoken in South Africa
Unlike Low German, High German has had a less poignant impact
on English. A number of words have been borrowed in specialized fields
such as geology and mineralogy: cobalt, feldspar, gneiss, nickel, quartz,
seltzer, zinc. Some food and drink terms have been imported together with
the items they designate: delicatessen, frankfurter, noodle, schnapps,


Sources of the English Vocabulary

alongside a small miscellanea of other borrowings, including angst, ersatz,

Gestalt, hinterland, leitmotiv, rucksack, umlaut, waltz, etc.
Of the Romance European languages, English has borrowed from
Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mainly.
Italian words started their way into English as early as the
sixteenth century, with the adoption of items pertaining to the vocabulary
of music, one of the arts particularly representative for the Italians. Jackson
and Amvela (2007: 48) quote a number of words dating from that period.
Their examples include: duo, fugue, madrigal, violin. These were followed,
they say, in the seventeenth century by allegro, largo, opera, piano, presto,
sonata, solo and, in the eighteenth century, when the interest of the English
for Italian music reached its peak, by adagio, andante, aria, cantata,
concerto, crescendo, duet, finale, forte, oratorio, trio, trombone, viola. The
process continued in the nineteenth century, with the adoption of alto,
cadenza, legato, piccolo, prima-donna.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Italians
immigrated in large numbers to the United States. Many of them went into
the food business and popularized Italian cuisine. Consequently, many
Italian words connected to food and cooking entered American English and
subsequently spread to other dialects of English as well. Some such words
are: pizza, pasta, spaghetti, macaroni, ciabatta, cannelloni, lasagna,
zucchini, pesto, tagliatelle, macaroni, scampi.
Italian words from areas other than music and cuisine that have
been borrowed include: balcony, balloon, carnival, dilettante, fresco,
ghetto, regatta, stiletto, studio, torso, umbrella, vendetta, volcano.
Spanish and Portuguese became suppliers of words to English in
the sixteenth century. The former has been a rich direct source of loans,
while the latter was less so. In addition, many non-European words from
the colonies found their way into English via Spanish and Portuguese. As
Jackson and Amvela (2007: 48) point out, many of these loanwords came
from the New World: alligator, avocado, barracuda, canoe, chocolate,
cigar, cockroach, domino, embargo, mosquito, peccadillo, potato,
sombrero, tobacco, tomato, tornado, tortilla, vanilla.
The nineteenth century seems to have been the period when Spanish
words penetrated English, especially its American variety, in large numbers.
Among the words adopted then, there are: bonanza, canyon, lasso,
mustang, patio, ranch, sierra, siesta, stampede. The twentieth century is
characterized by loan translations such as moment of truth, a linguistic
calque of the Spanish momento de la verdad, referring to the moment
when the bull is killed by the toreador in the arena.
As far as Portuguese words that were taken over into English are
concerned, though the process of borrowing started much earlier, the great
majority of them entered English during the modern period. This majority
included: albino, copra, flamingo, Madeira, mango, marmalade,
molasses, palaver, teak.


Words about Words

From other European languages, English has borrowed few words.

Sable came into English in Middle English times via French, from Slavic
languages; polka came via French in the nineteenth century, from Czech,
alongside later borrowings such as howitzer, pistol, robot. Mammoth was
borrowed in the eighteenth century directly from Russian. Other more
recent borrowings from Russian have not become completely naturalized:
bolshevik, czar, glasnost, intelligentsia (ultimately from Latin),
perestroika, tundra, vodka. From Hungarian, English has borrowed
directly goulash and paprika; while coach came via French, from the
Hungarian kosci. Turkish and Tatar words in English include: bosh, caique,
coffee, cossack, divan, fez, horde, kaftan, kavass, kebab, khan, kumiss,
mammoth, pasha, shish, Tartar, turkey, turquoise, yoghurt.

2.3.9. Words from non-European languages in

With the expansion of the British Empire, which facilitated the
spread of English to all continents between the seventeenth and the
twentieth centuries, and with the ascendancy of the United Stated
immediately after the Second World War, when the British Empire started
its decline, English came in contact with many languages around the world.
The result of this contact has been two fold: English has influenced these
languages to a lesser or a greater degree and has itself been affected by
In North America, English borrowed from the Native American
languages common words such as avocado, barbecue, buccaneer, cacao,
cannibal, canoe, wampum, toboggan, iguana, maize, moccasin, papaya,
tomahawk, skunk, squash, tobacco, coyote, caribou, poncho, tomato,
yucca and a number of proper nouns such as mountain names:
Appalachians, Alleghenies, the names of the Great Lakes: Erie, Ontario,
Huron, Michigan, Superior, names of states: Oklahoma, Massachusetts
and names of cities: Chicago, Saratoga, Tallahassie.
On the other side of the world, the languages spoken in what are
now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been a source of verbal source to
English that cannot be overlooked. Rao (1954), quoted by Katamba (2005)
gives a quite comprehensive account of the Indian loans in English.
He points out that the nature of the borrowed words has changed
with the centuries, mirroring the developments outside the language. There
are a few words designating trade goods which predate the Raj: copra, coir,
pepper, sugar, indigo. Most of these words entered English indirectly, via
Latin, Greek or French.
Indian became a direct source of loan words starting from the very
early years of the British colonization of India. Quite understandably, the
words borrowed at this time were a reflection of the commerce between


Sources of the English Vocabulary

Britain and the newly colonized territory and included terms such as calico,
chintz and dungaree.
As time passed, the range of Indian words borrowed into English
widened so that, besides words referring to mundane trade goods which
continued their way into English, lexical items in the areas of religion,
philology, articles of dress and various other domains have also been
imported. Katamba (2005: 161) reproduces Raos (1954) table to
demonstrate the diversity and wealth of the Indian loan words:
Hinduism: Buddha, Brahmin, karma, pundit, yoga, mantra, nirvana;
Food: chutney, chapatti, curry, poppadom;
Clothing: cashmere, pyjamas, khaki, mufti, saree;
Philology (19th century): sandhi, bahuvrihi, dvandva;
People and society: Aryan (Sanskrit), pariah, mem-sahib, sahib, coolie;
Animals and plants: mongoose, zebu, bhang, paddy, teak;
Buildings and domestic: bungalow, pagoda, cot;
Assorted: catamaran, cash, chit, lilac, tattoo, loot, polo, cushy.

Though a smaller number of words coming from farther east have

entered English, at least some of them cannot pass unnoticed since they
have come to be used quite frequently. Thus, the AskOxford website
mentions the following as loan words from Chinese languages: china, chinchin, chopsticks, chopsuey, chow chow, chow mein, dim sum, fan-tan, feng
shui, ginseng, gung-ho, kaolin, ketchup / catsup, kowtow, kung fu, lychee,
loquat, mahjong, pekoe, sampan, tai chi, taipan, Tao, tea, yang, yen, yin.
According to the same source, aikido, banzai, bonsai, bushido, futon,
geisha, haiku, hara-kiri, judo, jujitsu, Kabuki, kamikaze, kimono, koan,
mikado, sake, samisen, samurai, sayonara, Shinto, shogun, soy(a), sushi,
teriyaki, tofu, tycoon, yen, Zen have been taken from Japanese, while lama,
Sherpa, yak, yeti, now present in English, originate in Tibetan.
Languages from south and south-east Asia, though less known to
non-linguists, have also given words to English. Hindi / Urdu is the source
language for bungalow, crore, dacoit, deodar, dinghy, dungaree, ghee,
gymkhana, jodphurs, lakh, loot, paisa, pakora, Raj, samo(o)sa, shampoo,
tandoori, tom-tom, wallah. Bantam, batik, gamelan, junk come from
Javanese. Malay has contributed amok, bamboo, caddy, camphor,
cassowary, cockatoo, dugong, durian, gecko, gingham, gong, kampong /
compound, kapok, kris, lory, mangosteen, orangutan, paddy, pangolin,
rattan, sago, sarong. From Sanskrit, mainly indirectly, English received
ashram, avatar, banya, banyan, beryl, brahmin, carmine, chakra,
cheetah, chintz, chutney, crimson, guru, juggernaut, jungle, jute, karma,
lacquer, mandarin, nirvana, palanquin, pundit, sapphire, sugar, suttee,
swastika, yoga, etc. From Sinhala, it enriched with anaconda and
and from Tagalog with boondock, ylang-ylang. Tamil has given English
catamaran, cheroot, curry, mango, mulligatawny, pariah.


Words about Words

2.3.10. Recent loans in English

English is borrowing words on a regular basis. The process of
importing lexical items from other languages has never stopped, it has only
changed its characteristics lately. The main features that are peculiar to it at
present are the fact that the frequency of borrowing is considerably reduced
and that English seems to be spreading its tentacles and borrow from less
and less known languages. To prove this, Jackson and Amvela (2007) quote
Pyles and Algeo (1993: 310) who mention a study by Cannon (1987) of more
than a thousand recent loan words from almost one hundred languages,
which shows that about 25% [of these] are from French, 8% each from
Japanese and Spanish, 7% each from Italian and Latin, 6% each from
African languages, German and Greek, 4% each from Russian and Yiddish,
3% from Chinese, and progressively smaller percentages from Arabic,
Portuguese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Afrikaans, Malayo-Polynesian,
Vietnamese, Amerindian languages, Swedish, Bengali, Danish, Indonesian,
Korean, Persian, Amharic, Eskimo-Aleut, Irish, Norwegian, and 30 other
With all this diversity of sources, as the study itself demonstrates,
the largest supplier of loan words to English remains, at present, French.
This may be because of the geographical proximity of France and England.
A reason of the same kind, Mexicos vicinity with the United States, might
lie behind the frequent borrowing from American Spanish by American
English. The increase in importance of Japanese as a source of loans might
be the consequence of Japans having gained more and more power on the
global market in general. As far as Latin, a former rich source of loans, is
concerned, Jackson and Amvela (2007) explain its decline as a provider of
words to English both by the fact that, since English borrowed from it so
extensively in previous ages, there is relatively little left to be borrowed and
by the fact that, rather than borrowing directly from Latin, English often
now creates new Latinate words from English morphemes originally from
The discussion so far about the sources of the English vocabulary
has taken into account the native stock of the language and the various
sources of borrowing, in different periods of time. Besides importing words
from other languages, the English vocabulary has been continuously
enriching by another means the formation of new lexical items. The next
chapter will explore word formation processes in more detail.



Before surveying the techniques of word formation that have given
birth to new words in English, the introduction of the main concepts
involved in such a presentation - free and bound morphemes, root,
affix, and stem might prove useful.

3.1. Free and bound morphemes

Originally, morphology meant the study of biological organisms.
But nineteenth century students of linguistics borrowed the term and
applied it to the study of word structure, so that, in linguistics, morphology
came to mean the study of the formation and internal organization of
The basic concept morphology operates with is the morpheme,
the smallest unit that has meaning or serves a grammatical function in a
language. Morphemes are the atoms with which words are built (Katamba
2005: 29). However, they are just theoretical constructs since, in practice, it
is the variants of a morpheme that are used to form new words. These
variants are called allomorphs and they are in a relation of mutual
exclusiveness, i.e. only one allomorph can occur in a given context. For
example, im-, in-, il-, ir- are variants of the same morpheme, employed on
phonetic principles, according to the starting sound of the element to which
they are added: im-possible, in-cautious, il-literate, ir-responsible; the
selection of the morpheme (e)s, the marker of the regular plural of nouns,
is also determined by phonological factors so that it may be realized under
the form of one of the following allomorphs: /s/ in hats, /z/ in games and
/iz/ in oranges. The morphemes that constitute the core for the formation
of new words are less sensitive to the phonetic environment and more so to
the grammatical context in which they occur. This is obvious for irregular
verbs morphemes, whose allomorphs differ on grammatical grounds: eg.
the allomorphs drove and driven correspond, respectively, to the past
simple and the past perfect of the morpheme drive.
According to their distribution, morphemes fall into two broad
categories, free morphemes and bound morphemes. The former can
appear independently in an utterance and have a meaning of their own,
while the latter cannot be used independently and do not have a notional or
full meaning, but a functional or derivative one. Bound morphemes are
always appended to free forms (eg. drive is a free morpheme, while er is a
bound one; if the latter is added to the former, we obtain the word driver
which, in its turn, is another free morpheme, according to the above


Words about Words

3.2. Root
The root is, Ttaru (2002: 22) says, the necessary and sufficient
structural constituent for a word to exist, the part common to all the words
in a word family (the whole series of words and word-substitutes obtained
from one root by all possible word-forming mechanisms (Ttaru 2002:
38)), which is not further divisible into smaller parts that have a meaning
(eg. care in the words careful, careless, carelessness, caring). If roots are
equivalent to a word in the language and carry the notional meaning of this
word into all the new words they form, they are considered free roots (eg.
civil in civility, region in regional or person in personify). If, on the other
hand, they are totally barred from occurring independently, they are
considered bound roots (eg. sanct in sanctify, tox in toxic or loc in local).

3.3. Affix
The bound morphemes that are appended to the root are called
affixes. Depending on their position to the root, affixes may be prefixes,
if they are added before the root, suffixes, if they are added after the root
and infixes, if they are added somewhere within the root (modern English
has no infixes in its regular vocabulary; however, they may be employed in
expressive language such as absobloominglutely used by Alan Jay Lerner in
My Fair Lady and quoted by Adams (1973: 8) or cuck-BLOODY-oo, the way
the cuckoo sounds for Dylan Thomas (1940)).
Affixes may be derivational or inflectional, also called
functional. The former, which will be discussed in more details in what
follows, help to form completely new words (eg. ful in beautiful or un- in
unimportant), while the latter, which Jackson and Amvela (2007) call
relational markers, help to build new grammatical forms of the same
basic word, according to the syntactic environment in which this word is
used (eg. s in writes helps to form the present tense form of the verb to
write, when it is the predicate of a third person singular subject; -ed in loved is used for the formation of the past and past participle of to love,
while er in cleverer is added to change the positive degree of the adjective
clever into its comparative of superiority; however, in all the previous
examples, the notional content of the root words remains unaltered).
Inflectional affixes are characterized by a number of features, the
most important of these being the fact that they lend themselves to
paradigms which apply to the language as a whole. The paradigm of a major
word class consists of a single stem of that class with the inflectional
suffixes which the stem may take. The paradigm may be used as a suitable


Word Formation

way of defining the word class in the sense that, if a word belongs to that
class, it must take at least some of the suffixes characteristic of that set as
opposed to suffixes characterizing other paradigms (Jackson, Amvela
2007: 84). The inflectional affixes of nouns, adjectives and verbs are
illustrated in a tabular form by Cook (1969: 122-3) as it is shown below.
Nouns display the following inflectional contrasts:
base form

stem + plural

stem + possessive

stem +





Mono- or disyllabic gradable adjectives show the following

inflectional contrasts:
base form

stem + comparative

stem + superlative




Verbs (except the verb to be and the modals) show the following
inflectional contrasts:
base form

stem +
3rd pers. sg.

stem +
past tense

stem +
past part.

present part.






For some verbs, including the regular ones, the five-parts paradigm
has only four elements, since the past and past participle inflectional affixes
have the same form. However, since they confer the stem they are added to
different morphological characteristics, they should be considered different
morphemes with identical forms (homonyms).
Pronouns are a class of function words which do not add inflectional
affixes. Their forms fit the noun inflectional paradigm, as Jackson and
Amvela (2007) show:
I, me

we, us




Words about Words

he, him
she, her
it, it

they, them



The forms listed in each column of the paradigm are in

complementary distribution, i.e. they are context dependent (where one
occurs the other ones do not). For example, I occurs before the verb, as the
grammatical subject in sentences such as I wrote a letter or I shall buy
flowers, while me occurs after the verb, as the direct, the indirect or the
prepositional object as in My friend gave me the book; He wrote me a
letter; My father explained the theory to me. The possessive pronoun mine
replaces the whole nominal phrase my + noun as in This is my book
This book is mine.
The auxiliary verbs pertain to the class of function words as well.
They constitute a closed sub-class of verbs which can take certain forms in
the verbal paradigm, though not all. While most of the verbs have four or
five forms, most of the modal auxiliaries have two, the modal must has only
one form, while the auxiliary be is the most polymorphic of all verbs, with
eight different forms. The paradigm of auxiliaries is presented by Jackson
and Amvela (2007: 85) as it is shown below:
base form

stem +
3rd pers. sg.

stem +
past tense

stem +
past part.

present part.


am / is / are

was were





Some mono- and disyllabic adverbs (with the exception of those

formed with the suffix ly) show the same inflectional contrasts like the
gradable mono- and disyllabic adjectives:
base form

stem + comparative

stem + superlative




Finally, Jacskon and Amvela (2007) also distinguish between

regular inflections and irregular inflections. The former are formed
following a regular pattern, e.g. s for the plural of nouns, -ed for the past
and past participle of regular verbs, -er for the comparative of gradable


Word Formation

mono- and disyllabic adjectives, etc. However, even within the class of
regular inflectional affixes, variation may be present, in spelling, e.g. the
addition of e before the plural suffix s (masses, classes), and
pronunciation, e.g. compare the pronunciation of the plural (e)s in rats,
cows, houses and that of the past tense inflection ed in talked, clogged,
glided. Irregular inflections do not follow a regular pattern and usually
apply to only some of the members of a morphological class. For example,
the following nouns form their plural irregularly: child children, man
men, woman women, ox oxen, mouse mice, louse lice, tooth
teeth, deer deer, salmon salmon, etc. The number of verbs that form
their past tense and their past participle irregularly is even greater: run
ran run, see saw seen, lie lay lain, write wrote written, etc.

3.4. Stem
When affixes are stripped away from the word, what we obtain is the
stem or, conversely, the stem is the part of the word to which an affix is
added in order to form a new word (eg. in the word carelessness, care is the
root, -less and ness are affixes, and careless is the stem).
A stem may coincide with the root of the new word (eg. small in
smaller). In this case, it is called a simple stem. If it contains other
elements as well, affixes or other simple stems in combination with which a
compound word is formed, it is considered a derived stem (eg. improbable in improbability or air-condition in air-conditioning).

3.5. Main means of word-formation

The most productive means by which new words are brought into
being in a language are derivation, compounding and conversion.
Separate sections are dedicated to each.

3.5.1. Derivation
Derivation is the process of forming new words in a language by
means of adding prefixes and / or suffixes to roots or stems. Prefixation
By prefixation, prefixes are added in front of roots or stems so
that new words are created. Prefixes do not usually carry functional
meaning, i.e. they do not change the morphological class of the roots or
stems to which they are appended, though they change their meaning. The


Words about Words

classification of prefixes should, therefore, be made on semantic grounds

primarily. Thus, according to the meaning they convey, English prefixes fall
into the following main categories:
negative prefixes, by far the largest group of prefixes in
English, express various shades of negative meaning:
- de- / dis- (not, the contrary of): depress, disapprove,
- in- / il- / ir- / il- (allomorphs of the same bound morpheme that
are employed according to the initial sound of the root or stem to
which they are added not, the contrary of): insane,
impossible, irrelevant, illiterate;
- non- (not): non-stop, non-resident, nonsense, nonconformist.
The basic word stock of English includes a number of quite old
words built with the prefix non-, in which the prefix is not
identifiable in full: nowhere, nothing, never, nobody, neither, nor,
- mis (bad(ly), wrong(ly)): mislead, mistrust, misfortune,
- un- (the opposite of, not): unfair, unwise, unexpected,
- mal- (bad(ly), wrong(ly)): malfunctioning, malformation,
reversative and privative prefixes:
- un- (to deprive of, to reverse the action, to release from):
unveil, unlock, unleash;
- de- / dis- (to reverse the action, to get rid of, to deprive of):
defrost, decentralize, deforestation, disconnect, discoloured.
prefixes of degree and size:
- arch- (supreme, chief, most important): archenemy,
- hyper- (extra): hypersensitive, hypertension, hyperinflation;
- mini- (little, small): miniskirt, minicomputer, minivacation;
- over- (too much): overreact, overdone, overdressed,
- out- (more, better, faster, longer): outnumber,
outstanding, outrun, outlive;
- super- (above, more than, better, bigger): supernatural,
superhuman, superman, supermarket;
- sub- (less than): subhuman, substandard, subnormal;
- under- (too little): underdeveloped, underestimate,
- ultra- (beyond, extremely): ultrasonic, ultraviolet, ultrarevolutionary.


Word Formation

prefixes of attitude:
- co- (accompanying, with, together): cooperation,
coordination, co-author, co-produce;
- pro- (for, on the side of): pro-democratic, pro-European;
- anti- (against): antiwar, antifreeze, anticlimax, antiimperialist;
- counter- (against, in opposition): counteract, counterproductive, counterblast.
prefixes of time and order:
- ante- (before): antenatal, anteroom, antediluvian,
- fore- (before): forearm, forehead, foretell, fore-mentioned;
- pre- (before): prehistoric, preheat, precondition, pre-election;
- ex- (former): ex-wife, ex-president, ex-friend;
- post- (after): post-war, post-date, post-position.
prefixes of space, direction and location (the majority of
these prefixes originate in prepositions and adverbs of place that
still function as such in English):
- in- (going in, being in): influx, income, intake, inmate;
- out- (going out, being out): outflow, output, outdoors;
- up- (in an ascending direction): uphill, uptown, upstairs;
- down- (in a descending direction): downhill, downstairs,
- super- (over, above): superstructure, superellevation;
- sub- (under): subway, suborbital, subsoil;
- inter- (between, among): international, interface,
- trans- (across, into another place): transatlantic,
transmigration, transcontinental.
the iterative prefix re- (one more time, again): reread,
rebuild, redecorate, reconsider.
According to their origin, English prefixes may be:
Germanic prefixes:
- be-: besprinkle, bewilderment, become;
- for-: forbid, forbear;
- mis-: mislead, misinterpret, miscalculate;
- out-: outlive, outgrow, outstanding;
- over-: overeat, overloaded, overhear;
- un-: unfriendly, uncommon, unbelievable;
- up-: upright, upshot, uptake;
- with-: withstand, withdraw, withhold;
Latin prefixes:
- bi-: bimonthly, bifocal, bidirectional;
- de-: decompose, deconstruct, declutch;


Words about Words

- dis-: disagree, disadvantage, discontinue;

- em- / en-: empower, enslave;
- inter-: interlocutor, intergalactic, intercontinental;
- non-: non-success, non-resistant, non-payment;
- pre-: prerequisite, prepaid, preadmission;
- pro-: pro-ally, pro-British;
- super-: superman, superfrequency, superheated;
- trans-: transformer, transmutation, transpose.
Greek prefixes:
- a- / an-: anomalous, analphabet;
- anti-: antibody, antithesis, anticlerical;
- hyper-: hypercritical, hypermetrical.
According to their productivity, English prefixes may be classified
productive prefixes (involved into the process of new words
creation at the present stage in the development of English):
- re-: retake, rethink, rewind, review;
- un-: unbelievable, unnecessary, undo;
- non-: non-verbal, non-stop;
- de-: deconstruct, denominalization, defrost;
- dis-: disengage, dismiss, disconnect;
- out-: outome, outright, outstanding;
- re-: reconstruct, refine, re-establish;
- mis-: misunderstanding, misfire, mislaid.
semi-productive prefixes (at present, relatively inactive in
the formation of new words in English):
- co-: co-author, co-editor, cooperation;
- counter-: counteractive, counteract, counterattack;
- sub-: subway, submarine, sublet;
- up-: upward, update, upload;
- vice-: vice-president, vice-rector;
unproductive prefixes (at present, no longer used in the
process of forming new words in English, though they might
have been productive at earlier stages in the evolution of the
- be-: beloved, becalm, besprinkle;
- with-: withholder, withdraw, withstand.
Finally, prefixes may also be approached from the perspective of the
phonological changes they trigger in the roots or stems to which they are
attached. Prefixes which cause such changes are known as non-neutral,
while those which do not, are considered neutral. Most of the English
prefixes fall within the latter category.


Word Formation Suffixation
By suffixation, suffixes are added to roots or stems in order to
create new words. Unlike prefixes which do not change the morphological
class of the elements to which they are appended, suffixes do. Therefore, the
handiest classification of suffixes would not follow semantic criteria, but
rather grammatical ones. According to the part of speech they generate,
suffixes fall into the subclasses below:
nominal suffixes nouns may be formed from other nouns,
from adjectives or verbs:
a1) suffixes denoting the doer of the action:
-er (generally, it forms names of occupations from the
corresponding verbs): driver, teacher, singer, advisor;
-ster: gangster;
-eer / -ier: profiteer, pamphleteer, gondolier;
-ist: typist, artist;
-ent / -ant: student, attendant.
a2) feminine suffixes (in English, gender morphological markers are
quite rare; however, there are cases when the feminine is formed
from the masculine of nouns by means of suffixes):
- -ette: usherette;
- -ess: lioness, duchess, actress;
- -ix: aviatrix;
- -euse: chauffeuse.
a3) suffixes denoting nationality:
-ese: Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese;
-an / -ian: Korean, Hungarian, Estonian;
- ard: Spaniard.
a4) diminutive suffixes:
- -ette: kitcinette;
- -let: booklet;
- -y / -ie: daddy, auntie.
a5) abstract noun-forming suffixes:
- -ing: breaking, reading, asking;
- -age: coverage, mileage, tonnage;
- -ance -ence: appearance, assistance, experience;
- -ism / -icism: criticism, Catholicism, post-modernism,
- -hood: boyhood, neighbourhood, childhood;
- -dom: freedom, martyrdom;
- -ment: nourishment;
- -ness / -ess: happiness, tenderness, prowess;
- -ty: certainty, honesty;
- -ship: kinship, friendship, leadership.


Words about Words

adjectival suffixes adjectives may be formed from other

adjectives, from nouns or from verbs. The most frequent of the
adjectival suffixes in English are the following:
- -ish: tallish, foolish, greenish, Turkish;
- -y / -ly: cloudy, silky, manly, brotherly, womanly;
- -less: sugarless, harmless, flawless;
- -ful: joyful, useful, delightful, eventful;
- -ed: wooded, pointed, horned;
- -able / -ible: readable, understandable, adaptable, accessible;
- -ive: progressive, possessive, aggressive;
- -some: handsome, cumbersome, tiresome.
The suffixes forming the comparative of superiority and the relative
superlative of the mono and some disyllabic adjectives er (cleverer,
smarter) and est (cleverest, smartest) respectively should be mentioned
here as well. In the case of disyllabic adjectives, there is oscillation between
the synthetic way of forming the comparative and the superlative and the
analytical one, by using the adverbs more and the most in front of the
adjective in the positive degree. The latter way seems to be taking over the
former, as a proof of the tendency to regularize this area of the vocabulary
as well.
verbal suffixes verbs are formed mainly from nouns and
adjectives. In modern English, the number of verb-forming
suffixes are rather reduced; however, those that are still in use
today are highly productive and therefore, extremely frequent:
- -ise / -ize: utilize, fertilize, Latinize, organize;
- -ify: intensify, simplify, diversify;
- -en: brighten, enlighten, deepen, widen.
adverbial suffixes derived adverbs are formed by adding
suffixes to nouns and adjectives mostly:
- -ly (added to most of the adjectives): happily, strangely, badly,
- -wise: likewise, clockwise, crabwise;
- -ward / -wards: northward(s), westward(s), backward(s),
numeral suffixes:
- -teen (it generates the cardinal numerals between 13 and 19):
thirteen, fifteen, eighteen, nineteen;
- -ty (it is used to form the cardinal numeral designating multiples
of 10): thirty, forty, sixty, ninety;
- -th (it is the suffix forming ordinal numbers other than one, two,
three and those that have these in their structure; it may be
appended either to simple numerals, to already derived ones or to
compound ones): fourth, sixth, twentieth, fiftieth, twenty-fourth,


Word Formation

English suffixes are of the following main origins:

Germanic suffixes:
- -er: Londoner, worker, poker;
- -art: drunkard, braggart;
- -hood: boyhood, brotherhood;
- -ing: learning, reading, interesting;
- -man: gentleman, townsman;
- -ness: hardness, cleverness;
- -ship: friendship, authorship;
- -ed: wooded, added;
- -some: handsome, twosome;
- -ward: backward, forward;
- -wise: likewise, clockwise;
- -en: darken, deepen, whiten;
- -ish: selfish, reddish, boyish;
- -y: dirty, silky, hairy;
- -ly: manly, slowly, hardly;
- -th: tenth, growth.
Romance (Latin, French and Italian) suffixes:
- -ette: kitchinette, usherette, novelette;
- -or: actor, inspector;
- -ee: employee, payee, trainee;
- -ess: lioness, actress, hostess;
- -age: marriage;
- -al: arrival, betrayal, dismissal;
- -ance / -ence: assistance, resistance, dependence;
- -ery / -ry: flattery, bakery, dentistry;
- -ment: acknowledgement, movement, amazement;
- -ant / -ent: claimant, correspondent;
- -fy / -ify: signify;
- -ize / -ise: modernize, organize, moralize.
Greek suffixes:
- -ist: modernist, classicist;
- -ism: communism, colloquialism, organism.
Like prefixes, suffixes may be grouped, according to their ability to
create new words at the present stage in the development of English, into:
productive suffixes (which are, at present, active in terms of
new words formation):
- -able: profitable, regrettable, understandable;
- -ed: loved, grouped, played;
- -ing: interesting, clearing, meaning;
- -less: sugarless, harmless, speechless;
- -ness: calmness, brightness, happiness;
- -y: edgy, bloody, cloudy;


Words about Words

- -ly: scarcely, evenly, likely;

- -ish: selfish, childish, Turkish.
semi-productive suffixes (at present, less active in the process
of word formation):
- -dom: kingdom, freedom, boredom;
- -ful: spoonful, mouthful, hurtful;
- -hood: boyhood, childhood;
- -ee: employee, trainee, payee;
- -ship: kinship, relationship.
unproductive suffixes (at present, no longer used to form new
- -ance: deliverance, acceptance;
- -age: coinage;
- -ment: movement, development;
- -some: handsome, gruesome;
- -th: tenth, eleventh.

3.5.2. Compounding
Compounding or composition is the process of coining new
words by grammatically and semantically combining two or more roots or
stems (i.e., at least two constituents that occur or can, in principle, occur in
isolation). Compound words may be described from the point of view of
their orthographic, phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic
characteristics. Orthographic characteristics of compounds
Compounds in English may be spelt in three different ways: solid
(in one word): bullfighter, theatergoer, colorblind, whetstone, etc;
hyphenated (in words separated by a hyphen): self-determination, heartbreaking, man-made, high-born, easy-going, grass-green, etc; and in
completely separate words: tea bag, nail brush, oil well, price cut, etc. Phonological characteristics of compounds
Bloomfield (1973), Cook (1969) and Arnold (1966) are some of the
linguists who pointed out the importance of the phonic criterion of stress in
the case of compounds. Compounds usually have one main stress as any
other simple words, and lack juncture. Based on this criterion which,
according to Hulban (1975), shows the advanced level of the process of
integration of the two stems, it is possible to distinguish between
compounds such as bluebell and blackboard and their corresponding
phrases blue bell and black bird which have two heavy stresses and a


Word Formation

juncture. However helpful the phonological criterion may be in establishing

the difference between compounds and mere combinations of free lexemes,
it does not always clearly set the boundaries between the two. All Fools
Day and All Saints Day are compounds which contradict the above
mentioned rule.
Compounding is driven by phonological factors in the case of
reduplicatives such as pooh-pooh, goody-goody, roly-poly, wishywashy, flip-flop, sing-song, harum-scarum, bow-wow. These are examples
of words created on the basis of reduplication,the repetition of the base of
a word in part or in its entirety (Katamba 2005: 72).
According to Bauer (1983), there are two main types of
reduplicatives in English: rhyme motivated nitwit, teeny-winny, hurlyburly and ablaut motivated riff-raff, tittle-tattle, mish-mash. Rhyme
should be understood here as it is understood in poetry the vowel and the
consonant(s) that occur after it in the final syllable of a word are identical,
while ablaut means a change in the root vowel (which usually signals a
change in grammatical class, eg. the o e alternation in the pairs long
length, strong strength marks the difference between the adjective and its
corresponding noun respectively). The labels Bauer (1986) suggests for the
two categories of reduplicatives highlights the fact that the repetition of the
base in compounds of this kind involves either copying the rhyme, in the
case of the so-called rhyme motivated reduplicatives, or copying the
consonants and altering the vowel in the so-called ablaut motivated
reduplicatives. The two elements that alternate in the structure of a
reduplicative may be both bases that exist independently in English
Black-Jack, brain-drain, or one or both of the elements may be pseudostems that are not recognizable as independent units of the language
ding-dong, wibble-wobble, zigzag, ping-pong. In the case of the latter,
many of the components are onomatopoeic words. Morphological characteristics of compounds
Compounds may be classified according to the morphological class
to which they belong (a finer subclassification, introduced by Marchand
(1969), is made according to the presence or absence of a verbal element in
the compound. This leads him to speak about verbal nexus combinations
as opposed to non-verbal nexus compounds). Basically, all morphological
classes may have compound members.
compound nouns:
- noun + noun. According to Ttaru (2002), possible semantic
relationship between the two nominal elements may be, among
others, of:
o purpose: baby carriage, bachelor flat, backpack;
o place: city-dweller;


Words about Words

o resemblance: bullfrog, swordfish.

Sometimes, one of the nominal stems may be in the genitive as in
tailors dummy, barbers itch / rash. The two nominal stems may also be
linked by prepositions or conjunctions as in bird of paradise, father-inlaw, bed-and-breakfast, lily-of-the-valley. Quite often, nominal
compounds in English are made up of more than two stems. Examples of
such nouns include: box end wrench, heart-lung machine, birds eye view,
- verbal noun + noun: meeting place, writing desk, fishing rod;
- noun + verbal noun: air-conditioning, sleepwalking;
- adjective + noun. Several cases can be identified here:
o adjective proper + noun: blackbird, highlands, bluebell;
o participial adjective ending in -ing + noun: peeping
Tom, blotting paper, boarding card;
o participial adjective ending in past participle specific
endings + noun: built environment, bonded warehouse,
wrought iron.
- pronoun + noun. Generally speaking, these compounds help to
distinguish the masculine and the feminine from the common
gender: she-wolf, he-doctor;
- verb + noun: pickpocket, dare-devil;
- noun + verb. The verbal stem may take either the form of an
infinitive or that of an -ing participle: sunset, rainfall, bodybuilding, bird-watching, sight-seeing;
- verb + verb. Sometimes, the verbal stems are linked by
conjunctions: makeshift, make-believe, park-and-ride, pick-andmix, hit-and-run;
- adverb + noun: after-thought, back-talk, down-grade, yes-man,
outer space;
- adverb + verb: upkeep, upstart;
- verb + adverb: cut-back, turn-round;
- preposition + noun: afternoon, underworld;
- preposition + verb: undergraduate.
The compounds made up of more than two elements mostly belong
to the nominal class in English. These have a rather irregular structure and
include words such as: stick-in-the mud, rule-of-thumb, good-for-nothing,
mother-in-law, forget-me-not, merry-go-round, much-talked, about, alltoo-accurate, etc.
compound adjectives:
- adjective + adjective: metallic-green, bitter-sweet;
- noun + adjective: duty-free, sea-sick, earth-bound. The linguistic
model of the comparative of equality (asas) lies at the basis of the
stylistic device of simile as well. Some similies that have become
clichs due to overuse have also turned into compound adjectives:


Word Formation

pitch-dark, snow-white, blood-red, sea-green. As Ttaru (2002)

observes, the denominal stem self- also generates compound
adjectives, generally with an adjective of participial origin: selfgoverning, self-effacing, self-educated, self-sustained, self-made,
- adjective + noun + -ed: light-hearted, hot-blooded, evil-minded;
- noun + verb (participle): ocean-going, love-struck, storm-beaten;
- noun + noun + -ed: lion-hearted, honey-mouthed;
- adverb + verb (participle): ill-behaved, well-meant, everlasting;
- adverb + adjective: evergreen.
compound verbs:
- noun + verb: hen-peck, baby-sit, house-keep;
- adjective + verb: white-wash, dry-clean, sweet-talk;
- verb + verb: dive-bomb, drop-kick, blast-freeze;
- adverb + verb: overhear, underestimate, down-grade.
Composition proper in the case of the English verbs is rather poorly
represented. A deeper analysis of what are, at first sight, considered
compound verbs reveals a mixture of composition with other wordformation mechanisms. To blackmail, for example, is formed by
both composition and conversion, to baby-sit, stage-manage or
vacuum-clean are the result of both composition and backformation.
compound adverbs:
- adverb + adverb: throughout, hereabout(s);
- adjective + noun: uphill, downhill, outdoor;
- adverb + preposition: wherefrom, thereby, hereby.
compound numerals:
All cardinal numerals between round figures, starting with twentyone, are compound words. From one hundred upward, round
figures are denoted by compound numerals built with the help of
the copulative conjunction and: two hundred and four, nine
hundred and fifty-eight, ten thousand three hundred and forty.
Distributive numerals are obtained by reduplicative composition
along with the insertion of the preposition by: two-by-two, nineby-nine, twenty-by-twenty. Fractions are compounds, too:
2/3=two thirds, 6/8=six eights. When the fraction is preceded by a
full number, the compound numeral is obtained using the
conjunction and between the full number and the fraction proper:
4 2/3=four-and-two-thirds. If there is a decimal comma in its
structure, the compound numeral is read using the word point
between the full numbers in front and after the comma: 56.4=fiftysix point four.
compound pronouns:


Words about Words

Compound pronouns are pretty old in the language. They occurred

in the Middle Ages and have remained unchanged since then. There
are several structural models according to which they were formed:
- possessive adjective + the noun self: myself, yourself, ourselves;
- personal pronoun in the accusative + the noun self: himself,
herself, themselves;
- the predeterminers some-, any-, no-, or the adjective every + the
nouns body, thing: nothing, anybody, something, everybody;
- the relative-interrogative words who, what, when, which, where +
the adverb ever: whoever, whatever, whenever, etc. In archaic and
more emphatic forms, so was inserted between the components in
some of the compound pronouns of this kind: whatsoever,
compound prepositions:
Ttaru (2002) suggests several morphological patterns according to
which compound prepositions have been obtained. Generally, she
says, they contain one or several prepositions grouped around:
- a nominal nucleus: in the middle of, in spite of, thanks to, on the
other side of;
- an adverbial nucleus: underneath, close to, faraway from, ahead
of, in front of, prior to, previous to;
- a verbal nucleus, where the verb may be either in a finite or in a
non-finite form: as concerns, due to, owing to, notwithstanding;
- a prepositional nucleus: but for, onto, as to.
compound conjunctions:
Both among coordinating and among subordinating conjunctions,
there are compounds which fall in the same structural classes as the
compound prepositions. Thus, they can be grouped around:
- a nominal nucleus: for the reason that, in spite of, for fear that,
despite the fact that;
- an adverbial nucleus: as well as, along with, never again;
- an adjectival nucleus: long before;
- a verbal nucleus: seeing that, supposing that, provided that;
- a prepositional nucleus: but for, after which, what with.
Compound relative pronouns may also function as conjunctions
when they introduce relative clauses. Since they function jointly, the
correlatives eitheror, neithernor, bothand may be considered
compound conjunctions.
compound interjections:
English compound interjections follow a number a morphological
patterns. The most frequent of these are:
- reduplicatives: blah-blah, pooh-pooh, puff-puff, hush-hush;
- ablaut combinations: ticktack;
- onomatopoeia: cook-a-doodle-doo, gobbledygook.


Word Formation Syntactic characteristics of compounds

Together with their phonological features, the syntactic
characteristics of compounds contribute to their being different from
phrases. Thus, word order, i.e. the position of the different constituents of a
compound in relation to one another, is sometimes ungrammatical or at
least unusual in English. For example, the noun + adjective construction
is not a usual pattern. However, it occurs in compounds such as home-sick,
sea-sick or weather-sensitive. Similarly, in normal, unemphatic word
order, objects usually follow their verbs in sentence structure, but not
necessarily in compounds such as knee-jerk.
According to Jackson and Amvela (2007: 93), all compounds are
non-interruptible in the sense that, in normal use, their constituent parts
are not interrupted by extraneous elements. The example they give to
illustrate this point is that of the compound dare-devil, in which, if the
article the is inserted, the stability of the whole structure is affected to
such an extent that the resulting string of words dare-the-devil is turned
into a phrase and can no longer be considered a compound.
The special type of modification and inflectibility that apply in the
case of compounds also help to set them apart from phrases. Modification
refers to the use of other words to modify the meaning of a compound.
Since the compound is a single unit, its components cannot be modified
independently. It is the compound as a whole which is modified by other
words. For instance, air-sick may not be modified either as hot air-sick,
with the component air being determined by the adjective hot, or as airvery sick, with the component sick being determined by the adverb very.
However, a construction such as seriously air-sick is possible, with the
adverb seriously modifying the whole compound.
In terms of flexibility, as a lexical unit, a compound may be inflected
according to the grammatical class it corresponds to, while its constituents
cannot be inflected each in its turn. Thus, the compound nouns ash-tray,
fingerprint, textbook, dish-washer form the plural by adding a final s to
the whole compound: ash-trays, fingerprints, textbooks, dish-washers.
Downgrade, sweet-talk, baby-sit as compound verbs become downgraded,
sweet-talked, baby-sat in the past tense. Semantic characteristics of compounds
From a semantic point of view, compounds may be grouped in two
major classes: compounds with an idiomatic meaning and compounds
with a compositional meaning. The former tend to acquire a rather
specialized meaning which cannot be grasped on the basis of the meaning
of its constituents: a turnkey for example, is a person who, in the past, used
to hold the keys of the prison, while a turncoat is a traitor. The meaning of


Words about Words

the compounds in the latter class is transparent and easier to understand,

since it is arrived at by adding the meanings of their constituents: a bulldog
is a breed of dog, an easy chair is a type chair. In between the two classes,
there is a third, comprising compounds in whose case the meaning of at
least one of the constituents is somehow obscured. We may include here
words such as dustbin, which is a container not restricted to the collection
of dust alone, or blackboard, the object one writes on, which may have
colours other than black and may be made of materials other than wood.
As Katamba (2005: 67) suggests, an interesting property of most
compounds is that they are headed. This means that one of the words that
make up the compound is syntactically dominant. Quite frequently, the
syntactic head is the semantic head of the compound as well, while the nonhead element usually indicates some of its characteristics. The two
examples above, bulldog and easy chair help to illustrate this as well: a
bulldog is a dog with short hair, a short neck, a large head, and short thick
legs, while an easy chair is a large comfortable chair. If a compound
contains a semantic head, i.e., if its meaning incorporates the meaning of at
least one of its components, it is called an endocentric compound. If it
has no semantic head, i.e., if its meaning is idiomatic and therefore
different from the meanings of its constituents, like the meanings of
turnkey and turncoat above, the compound is an exocentric compound.
Hulban (1975) approaches the semantic relationship between the
constituents of a compound from a different perspective. He describes them
as restrictive and relational compounds, with a series of nuances
existing in between the two. Thus, the material something is made of is
revealed in compounds such as paper bag, lather jacket, ironware. Place
relationships are implied in downtown, upstream, seashore. Purpose is
obvious in blow-pipe, looking-glass, goldfield, while comparison is present
in good-for-nothing, larger-than-life. In words such as male-doctor, shewolf, womankind, boy-friend, woman teacher, the idea of gender is
involved. Purpose and comparison show relationships, while material and
gender show restrictions. Place may indicate both restriction sunset and
relation sea shore. An example of a compound whose internal semantic
organization may be viewed from more than one perspective is eye-glasses
which, depending on the point of view, may express purpose, material or
the idea of place.

3.5.3. Conversion
Conversion is the process of forming new words by means of
transferring them from one morphological class to another, without any
changes, either in their form or in their pronunciation. The procedure is
extremely productive in English. In fact, this technique is so frequent that
many scholars see it as a matter of syntactic usage rather than as a wordformation device. Among them, there are, for example, Pyles and Algeo


Word Formation

(1993), who use the term functional shift to refer to the process and to
highlight the fact that, by it, words are converted from one grammatical
function to another, without their form being affected in any way. Cristina
Ttaru (2002) follows the same line of thinking in calling what is
traditionally known as conversion - functional polysemy, as opposed to
lexical polysemy which involves only a change in lexical meaning, leaving
the grammatical class of the words unaltered. She further explains that,
even if, at first sight, the type of polysemy implied by conversion is clearly a
functional one, lexical polysemy accompanies the process as well. The new
meaning, although semantically related to the first, contains markers
typical of the new part of speech that has been generated, which is not the
case with lexical polysemy. Hence, the necessity of analyzing the semantic
ties obtained between the converted item and its original, in order to
capture the essence of the phenomenon (Ttaru 2002: 79). The most
frequent cases of conversion involve nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Nouns obtained by conversion
The parts of speech that are most frequently converted into nouns
are adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions.
nouns converted from adjectives:
Since there is a great variety of adjectives in English, the nouns
obtained from them are very numerous and they present various
types of semantic relationships with their originals, thus making the
subclass they belong to highly diversified. Some of the types of deadjectival nouns are the following:
- collective nouns obtained from adjectives by definite articulation:
the good, the bad, the cripple, the young;
- nouns denoting characteristic features, obtained by the same
mechanism: the beautiful, the ugly, the absurd;
- proper collective nouns denoting nationalities, obtained by definite
articulation as well: the English, the Dutch. Other such nouns are
obtained by adding the plural ending s to the adjective, the article
becoming then optional: (the) Romanians, (the) Americans, (the)
- nouns denoting the presence of the quality in a person: an
academic, an alarmist, an anarchist;
- nouns denoting the presence of the quality in an object: an acid,
an adhesive, an adverbial, an absolute.
As Ttaru (2002: 82) suggests, the attempt at grouping various
types of meanings should not ignore the possibility of the nominalization of
any other adjective by conversion: a red reminding of Titian (=kind, type
of red); in the dark (=confused), or: Dont go out after dark! a bitter of
very good quality (=type of drink)


Words about Words

nouns converted from verbs:

De-verbal nouns may express:
- the result of the action denoted by the original verb: an abstract, a
- the process to which the original verb referred: an ache, an alert,
an arrest;
- the agent of the action denoted by the verb: an advocate, an ally,
an affix, a cheat, a bore;
- the name of the action denoted by the verb: a hunt, a cry, a jump,
an attempt. This subcategory of converted nouns is best represented
by the ing nouns which name the action implied by the verb:
falling, driving, swimming;
- the patient of the action denoted by the verb: a castaway, a catch;
- the instrument of the action denoted by the verb: a lift, a ransom,
a cover, a wrap;
- the state corresponding to the action denoted by the verb: wish,
want, desire, doubt, envy;
- the place of the action denoted by the verb: retreat (cumpna
apelor), turn, rise.
nouns converted from adverbs, prepositions and
There are rather few nouns originating in adverbs in English. Some
of the basic directional adverbs, such as front, back, behind, aside,
left, right have been nominalised, sometimes by being used with a
definite article. Other times, directional adverbs may be marked for
the plural and used nominally in binominals such as the ups and
down, the ins and outs. However, the fact that these nouns are not
used outside set phrases or in the singular demonstrates that the
conversion of the adverbs is not yet a fully completed process.
Ttaru (2002) mentions another category of adverbs that have
undergone nominalization: the adverbs relating to the frequency of
musical tempo (at their origin, simple adverbials of frequency in
Italian which became internationalisms with a specialized
meaning): an andante, an allegro, an adagio.
The adverb altogether may also be used figuratively as a noun in a
phrase such as to be in the altogether (to be completely naked).
The examples of prepositions that have been turned into nouns are
even fewer: the pros and cons (where pros comes from the Latin
preposition pro and cons has been obtained by adding the plural
inflection s to the abbreviation of counter). Pro may be used
nominally with the definite article a, then meaning not argument
for, but person favouring a certain idea, view, option.
All interjections may be nominalised by articulation either with a
definite or with an indefinite article, their meaning becoming name
of the sound, noise: a bang, a screech, the squeal, the Hm Hm. It


Word Formation

may happen that, by nominalization, the meaning of the initial

interjection changes completely via a transfer from a proper sense to
a figurative one. This is the case of the interjection gobbledygook,
initially denoting the sound made by the turkey which has now come
to mean very complicated or technical language that you cannot
understand or nonsense. Adjectives obtained by conversion

According to Ttaru (2002: 85), it could be said that anything that
fulfils an attributive and / or a predicative function is an adjective in
Nouns, for example, can function both as descriptive adjectives: girl
friend, technology boom, trail-and-error judgment and as limitative
adjectives: family duties, trial match, songbird.
Pronouns can also engender adjectives by conversion. All
compounds built with the personal pronouns he and she, which generate
the masculine and the feminine from the common gender, can be
considered to reflect this phenomenon. Demonstrative, relativeinterrogative, indefinite and reflexive pronouns may function as adjectives
without any change in their form.
Numerals also take up adjectival functions when they are used in
adjectival distribution: three books, nine point seven percent, the second
However, the part of speech that is most frequently converted into
adjectives is the adverb. Directionals such as above, front, back, upstairs,
outdoors may function both as adverbs and as adjectives (sometimes, in a
noun and converted adjective group, they follow the noun): the above
statement (the statement above), the front gate, the back door, the rooms
upstairs, the furniture outdoors. Adverbs of time such as yearly, monthly,
weekly, daily may become adjectives when used in adjectival distribution:
yearly event, monthly seminar, weekly meeting, daily routine.
Phrases and idiomatic expressions can undergo conversion to adjectives: a
do-it-yourself manual, a cut-and-dried speech, a butter-wouldnt-melt-inhis-mouth attitude.
Verb forms other than the participle converted into adjectives are
quite infrequent. Verbs obtained by conversion


Words about Words

The most productive area in which conversion manifests itself is

that of verbs. Very many English verbs have been obtained by conversion,
from nouns especially.
verbs obtained from nouns:
The semantic relationships between the nouns and their converted
verbal counterparts are very diverse and, therefore, quite difficult to
classify. Consequently, the patterns of meaning which can be
identified form a rather non-homogenous class:
- verbs denoting the action resulting in the situation designated by
the noun: to rain, to snow, to frost;
- verbs denoting the action generating the notion designated by the
noun: to point, to spot, to drop, to stripe;
- verbs with an instrumental meaning: to finger, to elbow, to
shoulder, to saw, to hammer, to screw, to gun, to nail;
- verbs with an agentive meaning (to be / to act like what the nouns
designates): to wolf, to ape, to monkey, to parrot, to pig, to nurse,
to father;
- verbs with a locative meaning: to pocket, to corner, to garage;
- verbs meaning to put in what the noun designates: to bottle, to
catalogue, to list;
- verbs meaning to deprive of what the noun designates: to peel, to
skin, to scalp;
- verbs meaning to send / go by what the noun designates: to mail,
to ship.
- verbs meaning to provide with what the noun designates: to
cover, to wrap, to plaster, to coat.
verbs obtained from adjectives:
The basic meaning of the de-adjectival verbs is to bring about the
characteristic expressed by the adjective in an object: to calm, to
dirty, to square, to round, to alert, to aggregate, or to make a
subject suffer the instatement of the quality expressed by the
adjective: to wrong, to dry, to wet, to sour, to clean.
Verbs obtained from adverbs, conjunctions or interjections are
pretty rare in English. Nevertheless, verbs such as to forward, to
but (But me no buts!), to chirp, to squeal, to hum, to meow are
present in the language. Adverbs obtained by conversion
Quite frequently, adverbs are obtained from adjectives by derivation
with the suffix ly, therefore the cases of adverbs converted from adjectives


Word Formation

are rather rare. Sometimes, in non-literary language, forms homonymous

to adjectives occur in adverbial distribution, but, as Ttaru (2002: 88)
points out, it is rather doubtful whether these are cases of conversion or
simply manifestations of the tendency to drop the ending in the adverb.
Awful rare used instead of awfully rare is such a case.
However, the use of augmentatives such as pretty, mighty, jolly, of
adjectival origin, in order to form the absolute superlative (besides very)
could be more readily interpreted as instances of conversion.
Since conversion does not imply any changes in the form of words, it
is sometimes difficult to tell which item should be treated as the base and
which as the converted form. One criterion lying at the basis of drawing
such a distinction is the semantic dependence of one item upon the other.
For example, the meaning of the verb to net may be explained by means of
the noun net as to put into a net and, therefore, the verb may be said to be
the converted form. Another criterion is the ability of the word to serve as
the root for derivatives and to form compounds. If the word has such
ability, it is considered the base word, if it lacks it, it is usually regarded as
the converted word. According to this approach, the noun water, as the root
for derived words such as watery, waterless, and as one of the elements in
compounds such as waterbed, waterborne, watercolour, watercourse,
waterfall, waterline is seen as the base word, while the verb water, which
cannot yield either derivatives or compounds is regarded as the converted
lexical item.
When the period when a particular word entered the language is
known, it is easier to establish that the older word is the base form, while
the younger one is the converted item.
Converted words may be common vocabulary items, with a reduced
stylistic potential, or, by conversion itself, they may have acquired
expressive force and become poetic. Hulban (1975) quotes a number of
examples of converted words in the latter category:
The sun is yellowing to decline. (D.H. Lawrence);
you wolf down great mouthfuls of lamb and green peas (S. Maugham)
How does it pay a man of your talent to shepherd such a flock as this?
(G.B. Shaw);
Whatever it is, dont blue it.(S. Maugham).

3.6. Minor means of word formation

Besides derivation, conversion and compounding described above,
there are a number of minor means of word formation in English.

3.6.1. Clipping


Words about Words

Clipping compounds, blends or portmanteau words1 are

lexical items that have come into being by combining two other words of
which at least one is fragmentary.
According to where the clipping occurs, this type of compounds may
be classified as:
clippings having a full former element and a clipped latter
element: cablegram = cable + telegram, mailomat = mail +
automat, dumbfound = dumb + confound;
clippings having a full latter element and a clipped former
element: Eurasian = Europe + Asian, paratroops = parachute +
troops, telescreen = television + screen;
clippings having both the former and the latter elements clipped:
brunch = breakfast = lunch, motel = motorist + hotel, Oxbridge =
Oxford + Cambridge.
Clipping has been very productive, giving birth both to words that
are easily recognizable and that have entered the everyday vocabulary of
English (such as camcorder = camera + recorder, Bollywood = Bombay +
Hollywood, used for the Indian film industry, brunch = breakfast + lunch)
and to words that are either rather technical and recognizable by scientists
more readily than by the non-specialists or coined by journalists and
meaningful for a limited number of readers (edutainment = education +
entertainment, agitprop = agitation + propaganda). The technical fields
and the newspapers are areas in which the high rate by which clippings are
formed is fully justified in the former, the shortness of clippings help
scientists avoid the confusion using too many words to designate a concept
might create, in the latter, novelty brought by clippings is a readerattraction strategy.

3.6.2. Contraction
Clipping occurs not only in the case of compound words, but in the
case of isolated words as well. When words are shortened to just a part of
them, they are said to be contracted. Contraction may be performed in three

Portmanteau words is a term coined by Lewis Carroll in his Through the Looking Glass.
The author introduces it for the first time when, Alice, the main character of the book, asks
Humpty Dumty to explain to her what the words in the Jabberwocky poem mean. Among
these words, there are slithy and mimsy, which Humpty Dumty explains as follows,
pointing at how they have been formed:
Well, slithy means lith and slimy. Lith is the same as active. You see, its
like a portmanteau there are two meanings packed up into one word Well then,
mimsy is flimsy and miserable (theres another portmanteau for you). (Carroll
1980: 271)


Word Formation

by aphaeresis, which is the elimination of the beginning of the

word: cello (from violoncello), bus (from omnibus), plane (from
airplane), pike (from turnpike), phone (from telephone);
by syncope, which is the elimination of the middle part of the
word: maam (from madam), oer (from over), dont (from do not),
fancy (from fantasy), specs (from spectacles);
by apocope, which is the elimination of the final part of the word:
fab (from fabulous), caff (from caf), bicarb (from bicarbonate),
exam (from examination), cinema (from cinematopgraph), memo
(from memorandum), gas (from gasoline), etc.

3.6.3. Back-formation
If clipping is a special type of compounding, back-formation
might be considered a special instance of derivation (regressive or back
derivation). Back formation is a process based on the analogy between
words that contain affixes and words that have component parts
homonymous to affixes. These parts are removed in order to restore (or
back-form) what is believed to have been the original. For example, babysitter did not appear in English by adding the suffix er to the verb
compound baby-sit, but rather er was first added to the sit part of the
compound and only after the verbal noun sitter was obtained, did the word
baby-sitter come into being. By back formation, the verb baby-sit was
formed as if the compound noun baby-sitter had been obtained from this
verb by suffixation. Likewise, peddle is back-formed from peddler, while
edit is a back formation from editor.
As Ttaru (2002: 95) points out, certain words were borrowed into
English that already had suffix-like components in their structure. This is
the case of the word puppy, for example, borrowed from the French
poupee. Its original being presumed to have been obtained by derivation
with the diminutive suffix y, pup was back-formed.
Active since the 19th century, back-formation is a process that has
proved productive especially in the case of compound verbs, an area not
very well represented in Modern English. Recent back-formed verbal
compounds include force-land, blood-transfuse, sleepwalk, housekeep,
electrocute, etc. It has also been much used in technical terminology, where
one encounters terms such as aerodyne from aerodynamic, lase from laser
or hydrotrope from hydrotropic.

3.6.4. Folk etymology

Like back-formation, folk etymology is based on analogy as well,
this time, a partial or total analogy in pronunciation between borrowed
words and words already existing in the language. As Katamba (2005: 136)


Words about Words

observes, false etymology as he calls the process, plays an important role

in the phonological adaptation of foreign words to the English sound
system. People tend to rationalize; they want a reason for the imported
word sounding the way it does. So they link it with a plausible real word in
their language, distorting the actual etymon of the word borrowed by
English from another language.
Thus, crayfish, meaning crab was formed as a consequence of the
misinterpretation of the French etymon ecrevisse, which was believed to be
a kind of fish. The Greek word asparagus came to be borrowed into English
as sparrowgrass, while the Latin appenditium finally gave penthouse in
English. Hulban (1975: 103) explains that the meaning of penthouse, at
present, a very expensive and comfortable apartment or set of rooms on
the top floor of a building, used to be a subsidiary structure attached to
the wall of a main building, usually having a sloping roof. Its etymon,
appenditum, meant a small building dependent upon a large church and
gave apentis in Old French. As the building is a house which has a roof with
a slope, the word was associated with the French pente, meaning slope,
hence penthouse in Modern English.
Though not as frequent as the major means of word formation, folk
etymology is not all that rare. In English, there are a number of words
formed by combining pseudo-roots to affixes. This is the case of trimaran,
a vessel with three hulls, which seems to be formed from catamaran, a
twin hulled sailing boat, as if maran were a root meaning hull.
Conversely, a form may be considered an affix that may be attached to
roots. holic, for example, has been attached to work and gave workaholic
and to ice-cream and gave ice-cream-a-holic, on the basis of the pattern
represented by alcoholic. It follows from here that holic has been treated
as a suffix meaning someone who overindulges in something, although
that was not its original meaning.
Folk etymology is a process that works in the opposite direction as
well, i.e. other languages that have borrowed words from English have
adapted them to their system altering the original to suit the regularities in
them. The more indirect the borrowing, the greater the alterations are likely
to be. For instance, as Katamba (2005) exemplifies, Luganda borrowed
pakitimane from Swahili which, in turn, borrowed it from English pocket
money. Pakitimane means wallet rather than pocket money. When
words pass from one language to another, there is always the danger of
misunderstanding what exactly these words denote or what aspects of an
object they specifically pick out. A degree of drift is almost inevitable when
a game of Chinese whispers is played (Katamba 2005: 137).

3.6.5. Deflection
Deflection, also called sound interchange or root derivation
consists of a sound (vowel, consonant or both vowel and consonant) change


Word Formation

in the root of a word, a new word being thus obtained. The process is not
very productive at present, but it used to be one of the major means by
which grammatical categories were marked and by which new words were
formed in Old English. It affected words belonging to the word stock which
have survived up to now in the language.
The Indo-European ablaut change in the root vowel of strong verbs,
due to differences in stress, has been preserved in Modern English in
irregular verbs such as sing sang sung; drink drank, drunk; speak
spoke; abode abide; bit bite; ride road.
A number of causative verbs have been formed from other verbs by
this means: sit set (to cause too sit), fall fell (to cause to fall by
cutting, beating or knocking down), lie lay (to put or set down). Verbs
have also been turned into nouns by deflection: bleed blood; break
breach; feed food; sing song; speak speech.
Ablaut combinations illustrating the voiced voiceless consonant
alternation include: advise advice; prove proof; devise device;
believe belief.

3.6.6. Change of accent

By this mechanism, in a pair made up of a noun and its homograph
verb, the two elements (generally, of Romance origin) differ from one
another by distinctive accent. Thus, the noun accent is stressed on the first
syllable, while its corresponding verb is stressed on the second syllable.
Such pairs of words are pretty numerous in English: attribute attribute,
torment torment, contract contract, import import, permit
permit, present present.

3.6.7. Abbreviation
At least two things may be understood by abbreviation: the
reduction of a word to several letters and the reduction of a group of words
designating a notion to the initials of these words.
According to Ttaru (2002), the former is due to the discrepancy
between spelling and pronunciation in English, as well as to the unusual
length of some words as against the majority of the other words, especially
those in the basic word stock (Ttaru 2002: 91). It is a phenomenon that is
quite frequent in English, especially in its American variety, and it tends to
become very productive. Examples of words abbreviated by reduction to
several letters in their structure include: brolly for umbrella, hanky for
handkerchief, nighty for nightgown or p.js for pyjamas.
The latter type of abbreviation is extremely productive in Modern
English. Some words obtained by reduction to the initial letters of the
component elements of a multi-word notion have become so common in
the language that speakers do not recognize or do not know what these


Words about Words

abbreviations stand for. Some of them are pretty transparent (UFO

unidentified flying object, NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization),
while others require a scientists knowledge to be traced back to what they
stand for (HTML hypertext mark-up language, http hypertext transfer
or transport protocol).
There are several ways in which these abbreviations may be read:
by pronouncing the letters connected as if they formed a word
proper: AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Nasdaq
The National Association of Securities Dealers Automated
Quotations, laser light amplification by stimulated emission of
radiation, UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organisation. When abbreviations are pronounced this
way, they are known as acronyms;
by pronouncing the letters in their structure in isolation: pm
post meridian, MP Member of the Parliament, B&B bed and
breakfast, bpi bits per inch;
by reading the word of group of words that has been abbreviated:
dr, Ms. Mr., BTW (by the way), Mt. (mount), St. (saint), Rd. (road).
Abbreviations from Latin that have an international character are
found in English as well, both in the everyday and in the specialized
language: am ante meridian, i.e. id est (that is), e.g. exempli gratia
(for example), ap. apud (according to), sup. supra (above), etc.

3.6.8. Alphanumerics
Alphanumerics are a special case of abbreviations combinations
of letters and numbers - which have gained in importance with the advance
of the email and the SMS language, due to the fact that they meet the
requirements of reduced space and expedient communication. They have
penetrated the language of advertising as well, since they are striking and
informal at the same time. Alphanumerics are to be read component by
component, being based on homophony with other words in the language.
Examples include: CUL8R (see you later), BU (be you), 4U (for you), D8
(date), CU2NITE (see you tonight). Alphanumerics combine with
abbreviation to letters in words such as B2B (business-to-business), B2C

3.6.9. Eponyms
Eponyms are words derived from proper names. If considered
from the point of view of the morphological class to which they belong,
eponyms are best represented by nouns. They are the most numerous, more
so than adjectives and verbs put together.


Word Formation

As demonstrated by Brook (1981), the sources that gave English

proper names that became eponyms are extremely varied.
Many of them have passed into the language from names in the
Greek and Roman mythology, some as derivatives. Antropos was, for
example, one of the three Fates who had the task of cutting the thread of life
to the required length. Atropine, the eponym derived from it, became a
picturesque term for the poisonous substance found in the deadly
nightshade. Another word derived from Greek legends is procrustean,
meaning tending to produce uniformity by violent methods. Its origin lies
in the name of a violent robber of Attica, Procrustes, who used to stretch or
amputate his victims to make them fit his bed. Eros, the Greek god of love
has given erotic, while hermetic is derived from Hermes, a versatile god
whose responsibilities included alchemy. It is used today mainly in the
phrase hermetic seal, to refer to an airtight closure that alchemists initially
made use of. From Roman mythology, English has cereal, derived from
Ceres, the name of the goddess of agriculture. The name of Cupid, the god
of love, is clearly related to cupidity. Fortuna, the goddess of chance as a
power in human affairs, gave fortune, while Gratia, one of the three goddess
sisters who bestowed beauty and charm, gave grace.
Literature (both British or American and worldwide) was another
rich source of eponyms. Defoes Robinson Crusoe was the origin of Man
Friday, sometimes meaning an aboriginal, but also a cheerful, hardworking and versatile assistant. Brook (1981: 41) suggests that the phrase
has become so much a part of [our] language that newspapers sometimes
contain advertisements from would-be employers of Girl Fridays.
Gargantuan, meaning enormous comes from Gargantua, Rabelais giant
character in La Vie tres horrifique of Grand Gargantua, while quixotic is
well established in English to denote people, ideas or plans that are not
practical and rarely succeed, by analogy with Cervantes Don Quixote, a
generous, but unworldly and self-deluding character, in the book by the
same name.
The names of real life persons which have evolved into common
nouns in English may be grouped into a few quite large categories.
Many names of flowers have been formed by derivation with the
suffix ia from the name of the botanist who discovered them or of
someone the explorer wanted to honour. Examples include well-known
words such as begonia after Michel Begon, an administrator in the West
Indies who discovered the flower, dahlia, after the Swedish botanist Anders
Dahl, forsythia after the English botanist William Forsyth, lobelia after the
Flemish botanist Matthias de Lobel and magnolia, named by Linnaeus in
honour of Pierre Magnol, a French physician.
Products have often preserved the name of their inventors. Bakelite
is a synthetic resin invented by a Flemish chemist named Leo Baekeland.
The chesterfield, a sofa with padded seat, arms and back, was named after a
nineteenth century Earl of Chesterfield, while the bunsen burner, a piece of


Words about Words

equipment that produces a gas flame and is used in laboratories, received

its name from Robert Wilhelm von Bunsen.
In electrical engineering, the names of various measurement units
are taken from the names of the scientist who first used them. The most
familiar are volt, the unit of electric force, from Count Alessandro Volta, an
Italian physicist, watt, the unit of power, from James Watt, a Scottish
engineer, and amp, the unit of electric power, from Andre Amper, a French
scientist. Others, less frequently used in everyday language, are ohm, the
unit of resistance, from the German physicist Georg Simon Ohm, and
coulomb, the unit of electric charge, from the French engineer Charles de
The item invented may be very simple, but, if it proves useful, its
name spreads quickly into the common language. Sandwich is derived from
the name of the Earl of Sandwich, a keen gambler who is said to have once
spent a whole day and night at the gaming-table, eating nothing else but
pieces of meat placed in between two small slices of bread. Articles of dress
may derive their names from those of famous people who once wore them.
Thus, the raglan, a kind of overcoat without shoulder seams, was named
after the commander of the British forces in the Crimean War, Baron
Raglan. The Earl of Cardigan gave his name to the cardigan, a knitted
woolen jacket buttoned at the front. The wellingtons, knee-high rubber
waterproof boots, took their name from that of the Duke of Wellington.
Place names have been as productive as people names in
contributing to the enrichment of English with eponyms. They may be
recognized as the origin of the names of various wines and varieties of
cheese. Examples include chablis, made near the small town of Chablis,
burgundy, from the ancient province of Burgundy, champagne, originally
the sparkling beverage made in the region of Champagne, now any kind of
beverage made according to the initial Champagne method, gorgonzola,
the cheese originally made in the town by this name in Lombardy,
camembert, deriving its name from that of a village in France and cheddar,
which acquired its name from that of the village where it was first made,
Cheddar, in Somerset.
Finally, (though this is not a comprehensive approach, as extensive
as it may be), breeds of dogs are frequently named after their real or
supposed places of origin. Thus, the alsacian comes from Alsace, the
dalmatian, from the Dalmatian Coast and the saint bernard from the
Hospice of the Great St. Bernard, a pass in the Alps.
Words formed from proper names may behave just like the rest of
the lexical items in the vocabulary of English. They may undergo shortening
as in strad for Stradivarius and they may serve as the basis for derivatives,
as in macadamize, from the root macadam, an eponym connected to the
name of John Macadam, the inventor of the pavement with cubic stones.
Eponyms may also be blended with other words, as in gerrymander,
meaning to divide a region in which people vote in a way that gives a


Word Formation

particular political group an unfair advantage. The word is a blend of

salamander with gerry, from Elbridge Gerry, who, at a certain moment,
used this device to make sure that the Republicans remained in power in
Some of the types of eponyms discussed here will be mentioned in
the chapter dedicated to word meaning, more exactly, to metonymy, as an
instance of transfer of meaning. Justifiably, transfers such as the use of the
name of the inventor for the thing invented or that of the place name for the
product coming from there are considered by some linguists kinds of

3.6.10. Nonce words

There are words in English, as in any other language, that have been
coined by various users (fiction writers and journalists especially) but are
not yet accepted by the whole English speaking community. These are
called nonce words.
Diachronically, nonce words may remain just a fashion of the
moment and drop out of use or they may come to enter the accepted
vocabulary and be mentioned in dictionaries. This was the case of words
attributed to Shakespeare such as auspicious, to accost (somebody), to
dwindle, nayward, dauntless.



Before introducing the problem of word meaning, briefly talking
about the evolution of the theories of the linguistic sign from Saussure to
Buhler, to which the former is closely connected, might prove useful.

4.1. Saussures approach to the linguistic sign

In modern linguistics, Saussure (1916, 1965) was the first scholar to
consider language a system of signs. For him, the linguistic sign and the
system it is part of are mutually dependent, since the former functions only
within the latter, on the basis of its relations to the other signs.
For the French scientist, the linguistic sign has two sides: a given
notion (concept) that is associated in the brain with a certain phonic
image (acoustic image). The two, just like the system and the sign, are
mutually conditioning, they evoke or call each other up.
In his famous course in general linguistics, Saussure (1916, 1965)
repeatedly stresses the idea that the linguistic sign is a mental unit and that
it does not establish a link between a thing and a name, but between a
concept and a phonic image. This image is, for him, nothing material or
physical, but the mental impression of a sound. The connection between the
concept and the phonic image represents the linguistic sign for Saussure,
who later replaces the notions concept and acoustic image by signifie
and signifiant, which have since become internationally accepted
technical terms.
Saussure (1965) postulates two principles connected to the linguistic
sign: its arbitrariness and its linearity. For him, the relationship
between the two sides of the linguistic sign is fundamentally arbitrary, nonmotivated or conventional. Even in the case of interjections and
onomatopoeic words, he sees no motivation and considers that they are
acquired conventions of a specific language system, a point of view to which
many have objected since it was expressed. Saussure (1965) himself
rethinks his definite opinion concerning the arbitrary character of the
linguistic sign and speaks about degrees of arbitrariness and about the
transition from arbitrary to motivated formations. Thus, the principle of
arbitrariness holds only for simple linguistic signs, while complex
structures may be morphologically motivated by their constituents. The
linguist considers the components of a compound structure transparent
formative elements, though it would be more logical to view the whole
construction as transparent.
According to Saussures second principle, that of the linear
character of the linguistic sign, this is made up of a chain of temporally


Word Meaning

successive elements. The principle is based on the fact that the speakers of a
language cannot produce a multitude of sounds at the same time.
To summarize, for Saussure, the linguistic sign is a binary mental
entity, abstracted both from its users and from the extra-linguistic object
denoted by it. However, if the object in reality the linguistic sign refers to
plays no role in Saussures theory, it does in the triadic model developed by
Ogden and Richards (1923).

4.2. Ogden and Richards Semiotic Triangle

The model of the linguistic sign developed by Ogden and Richards
(1923) is represented below:

SYMBOL (word) stands for (thing) REFERENT

The semiotic triangle, the triangle of signification or the

referential triangle, as it is called in the literature, suggests that there is no
direct relationship between the word or the symbol and the extra-linguistic
thing or the referent it denotes (this is indicated by the dotted line
connecting them). The two are linked indirectly, by means of the abstract
thought or reference in our brains (reference is used by Ogden and
Richards in a different way than in most of the more recent linguistic
theories, where it denotes either the relationship between a full linguistic
sign and an extralinguistic referent, or the action of a speaker / writer
referring to an extra-linguistic object by means of a linguistic sign).
According to Ogden and Richards, there is then no direct relationship
between the word or the symbol dog and a particular class of living beings
or a specific element of this class. They stress the point that the meaning of
the linguistic symbol (sign), as a concept or thought, has to be clearly
distinguished from the extra-linguistic object denoted by it. Words, as
linguistic signs, are therefore indirectly related to extra-linguistic referents.
Saussures binary model is thus expanded into the three-sided
model of the semiotic triangle, which, however, still excludes the users of
the linguistic sign the speaker / writer and the hearer / reader. In 1934,
Karl Buhler gave the model of the linguistic sign a pragmatic dimension and
included the two in the theory.


Words about Words

4.3. Bhlers Organon Model

Bhlers theory, following Plato, who sees language as a tool
(organon) is represented in a simplified form in the diagram below (cf
Lipka 2002: 58):

Fig. 1. Bhlers Organon Model

The picture above has to be understood in the following way. The

sign in the center links a sender (normally, the speaker) with an addressee
(normally, the hearer) and the represented objects and relations. The
connecting lines between the sign and the three elements just mentioned
symbolize the three most important functions of the complex linguistic
sign, i.e. of the language: expression (also called the emotive function),
representation (also called the referential function) and appeal (also
called the conative / vocative function). The linguistic sign, as an
instrument, is an expression of the sender (speaker or writer) who uses it to
appeal to the addressee (hearer or reader). At the same time, it serves for
the representation of objects, states of affairs and relations, i.e. for the
representation of extra-linguistic referents.
As an expression of the speaker or writer, in other words, being
dependent on the sender, the linguistic sign is, according to Buhler (1934),
a symptom. Because of its correlation with an extra-linguistic referent, it
is also a symbol. Seen from the point of view of its relation to an
addressee, whose behaviour it is meant to direct and control, the sign is,
finally, a signal. These three approaches to the linguistic sign may be


Word Meaning

correlated with the language functions suggested by Buhler in the following

EXPRESSION (speaker, writer) ____________
REPRESENTATION (referent) ____________
APPEAL (hearer, reader) ____________

4.4. Word meaning

The discussion of the three successive models above hinted at
aspects connected to word meaning. Word meaning is a pretty controversial
issue in linguistics, which has been dedicated thousands of pages to and has
been approached from hundreds of angles. It is beyond the scope of this
book to attempt at summarizing the available theories of meaning.
However, instead of going into the intricacies of the various aspects of
meaning, a concise overview of the most common terms associated with
word meaning would be useful. Denotation, reference, sense and
connotation will be considered in what follows.

4.4.1. Denotation and reference

The relation of denotation links a lexeme, as it was defined in the
introductory chapter, with a whole class of extra-linguistic objects. As Lyons
(1977: 207) puts it, the denotation of a lexeme is the relationship that holds
between that lexeme and persons, things, places, properties, processes and
activities external to the language system. He uses the term denotatum
for the class of objects, properties, etc., to which the expression correctly
applies (Lyons 1977: 207).
The linguist characterizes the denotatum of the word cow, for
example, as a particular class of animals and adds that the individual
animals in this class are its denotata. He further points out that the
denotation of a lexeme is independent of the concrete context of an
utterance. However, expressions such as the cow, Johns cow, those three
cows over there may be used to establish a relationship of reference with
individual elements in the class generally denoted by cow as their referents
(the reference of the above expressions containing cow is partly determined
by the denotation of the lexeme cow in English). Reference is thus defined
as the relationship which holds between an expression and what that
expression stands for on particular occasions of its utterance (Lyons 1977:
174). Since, for Lyons, reference depends on concrete utterances and not on
abstract sentences, it follows that single lexemes cannot be related to extralinguistic objects by means of reference, or, to put it in his own words,
reference is an utterance-dependent notion. Furthermore, it is not


Words about Words

generally applicable in English to single word-forms; and it is never

applicable to lexemes (Lyons 1977: 176).
Lyons use of the term reference is summarized and illustrated by
Lipka (2002: 75) as follows:

Fig. 2. Lyons use of the term reference

4.4.2. Denotation and sense

Denotation having been defined following Lyons, for consistency of
approach, I shall introduce the notion of sense according to his views as
well. Thus, initially, he (1968: 427) defined the sense of a word as its place
in a system of relationships which it contracts with other words in the
vocabulary. Later, still regarding sense from a relational perspective, he
redefines it as the relationship which holds between the words or
expressions of a single language independently of the relationship, if any,
which holds between those words or expressions and their referents or
denotata (Lyons 1977: 206). What we understand from here is that sense is
a language-internal relationship, bearing no connection with the extralinguistic world.
Both individual lexemes and larger expressions have denotation and
sense, while only the latter have reference. As Jackson and Amvela (2007:
66) explain, the sense of an expression is a function of the sense of the
lexemes it contains and their occurrences in a particular grammatical
construction. The sense of the word table will vary in the following
sentences: Dont put your feet on the table! and It will be finalized under
the table.
A comparison between denotation and sense indicates that the two
are equally basic relationships that are dependent on each other. According
to Lyons (1977: 210), there are some words which do not have denotation,
i.e. they cannot be associated with a class of real objects, but, nevertheless,
have sense, i.e. they establish relationships with the other words in the


Word Meaning

language system. This is the case of the word unicorn, which Lyons (1977:
210) illustrates by suggesting the following pairs of sentences:
There is no such animal as a unicorn.
There is no such book as a unicorn.

The former sentence is perfectly acceptable, while the latter is semantically

odd. They demonstrate that, while the lexemes book and unicorn are
incompatible, animal and unicorn are related in sense.
Of denotation, reference and sense, it is the last that will lie at the
basis of the discussion of sense relations between words later in this

4.4.3. Denotation, connotation and markedness

In lexical semantics, some linguists (though there is no total
agreement on the matter) draw a binary distinction between denotation and
connotation, or denotative and connotative meaning (Kastovsky 1982,
Hansen et al 1985, Ullmann 1962, etc). Approaching meaning in terms of
denotation and connotation is closely linked to synonymy (which shall be
detailed upon later) in that synonyms are regarded as having the same
denotation, i.e. the same cognitive or conceptual meaning, but different
connotations (in other words, synonyms may be specifically marked by
connotations). This additional aspect of meaning, as opposed to the central
denotational core, may be illustrated with the following examples of
stylistic or social and affective meaning from Leech (1981: 14), as they
are reproduced by Lipka (2002: 80):
(a) steed (poet.)
(b) domicile (leg.)
residence (fml.) throw
nag (sl.)
abode (peot. / old)
gee-gee (baby l.) home
chuck (sl.)

(c) cast (lit.)

The twofold distinction between denotation and connotation may be

justified by the fact that denotation refers to the relationship holding
between a linguistic sign and its denotatum. Connotations are, however,
additional characteristics of lexemes. Leech (1981: 14) marks steed as
poetic, nag as slang and gee-gee as baby language. Various dictionaries
label them differently: steed may be, according to some, literary rhetorical /
humorous, nag may be colloquial, while gee-gee may be used by or when
spoken to children. Domicile is considered very formal, official by Leech,
while, in dictionaries, it is labeled formal or legal. Abode is viewed as poetic
by Leech, and old / literary / legal by various dictionaries, etc.


Words about Words

It follows from here that the words in each of the three columns
above have the same denotation, but differ in connotation, in other words,
they are marked, or instances of marking or markedness (cf. Lyons 1977:
305). Lyons characterizes the words written in italics as general.
The notion of marking or markedness is derived from phonology,
where the marked member of a pair of phonemes has some additional
features as compared to the other member (/d/ in the pair /t/ - /d/ is
voiced, for example, while /t/ is not; consequently, /d/ is considered
marked). By analogy, the words horse, home and throw in Leechs example
may be considered unmarked, while the others are marked in one way or
another. The unmarked lexemes are neutral and not restricted to a
particular instance of use, while de marked ones are most readily used in
some contexts and excluded from others.
Connotatively marked lexemes in a language may be subcategorized
in various ways. As Lipka (2002: 82) indicates, certain aspects of linguistic
variation may serve to distinguish between regional, temporal and social
connotations. Besides stylistically, affectively, or emotionally marked
lexemes, we could furthermore group lexical items according to regional or
dialectal, archaic or neologistic, and sociolinguistic variation (cf. Lipka
1988a). We could draw on parameters like medium, field, mode, tenor,
or, like Leech, on province, status, modality.
Some of these approaches to connotations are comprised in the
system suggested by Hansen et al (1985). Its most important points are
indicated below in a diagrammatic form, though with much fewer examples
than those offered by the authors. The three main classes of connotations
are, according to them, the following:
A. stylistic: edifice, swain, apothecary, bakshees, buddy, bugger;
B. expressive: niggard, bastard, dolly bird;
C. regional: elevator, streetcar, truck, wee.

These are further sub-classified by the authors as represented in the

following diagrams (Lipka 2002: 83):


Word Meaning

Fig. 3. Categories of connotation

Regional variation is not divided into other sub-classes by Hansen et

al (1985). However, the authors mention varieties such as British,
American, Scottish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African,
Indian English and also point at interior differentiations within these (eg.
Northern English). They only give examples of Americanisms, stating that
American English is currently exerting a great influence over British
English and that the process of fluctuation of words from one of these two
varieties into the other is, at present, very active.
What I understand from the taxonomy of connotations suggested by
Lipka and his colleagues (1985) is that, according to them, the same
referent may be referred to by using different words, with different
connotations. Thus, they seem to neglect the fact that even the same word,
used to refer to a single referent, may gain various connotative dimensions
depending on the context of its being used. A simple word such as home
may carry connotations of joy, excitement, sadness or boredom, depending
on who utters it and when (somebody saying Ill stay home tonight doing
nothing may attach the idea of boredom to it, while somebody else
exclaiming We are back home! after a long journey may link joy to it, etc.).

4.5. Sense relations between words

As it was pointed out in 4.2., sense is a relational concept, referring
to the links between the lexemes and expressions of a language. In what


Words about Words

follows I shall survey the types of such links, under the general heading
sense relations.

4.5.1. Synonymy General characteristics of synonyms
Synonyms are words belonging to the same morphological class
which have the same core meaning, though they may differ in shades of
meaning, connotation, distribution, collocation and idiomatic use.
Synonyms are interchangeable at least in some, if not in all contexts of use.
Thus, for example, busy and occupied are synonyms in Im afraid Mr.
Brown is busy / occupied, but busy cannot substitute occupied in This seat
is occupied. Liberty and freedom are interchangeable in They fought for
their liberty / freedom, but one can only say Im not at liberty to tell you
the truth in English. To start and to begin may both be used in She
started / began to cry upon hearing the news, but only start may correctly
collocate with car (I started my car). In the same way, one can either win
or gain a victory, but one can only win a war. When synonyms are
interchangeable in particular contexts, they are considered to be in
equipollent distribution (Hulban 1975: 155). Alone may be used only
predicatively, while its synonyms solitary and lonely may be employed both
as attributes and as predicative adjuncts. In the grammatical contexts which
are not shared, words such as alone, solitary and lonely are considered
grammatical distributional opposites (Hulban 1975: 156).
Synonyms may be arranged in synonymic series containing two or
more elements. In such series, one of the terms acquires a dominant
position, being the most general among the others and the most frequently
used in the language. This term is labeled the synonymic dominant and it
becomes the head word in dictionaries. To illustrate, in the synonymic
series to leave to depart to clear out to retire, it is to leave that is the
synonymic dominant, since it is neutral stylistically and can replace any of
the other members of the group.
Going back to the matters connected to connotation, I may say that
the synonymic dominant is the unmarked term of the series, while all the
other terms are marked in terms of connotations of various kinds.
Simple words may establish correlative synonymic relationships
with collocations, phrases or idioms as in the pairs to win to gain the
upper hand, to decide to make up ones mind, to hesitate to be in two

Although this is the generally accepted point of view, linguists such as Jones (2002)
suggest that antonymy may hold between words that belong to different word classes. For
example, in Lighten our darkness, we pray, the verb lighten and the noun darkness form an
antonymic pair. In She remembered to shut the door but left the window open, the verb to
shut and the adjective open are in a relation of antonymy.


Word Meaning

minds, to swing the lead to exaggerate, neck and crop entirely, to

laugh to give a laugh, to prefer to show preference, to go after to
follow, to go on to continue, to give in to surrender.
As Hulban (1975) observes, correlative synonymic relations are also
met in the case of some special stylistic synonyms, in which the name of a
writer, inventor, etc. is replaced by a descriptive phrase, as in Chaucer the
father of English literature or Shakespeare the sweet swan of Avon.
Correlative synonymic relations may also be recognized in certain
phrases that are made up of two synonyms linked by the copulative
conjunction and: with might and main, lord and master, stress and
strain, each and every, liberty and freedom, really and truly, last will and
testament, exiled and banished, etc. As Cruse (1986) points out, synonyms
occur together in another type of expressions, namely when a synonym is
employed as an explanation or clarification of the meaning of another word.
The relationship between the two words is frequently signalled by
something like that is to say, or a particular variety of or as in: He was
cashiered, that is to say, dismissed and in This is an ounce, or snow
When synonyms are used contrastively, as they sometimes are, it is
customary to indicate the fact that it is their different peripheral meanings
which must be attended to, by phrases such as more exactly or rather as
in the following examples offered by Cruse (1986: 267): He was murdered,
or rather executed, On the table there were a few grains or, more exactly,
granules of the substance.
Polysemantic words have different synonymic series for each of
their senses. For example, ill in the sense of not in full physical or mental
health is synonymous with ailing, indisposed, sick, unwell. If it means
bad, possible synonyms for it are evil, wicked, wrong.
Synonyms occur in a number of idioms and proverbs in English.
Examples of the former include to be on pins and needles, while the latter
may be illustrated by It never rains but it pours. They may also be
employed as stylistic devices contributing to giving more expressive force to
a particular description or to nuancing it, as Hulban (1975: 162 -164)
illustrates quoting G.B. Shaw:
I give you up. You are factproof. I am lazy; I am idle; and I am breaking
down from overwork. Dont you like these dear old-world places? I do.
I dont. They ought all to be rooted up, pulled down, burnt to the ground. Types of synonyms

There are several types of synonyms, such as: strict / perfect /
absolute synonyms, ideographic synonyms and stylistic


Words about Words

Two lexical units would be perfect synonyms (i.e. would have

identical meanings) if and only if all their contextual relations were
identical says Cruse (1986: 268). The linguist adds that it would be
impracticable to prove that two lexical items are perfect synonyms
following this definition, since that would mean checking their occurrences
in all conceivable contexts, a thing that is surely impossible, the number of
such contexts being infinite. However, proving that absolute synonymy
remains at the level of theory and does not practically exist in real contexts
of language use (a point of view expressed by numerous other linguists)
should not be very difficult, since a single discrepancy in the pattern of the
contextual relations of the candidates to absolute synonymy would be
sufficient proof in this sense. Cruse (1986: 268)) chooses to demonstrate
the practical impossibility of absolute synonymy starting from his opinion
that equinormality in all contexts is the same as identity of meaning.
Based on this approach, two lexical items that are not equally normal in at
least one syntactic context cannot be considered strict synonyms. This is the
case of the pairs begin commence, munch chew, hate loathe,
scandalous outrageous, for which discriminating contexts can be found,
though they might seem perfectly interchangeable in all instances of use
(Cruse (1986: 269) marks the more normal contexts with + and the less
normal ones with -):
Tell Mummy when Playschool begins and shell watch it with you. (+)
Tell Mummy when Playschool commences and shell watch it with you. (-)
Arthur is always chewing gum. (+)
Arthur is always munching gum. (-)
I dont just hate him, I loathe him. (+)
I dont just loathe him, I hate him. (-)
That is a scandalous waste of money. (+)
That is an outrageous waste of money. (-)

Besides the test of normality, there are other arguments brought

against perfect synonymy. One of these is, for example, the fact that the
economy of language would not tolerate (except, perhaps, for a very limited
period of time) the existence of two lexical items with exactly the same
meaning. Another one is of a historical nature. If absolute synonyms do
occur at a certain moment in the development of a language, what happens
is that, usually, one of the items falls into obsolescence and is, ultimately,
no longer used, it remains to be used in particular dialects or stylistic
varieties only or it begins to be employed in contexts from which the other
is excluded. Thus, Jackson and Amvela (2007: 109) offer a list of archaic or
obsolete words which have fallen out of use and have been replaced by the
items mentioned in brakets: culver (pigeon), fain (willing), divers


Word Meaning

(various), levin (lightning), dorp (village), trig (neat), warrener

(gamekeeper), wight (human being), erst (formerly). On the other hand,
when enemy was imported into English from French, its Anglo-Saxon
correspondent foe began to be used more in the literary than in the
everyday language. In the same way, mutton (from the French mouton) and
sheep were perfect synonyms for a very limited period of time, up to the
moment when the former specialized to designate the meat of sheep, while
the latter got restricted to refer to the animal itself.
The discussion of synonymy so far has attempted at demonstrating
by arguments that perfect synonymy is rejected by actual language use.
When we speak of synonymy, then, we mean varying degrees of loose
synonymy, where we identify not only a significant overlap in meaning
between two words, but also some contexts at least where they cannot
substitute for each other (Jackson, Amvela 2007: 109). Loose synonymy is
illustrated by at least two types of synonyms, ideographic and stylistic.
Ideographic synonyms share the core meaning, but differ in
shades of meaning in that certain notes characteristic of the notions,
phenomena, objects denoted by these words are accented. They may also
differ in connotation, collocation patterns and idiomatic use. In the pair of
synonyms to love to adore, for example, to love is rather neutral, while to
adore bears connotations of worship or passion. Crowd refers to a
disorganized group of people, while its synonym, mob refers to the same
group, but connotes the idea of riotous intentions as well. As it is pointed
out in the Longman Dictionary of the English Language (1991: 141),
quoted by Jacskon and Amvela (2007: 108), Beg, entreat, beseech,
implore, supplicate and importune all signify the making of an appeal
which is likely to be refused or demurred at. A person begs for what s/he
cannot claim as a right; beg suggests earnestness, insistence, and
sometimes self-abasement. By entreating someone, one hopes to persuade
him / her by earnest pleading and reasoning. Beseech and implore convey
eager anxiety which seeks to inspire sympathy or pity. Implore may be
stronger than beseech, with a suggestion of tearfulness or evident anguish.
Supplicate adds to entreat a humble, prayerful attitude <invite, entreat,
supplicate to accompany you - Lord Chesterfield>. Importune denotes
persistence with ones requests to the point of annoyance or even
The category of stylistic synonyms includes words having the
same notional components of meaning, but differing in their stylistic
reference or degree of formality. Jackson and Amvela (2007: 111) offer
examples of pairs of synonyms in which one of the members is used in
informal or less formal contexts, while the other is used in more formal
contexts. Such examples include: archer toxophilite, argument
disputation, beauty pulchritude, cross traverse, die decease, give up
renounce, letter missive, praise eulogy, warning caveat, western
occidental. They also mention pairs of synonymous words of which one


Words about Words

belongs to standard English and the other to English slang. The following
examples illustrate this type of stylistic synonyms: astonished
gobsmacked, crash prang, destroy zap, drunk - sloshed, face phizog,
heart ticker, insane - barmy, money rhino, steal nick.
Besides the formal informal, standard slang pairs of synonyms,
distinctions such as technical non-technical, neutral poetic, speech
writing may also be made as in: incision (technical) cut (non-technical),
lesion (technical) cut (common), happiness (neutral) bliss (poetic),
merry (neutral) jocund (poetic), youre (speech) you are (writing).
A particular stylistic synonymic relationship is established between
a taboo word and its corresponding euphemistic words or expressions. A
euphemism is a mild, indirect or less offensive word or expression
substituted when the speaker / writer fears that more direct wording might
be harsh, unpleasantly direct or offensive (when resorted to by officials such
as members of the Parliament, officers, lawyers, etc., the use of
euphemisms is known as doublespeak). Thus, the verb to die enters a
stylistic synonymic relationship with the following euphemistic (idiomatic)
phrases: to breathe ones last (breath, gasp), to depart this life, to pay
ones debt to nature, to go to ones last home, to go the way of all flesh, to
kick the bucket, to hop the twig, to join the majority, to be no more, to buy
a pine condo, to cross the river to reach the eternal reward, to go to the
other side, etc. A stupid person has a couple of eggs shy of a dozen, a few
beers short of a six-pack, a few clowns short of a circus, a few bricks short
of a wall, a kangaroo loose in the paddock, s/he is not the sharpest knife in
the drawer, not the brightest light in the harbour / on the Christmas tree,
not tied too tight to the pier, knitting with only one needle, not firing on all
cylinders, s/he is as useful as a wooden frying pan, as a screen door on a
submarine or as tits on a bull, s/he is a person whose elevator stuck
between floors, who got into the gene pool when the lifeguard wasnt
watching, who fell out of the family tree or who goes fishing in Nebraska.
Somebody who is old is mature or a senior, surveillance is a stylistic
euphemistic synonym of spying, a theft is an inventory shrinkage or a
property redistribution, a jail is a secure facility, public donation and
shared sacrifice refer to paying taxes, a sanitation worker is a trash
collector and a drug addict is euphemistically called a substance abuser.
No matter what useful and innovative linguistic elements
euphemisms might be, they are short-lived. Their presence in the language
is conditioned by social and cultural conventions which are continuously
changing so that what is considered taboo at a certain moment might be
soon accepted and the need for the euphemisms referring to it might well
fall out of use. What might save them from disappearing from the language
is their stylistic potential.
Dysphemisms, roughly the opposites of euphemisms, are coarser
and more direct words and phrases that are used to replace both more
refined and quite common lexical items, for humorous or deliberately


Word Meaning

offensive purposes. The relationship between the euphemism and the

common word designating its referent may be considered stylistic
synonymy as well. Thus, a bean counter is an accountant, a grease monkey
is a mechanic, a sawbones - a surgeon and a quack - a doctor. Brain bucket
is the dysphemism used for motorcycle helmet, Jesus juice - for wine and
muffin top - for the flesh that erupts over the sides of low-rider tight
jeans. A dead tree edition is the paper edition of an online magazine, while
somebody who has become worm flesh has actually died. Like euphemisms,
dysphemisms cannot boast but a momentary presence in the language,
conditioned by cultural and social conventions. A word or phrase that is, at
a certain moment, used as a euphemism may evolve into an unacceptable
taboo itself and the need of replacing it by a new euphemism arises. The
process has been called the euphemism treadmill by Steven Pinker (2002:
212) and may be illustrated by examples of successive replacements of
euphemisms such as: imbecile mentally retarded developmentally
disabled / mentally challenged / with an intellectual disability / with
special needs or lame crippled handicapped disabled differently
abled. Similar to the concept of euphemism treadmill, a complementary
dysphemism treadmill exists, though it is more rarely observed. In its
case, words and phrases once considered offensive are later described as
objectionable, then as questionable, and, in some cases, as nearly or
outright acceptable in the end. One modern example, according to
Wikipedia online, is the word sucks. That sucks began as American slang
for that is very unpleasant, and is a shortened version for oral sex /
fellatio. It developed over the late-20 th century from being an extremely
vulgar phrase to lower-class, nearly mainstream slang. The same may be
said of the use of screw, often used as slang for sexual intercourse, in such
usages as to screw up, meaning to make a major mistake. Sources of synonymy
English is a language that is very rich in synonyms. The main reason
for the abundance of synonymous words is connected with the history of
the language, in particular, with its having borrowed an impressive number
of lexical items from other languages.
In a pair of synonyms made up of a native and a borrowed word, it is
the native element that is felt to be neutral and, therefore, it is this element
that is used most frequently. In literature, however, many of the words for
which there is a native correspondent are French, while in the scientific
jargon, terms of Greek and Latin origin are preferred.
When described, such synonyms are usually organized on a double
or a triple scale, in which the source of borrowing into English is indicated
and not the language to which the etymon of the words can be traced back.
Hulbans (1975; 158-159) examples of double and triple scales of
synonymy include:


Words about Words






Latin / Greek









In literary language, especially in the case of abstract notions,

synonymic series may be detected that are formed only of words borrowed
from French or Latin:
pushing (Fr.)
assent (Fr.)
cherish (Fr.)

assertive (L.)
agree (Fr.)
prize (Fr.)


militant (L.)
consent (Fr.)
treasure (Fr.)

Word Meaning

Besides borrowings, another source of synonymy in English, seen

from a diachronic perspective, is represented by archaisms. Many of these
are at present used only in dialectal speech, having been replaced in the
common language by various synonyms. Thus, as Hulban (1975: 159)
illustrates, king-stool has been substituted for throne, book-hoard for
library, leechcraft and leechdom for medicine, seamer for tailor, to betake
for to deliver over and to occupy.
Neologisms often lead to synonymy. An interesting phenomenon
sometimes takes place in their case: the neologism is replaced by an earlier
word which undergoes transfer of meaning, the two words eventually
becoming synonyms: automobile is very frequently replaced by motor-car,
shortened to car. However, not all attempts that linguists in favour of
preserving the native stock of English made to replace neologisms have
been successful. Saxonists failed with such words as wheelman, wordhoard, folk-wain which had been meant to replace cyclist, vocabulary and
The existence of ideographic and stylistic synonyms of the kind
discussed in the previous section proves that the geographical and stylistic
varieties of English are a rich source of synonymy. Thus, charm, chest and
church in standard British English may be paired with glamour, kist and
kirk in Scottish English, to add to the examples of ideographic synonyms
already given. The British words autumn, tin, lorry, insect, sweet and
maize as synonyms of the American words fall, can, truck, bug, candy and
corn respectively may enlarge the same category as may Cockney words and
phrases such as trap, chap or ill speed together with their standard English
synonyms sailor, friend and bad luck. As far as stylistic synonyms are
concerned, it is already obvious that euphemisms are another important
source of synonymy as in the pairs of words: illiterate uneducated,
chaotic unformed, sterile unfruitful, short vertically challenged,
pregnant having a bun in the oven, etc. The belonging of words to
various styles in the language may lead to synonymy as well. For instance,
lazy is the standard neutral word for which the colloquial lazybones may be
substituted, trousers is neutral, while its synonym pants is colloquial,
evening, morning, valley and sorrowful are neutral, while their synonyms
eve, morn, vale and doleful, respectively, are poetic, heart attack and
headache belong to the everyday language, while their synonyms
myocardial infarct and cephalalgia are medical technical terms.

4.5.2. Antonymy
Antonymy is the sense relation holding between words belonging
to the same morphological class and having opposite meanings.


Words about Words General characteristics of antonyms

Antonymy is possible only if the words entering this semantic
relationship share a common component of their senses. Thus, old and
young share the component age, long and short share the component
length, while deep and shallow both refer to depth.
Antonyms are found in certain typical configurations in English:
A and B: Young and old were present at the meeting, a matter of
life and death, the long and the short of it;
A or B: wanted dead or alive, Well see if she was right or wrong,
Good or bad, Ill take it;
neither A nor B: neither friend nor foe;
A not B: He was alive, not dead as they thought;
X is A and Y is B: Youth is wild and age is tame (Shakespeare).
Another context in which antonyms are typically employed is when
reference is made to a change of state as in The exhibition opens at nine
and closes at noon or The poet was born in 1924 and died in 1991.
I have previously mentioned that polysemantic words have a
synonymic series for each of their meanings. They also have different
antonyms according to their different senses. Thus, if even refers to
numbers and means divisible by two, its antonym is odd; if it refers to
character or mood and it means calm, its antonym is agitated; for its
meaning dull, it enters an antonymic relationship with interesting, while
sharp may be considered its antonym when it means unable to cut. On
the other hand, polysemantic words may have a number of antonyms for
some of their meanings and none for others. Thus, criticism has the
antonyms praise, approval, when it means blame, while, when it is
employed with the sense writing critical essays, it has no opposite
meaning correspondent.
Antonyms appear in a great number of idioms (to make neither
head nor tail of something, to see something in black and white) and
proverbs (What soberness conceals, drunkness reveals, What is done
cannot be undone, A small leak will sink a great ship, You cant teach an
old dog new tricks, One mans loss is another mans gain), as well as in
several figures of speech extensively used in literature. Of the last, among
which there are oxymoron, irony, and anticlimax, antithesis is the one that
relies most heavily on antonymic relationships. To illustrate this, Hulban
(1975: 169 170) quotes two excerpts selected from G.B. Shaws writings. In
the former, contrast is established by using quite predictable antonyms. In
the latter, however, the antonymic associations are not revealed through the
semantic features of the words used, but rather thorough the innovative
context in which they are used:


Word Meaning
(1) Youth, which is forgiven everything, forgives itself nothing; age, which
forgives itself everything, is forgiven nothing.
(2) Your friends are the dullest dogs I know. They are not beautiful: they
are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched.
They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dresses. They are not
educated: they are only college passmen. They are not moral: they are only
conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not
even vicious: they are only frail. They are not artistic: they are only
lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal:
they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not courageous, only
quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only
domineering, not self-controlled, only obtuse, not self-respecting, only
vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not
considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated liars everyone
of them, to the very backbone of their souls. Types of antonyms

If we refer to the type of oppositeness of meaning, we may speak
about three major classes of antonyms (finer subclassifications are made by
linguists such as Cruse (1986); they are, however, too detailed to be
reproduced in a book on general lexicology): gradable antonyms,
ungradable or contradictory antonyms and converses.
The class of gradable antonyms includes pairs of words such as:
beautiful ugly, small big, rich poor, wide narrow, fast slow,
increase decrease. As their name suggests, the semantic relationship
between gradable antonyms is not of the either or type, but rather of the
more less type. They represent the end-points of a continuum or a scale.
The more less relationship is made obvious by the fact that gradable
antonyms allow comparison - My dress is longer than yours, The tree is
less tall than the building and that they may be modified by intensifying
adverbs: very good, extremely bad, extraordinarily beautiful.
The assertion containing one of the gradable antonyms in a pair
implies the negation of the other, but not always vice-versa. Thus, as Lipka
(2002: 164) exemplifies, John is good implies John is not bad. But John is
not good does not necessarily imply John is bad. The negation of one term
does not necessarily imply the assertion of the other. Using a further
example, The water is not hot does not necessarily imply The water is cold.
However, from The water is cold, the negation The water is not hot does
follow. Furthermore, The water is hot logically implies the negation The
water is not cold.
In a pair of gradable antonyms, one of the terms is unmarked,
while the other one is marked. The unmarked member is the one that is
normally expected in, for example, How old are you? or How long is the
way to the museum?. When unmarked terms such as old or long in these


Words about Words

sentences are used, the speaker / writer does not prejudge anything
whereas, when their marked opposites are used, certain presuppositions
hold. If the two previous questions had been How young are you? and
How short is the way to the museum?, the implications had been that the
person asked about his / her age was young and the way to the museum was
The class of ungradable or contradictory antonyms comprise
pairs such as asleep awake, dead alive, on off, permit forbid,
remember forget, win lose, shut open, true false. Unlike in the case
of gradable antonyms, the semantic relationship between the two members
of an ungradable antonymic pair is of the either or type, i.e. the
assertion of one member always implies the negation of the other, with no
options in between (in the case of adjectives, this is proven by the fact that
they do not allow degrees of comparison). Thus, an animate being may be
described as either dead or alive, but not as some degree of these or as
being more one than the other. If certain behaviour is permitted, then it is
not forbidden; if one lost a contest, then one has not won it; if a switch is
off, then it is not on.
The following are examples of converse antonyms (as quoted by
Jackson and Amvela 2007: 116): above below, before after, behind in
front of, buy sell, give receive, husband wife, parent child, speak
listen. The meanings of the two antonyms are like the two sides of the same
coin, one member of the pair expresses the converse meaning of the other.
Buy and sell describe the same transaction, the difference lying in the
vantage point from which it is viewed. If the transaction is seen from the
point of view of the person who gives up the goods in exchange for money,
we speak about selling, if it is seen from the point of view of the person who
receives the goods upon paying a sum of money for them, we speak about
If we take into consideration the form of the antonyms, we may
speak about root and affixal antonyms.
root or radical antonyms are different lexical units with
opposite meanings: warm cold, kind cruel, open shut;
affixal antonyms are words having the same root, the relation of
oppositeness of meaning between them being established by means
of negative (and positive) affixes which are added to the common
root: careful careless, important unimportant, to believe to
disbelieve, to entangle to disentangle.

4.5.3. Hyponymy and meronymy

This section is dedicated to a pair of sense relations that relate
words hierarchically. Its starting point is the fact that some words have a
more general meaning, while others have a more specific meaning, though


Word Meaning

they refer to the same entity. Thus, for example, dog and spaniel may be
both used to refer to the same creature, but spaniel is a more specific
designation than dog and may be employed to refer to breeds other than
the spaniels, which, however, share with them a number of essential
features (they are four legged omnivorous animals, kept as pets or for
guarding buildings, etc.). Similarly, as Jackson and Amvela (2007: 118)
point out, a pain in the foot and a pain in the toe may refer to the same
phenomenon; the second is merely a more specific way of designating the
location of the pain.
Both dog and spaniel and foot and toe are related to each other by a
general specific type of semantic relationship. However, the two pairs of
words mentioned illustrate slight differences in this relationship. In the
case of dog and spaniel, the relationship is of the kind of type a spaniel
is a kind of dog. This is the relation of hyponymy. The more general term
that can be used for a number of more specific terms is the superordinate
term, while its directly subordinate terms are its hyponyms. Mc Arthur
(1981) exemplifies the semantic relation of hyponymy with a simplified
variant of the taxonomies of natural elements, reproduced by Jacskon and
Amvela (2007: 118):

Fig. 4. Hyponymy

According to this branched scheme, fungus, lichen, shrub, creeper

and tree are the hyponyms of plant. In their turn, all but one of them may
function as the superordinate terms of other hyponyms: fungus is the
superordinate of mushroom and toadstool, creeper is the superordinate of
ivy and bindweed, while tree is the more general term for the more specific
conifer and deciduous. At the bottom level of the scheme, there are pine
and spruce as hyponyms of conifer and oak and ash as hyponyms of
deciduous. If there is a direct connection between the terms at the lower
levels of the scheme and the terms at the upper levels, the former may be
considered hyponyms of the latter, even if they are more than one level


Words about Words

apart: for example, oak and ash are hyponyms of tree, pine and spruce are
hyponyms of plant.
In the case of foot and toe, the relationship is of the part of type
the toe is part of the foot. Cruse (1986) calls it meronymy. Jackson and
Amvela (2007: 120) illustrate it schematically, under the form of a
hierarchy of superordinate and subordinate (meronym) terms:

Fig. 5. Meronymy

Read from the bottom to the top, what this hierarchical model
suggests is that petal and stem are meronyms of flower, as are cap and
hair to root and stalk and blade to leaf. One more level up, leaf, bud, stem,
root, flower and shoot are meronyms of plant.
Part whole relationships like the one that has just been mentioned
exist between numerous words in the English vocabulary. Most of the
objects around us are made of parts that have their own names. A knife is
made of a blade and a handle, the parts of a day are the dawn, the morning,
the noon, the afternoon and the evening, while the head, the trunk and the
limbs constitute the human body.

4.5.4. Homonymy
Homonymy, a pervasive phenomenon in English, is a relation of
lexical ambiguity between words having different meanings, or, as Katamba
(2005: 122) sees it, it is a situation where one orthographic or spoken form
represents more than one vocabulary item. Types of homonyms
If their pronunciation and spelling are taken into consideration,
homonyms may be of the following types:
perfect homonyms or homonyms proper - words identical
in both spelling and pronunciation: light (adjective) light (noun);


Word Meaning

homophones - words that have the same pronunciation, but

differ in spelling: air heir, I eye, buy bye by;
homographs - words that have the same spelling, but differ in
pronunciation: wound [wu:nd] wound [waund], bow [bu] bow
[bau], lead [led] lead [li:d].
As the examples below demonstrate, homonyms are a rich source of
humour. They are, as well, a source of confusion for both users of English
who do not master the language and, sometimes, for proficient speakers of
Why did the teacher wear sunglasses? Her students were too bright.
A family of three tomatoes was walking downtown one day when the little
baby tomato started lagging behind. The big father tomato walks back to
the baby tomato, stomps on her, squashing her into a red paste, and says
Ketchup! (, reproduced by Katamba (2005: 122)
Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case (

In the first two sentences, humour arises from the homonymy

between bright meaning intelligent and bright meaning full of light and,
respectively, between long referring to time in the phrase to be long and
long referring to shape, extension in space. In the paragraph cited by
Katamba, it is the homophones catch up and ketchup that produce a
hilarious effect, while in the last quotation, a headline from a newspaper,
due to the homographic relationship between case meaning a legal matter
presented before a court and case meaning container, it is not clear, at a
quick reading, whether the drunkard was sentenced for a crime connected
to the violins box, not to mention that a person with an imaginative mind
and the sense of humour might as well see the criminal squeezed in a violin
box for nine months.
According to the type of meaning that helps to differentiate words
that have the same sound and / or form, homonyms may be grouped in
three categories:
lexical homonyms are homonyms which belong to the same
grammatical class and have different lexical meanings: the noun
seal meaning a kind of sea animal and the nouns seal meaning
the special mark put on documents to prove that they are
grammatical homonyms are homonyms which belong to
different grammatical classes and have different lexical meanings:
the noun bear referring to a particular kind of large wild animal


Words about Words

with thick fur and the verb bear meaning inability to accept or to
do something;
lexical - grammatical homonyms are homonyms which differ
in grammatical meaning only: that as a demonstrative noun and
that as a demonstrative adjective, played as the past tense of the
verb to play and played as the past participle of the same verb. Sources of homonymy
There are three major phenomena which account for the existence
of so many homonyms in English: phonetic convergence, semantic
divergence and conversion.
Phonetic convergence or convergent sound development lies at
the basis of etymological homonyms, words that can be traced back to
different etymons and that have come to be identical in form as a result of
sound changes. These changes have been frequently accompanied by the
loss of inflections. Thus, the verb bear (I cant bear to be talked to so
impolitely) comes from the Old English (OE) beran, while the noun bear
(Theres a big bear behind that tree) comes from the OE bera. The adjective
fair has a Common Teutonic etymon which gave in OE fger, meaning
beautiful, blond (My sister is a fair woman), the noun fair, meaning a
periodical market sometimes with various kinds of entertainment (Theres
a fair in the village every two weeks) comes from the Old French (OFr)
feire, which is itself a transformed variant of the Latin feria, meaning
Semantic divergence or disintegration / split of polysemy leads
to semantic homonyms. The cause of this phenomenon in English is found,
as one of its names suggests, in polysemy. Semantic homonyms have the
same etymon and are the result of a process by which some meanings of
polysemantic words have deviated so far from each other that they have
gained an existence as completely separate words. Hulban (1975: 175)
quotes a number of examples of such semantic homonyms. The Latin
etymon capitalia, for instance, has given in English the homonymous
adjectives capital (1), meaning relating to the head, punishable by
death, deadly, mortal (The criminal received the capital punishment for
his deeds) and capital (2), meaning standing at the head, upper case
(Names of countries are spelt with capital letters), when referring to letters
or words and chief, important, first-rate (This capital error will make
you lose much money) in other contexts. The OE gesund gave sound (1),
meaning free of disease, infirmity, having bodily health (He looked
perfectly sound after he had taken those medicines) and sound (2),
meaning in accordance with fact, reason, good sense, free from error
(This is a sound statement). Another example that may be added to those
offered by Hulban (1975) is that of the pair flower flour, which were
originally one word, the Latin florem. In France, the word became variously


Word Meaning

flur, flour and flor and passed into English as flur, the blossom of a plant.
During the Elizabethan period, the term flower came to mean the best.
Millers of the era were still using a crude process to grind and sift the meal
and only the finest of it was able to pass through a cloth sieve. This top
quality wheat was reserved for the gentry and the royalty and was known as
the flower of the wheat. Since, during that period, English used to be
pretty flexible in spelling, the word was often spelled flour. Around the
1830s, the two words were officially differentiated.
Conversion, the process by which one lexical item changes its
morphological class without changing its form, accounts for a great number
of homonyms. The pairs ship (noun), meaning large boat for longer
voyages on the sea - ship (verb), meaning to send goods or people by ship
and answer (noun), meaning a spoken or written reply to a question answer (verb), meaning to give s spoken or written reply to a question are
examples of homonyms obtained by conversion.

4.6. Polysemy
Though not a sense relation between words, polysemy may be
introduced here in order to later emphasize its connection with homonymy.
Unlike monosemantic words (very few in English and mainly
technical or scientific words such as saline, dioxide, ontology),
polysemantic words are words which have more than one meaning. The
noun box, for example, is mentioned in the Macmillan English Dictionary
for Advanced Learners (2002) with the following meanings: (1) a
container with straight sides, a flat base, and sometimes a lid Read the
instructions before taking it out of its box.; (1a) the things in a box or the
amount that a box contains Jim gave us some chocolate and we ate the
whole box.; (2) a space on a printed form, in which you write Tick the
boxes that apply to you.; (2a) a space on a computer screen, where you can
read or write a particular kind of information the dialog / error box; (3)
a small enclosed space with seats in a theatre or sports ground, separate
from where the rest of the audience is sitting a corporate entertainment
box; (4) BrE informal for television Is there anything on the box
tonight?; (5) an address that some people use instead of having letters
delivered to their houses My PO Box address is; (6) a tree with small
shiny leaves that people grow especially around the edges of their gardens
a box hedge; informal for coffin for a dead body The box was lowered
into the grave.; BrE for a hard cover worn by men to protect their sex
organs when playing sports Footballers always wear a box when


Words about Words

Most English words are polysemantic, the number of meanings

ranging from three to about one hundred. The commomer the word, the
more meanings it has.
Polysemy may be approached diachronically and synchronically.
From a diachronic point of view, polysemy may be considered a
change in the semantic structure of a word, resulting in new meanings
being added to the one or ones already existing. Diachronically, we speak
about primary meaning, the meaning of the word when it first appeared
in the language, and secondary meaning(s), the meaning(s) that
appeared after the primary one. Thus, the primary meaning of the word
table is flat slab of stone or wood, corresponding to the OE period, when
it was borrowed from Latin. All the other meanings one can find in a
present-day dictionary are later additions and, therefore, secondary
meanings: a piece of furniture that consists of a flat surface held above the
floor, usually by legs, the people sitting at a table, a way of showing
detailed pieces of information, especially facts or numbers, by arranging
them in rows and lines across and down a page.
From a synchronic point of view, polysemy represents the coexistence of various meanings of the same word, at a certain moment in the
development of the language. The meaning having the highest frequency is
usually representative of the semantic structure of the word and is
considered the central or basic meaning. The other meanings are minor or
marginal meanings. Synchronically then, the central meaning of table, the
most widely used and the most general, is a piece of furniture. All the
other meanings are marginal.
If approached synchronically, the meanings of a polysemantic word
may be split into direct and figurative meanings. A word is used with
its direct meaning when it clearly nominates the referent out of a particular
context, and with its figurative meaning when the referent is named and, at
the same time, described through its similarity with something else. For
example, in He got undressed behind the screen, it is the direct meaning of
the word screen that is involved (a movable piece of furniture used to
protect or hide something or somebody), while in He was using his
business as a screen for crime, I could not see anything because of the
thick smoke screen and Behind her house, there was a screen of trees, it is
the figurative meaning of screen that is employed something that
protects and hides.

4.7. Polysemy and homonymy

Difficulties arise when having to distinguish between polysemy, i.e.
between one word with several meanings, and homonymy, i.e. two separate
words with the same form and unrelated meanings. Though, according to
Lyons (1968: 406), the distinction between homonymy and multiple


Word Meaning

meaning is, in the last resort, indeterminate and arbitrary, there are three
criteria that may constitute the staring point in drawing a demarcation line
between the two: etymology, formal identity or distinctness and
close semantic relatedness.
Words with different etymons that coincide phonetically only
accidentally are considered homonyms. This is the case of the pair ear,
meaning organ of hearing and coming from the OE eare and ear,
meaning the part at the top of a cereal plant which contains the grains,
coming from the OE ear. Following this argument, we would have to
consider flower as part of a plant and flour, the powder made by crashing
grain, a single word with two senses, since they have, as I have already
mentioned, a common etymon, namely the Latin word florem. Lyons (1977:
550) points out that port, meaning harbour and port, meaning fortified
wine, which are most probably considered separate words by the majority
of the speakers of English, should, according to the etymology principle, be
treated as two senses of a polysemantic word, since they both derive from
the Latin portus, only that the latter entered English via the Portuguese
Oporto, the name of the town where the wine used to be produced.
Based on the last two examples and on other pairs of etymologically
related words such as person parson, grammar glamour, shirt skirt,
catch chase, which would rather be viewed as separate words, the
conclusion might be drawn that etymology is not always a useful and
reliable criterion for distinguishing between polysemy and homonymy.
The second criterion is that of formal identity or distinctness of
the words. Hansen et al (1985), quoted by Lipka (2002), speak about
complete homonymy only in the case of spoken, written and grammatical
identity of two words. Thus, for them, the identical form bat clearly has two
different meanings and can be assigned to two separate lexemes, bat (1),
noun, meaning a specially shaped stick for kicking the ball in cricket and
bat (2), noun also, meaning a flying mouse-like animal. For them,
distinctions in spelling or pronunciation that lead to homographs or
homophones cancel homonymy.
On the other hand, different morphological and syntactic
characteristics of two words with the same form, but dissimilar meanings
will lead to their being considered separate homonymous lexemes. As Lipka
(2002: 156) exemplifies, we can clearly distinguish between can (1), can
(2) and can (3) because we have a modal auxiliary in one case, a noun in the
second and a transitive verb with the meaning put into a can in the third
As far as the third criterion, close semantic relatedness, is
concerned, Hansen et al (1985) suggest that we should opt for polysemy in
two cases: when there is a semantic relation of inclusion or hyponymy
between the two words under discussion or when semantic transfer under
the form of metaphor or metonymy has been made between them. Thus,
the lexeme man contains the lexical units man (1), meaning human being,


Words about Words

in general and man (2), meaning adult male human being, but not man
(3), meaning to furnish with man. Consequently, man is a polysemantic
word with senses (1) and (2) and a homonym of man (3). In the case of the
lexeme fox, we can distinguish fox (1), meaning wild animal, the
metaphoric fox (2), meaning person as sly as a fox and the metonymic fox
(3), meaning the fur of the fox. Transfer of meaning having taken place
between fox (1) and fox (2) and (3) as illustrated above, fox may be said to
be a polysemantic word.

4.8. Semantic change

In the evolution of a language, its vocabulary is continuously
changing. Some words are added, while others disappear, their grammatical
and phonetic features might change and so might their meaning. It is the
last of these phenomena that the discussion in this subchapter focuses on.

4.8.1. Causes of semantic change

There are a number of reasons due to which the meanings of words
do not remain stable in time. They may be grouped in two major categories:
extra-linguistic and linguistic causes. Extra-linguistic causes of semantic change
Extra-linguistic causes leading to change of meaning are
determined by the close connection between language and the evolution of
human society. Being the most dynamic and flexible part of a language,
vocabulary reacts to almost every change in the outer reality it helps to
picture. Thus, torch was used in Middle English (ME) to designate a piece
of cloth damped in oil, lit and held in hand in order to make light. With the
advance of technology, the word has come to also refer to the small electric
lamp that runs on batteries and serves the same purpose in modern times.
The noun mill was initially used for a building with machinery for grinding
corn. Industrial developments influenced its meaning and extended the
reference of the word to factory - any kind of building with equipment for
manufacturing processes (we now have saw / cotton / silk / paper mills).
Some of the present-day names of institutions are the result of
change of meaning of older words, due to the evolution of culture and
society. Hulban (1975) quotes the term academy in this respect. When the
word was borrowed in the 15th century, it was used as the name of a garden
near Athens, where Plato used to teach. Two centuries later, it referred to
the school system of Plato, while, beginning with the end of the 17 th century,


Word Meaning

it has been used to designate an institution for the promotion of art or

Social causes of semantic change display a large variety of forms.
One of them is the need for specialized terms in each branch of science that
deals with specific phenomena and concepts. As Hulban (1975) exemplifies,
the word cell, whose general meaning is compartment, has come to mean
the space between the ribs of a vaulted roof in architecture, the space
between the nerves of the wings of insects in entomology and a vessel
containing one pair of plates immersed in fluid to form a battery in
Another important reason that has lead to changes in the meanings
of certain lexical items is the need of expressiveness, taboo and
euphemisms in language. The last two have already been discussed. One
way of achieving expressive effects in everyday language is through the use
of slang words. In slang, everyday words and phrases acquire new
meanings. Thus, baby is used for girl or sweetheart, the bread basket is
the stomach, to lamp means to hit, a bag is an ugly woman or an
objectionable unpleasant person, to rabbit is used for to talk
unceasingly, gear refers to illicit drugs and choice is used as an adjective
meaning best, excellent. Linguistic causes of semantic change
The extra-linguistic causes responsible for semantic change go hand
in hand with the linguistic ones - factors acting within the language
system such as ellipsis, analogy, discrimination of synonyms and
Ellipsis consists of the omission of one part of a phrase. Quite
frequently, the remaining part takes on the meaning of the whole: sale,
obtained by ellipsis from cut-price sale, has come to be used with the
meaning of the initial phrase an event or period of time during which a
shop reduces the prices of some of its goods.
Analogy occurs when one member of a synonymic series acquires a
new meaning and this new meaning is extended to the other elements in the
series as well. In the synonymic series to catch to grasp to get, the first
verb acquired the meaning to understand, which was later transferred to
the verbs to grasp and to get.
The discrimination of synonyms is the result of the evolution of
the meanings of certain synonyms. In OE, land meant both solid part of
the earths surface and territory of a nation. Later on, in ME, the word
country was borrowed from French and it became a synonym of land. In
short time, however, country restricted its meaning to territory of a
nation, while land remained to be used in everyday language for solid part
of the earths surface (when land is used to refer to an area with recognized


Words about Words

political borders, it bears connotations of mystery, emotion or

Borrowings from other languages may also lead to semantic
changes. Deer used to mean animal up to ME, when, under the pressure
of the borrowed words beast, creature, animal, it restricted its meaning to
a large brown wild animal with long thin legs.

4.8.2. Results of semantic change

The main directions in which the meaning of words may change are
extension, narrowing, degradation and elevation (some of which
have already been hinted at in the previous section). Extension or widening of meaning
Extension or widening of meaning is the process by which the
sense(s) of a word is / are enlarged or enriched.
The word journal originally meant, as Hulban explains (1975: 117),
a daily record of transactions or events. Through extension of meaning, at
present, it means both a daily newspaper and any periodical publication
containing news in any particular sphere. The early meaning of butler, a
male servant in charge of the wine cellar was later extended to a male
servant in charge of the household.
Extension of meaning may sometimes involve the evolution of a
word from concrete to abstract. Branch, for example, was used with the
meaning a portion or limb of a tree or other plant. From this initial
meaning, several abstract meanings have evolved and are recognized today:
one of the portions into which a family or race is divided, a component
portion of an organization or system, a part of a particular area of study or
knowledge. Narrowing or restriction of meaning
Narrowing or restriction of meaning is the process opposite to
extension. By it, a word with a wider meaning acquires a narrower meaning
that comes to be applied to some of its previous referents only. Very
frequently, narrowing goes hand in hand with specialization of meaning.
Mare, for example, meant horse up the moment in the evolution
of English when its meaning was restricted to the female horse only.
Likewise, any kind of dog was considered a hound. Nowadays, hound is
used as such only poetically or archaically, its specialized meaning in the
common language being dog used by hunters for chasing the game. Fowl


Word Meaning

is another example of narrowing of meaning. It was used to refer to any

kind of bird, while now, it is only the domestic birds that are called fowls.
Specialization of meaning, accompanying narrowing, is very clear in
the case of trade names that originated in common nouns: Sunbeam,
Thunderbird, Caterpillar. Degradation of meaning
Degradation of meaning or pejorative development is the
process by which a neutral word either loses its original meaning
completely and acquires a new, derogatory one, or it preserves it and
develops a new pejorative meaning in addition.
The former case may be illustrated by means of the word quarrel,
which meant complaint. By a first semantic change, as Hulban (1975: 120)
indicates, it came to mean a ground or occasion of complaint against a
person, leading to hostile feelings. The meaning of the word degraded even
further from this and reached the point of a violent contention or
altercation between persons, a rapture of friendly relations. Knave
underwent the same process. It initially meant boy and later lost this
meaning in favour of dishonest man.
The word suburban is illustrative of the latter case. From the initial
meaning, of or belonging to the suburbs of the town, a new derogatory
one evolved, the former still being preserved. Today, suburban is used not
only for what is not in the city, but also for typical of the attitudes and
way of life of people who live in the suburbs, which some people consider
rather boring, conservative, involving inferior manners and narrower
Analogy plays an important role in the process of degradation of
meaning. This is very obvious in the following examples of zoosemy,
metaphors that implicitly compare humans with animals. Thus, besides the
animal itself, a sheep is a poor-spirited, stupid or timid person. A fox is a
cunning person, a monkey or an ape is one that plays the ape, an imitator,
a mimic. Elevation of meaning
Elevation of meaning is the reverse of degradation, implying the
process by which a newly evolved meaning of a word acquires a higher
status as compared to the initial one. Fame, for example, originally meant
rumour, but later on, it became celebrity, good reputation. Bard was
initially a term of contempt, designating a ministrel-poet. Later, when
ministrels started to be idealized, the word referring to them suffered an
elevation of meaning, quite obvious in Shakespeare himself having been
called The Bard. Hulban (1975: 121) quotes the word piquant as an
example of elevation of meaning. From the initial meaning, that pierces or


Words about Words

stings; keen, severe, bitter, it has passed through two stages of elevation.
First, it acquired the meaning agreeable pungent of taste; sharp, stinging,
biting; appetizing and then, that of that stimulates or excites keen interest
or curiosity; pleasantly stimulating (both of these elevated meanings are in
use today).
In some cases, elevation of meaning is partial only. Hulban (1975:
122) supports this claim by the example of the verb to blame, meaning to
find fault with. A weakening in the original force of the word can be sensed
if we consider its etymon, namely the Greek word for blaspheme. The
etymological doublet of to blame, to blaspheme, is much stronger, meaning
to talk profanely, to speak evil of, to calumniate.

4.8.3. Transfer of meaning

Many of the cases of extension and narrowing of meaning
mentioned in the previous sections are based on transfer of meaning.
There are two main types of such transfer, according to the kind of
association that they presuppose. Associations based on similarity lead to
metaphor, while those based on contiguity, i.e., on the condition of
being in contact, in proximity, in a broad sense, lead to metonymy. Unlike
extension, narrowing, elevation and degradation, transfer of meaning is not
a gradual process, but rather the result of a sudden change from one field to
another, on a particular occasion of use (both metaphors and metonymies
may be one-time only creations in language). Metaphor
The generally accepted definition of metaphor is that indicating
that its essence is understanding and experiencing one kind of things in
terms of another (Lakoff, Johnson 1980: 5). In other words, metaphor
involves an implicit comparison of two entities, based on an alleged
resemblance between them. This implicit comparison is contained in the
meaning of a word or phrase that has come to be different from its original
There are several types of metaphor. Of them, the live metaphors,
conscious creations used by writers as stylistic devices, are of less interest
here. Instead, two sub-categories of linguistic metaphors will be
discussed in more detail. One of these sub-categories is that of standardized
lexical metaphors in whose case the idea of similarity is lost. They are
usually considered dead metaphors and include examples such as
daisy, whose origin is the OE daeges aege (the days eye) and wind,
coming from the OE windes aege (the winds eye). The other sub-category
includes the degrading or fading metaphors in whose case the idea
of similarity is still evident. As Hulban points out (1975: 126), such
metaphors may rely on:


Word Meaning

similarity of shape: the head of the pin, the mouth of the river, the
foot of the hill, ball-point-pen;
similarity of position: head-word, headstone;
similarity of colour: red-admiral, blue-bell, blue-wing;
similarity of destination or purpose: blood bank, data bank;
space and duration in time: long run, long-lived, shortcircuit,
shortcoming, short-dated;
physical sensations: cold war, warm congratulations, sweet
dreams, bitter remark;
Ulmann (1970) offers another classification of degrading linguistic
metaphors. According to him, they may be grouped into:
anthropomorphic metaphors, involving the transfer of meaning
from the human body and its parts to inanimate objects: the mouth
of the river, the lungs of the town, the heart of the matter;
animal metaphors: dogs tail (a plant), cat-o-the-nine-tails.
People can also be called foxes, lions, doves, donkeys, etc;
metaphors that translate abstract experiences into concrete terms:
to throw light on, to enlighten, brilliant idea;
synaesthetic metaphors, involving the transposition from one
sense to another: cold voice, loud colours, piercing sounds. Metonymy
Metonymy consists of the use of the name of one thing for that of
something else, with which it is usually associated. This association is not a
mental process that links two independent entities, like in the case of
metaphor, but one that brings together entities which are in a certain
proximity or contact.
According to the type of relationship established between the two
elements in a metonymy, the following types of associations are possible
(partly as indicated by Loos, Day, Jordan (1999), who quote examples from
Kovecses (1986) and Lakoff and Johnson (1980)):
the use of the symbol for the thing symbolized: From the cradle to
the grave, one has always something new to learn, The Crown
visited the soldiers on the battle field;
the use of the material an object is made of for the object itself:
iron, glass;
the use of the holder for the thing held: The gallery applauded, He
is fond of the bottle, You should save your pocket if you want to buy
a new computer;


Words about Words

the use of the makers name for the object made: I like the
Rembrand on that wall, Put that Dickens away and listen to me, I
hate reading Heidegger, He bought a Ford;
the use of the place name where the object is or was originally
made for the object itself: At dinner, they served the soup in their
best china;
the use of the instrument for the agent: They answered the door /
phone, The sax has the flu today, The gun he hired wanted 50
the use of the concrete for the abstract and of the abstract for the
concrete: They dedicated their pens to a just cause, He is of noble
blood; The leadership took action against thefts;
the use of the name of an organization or an institution for the
people who make a decision or work there: Exxon has raised its
prices again, The Senate thinks abortion is immoral;
the use of the place name where an event was recorded for the
event itself: Do you remember the Alamo?, Pearl Harbour still has
an effect on Americas foreign policy;
the use of a place name where an institution is located for the
institution itself: The White House voted against entering war, Wall
Street has been in panic these days;
the reference to the behaviour of a person experiencing a
particular emotion for the emotion itself: She gave him a tonguelashing, I really chewed him out good;
the use of the part for the whole (also called synecdoche) and of
the whole for the part: They hired ten new hands, We dont accept
longhairs here, She is wearing a fine fox.



In the previous chapter, meaning relations between words have
been approached from a paradigmatic point of view. That is, the focus
lied on words as alternative items in some contexts. In this chapter,
emphasis is placed on syntagmatic sense relations, that is, on the
meaning relations that a word contracts with other words occurring in the
same sentence or text (Jackson and Amvela 2007: 131). What is
highlighted is meaning arising from co-occurrence, more specifically, from
predictable co-occurrence, manifested in what is known as multi-word
units of the language.
Multi-word units or fixed expressions form a class which covers a
wide range of lexical items. What these items have in common is that they
are often used as full units by native speakers of English, with varying
degrees of change sometimes allowed, sometimes not. They appear to be
learnable only as complete chunks of lexical semantic syntagmatic
matter, as they are seldom reducible to their component parts (Alexander
1989: 16).
The two major sub-classes of fixed expressions are collocations
and idioms, to which phrasal verbs, binominals, trinominals and
proverbs are added as minor members of the category.

5.1. Collocations
5.1.1. Definition
Collocations are groups of words that co-occur in a language in a
way that sounds natural to a native speaker. They are connected to the
mutual expectancy of words, or the ability of a word to predict the
likelihood of another word occurring (Jackson and Amvela 2007: 106). In
English, the presence of the verb to flex, for example, signals the potential
occurrence of the words muscles, legs or arms as its objects, the adjective
maiden predicts a limited number of nouns, among which there are
voyage, flight and speech, while blond or brunette are expected to go
together with hair.
Halliday and Hasan (1976) argue that collocations as meaning
relations of predictable co-occurrence may be found across sentence
boundaries. The example that Jackson and Amvela (2007: 131) give to
support the formers point of view is:
Would you mind filling the kettle and switching it on?
I need boiling water for the vegetables.


Words about Words

Here, fill and switch on collocate directly with kettle in a verb +

object structure, but boil, while collocating directly with water in an
adjective + noun structure, also collocate across the sentence boundary
with kettle, though less directly.

5.1.2. Characteristics and classification

The elements of a collocation are the node, i.e., the lexical item that
is being studied and the collocate(s), i.e. the lexeme(s) that co-occur with
the node. Each successive word in a text is both node and collocate, though
never at the same time, Sinclair (1991: 115) posits. When a is a node and b
is a collocate, Sinclair (1991) speaks about downward collocations, the
collocations of a with some less frequent bs. On the other hand, when b is a
node and a is collocate, the linguist speaks about upward collocations.
He illustrates this distinction with an analysis of the collocational pattern of
back. Thus, according to him, its upward collocates may be:
prepositions / adverbs / conjunctions: at, from, into, now, on,
then, to, up, when;
personal pronouns: her, him, me, she, them, we;
possessive pronouns: her, his, my;
verbs: get, got.
Downward collocates of back include:
verbs: arrive, bring, climb, come, cut, date, draw, drive, fall, fly,
fling, hand, hold, lay, lean, pay, pull, run, rush, sink, sit, throw,
trace, walk, wave, etc;
prepositions: along, behind, onto, past, toward;
adverbs: again, forth, further, slowly, straight;
adjective: normal;
nouns: camp, flat, garden, home, hotel, office, road, village,
yard / bed, chair, couch, door, sofa, wall, window / feet, forehead,
hair, hand, head, neck, shoulder, car, seat / mind, sleep / kitchen,
living room, porch, room.
The number of lexemes a node may have represents its range.
If the range of a node is taken into consideration, one may speak
about various types of collocations. Fixed, unique or frozen
collocations occur when a node can combine with one collocate only. This
is the case of the adjective auburn which can collocate with the noun hair
only. When the node may combine with a limited number of collocates, one
speaks about restricted collocations. Rancid, which may modify nouns
that refer to objects that contain fat, such as fat, butter, lard, lipstick, is
illustrative for this type of collocations. Finally, when a node can combine
with a large number of collocates, one speaks about unrestricted or
multiple collocations, a sub-category whose existence some linguists do


Multi-Word Units in English

not recognize, on the grounds that the semantic relationship between the
node and its collocate(s) are too vague to help distinguish unrestricted
collocations from free word groups. One example will suffice to illustrate
this last sub-class: anxious / worried / close / curious / strange /
disapproving / meaningful / grim / pleading, etc look.
The restricted and the unrestricted collocations are discussed by
Fernando (1996) in comparison with idioms. What she suggests is that,
although closely related, the two are not identical. Idioms are a narrow
range of word combinations, viewed as indivisible units whose
components cannot be varied or can be varied only within definable units
(Fernando 1996: 30). Restricted and unrestricted collocations, on the other
hand, rather represent a scale of different degrees of habitual co-occurrence
of lexical items. Idioms, conventionally fixed in a specific order and lexical
form, or having only a very limited number of variants, lie at the top of this
Somewhat lower on the scale of idiomaticity are the habitual
collocations (Fernandos term which encompasses both restricted and
unrestricted collocations), some of which share characteristics with certain
sub-classes of idioms. The salient feature of such collocations is that all
their components show variance restricted as in the semi-literal explode a
myth / theory / notion, catch the post / mail, or in the literal addled eggs /
brains, potato / corn chips, unrestricted as in the semi-literal catch a bus /
plane / ferry, etc., run a business / company, or in the literal smooth /
plump / glowing / rosy, etc. cheeks, beautiful / lovely / sweet, etc. woman.
The comparison of collocations with idioms prompts another
remark. While, in the case of idioms, meaning is holistic, i.e., it belongs to
the group of words forming the idiom as a whole and cannot be arrived at
by adding the individual meanings of these words, in the case of
collocations, meaning is additive, i.e. it is the sum of the meanings of its
components and it can be arrived at step by step, while advancing element
by element of them. This is obvious in a collocation such as to blink ones
eyes as opposed to an idiom such as to make eyes at somebody.
Besides considering the range of nodes, collocations may be
classified, from the point of view of the linguistic rules that govern them,
into grammatical and lexical structures.
A grammatical collocation is, according to Benson, Benson and
Ilson (1991: ix), a phrase consisting of a dominant word (noun, adjective,
verb) and a preposition or grammatical structure such as an infinitive or
clause. Chomskys (1991: 191) examples are helpful starting points in
illustrating this definition. His opinion is that decide on a boat, meaning
choose (to buy) a boat contains the collocation decide on (in his
terminology, decide on is a close construction), whereas decide on a boat
meaning taking a decision while embarked on a boat is a free combination
(in his terminology, a loose association). Any native speaker of English
would feel that the components of decide on, when it means choose, and


Words about Words

of other fixed phrases such as account for, accuse (somebody) of, adapt to,
agonize over, aim at, etc collocate with each other. S/he would reject
violations of collocability such as *decide at a boat, *account over a loss,
*accuse (somebody) on a crime, *adapt towards new conditions.
That decide on a boat, when referring to making a choice of a boat,
is a collocation becomes even more evident when comparing it to the
countless free combinations of decide, whose elements are joined in
accordance with the general rules of English syntax and freely allow
substitution. Such free combinations include, among others: decide after
lunch / before breakfast / at nine oclock / at the meeting / on the spot / in
the library / on the bus / with a heavy heart / immediately / quickly /
reluctantly / happily / unhesitatingly, etc.
The Bensons and Ilson (1991) describe eight major classes of
grammatical collocations, designated G1, G2, G3, etc, included in their BBI
Combinatory Dictionary of English.
The G1 class contains collocations which consist of noun +
preposition combinations: apathy towards, abstinence from, blockade
against, blight on, cry for, dig into, epilogue to, fellowship with, graduate
in, hope for, inferiority to, leadership in, method for, prologue to,
sympathy for, etc. Combinations with the genitive preposition of and the
agential preposition by are excluded from the group.
The G2 class comprises noun + long infinitive (or an ing verb
form) collocations such as effort to, genius to, impulse to, need to, problem
to, right to, found in a number of typical syntactic patterns:
It was a struggle (pleasure, mistake) to do it.
They had the foresight (instructions, an obligation, permission) to do it.
They felt a compulsion (an impulse, a need) to do it.
They made an attempt (a promise, a vow) to do it.
He was a fool (an idiot) to do it.

The nouns that are followed by infinitives normally associated with

the whole sentence rather than with the nouns itself, usually expressing
purpose They closed the window to keep the flies out, They sold their
house to cut down on expenses, She is wearing a fur coat to impress her
boyfriend - are not considered member of the class. Neither are phrases
such as a procedure to follow, a book to read, a place to eat, a way to do it,
in which the infinitives may be replaced by relative clauses, and
constructions containing nouns preceded by a descriptive adjective of the
kind an interesting book to read, a difficult person to understand, a clever
thing to say.
In the G3 group, the linguists include collocations made up of a
noun and a that clause following it, if this clause is not a relative one (i.e.
that should not be replaceable by which). Nouns that can be followed by a
clause only when they are objects of a preposition are not included in the


Multi-Word Units in English

class; it was by chance that we met, it was with pride that he presented his
findings. Examples of G3 collocations include: agreement that (he should
represent us in court), chance that (she will win), decision that (the taxes
will be cut), hunch that (they will not come), myth that (their army was
invincible), rumour that (she was back to town).
G4 collocations consist of preposition + noun combinations.
Examples are: by accident, in confidence, on/off duty, in effect, without
fail, at hand, within limits, by mistake, in need, under oath, in/within
G5 collocations are adjective + preposition collocations.
Combinations of past participles of transitive verbs and the agential
preposition by are left out of this class. The G5 pattern may be illustrated
by: afraid of, blind with, careful about/of, demanding of, efficient in,
frightened about/at/of, hopeful of, irate about, keen on, literate in,
peripheral to, qualified for, soft on, talented at/in.
G6 collocations consist of adjectives followed by long infinitives.
The adjectives included in this class occur in two basic configurations with
the infinitives: constructions with dummy it subjects of the type it was
necessary to work and constructions with real, both animate and
inanimate subjects such as she is ready to go and the machine was
designed to operate under high pressure.
Adjectives preceded by too and followed by enough + a long
infinitive (it was too easy to give a simple answer, it was embarrassing
enough to tell the truth) and past participles used in passive constructions
and followed by long infinitives (she was chosen to represent us, the
colonel was asked to lead the army on the battle field) are not considered
members of the G6 class.
Of the G6 collocations, the following may be quoted: advantageous
to (wait), charming to (watch them), dangerous to (play in the street), evil
to (kill), frustrating to (work in a place like that), healthy to (walk in
dump weather), irrational to (react in that manner), mystified to (find her
watch gone), outrageous to (permit such behaviour), practical to (do that),
stimulating to (read science fiction books).
G7 collocations are built on the adjective + that clause pattern
(many of the adjectives that occur in these collocations are found in G6 as
well): (she was) afraid that she will fail de examination, (it is) deplorable
that such corruption exists, (it is) incredible that nobody pays attention to
the dreadful news, (it is) lucky that we got here before dark, (it is) obvious
that he is drunk, (it is) remarkable that the streets are so clean after the
G8 collocations consist of nineteen verb patterns, which the
Bensons and Ilson (1991) designated by the letters A to S.
Pattern A verbs allow the dative movement transformation, i.e.
they allow the shift of an indirect object (usually human) to a position
before the direct object, with deletion of to when both objects are nouns and


Words about Words

when the direct object is a noun: he sent the book to his brother he sent
his brother the book and he sent the book to him he sent him the book.
(Benson, Benson and Ilson 1991: xiv). Other verbs that may be part of G8A
collocations are: bring, explain, give, grant, make, offer, promise, etc.
Pattern B verbs, though transitive like those in pattern A, do not
allow the dative movement transformation. Thus, we have They described
the book to her, They mentioned the book to her, They returned the book to
her, but not *They described her the book, *They mentioned her the book
or *They returned her the book. Examples of verbs that fit pattern B
include: babble, bark, cry, divulge, growl, introduce, shout, yell, etc.
The transitive verbs in pattern C, used with the preposition for,
allow the dative movement transformation, i.e. the deletion of the
preposition and the movement of the indirect object (usually animate)
before the direct object: She bought a shirt for her husband She bought
her husband a shirt. Many of the verbs that collocate with a direct and
indirect object in the way just illustrated are culinary verbs such as bake,
boil, brew, chop, cook, fry, grill, grind, peel, scramble, slice, toast.
In pattern D, verbs form collocations with specific prepositions
followed by objects. Free combinations such as to walk in the park and
combinations of verbs and prepositional objects preceded by by or with,
when they denote the means or the instrument by which the actions are
performed, are not part of the class, according to the authors of the BBI
Combinatory Dictionary. Transitive D-pattern verbs used with to and Bpattern verbs produce the same constructions. The verbs that are normally
used with an animate indirect object are assigned to class B We described
the meeting to them, while verbs normally occurring with inanimate
indirect objects are considered elements of class D We invited them to the
meeting. Examples of pattern D verbs include: brood about/over,
capitulate to, drill for, extract from, feature as, glow with, hamper in,
improve in, join for/in/with, lead against/by/from, move from/into/to,
notify about/of, open by/with, point at/to, rehearse for, scream at/for,
turn into/off/to/towards, etc.
Pattern E is illustrated by collocations formed of verbs followed by
long infinitives, if these infinitives do not express purpose (they are nor
replaceable by in order to): begin, continue, decide, endeavour, forget,
hope, like, mean, need, offer, promise, remember, swear, want, etc.
Pattern F includes the small number of collocations formed by the
modal verbs followed by short infinitives: can, could, may, might, shall,
should, will, would, must. The verbal phrases had/would better,
had/would rather also fit this pattern.
In pattern G, the collocations are made up of verbs followed by
gerunds. Typical examples of verbs that usually collocate grammatically
with gerunds are: avoid, keep, recommend, remember, start, suggest, etc.
Some of the verbs in pattern G that collocate with gerunds may be
found in pattern E as well, as nodes collocating with long infinitives. Thus,


Multi-Word Units in English

sentences such as The baby began crying The baby began to cry, The
ambassador continued speaking The ambassador continued to speak,
My mother suggested to get the train My mother suggested getting the
train are approximately synonymous constructions. Several verbs that
occur as nodes in collocations both in the G and in the E class have a
different meaning in each pattern. As the Bensons and Ilson (1991) explain,
the sentence He remembered to tell them means that he intended to tell
them and told them; He remembered telling them means that he
remembered the act of telling them. In a similar manner, the construction
He forgot to tell them means that he intended to tell them, but forgot to do
so; He forgot telling them means that he forgot the he had told them.
Note also the difference between the pattern G construction She stopped
chatting she terminated her chat and She stopped to chat she
interrupted whatever she was doing in order to chat, containing an
infinitival phrase of purpose.
The pattern H grammatical collocations consist of transitive verbs
followed by an accusative + long infinitive construction. Most of these
verbs, though not all, may be passivized, the result being a nominative +
infinitive construction built around the verb in the passive voice. Examples
of pattern H collocations include: ask me to come, force John to confess,
get the television to work, invite Mary to join (us), permit the children to
play, set them to write, tell them to leave, etc.
Pattern I collocations resemble those in class H, the difference
being that the infinitive that is used with the verbs is short. Unlike the verbs
in the pattern H collocations, those in pattern I collocations cannot be, most
of the times, used in the passive voice. Examples that illustrate class I are:
hear them leave, help us move, let the children go, make the criminal talk,
see her cry, etc.
In pattern J, transitive verbs are followed by an accusative +
participle construction and can, in their great majority, be passivized
(some of these verbs are found in class H as well, so that approximately
synonymous constructions occur: (She) heard them leave (She) heard
them leaving; (We) watched the actors play (We) watched the actors
playing, etc.). Typical examples of class J collocations are: catch the thieves
stealing, feel ones heart throbbing, keep them waiting, leave me crying,
set me thinking, watch the rain falling, etc.
Pattern K collocations contain a transitive verb followed by a
possessive (noun or pronoun) and a gerund (some of these constructions
are close to those in pattern J) such as: excuse my saying (this), imagine
his coming late, (They) remembered Bills having made a mistake, etc.
In pattern L collocations, transitive verbs are followed by a clause
introduced by that: (They) admitted that they were wrong, (He) denied
that he had told her lies, (The travelers) hope that the train will arrive (on
time), (We) suspect that she is guilty, (Mother) hopes that I will graduate
(this year), etc. Some of these verbs take an obligatory noun or pronoun


Words about Words

object before the that clause, others may be used with or without such an
object, while still others (often belonging to pattern G as well) may be
followed by a prepositional phrase with to. In the first category, there are:
to assure (She) assured me that she would join (the party), to convince
(The rector) convinced the students that he would consider (their
suggestions), to inform (I) was informed that I would be promoted, etc.
The second category contains verbs such as: to bet (She) bet that it would
snow; (She) bet me that it would snow, to promise (John) promises that
he will learn (more); (John) promises his parents that he will learn
(more), to show (We) showed that we were (good) teachers; (We)
showed everybody that we were (good) teachers, etc. (He) explained to us
that he would come later and (The man) swore to his wife that he would
stop drinking are illustrative of the third category.
Some verbs in the pattern L collocations are followed by that clauses
containing an analytical or synthetic subjunctive. Examples of such verbs
are: (He) demanded that we (should) be there tomorrow, (The captain)
ordered that the soldiers (should) clean (their guns), (The manager)
suggests that a new department head (should) be appointed, etc. A few Lpattern verbs regularly take dummy it as their subject: (It) appears that
they will not be here, (It) follows that the results are wrong, (It) seems
that you didnt understand, (It) turns out that he was lying, etc.
In pattern M, transitive verbs can be followed by a direct object,
the infinitive to be (verbs that combine freely with infinitives other than to
be are part of pattern H collocations) and either an adjective, a past
participle or a noun/pronoun. In most cases, the same verb may be
followed by any of these three forms. Examples of pattern M collocations
are: (We) consider her to be very polite/well trained/our leader, (The
engineers) found the roads to be excellent/paved properly/a (national)
problem, etc.
Pattern N collocations are made up of a transitive verb followed by
a direct object and an adjective, a past participle or a noun/pronoun.
Examples of this construction include: She dyed her hair red, We found
them interesting, The police set the prisoner free, The man had his car
repaired, We heard the song sung in Italian, We appointed Bob president,
My friends call me Dana, etc. Some of the verbs in pattern N collocations
may be used in pattern M constructions as well: We consider her (to be) a
competent engineer, The court declared the woman (to be) guilty, We
found the streets (to be) cleared of snow, etc. On the other hand, some of
the N-pattern collocations are fixed or restricted, in the sense that the verb
in their structure can be accompanied by either only one or a limited
number of adjectives. Thus, for example, the verb to paint accepts
adjectives denoting colours only: I painted the walls blue/green/orange,
etc., while to shoot may be used in to shoot somebody dead only.
In pattern O, transitive verbs can take two objects, neither of
which can be used in a prepositional phrase with to or for. Examples of


Multi-Word Units in English

collocations in which the verbs may take such double objects are: The
teacher asked the pupil a question, Our neighbours envy us our new house,
She punched him one in the eye, I tipped the waiter ten dollars, etc. Verbs
pertaining to the semantic field of gambling may be heads of pattern O
collocations. Some of them, such as bet, lay and wager are able to take in
effect three objects one referring to a person, one to an amount and one
denoting the point of the bet, as in We bet him ten pounds that the train
wont arrive in time. Of the three, bet can be used with any of the three
objects alone, lay seems to require the second and the third, while wager
may be accompanied by either the second or the third alone. O-pattern
verbs may be passivized. In most cases, at least one of the objects may
become the subject of the passive construction: The pupil was asked a
question (by the teacher)/a question was asked (by the teacher), He was
punched one in the eye, The waiter was tipped ten dollars.
Verbs in pattern P collocations are either intransitive, reflexive or
transitive and their sense must always be completed by an adverbial an
adverb, a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase or a clause. Without such an
adverbial, sentences like the following would sound incomplete in English:
*The meeting lasts, *A strange woman was lurking, *She puts pressure,
*The box weighs, etc. Once an adverbial is used together with the verb,
these sentences become acceptable: The meeting lasts two hours, A strange
woman was lurking in the dark, She puts pressure on her children, The
box weighs ten kilos.
Pattern Q collocations are built around a verb followed by a whinterrogative word what, where, when, which, who, why - or by how.
Quite frequently, the verb + wh- word construction precedes an infinitival
phrase or a clause: She could not decide which car to choose, My sister
knows how to drive, He wonders where to go, The man asked us what the
time was, Guess where the money is, We had to infer what she meant by
that, We discussed how to do it. Of the pattern Q verbs, most do not need to
be used with an object, some may be used with or without one and some,
such as tell, inform, must always be accompanied by an object.
In pattern R collocations, transitive verbs (often expressing
emotions) are preceded by a dummy it subject and are followed by a long
infinitive or by a that clause (sometimes, following an object). Examples
are: It amazed me to learn that he had been promoted, It burned me up to
hear her lying, It hurts to see my sister crying, It puzzled us that they
never answer the phone, It surprised them that their suggestion was
Lexical collocations, in contrast to grammatical ones, normally
do not contain prepositions, infinitives or clauses. Typical lexical
collocations consist of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs (Benson,
Benson, Ilson 1991: xxiv).
Just like in the case of grammatical collocations, lexical collocations
differ from free combinations, the elements of which do not freely co-occur


Words about Words

and are not bound specifically to each other. Thus, as explained in the
preface to The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English (Benson, Benson,
Ilson 1991), condemn murder is a free lexical combination. The verb
condemn may be used with an unlimited number of nouns: condemn the
abduction / abortion / abuse of power / the acquittal, etc. In a similar
manner, the noun murder combines freely with countless verbs: abhor /
accept / acclaim / advocate murder, etc. On the other hand, commit
murder is a collocation, since the verb commit is limited in use to a small
number of nouns meaning crime, wrongdoing.
Seven major types of lexical collocations are illustrated by entries in
The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English (Benson, Benson, Ilson 1991).
L1 collocations consist of a verb which is usually transitive, and a
noun or a pronoun (which combine in a rather arbitrary, non-predictable
way). Most verbs in L1 collocations denote creation or/and activation (the
Bensons and Ilson 1991 call the collocations build round such verbs CA
collocations): come to an agreement, make an impression, compose
music, set a record, reach a verdict, inflict a wound, set an alarm, fly a
kite, launch a missile, spin a top, wind a watch, to set off a bomb, etc.
There are instances when the same noun collocates with a verb that
denotes creation establish a principle, draw up a will and with another
verb, that denotes activation apply a principle, execute a will. As
explained in the preface to the BBI Dictionary (1991), there are also
instances, which are quite numerous, when the meanings creation and
activation are united in one verb: call an alert, display bravery, hatch a
conspiracy, impose an embargo, produce friction, inflict an injustice, offer
opposition, pose a question, lay a smoke screen, put out a tracer, commit
treason, issue a warning, etc.
The same noun may collocate with different verbs that refer to
actions performed by specific subjects. Such nouns will form different CA
collocations, according to which subject role is being described. Thus, a
copyright office grants or registers a copyright, while an author or a
publisher holds or secures one.
CA collocations for polysemous nouns may prove difficult to form
for non-native speakers. The verb nodes that a noun such as line may
collocate with are dictated by its various meanings: draw a line (leave a
trace on paper), drop somebody a line (write somebody a letter), form a
line (line up). In the same way, possible collocations of operation are
perform an operation (perform surgery in a hospital), carry out /
conduct / launch an operation (do something on the battle field).
L2 collocations also consist of a transitive verb followed by a noun
(less frequently, a pronoun), but, unlike in L1 structures, the verb here
essentially means eradication or nullification (due to the meaning of the
verb that acts as the node of the unit, these collocations are called by
Benson, Benson and Ilson 1991 EN collocations). Typical examples, as
offered by the BBI Dictionary (1991) are the following: reject an appeal, lift


Multi-Word Units in English

a blockade, break a code, reverse a decision, demolish / raze / tear down a

house, revoke a license, annul a marriage, suspend martial law, scrub /
cancel a mission, withdraw an offer, ease tension, quench ones thirst,
denounce / abrogate a treaty, exterminate vermin, override a veto, etc.
L3 collocations are made up of a noun and an adjective (in some
cases, only one form of the adjective may collocate with a particular noun
best regards, *good regards): reckless abandon, chronic alcoholic, pitched
battle, intensive care, crashing defeat, oral examination, implacable foe,
eternal glory, cultural heritage, involuntary manslaughter, stiff
opposition, vicious propaganda, etc. Nouns that are used attributively in
English may replace adjectives in L3 collocations: house arrest, birth
certificate, brain death, party elite, steel guitar, survival kit, paper money,
insurance policy, sound-and-light show, etc.
A noun and a verb that names the action characteristic of the person
or the thing that this noun refers to combine in L4 collocations:
adjectives modify, alarms go off, bees buzz, clocks tick, donkeys bray,
elephants trumpet, a plague spreads, etc.
As it is explained in the preface to the BBI Dictionary (1991: xxvii),
L5 collocations, structured as noun 1 of noun 2, indicate the unit that is
associated with a noun. Such collocations may indicate the larger group to
which a single member belongs a colony / swarm of bees, a herd of
buffalos, a pack of dogs, a pride of lions, a school of whales or the
specific, concrete, small unit of something larger, more general a word of
advice, an article of clothing, an act of violence, a grain of salt, a sheet of
steel, a clove of garlic, a leaf of grass, a segment of orange, etc.
L 6 collocations consist of an adverb and an adjective, while those
in the L 7 group are composed of a verb and an adverb. Examples of
structures in the former group include deeply absorbed, strictly accurate,
closely / intimately acquainted, hopelessly addicted, keenly / painfully
aware, actively engaged, fully insured, while collocations of the latter type
may be illustrated by affect deeply, amuse thoroughly, anchor firmly,
examine closely, guarantee fully, hope fervently / sincerely.

5.2. Idioms
5.2.1. Definition
The generally accepted definition of an idiom states that it is a
group of words established by usage as having a meaning non-deductible
from those of the individual words (Oxford Concise Dictionary 2002: 379)
or an expression whose meaning is different from the meaning of the
individual words (Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners
2002: 710), in other words, a phrase, the meaning of which cannot be


Words about Words

predicted from the individual meanings of the morphemes it comprises

(Jackson and Amvela 2007: 77).

5.2.2. Characteristics and classification

The clearest features of idioms, as it follows from their very
definition and as it is mentioned by Fernando (1996: 3), are
compositeness idioms are commonly accepted as a type of multiword
expression (red herring any diversion meant to distract attention from
the main issue; smell a rat to know instinctively that something is
wrong or that somebody is telling lies; the coast is clear people
supposed to watch one are not there and one is able to move or leave, etc.)
(Fernando 1996: 3), they are particular phrases or turns of expression
which, from long usage, have become stereotyped in English (McMordie
1972: 5) and semantic opacity, or idiomaticity the meaning of an
idiom is not the sum of its constituents. In other words, an idiom is often
non-literal, though there are cases of idiomatic phrases, such as to throw
money away, to have a rare time, which have a direct meaning that may be
easily understood on the basis of their component elements (Fernando
1996: 3). Idiomaticity is paralleled by grammatical inseparability
idioms function as single units from a grammatical point of view as well. In
a free word group, each lexical item has an independent meaning and its
own grammatical function. By contrast, in an idiom, both lexical and
grammatical meaning belong to the structure as a whole (if, in The old man
kicked the bucket, kicked the bucket to die - is considered a free
combination of words, grammatically, it is made up of a verb functioning as
the sentence predicate and a noun which is, syntactically, its direct object.
If, on the contrary, it is regarded as an idiom, the whole unit is a verbal
phrase that functions as the predicate of the sentence).
Most idioms are characterized by lexical integrity, in the sense
that as a general rule, an idiomatic phrase cannot be altered; no other
synonymous word can be substituted for any word in the phrase, and the
arrangement of the words can rarely be modified (McMordie 1972: 6).
While free word groups can be freely made up, according to the needs of
communication, and any of their elements can be replaced without affecting
the meanings of the others, idioms are used as ready-made units in which
substitution is either impossible or very limited. Examples of idioms with
invariable elements include red tape official paperwork and bureaucracy
(negative connotation); to spend an arm and a leg to spend very
much; on pins and needles very worried about something; a nine days
wonder anything that arouses great excitement and interest, but for only
a short time; to be out like a light to fall asleep very fast, etc.
Variation of the parts of an idiom could be in terms of number and
tense (inflectional changes) or the replacement of one structure word like
an article by another or by zero, or it could be lexical, one content word


Multi-Word Units in English

being replaced by another (Fernando 1997: 43). Variation in tense is

common to many verb idioms and it usually mirrors the time frame of the
discourse: When both my parents were out of work, we lived from hand to
mouth. / The economic crisis left us jobless and we are now living from
hand to mouth. / They have been living from hand to mouth from quite
some time now. (to live from hand to mouth to live in poor
circumstances), etc. However, there are cases, such as that of proverbs,
when verb idioms normally retain their original form. In none of the
following sayings can the tense of the idioms in question be changed: A
watched pot never boils; A stitch in time saves nine; As they brew, so let
them bake; If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Number varies in idioms with the same freedom as tense does.
Fernando (1997: 44 - 45) illustrates this type of variation with the following
Student: Can I throw in a red herring?
Tutor: Several.
Red herrings and the Iraki breakfast
But Mr. Whilam has to talk about these things any red herring will do
(The Australian 4 March 1976: 6)
We went there one evening. I twisted Richies arm. I said hes your
brother-in-law too but they werent in.
If you cant turn up, let us know if necessary I can twist the arms of a few
friends and get them to come.

If pluralization is impossible in some idioms such as kick the

bucket (*kick the buckets), smell a rat (*smell rats), out of step (*out of
steps), apple of ones eye (*apples of ones eye / apple of ones eyes), so is
the use of the singular in others such as twiddle ones thumbs (*twiddle
ones thumb), raining cats and dogs (*raining a cat and a dog), a cat and
dog life (*cats and dogs lives), for the birds (*for the bird), lovely weather
for ducks (*lovely weather for duck), etc.
As indicated above, content words may be replaced by other content
words in a number of idioms: burn ones boats / bridges, get / give / have
cold feet, get the sack / ax, have the cards / deck stacked, etc. Besides
replacement, addition, permutation and deletion are also possible
transformations in the structure of some idioms. Language users may
introduce extra elements in idioms, not just to elaborate on the expressions
per se, but to make the message they convey clearer or more emphatic
(though, normally, addition is not allowed in an idiom). Fernandos (1997:
48) examples meant to illustrate this type of transformation are:
Rudyard Kipling took the art world bull by the horns when he wrote Its
clever, but is it art? (The Sydney Morning Herald 4 December 1978: 16)


Words about Words

Professor McDonald also suggested (with his tongue only partly in his
cheek) that the current state of Australias economy could be attributed to
analysts not able to interpret data (Macquarie University News Nov/Dec
1987: 16)
It is very easy for those academics to look out of their carpeted ivory
towers across the quagmire of business stagnation. (The Australian 8
December 1975)

As far as permutation possibilities are concerned, they vary from

idiom to idiom. Some idiomatic expressions do not allow rearrangements in
terms of their internal grammar, while others do, to a smaller or more
extensive degree. In the former category, there are idioms such as say no
more (*no more was said), take forty winks (*forty winks have been
taken), smell a rat (*John is a rat smeller). In the latter, there are idioms
which allow for particle shift (which can be optional) to beat up
somebody / to beat somebody up, to blow up something / to blow
something up, for conversion of the verb + object predicate into a
nominal phrase drop a brick / a brick dropper, break the ice / an ice
breaker or for passivization he shed crocodile tears / crocodile tears
were shed, the president leaves no stone unturned / no stone is left
unturned (by the president), etc.
While some idioms are so well established in the language with their
truncated form that this is considered the norm (red herring from draw /
trail a red herring down the path, a rolling stone from a rolling stone
gathers no moss), in the case of others, the hearers knowledge of the full
expression is necessary to understand its meaning. Non-native speakers, for
example, whose exposure to idioms has been through dictionaries, may find
that deletions impede identification of some such expressions and obstruct
their being interpreted correctly. Fernando (1996: 51) illustrates how
deletion (and substitution) in the case of dangle a carrot before the donkey,
for example, may result into expressions whose recognition and
understanding may pose difficulties:
Sunshine dangles an issue carrot (headline) (The Australian 15 November
1975: 12)
Thatcher waves trade carrot (headline) (The Australian 6 August 1988: 3)
The Prime Minister has offered some very appealing political carrots in his
economic program. (The Australian 28 November 1975: 10)

Other examples of truncated idioms, quoted by Fernando (1996: 52)

This fellow thought the Professor would drop him like a hot potato so he
preferred a bird in the hand. (a bird in the hand is obtained through
deletion from a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush)


Multi-Word Units in English

Norman Sherry is the epitome of the no-stone-unturned school of

biographers (The Sydney Morning Herald 10 June 1989: 85) (no-stoneunturned is truncated from to leave no stone unturned)

Institutionalization is also peculiar of idioms they are

conventionalized expressions, conventionalization being the end result of
initially ad hoc, and in this sense, novel, expressions (Fernando 1996: 3).
From a stylistic point of view, idioms are characterized by such
features as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and imagery, which contribute
to their euphony. Rhythm is specific to idioms which are made up of pairs
of elements: tooth and nail with force and ferocity; by fits and starts
intermittent, variable in intensity and prolonged by interruptions; heart
and soul with complete faith; movers and shakers people of
energetic demeanour, who initiate change and influence events, etc.
Rhyme is peculiar to by hook or by crook by any means possible; wear
and tear damage that naturally and inevitably occurs as a result of
normal wear or aging; here, there and everywhere in or to many
different places; while alliteration is found in idioms such as (to buy) a pig
in a poke to buy something without seeing it; to leave in the lurch to
leave in an uncomfortable or desperate situation; without rhyme or
reason without purpose, order or reason; to rant and rave to shout
angrily and wildly about someone or something, etc. Imagery in idioms
may be achieved by simile as like as two peas very similar; as poor as
a church mouse very poor; as brown as a berry very brown from the
sun; as clear as crystal very clear; as stiff as a poker rigid and
inflexible; to fit like a glove to fit perfectly; to drink like a fish to
drink very much; metaphor in a nutshell in a few words, concisely; a
cold fish a person who is distant and unfeeling; a wolf in sheeps
clothing any hidden danger, or for any enemy putting on a false display
of friendship; a white elephant a valuable possession which the owner
cannot dispose of, but whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its
supposed usefulness; metonymy and synecdoche to go under the knife
to have a medical operation; not to lay a finger on someone not to
touch or harm someone or something; to have one foot in the grave to
be very old and likely to die soon; to have sticky fingers to have a
tendency to steal; hyperbole to make a mountain out of a molehill to
exaggerate; to take the bull by the horns to do something difficult in a
determined and confident way; to pay and arm and a leg to pay a high
price; to feel on cloud number nine to feel very happy; to be dressed to
kill to be dressed in fancy or stylish clothes; euphemisms to be
knocked up to be pregnant; in ones birthday suit fully naked; six
feet under dead; hendiadys safe and sound unharmed and whole
or healthy; soft and tender delicate; at sixes and sevens in a state of
confusion or disarray; antithesis short and the long of it the most


Words about Words

important point, the summary of the matter; for better or for worth
whether the situation or consequences be good or ill; to make neither
head nor tail of something not to understand anything, etc. Some
idioms combine two or more figures of style as busy as a bee very busy
or very active; as bold as brass with too much confidence; as fit as a
fiddle in very good health (simile and alliteration); hale and hearty
healthy; safe and sound unharmed and whole or healthy (alliteration
and hendiadys); fair and square completely fair, justly, within the rules
(rhythm, rhyme and hendiadys).
The idioms discussed so far may be grouped into categories,
according to their peculiarities - idioms with a direct / figurative meaning,
with / without variable elements. Other possible categorizations concern
the morphological class to which they belong, the semantic relationships
between them, the domain of human activity to which they are connected or
the image they evoke, the concept they refer to.
Thus, from a morphological point of view, idioms may be:
nominal idioms: the apple of ones eye, a bed of thorns, the
lions share, a snake in the grass, a swan song, the man in the
street, Gods acre, driving force, Johnny-come-lately;
adjectival idioms: high and mighty, null and void, cut and
dried, as neat as a new pin, off the cuff, rough and tumble,
downhill all the way;
verbal idioms: to cross the Rubicon, to cut corners, to hedge
ones bets, to jump on the bandwagon, to keep something under
ones hat, to play second fiddle, to make a clean breast of
something, to nurse a grudge (against someone);
adverbial idioms: off and on, by and by, out front, etc.
Looked at from the point of view of the semantic relationship that
holds between them, idioms may be:
synonymic idioms: babes and sucklings a green / fresh /
raw hand spring chicken (inexperienced people); to sleep like a
log to sleep like a baby - to sleep the sleep of the just (to sleep
soundly); down at the heels out at elbows (shabby, poorly
dressed); to spill the beans to let the cat out of the bag (to reveal
a secret, to confess to something); to skate on thin ice to swim in
troubled waters (to do something risky, to take a chance);
antonymic idioms: as sober as a judge (fully sober) as
drunk as a lord (very drunk); a heart of gold (said about kind
people) a heart of stone (said about cold people); to make up
ones mind (to decide) to be in two minds (to hesitate);
There are a number of polysemantic idioms in English. To go
west, for example, has at least three meanings: 1) to die (The beggars
knew that they would go west if they didnt find shelter soon.); 2) to be
ruined (Both of us made wrong investments and we went west in a


Multi-Word Units in English

year.); 3) to go to a new location in order to start a better life (Go west,

there is little hope for a good life here.). To draw a blank may refer to
getting no response, to finding nothing (I asked him about Johns
financial problems and I just drew a blank.) or to failing to remember
something (It was a very difficult test, with only one question to answer
and I drew a blank.), while to give someone a start may mean one of the
following: 1) to help start someones car (My friend gave me a start when
my car was stalled.); 2) to give someone training or a big opportunity in
beginning ones career (My career began when my father gave me a start
in the car industry.); 3) to startle someone, to make someone jerk or jump
from sudden fright (I didnt mean to give you a start. I should have
knocked before I entered.).
As indicated above, idioms may be grouped into classes according to
the field of activity to which they refer or to the image they call to mind.
Thus, the largest of these classes are connected to:
the body and bodily functions: to be all ears (to be interested
in hearing about something Tell me what you know about this
actress, Im all ears.); to be all fingers and thumbs (to be too
clumsy to properly do something that requires manual dexterity
Let me plant these small seeds, youre all fingers and thumbs.); to
spend an arm and a leg (to spend a fortune My brother spent
an arm and a leg on his new car.); to have a bad hair day (to have
a time when things are not going the way one would like or has
planned I have quarreled with my mother-in-law and I have
locked the keys inside my car, I am definitely having a bad hair
day.); not to bat an eyelid (not to react or show emotion when
surprised, shocked, etc. I didnt bat an eyelid when he told me
about the accident.); to beat ones brains out (to think hard about
something, but cannot solve, understand or remember it Im
beating my brains out to tell you her name. Im sure we have been
introduced to each other.); to bite someones head off (to criticize
someone angrily My boss bit my head off for not having finished
the report in time.); to have a close shave (to nearly have a serious
accident or get into trouble I had a close shave, I almost got
bitten by a snake.); to give somebody the cold shoulder (to ignore
or to reject somebody She gave him the cold shoulder when he
asked her to the party.); as dry as a bone (completely dry Our
lawn is as dry as a bone; lets hope it will rain tomorrow.); to fight
tooth and nail (to fight energetically and with determination
The police fought against the criminal tooth and nail.); to give
someone a leg up (to help one achieve something that one couldnt
have done alone My friend handed in the documents in time
only because I gave him a leg up with their translation.); to have a
hollow leg (to eat more than ones stomach seems to be able to
hold Tom has already eaten ten sandwiches, he must have a


Words about Words

hollow leg.); a kick in the teeth (bad news or sudden

disappointment His not having passed the final examination
was a kick in the teeth for his parents.); to make ones blood boil
(to make one very angry His not keeping his promises makes
my blood boil.); to make ones flesh crawl (to scare or revolt one
That strange man with a knife in his hand made my flesh crawl.);
on the nose (right on time This project will be finished on the
nose.); a pain in the neck (something that is very annoying,
disturbing - Alice is such a pain in the neck when she
unreasonably complains about being too fat.), etc;
food: to put all ones eggs in one basket (to risk everything at
once Dont put all your eggs in one basket unless you want to
lose everything in case there is a catastrophe.); to go back to the
salt mine (to go back to work I would like to keep chatting with
you but I have to go back to the salt mine.); bread and butter
(means of support, livelihood I cant miss another day of work.
Thats my bread and butter; the essential element of something,
the mainstay Sentimentality and politics were the bread and
butter of the Academy Awards.); to chew the fat with someone (to
talk at leisure with someone We are chewing the fat about our
school days.); duck soup (an easy thing to do - Knitting a sweater
is duck soup for Maria.); to have a finger in the pie (to have a role
in something, to be involved in something Tess wants to have a
finger in the pie, she doesnt think we can finish writing the project
by ourselves.); to be on the gravy train (to have found an easy way
to make a lot of money For many, not paying taxes to the state is
being on the gravy train.); meat and potatoes (basic, sturdy, and
hearty; it often refers to a robust person, with simple tastes in food
and other things There is no point in trying to cook something
special for the Wilsons. They are strictly meat and potatoes; Fred
is a meat and potatoes kind of guy.); pie in the sky (something that
seems good but is unlikely to be achieved Those plans of his to
set up his own business are just pie in the sky.); to save somebodys
bacon (to save someone from failures or difficulties You saved
my bacon there. Id probably lost my job if you hadnt provided a
good explanation for my foolish behaviour.); thats the way the
cookie crumbles (said to mean that things do not always turn out the
way one wants and there is nothing one can do about this I cant
believe they chose Tom for the job and not me. Ah well, thats the
way the cookie crumbles.), etc;
animals: to be all bark and no bite (to talk tough but not to be
so really Dont be afraid, he will not fire you, hes all bark and no
bite.); as the crow flies (it refers to the shortest possible distance
between two places There are 20 kilometers between Timisoara
and Arad, as the crow flies.); at a snails pace (very slowly If


Multi-Word Units in English

you keep walking at a snails pace, we wont make it to the castle

today.); to back the wrong horse (to give ones support to the
losing part in something Youre backing the wrong horse, the
local team will never win the championship.); to be on the pigs
back (to be happy / content / in fine form I was on the pigs
back when they told me that I had won a trip to Hawaii.); to have
a bigger fish to fry (not to be interested in something because there
are more important things for one I wont bother investing in
this small business, I have a bigger fish to fry.); to lead a cat and
dogs life (not to get along, to argue constantly - They have lead a
cat and dogs life for some time now, they simply cant stop
quarrelling.); to throw somebody to the wolves (to abandon
somebody when s/he is in a difficult situation I shall never
forgive her for having thrown me to the wolves when I most
needed her help.); like a bull in a China shop (very clumsy He
was like a bull in a china shop with our clients and they
complained to our manager.); a calf lick (a parting where ones
hair grows in a different direction I cant do my hair the way I
want because of this calf lick.); to cast pearls before swine (to offer
something of value to someone who doesnt appreciate it
Offering her books for her birthday is just casting pearls before
swine, she has never liked reading.); to put / let / set the cat among
the pigeons (to create disturbance and cause trouble Jane let the
cat among the pigeons when she announced she was going to join
the army.); dog days (very hot summer days Id rather be in the
mountains these dog days.); to have ones ducks in a row (to be
well-organized My boss always has his ducks in a raw, he can
find whatever document you need in seconds.); from the horses
mouth (directly from the person concerned or responsible You
have to believe me, I have heard it from the horses mouth.); the
lions share (the biggest or best part of something, often obtained
by unfair means If my partner gets the lions share again, Im
out of this business immediately.); pecking order (the order of
importance or rank Dont forget to place the guests at tables in
the pecking order.); a birds eye view (a view seen from high
above We got a birds eye view of New York as the plane began
its descent; a brief survey of something All you need is a birds
eye view of the events of World War II to pass the test.), etc;
plants: to bark up the wrong tree (to have misunderstood
something, to be totally wrong Youre barking up the wrong
three; Ill move on to the next question before you give me another
incorrect answer.); the apple of ones eye (ones favorite person
Tom is the apple of Marys eye. She thinks hes great.); to clutch at
straws (to try anything to get out of serious trouble Applying
for credit at a bank that nobody trusts was just clutching at


Words about Words

straws.); to come up smelling of roses (to emerge from a situation

with ones reputation undamaged Though the senator was seen
endorsing a false document, he came up smelling of roses.); to gild
the lily (to decorate something that is already ornate Three
more stars in the Christmas tree means just gilding the lily.); to
grasp the nettle (to deal bravely with a difficult situation He
grasped the nettle and told her that he had been sentenced to five
years imprisonment.); to let the grass grow round ones feet (to
delay doing things instead of taking action If you let the grass
grow round your feet, you will miss the chance of being nominated
for the presidential elections.); a bed of roses (a situation or way of
life that is always happy and comfortable They love each other so
much that marriage has always been a bed of roses.); to put
someone out to pasture (to force somebody to resign or give up
some responsibilities The president of the company was put out
of pasture for bad management.); to run around the bush (to take
a long time to get to the point Stop running around the bush and
tell me how much money you would like me to lend you.); a thorn
in ones side (someone or something that causes trouble I told
him to be in time for the trial and he keeps being a thorn in my
side. Hes late again!); not to see the wood for the trees (not to
perceive the overview or the important things because of
concentrating too much on details The information in this
textbook is so disorganized that I cant see the wood for the trees.);
to wither / die on the vine (to be ignored or neglected and thereby
be wasted, to be destroyed gradually - Fred thinks he is withering
on the vine because he has not been given a role in the play; Plans
to create cheap housing for the poor seem doomed to wither on the
vine.), etc;
sport: to hit (someone) below the belt (to do something unfair or
unsporting to someone Bill is difficult to deal with in business.
He often hits below the belt.); foul play (illegal activities, bad
practices The police investigating this crime suspect it is
connected to foul play; All students answered the test questions in
exactly the same way; Therefore, their teacher imagined this was
the result of foul play.); par for the course (typical, about what one
could expect Did he leave you there alone in the dark? Thats not
par for the course for somebody who pretends to be your friend.);
swim with / against the tide (to do what other people are doing /
the opposite of what other people are doing, to go against the trend
Wearing worn out jeans is swimming with the tide for young
people; John never agrees to what his team mates suggest; he
tends to always swim against the tide.); to keep ones eye on the
ball (to stay alert and pay close attention to what is happening If
you want to be able to write a proper review of the play you have


Multi-Word Units in English

to keep your eye on the ball till its very end.); (whole) new ball
game (a new set of circumstances You can no longer do the
things that you used to do around here. Its been a whole new game
since Mary became our manager.); down for the count (finished
for the time being, having lost a struggle After the teacher
rebuked me in class, I knew I was down for the count.); to learn the
ropes (to understand new things The first week on the job you
will just be learning the ropes.); out in left field (nowhere near
being true, nowhere near doing something correctly All of the
students laughed when Joe gave an answer which was out in left
field.); to win hands down (to obtain an easy victory The other
team was missing four of its players so we won hands down.); to
throw in the towel (to give up If they dont accept our offer this
time, we are going to throw in the towel and look for a new house
somewhere else.); to get / set / start the ball rolling (to start
something, to get some process going If I could get the ball
rolling, Im sure others will help me later.), etc;
trades: to have too many irons in the fire (to be doing too many
things at once Tom had too many irons in the fire and missed
some important deadlines.); between hammer and anvil (in a
difficult situation, possibly having to make a difficult choice I felt
between hammer and anvil when I was asked which of the two
sisters was the more beautiful.); to bring grist to the mill (to turn
something to profit or advantage He has made a lot of money
using his connections. He certainly knows how to bring grist to the
mill.); in full blast (using full power, in full activity Though it
was early in the morning, the engineers were working in full
blast.); jack of all trades (someone who can do several different
jobs instead of specializing in one My brother can do plumbing,
carpentry and roofing, but none of them well; hes a real jack of all
trades.); to mend (ones) fences (to restore good relations with
someone Sally called her uncle to apologize for having been
rude and tried to mend fences.), etc.

5.2.3. Pragmatic idioms

Pragmatic idioms (routines or social formulas) are fixed,
stereotypical expressions used as single unit utterances in everyday
conversation and closely bound to a special function or communication
situation (Aijmer 1996: 13). No change is possible within the unit and,
generally, the immediate environment is quite predetermined (Kecskes
2003: 106). Examples of pragmatic idioms include:
Let me introduce my brother, Jack, to you.
Nice to meet you, Jack. (introductions)


Words about Words

Diane, are you all right?

Oh, yes, Im fine, thanks. (inquiry and acknowledgement)
Thank you for having us to stay for dinner. It has been a lovely evening.
It was my pleasure. (thanks and acknowledgement)
Can I help you, sir?
No, thank you. Im just looking. (exchange between shop assistant and
Merry Christmas!
Happy Easter!
Happy Anniversary!

Happy New Year!

Happy Birthday!
Many happy returns




Id like to buy a ticket for London.

Single or return? (exchange between ticket seller and customer)
What would you like to drink?
A cup of coffee, please.
Black or white? (exchange between bar tender and customer)

5.3. Multiword verbs

5.3.1. Definition
Multiword verbal constructions consist of two elements - a main
verb (usually of Germanic origin, such as: call, come, cut, get, go, make,
put, set, take, etc.), and one or two particles (the most frequent of which
are, as stated in the Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs: about,
after, against, along, around, at, back, by, down, for, from, in, off, out,
over, through, to, under, up, with, etc.) which are perceived as
constituents of a single unit.

5.3.2. Characteristics and classification

There are two main criteria on the basis of which different
categories of multiword verbs are identified. First, the presence of a
preposition or an adverb after the main verb will establish the distinction
between prepositional and phrasal verbs. Second, the number of
particles following the main verb will help distinguish between
prepositional and phrasal verbs on the one hand and phrasalprepositional verbs on the other.


Multi-Word Units in English

Prepositional verbs consist of a main verb and a preposition and are

always followed by an object expressed by a noun or a pronoun (which
cannot occur between the particle and the main verb): call for (John), look
at (him), ask for (an invoice), believe in (justice), care for (pets), deal with
(emergencies), refer to (an event), write about (a painter), etc.
Phrasal verbs consist of a main verb and an adverb. They may be
either transitive (followed by an object expressed by a noun or a pronoun)
bring up (the matter), look up (a place) - or intransitive (not accompanied
by any object) give in, sit down, shut up, blow up, catch on, stand up,
play around, take off. By contrast with prepositional verbs, transitive
phrasal verbs may be accompanied by mobile objects. These may occur
either after the particle or between the main verb and this, without giving
birth to grammatically unacceptable structures: bring up the children /
bring the children up, look up the word / look the word up. However, the
particle cannot precede personal pronouns: *they switched off it, *roll back
this, *sew up it, etc. In the case of intransitive phrasal verbs, normally, the
particle cannot be separated from the verb it accompanies phrases such
as brake again down, stand now up, give soon in, etc. are ungrammatical.
Nevertheless, particles referring to directions may be modified by
intensifiers which split the verb + particle sequence: come right back, go
straight ahead, go straight on.
Phrasal-prepositional verbs are a bridge class between the two
categories just mentioned. Since they can easily be identified as a
consequence of the fact that they have two particles, transitivity is not
necessarily considered a distinctive feature on the basis of which these
multiword verbs are recognized: check up on (a friend), get away with
(that), stand up for (ones rights), get on with (Jane), put up with
(smokers), give up on (the cinema), get down to (work), jump out at (the
reader), make up to (her), stay away from (danger), keep out of (trouble),
Some prepositional, phrasal and prepositional-phrasal verbs are
more idiomatic than others. In the case of multiword verbs such as ask for
(request), refer to (talk about), get in (enter), breathe out (exhale),
divide up (separate into groups or parts), lie down (move into a
horizontal position), stay away from (avoid), the individual meanings of
the constituents are preserved in the combination and contribute each to its
sense. However, in cases such as go into (investigate), come by (obtain),
give in (surrender), catch on (understand), turn up (appear), double
up (if two people double up, they share something), pull up (about a
vehicle; slow down and stop), put up with (tolerate), walk out on (leave
somebody suddenly and end the relationship with him / her), grow away
from (develop different views and opinions), it is difficult, if not
impossible to derive the meaning of the verbal construction from that of its
component elements.


Words about Words

5.4. Binominals
5.4.1. Definition
Binominals are defined by Moon (1998: 152) as dyads or
conjoined pairs, unrestricted as to word class, but normally occurring in
fixed order: Adam and Eve, back and forth, bread and butter, chapter
and verse, cut and paste, demand and supply, fair and square, fish and
chips, give and take, ham and eggs, husband and wife, hide and seek, love
and marriage, more or less, mother and child, now and then, pen and
pencil, profit and loss, publish or perish, sir or madam, sound and fury,
tip to toe, twist and shout, ups and downs, wine and dine, etc.

5.4.2. Characteristics
Many binominals are lexicalized as idiomatic units, i.e. their
meaning is not compositional, but holistic, though they may also be used
with their literal meaning.
In general, the order of the elements in a binominal is irreversible.
In purely compositional binominals, though not theoretically irreversible,
obvious tendencies for preferred ordering are displayed. According to Moon
(1998: 153), it is possible to hypothesize rules or at least crude principles
from these tendencies, many of which are, as the author points out,
language and culture-specific. The first item is typically the one considered
positive or dominant, or logically prior; in some cases, it is the item
considered nearer to home or nearer speakers viewpoint. Lakoff and
Johnson (1980: 130) characterize this as the me-first orientation.
Examples that illustrate this point of view include: profit and loss, home
and abroad, in and out, here and there, life and death, cause and effect,
men and women, women and children, etc. Other pairings show a tendency
for the shorter or monosyllabic word to occur first: law and order, bed and
breakfast, time and money, fruit and vegetables, etc. The norm for pairs
made up of male / female counterparts is, in most cases, for the male term
to precede (mother and father is probably the most frequently occurring
exception to this rule): Mr and Mrs, men and women, boys and girls,
brothers and sisters, etc.
Moon (1998: 154-155) points out (quoting a personal
communication with John Sinclair) that many antonymic binominals or
conjoined antonyms have a meaning along the lines of everything or no
matter what. This can be seen in pairs, not always linked with and, with
conjoined temporals: from cradle to grave, beginning to end, day and
night / night and day; spatials and directionals: head to foot, left and right,
search high and low, top to toe, top to bottom, up hill and down dale; and


Multi-Word Units in English

other contrastives: by fair means or foul, come rain or shine, flotsam and
jetsam, etc.
Some conjoined antonyms, with a dynamic meaning, imply
repetition: back and forth, come and go, in and out, on and off, push and
pull, stop and start, etc, while others, which can be considered fixed
expressions based on antonymic relationships, imply the idea of strong
contrast: apples and oranges, chalk and cheese, oil and water. Pairs whose
elements are linked with or provide even more obvious contrasted
alternatives: feast or famine, black or white, sink or swim, trick or treat,
publish or perish, all or nothing, sooner or later, etc.
Linked synonyms or cases when the same word is repeated
inevitably have an emphatic function or emphasis as part of their meaning:
alive and kicking / well, bits and pieces, done and dusted, dead and gone,
fair and impartial, far and away, by leaps and bounds, last will and
testament, nooks and crannies, out and out, etc.
Though less numerous than binominals, trinominals, strings of
three elements belonging to the same morphological class, linked by a
grammatical element and occurring in a fixed order, are also to be
mentioned as illustrative as a type of multi word lexical units in English:
cool, calm and collected (not angry or emotional), lock, stock and barrel
(everything), coffee, tea or milk (a choice of beverage), here, there and
everywhere / hither, thither and yon (everywhere), every Tom, Dick and
Harry (anybody), hook, line and sinker (without reservation,
completely), a hop, skip and jump (a short distance), tall, dark and
handsome (about men; very attractive), etc.

5.5. Proverbs
5.5.1. Definition
Proverbs short, generally known sentences of the folk which
contain wisdom, truth, morals and traditional views in a metaphorical,
fixed and memorizable form and which are handed down from generation
to generation (Mieder 1994: 24) allow very little variation (if any) and
are therefore perceived as ready made units of a language. English is pretty
rich in sayings: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, A Jack of all
trades is master of none, Birds of a feather flock together, Dont judge a
book by its cover, Failure is the stepping stone for success, Its the early
bird that gets the worm, Long absent, soon forgotten, More haste, less
speed, etc.


Words about Words

5.5.2. Characteristics
Beside brevity, proverbs exhibit typical stylistic features such as
(some, according to Arora (1984)): metaphor Life is just a bowl of
cherries, Failure is the stepping stone for success, Laughter is the shortest
distance between two people; alliteration Forgive and forget, Better safe
than sorry, In for a penny, in for a pound; parallelism Nothing ventured,
nothing gained, Easy come, easy go, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a
tooth; rhyme When the cat is away, the mice will play, Little strokes fell
great oaks, A stitch in time saves nine; ellipsis - Once bitten, twice shy, All
hat and no cattle; hyperbole All is fair in love and war, Give him an inch
and hell take a yard, A person is king in his home; personification
Hunger is the best cook, Actions speak louder than words; comparison
Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what youre gonna get, A
woman is like a cup of tea, youll never know how strong she is until she
boils, etc.



Lexical strata of English may be approached diachronically and
synchronically, i.e. from the point of view of the evolution of vocabulary
and, respectively, at a certain point in this evolution (the synchronic
perspective adopted here is of Modern English). If the diachronic approach
is illustrated with reference to lexical phenomena exclusively, the
synchronic point of view is exemplified by combining details about the
lexical peculiarities of certain varieties of English with comments upon
what is characteristic of them at a phonological, grammatical and stylistic
level as well (after all, it is words themselves and their combinations that
exhibit these features).

6.1. Diachronic lexical strata

6.1.1. Archaisms
Archaisms are words and phrases, their senses or grammatical
forms that were current at one time, but that have passed out of use
completely or are very rarely employed at present. Those that have
completely disappeared from the language are considered absolute
archaisms. Kacirk (2000) provides interesting examples of such
linguistic fossils or yellowed time capsules, as he calls them, in his
suggestively entitled book, The Word Museum. Entries in this list of archaic
words include: alegar ale or beer which has passed through the acetous
fermentation and was used as a cheap substitute for vinegar, ballop the
old name for the flap in the forepart of the breeches which is buttoned up,
buzznack an old organ, out of order and playing badly, upknocking
the employment of the knocker-up who went house to house in the early
morning hours to awaken his working-class clients. Equally interesting to
the present day user of English are the archaisms quoted in The Century
Dictionary and Cyclopedia, whose first 1889 edition, compiled by W.D.
Whitney, has been available online since 2001. Among these, there are the
following: dawkin a fool, a sinpleton, gubbertushed having projected
teeth, kidcote common jail, postivde take measures too late, rax
stretch oneself after sleep, tallat a hay loft, etc.
Archaisms that are still used, but quite infrequently, are known as
relative archaisms. They occur in a variety of contexts, for a multitude of
purposes and reasons. Thus, film makers and writers of historical novels
use them to render the past times they focus on as accurately as possible.
Words such as druid, tournament, archer, thane (knight), gleeman
(wondering minstrel), witan (kings council), oracle, etc. are not


Words about Words

surprising in these contexts (since such words refer to something that has
disappeared from mans life, they are called historisms). A similar desire
to evoke a former age justifies the use of relative archaisms in
circumstances where doing so has political or emotional connotations, or
when the official new name of a country, city or province is not generally
accepted (such as Persia instead of Iran, Bombay rather than Mumbai, and
Madras as the older variant of Chennai). So, a restaurant seeking to conjure
up historic associations might prefer to call itself Old Bombay or refer to
Persian cuisine, avoiding the employment of the newer place names. A
notable contemporary example is the name of the airline Cathay Pacific,
( In science and technology, fields
of continuous and dynamic development, some specialized words or
meanings may follow the trend and fall into disuse quite quickly. However,
the emotional associations that some of these presuppose have kept them in
use, even if within very narrow limits this is, according to the
explanations in Wikipedia, the case of the meaning radio that the
generation of Brits that lived through the Second World War still associate
with the word wireless. Phrases associated with religion, rituals and
traditions, though not considered common if they occur in general speech
or writing, continue to be used in the circumstances in which they appeared
long in the past. For example, thou shalt and thou shalt not are considered
archaic in general use, but being part of the common English translation of
the Ten Commandments, they continue to be repeated and used in that
archaic I thee wed is perfectly consonant with a present day wedding

6.1.2. Neologisms
The English language, as the largest and most dynamic collection of
words and phrases ever assembled, continues to expand, absorbing
hundreds of words annually into its official and unofficial rolls (Kacirk
2000: 7), so that the sacrifice of archaisms finds itself a counterpart in the
addition of neologisms to the lexicon. The definition of neologisms as
new words or expressions, or existing words used with new meanings
(Macmillan English Dictionary 2002: 949) has been generally accepted so
far. However, more recently, other points of view regarding how neologisms
should be defined have also been expressed. One such point of view belongs
to the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of New Words (1995: V), S. Tulloch,
E. Knowles and J. Elliott. According to them, a neologism is any word,
phrase or meaning which has come to be widely used by the speakers of
English or which was in fashion in the 80s or 90s. What follows from this
approach to neologisms is that they are not necessarily brand new lexical


Lexical Strata in English

items or meanings, but rather words, phrases and senses that, at the
moment when they occurred in a language (in this case, in English, but in
any other language for that matter), had a considerable impact on its users.
As Volceanov (1998: 7) points out, British dictionaries of neologisms
contain items such as acid rain, dating since 1850, greenhouse effect, born
in 1920, misfortuned, first documented in 1881 and the three century-old
condom. Such words and phrases are living their second youth now, at
times when environmental protection and health care are issues on
everybodys lips. Similarly, the Romanian senat, camere parlamentare,
interpelare, jandermerie, used initially during the two World Wars, have
been brought back into usage recently and may, therefore, be considered
Neologisms appear in a language as the result of the evolution of the
historical, political, social and cultural context. In the introduction to her
report on the evolution of the English vocabulary at the beginning of the
second millennium, Susie Dent (2007) highlights the main events and
concerns that this time span covered and that played a role in the creation
of new words and phrases: the dramatic wars in the Middle East (which
were the source of lexical items such as degrading, deconflicting or
attriting for killing in a battle, unlawful combatant for prisoner of war,
extraordinary rendition or irregular rendition for apprehension and
transfer of a person from one state to another, the latter frequently a place
where torture is practiced, etc.), the realities of global warming and
preoccupations with our carbon footprint (Dent 2007: 3) (reflected at the
level of the lexicon in the appearance of new phrases such as carbon budget
the sum of all exchanges, inflows and outflows, of carbon compounds by
a firm or country, carbon credit a certified carbon dioxide emission
displacement credit, supposed to be equal to one ton of CO2 removed from
the environment, carbon offsetting investment in a project or activity
that reduces greenhouse gas emissions or removes carbon from the
atmosphere (eg. solar energy) to compensate for the emissions attributable
to another process or activity (eg. an air flight) all defined as such in
various online dictionaries), the evolution of online technology, the Internet
and mobile phones especially (due to which English has enriched with
neologisms such as blog a web page that serves as an individuals
electronic diary to which pubic access is permitted, cyberbullying the
use of e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, cell phones or other forms of
information technology to deliberately hares, threaten or intimidate
someone, spam explained in Wikipedia as the use of electronic
messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately),
the rap and hip-hop music gaining ground outside the Afro-American
community (responsible for idioms such as ghostriding the wip - explained
in Wikipedia as when a person puts a vehicles transmission in gear, then
exits the vehicle while it is still rolling to dance beside it or on the hood or
roof and catching the vapours being caught up in someone elses


Words about Words

popularity), and last, but not least, the rise of a distinct us and them
mentality which led to a new register of social labels (Dent 2007: 4)
(including words such as chavs a derogatory term used to describe white
teenagers of working class background, who frequently engage in antisocial behaviour, the returning Sloanes rich young men and women of
the upper class and U and non-U, for upper class and middle class
respectively, not long ago revived in the context of Prince Williams
extensively talked about love relationship with Kate Middleton, a
representative of the average social class in Britain).
The linguistic phenomena mainly associated with the creation of
neologisms are borrowing and word formation by various techniques.
They will be illustrated in what follows with examples selected from
Volceanovs (1998) dictionary of neologisms.
As far as English is concerned, it has recently enriched its
vocabulary with loan words from French (aestheticienne beautician,
aromatherapy - a type of health treatment in which nicely smelling oils
are rubbed into somebodys skin to make the person feel relexaed, ballotin
small pacakage, bustier a piece of clothing for women that does fits
close to the body and does not cover the shoulders and the arms,
diamantaire diamond seller), Spanish (aficionado supporter,
huaquero robber of ancient thombs in Chile, Peru and Bolivia, morcilla
a special type of sausages that contain pig blood, mucho much),
Russian (Afghantsi former Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, khozraschrot
economic liability, demokratizatsiya process of democratization of
society and its institutions, perestroika ample process of social, political
and economic reform initiated in 1987 by M. Gorbaciov in the USSR),
German (bedienung mention on a bill that the final amount indicated
contains the waiters tip, kletten prinzip means of supervising hooligans
in a crowd so as to prevent their riotous intentions), Japanese (basho
traditional Japanese fight championship, karaoke the singing by
amateurs of the lyrics of songs against recorded tunes, mawashi the
competition attire of sumo fighters, Nikkei index of the relative prices of
stocks at the Tokyo Stock Exchange), Czech (eyelyser optical apparatus
for measuring the level of alcohol in ones blood, colourization process
of colouring a film initially made in black and white), Italian (libero the
last player at the back of the football field, mascarpone Italian cottage
cheese), etc. Borrowing from foreign languages apart, transferring words
and phrases from one regional dialect into another has also contributed to
the enrichment of the recipient variety with neologisms. Speaking of
English, it is the American dialect that has mostly acted as donor to the
British one, to which it has lately transferred words and phrases such as:
cliffhanger TV series of which each episode finishes with a scene full of
suspense, ecodoomster supporter of the idea that life on earth will
perish as the result of environmental degradation, Joshua test for


Lexical Strata in English

detecting anemia, oilflation inflation caused by the rise in the price of

petrol, tagging painting on walls with coloured spray, etc.
Of the word formation techniques on the basis of which neologisms
are created, affixation and compounding seem to be the most productive.
The former may be illustrated by examples such as: biodegradable
which decomposes naturally, without harming the environment, biofuel
fuel obtained from organic matters, depowerment the loss by the
masses of their capacity to decide upon their own fate, derecognize to
retrieve the official recognition of an organization, institution, etc, deselect
to reject, to eliminate, to exclude, ecopolicy the strategy of an
environmental movement, ecorefugee person who has left an area in
which pollution made living almost impossible, proactive s/he who
takes the initiative the first, pro-choice in favour of a womans right to
opt for abortion, supercollider big and powerful particle accelerator,
supersite double-sized advertising hoard, unplugged (about musical
instruments) acoustic, without electronic components, unscoopy
without sensational news, boring, unwaged - unemployed, etc.
Compounding has lately given birth to words such as: airhead
beautiful, but stupid woman, alcohol-abuse excessive consumption of
alcoholic drinks, fuzzword word with an ambiguous sense, used to
impress the interlocutor, hack-and-slash about games, which promotes
violence, lockdown period of time when the inmates in a jail are
isolated, middlemarket of average quality, meant for middle class
consumers, shoutline text printed in italics at the beginning of an
advertisement, etc.
Though most of the English neologisms have come into being by
derivation and / or compounding, minor means of word formation have
also brought their contribution to the creation of new lexical items in the
language under scrutiny. Blending and abbreviation have been especially
prolific in this sense. It is due to them that English has recently enriched
with words and phrases such as: agitpop (agitation + pop) protesting
pop music, fertigation (fertilize + irrigation) method of fertilizing the
soil by sprinkling it with water in which nutrient substances have been
dissolved, middlescence (middle age + adolescence, used especially for
women) middle age; AI (abb. for artificial intelligence), BEM (abb.
for Bug-Eyed Monster) a monster in science fiction writings, HINT
(abb. for Happy Idiot News Talk) stupid discussion between TV news
readers, MAD (abb. for Mutual Assured Destruction) theory according
to which the launching of a nuclear attack would bring the mutual
destruction of the two enemies, etc.
The examples of neologisms provided in this section have all been
quoted from either printed or online dictionaries. However, only few of the
newly coined words make it to dictionaries. Many remain as short-lived as
the fashion of a certain moment and do not have the chance of becoming
entries in reference books. If only the smallest percentage of new words


Words about Words

make it into current dictionaries, what are the determining factors in their
Very roughly speaking, there are five primary contributors to the survival of
a new word: usefulness, user-friendliness, exposure, the durability of the
subject it describes, and its potential associations or extensions. If a new
word fulfils these robust criteria, it stands a very good chance of inclusion in
the modern lexicon (Dent 2007: 8).

6.2. Synchronic lexical strata

6.2.1. Geographical varieties of English
Undoubtedly, English has exceeded the borders of countries where
it is spoken as the official language or one of the official languages and has
become the language used globally today, from international trade to the
world of politics, from major cultural and scientific events to the worldwide
media. The spread of global English may be described in terms of the wellestablished three concentric circles model suggested by Kachru (1989): the
inner circle, the outer circle and the expanding circle.
The inner circle includes the territories where English is the
first, official language, even if other languages are also spoken here
the British Isles, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Since, as Crystal
(1997: 53) points out, the USA has nearly 70 per cent of all English mother
tongue speakers in the world, it is American English that will be briefly
discussed in what follows (strictly speaking, American English is spoken not
only in the USA, but also in Canada and certain parts of the Carribeans) 2.
The most influential inner circle variety is characterized by dialects
having a more uniform structure than those of British English. Their
boundaries have been significantly affected by the high degree of social
and geographical mobility that has characterized American life through
successive waves of settlement and immigration (Davies 2005: 48). As
Davies (2005) explains, differences between dialects are more obvious in
the East, where the primary settlement took place, while dialects are more
homogenous in the West, where immigrants from different areas or speech
communities have come together and influenced each other. Originally, the
scholars belief was that American English dialects may be split into two
broad categories: Northern dialects and Southern dialects. The 1930s and
1940s three-way split between Northern, Midland (subdivided into North
and South Midland) and Southern dialects (Davies 2005: 48) was
preserved for about half a century, when Carvers (1987) research dictated a

A look back at the lexical differences between British and American English, as the two
major geographical varieties of the language in question, pointed out in chapter two, might
be useful here.


Lexical Strata in English

return to the initial North South separation, though with a Lower North
and Upper South subdivision.
A number of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary
characteristics of regional dialects, as compared to General American
English, are highlighted by Davies (2005).
In terms of pronunciation, for example, in the Eastern dialects,
rhotic /r/ is lost after vowels, while it is maintained in all positions in
General American, a rounded vowel has been preserved in these varieties in
words such as top and dot, while the standard language uses an unrounded
vowel. The Southern droll is specific of Southern dialects. It is produced
largely through a combination of slower enunciation and diphthongization
of stressed vowels, so that a word like class is pronounced like [klis] or
[kljs]. Final consonant clusters may also be weakened in words like kind,
fast and slept. No distinction occurs in much of the South between words
like pen and pin, the mid vowel /e/ being raised to a high front vowel before
nasals (Davies 2005: 49).
Of the grammatical peculiarities of Southern dialects, Davies (2005)
mentions the use of the special pronoun you-all, [jal], for the second person
plural, the use of a-prefixing, as in Shes a-working, the use of done with
an adverbial function meaning already, as in He done got fired (restricted
to working class speech), and the combination of two modal verbs, as in He
might could bring the truck. One rather unusual non-standard feature
found in informal usage in a number of American regional dialects is the
use of anymore in positive sentences to mean nowadays, as in this
example from Encarta World English Dictionary: We always use a taxi
anymore (Davies 2005: 49).
American dialects differ in terms of vocabulary, too. They have
distinctive regional words, many of which are connected to food specific to
the areas where they are used: as quoted by Davies (2005), corn chowder (a
soup) and cruller (doughnut) for the North-Eastern parts of the USA, grits
(boiled cornmeal) and gumbo (a soup or stew) for the South.
Much of the lexicon of American English reflects a non-rooted
spirit and the mobility associated with both the American past and the
contemporary way of life. The arrival of train travel in the 19th century
brought a large number of new words and expressions into the language, as
can be seen in this second extract from the novel On the Road (Davies
2005: 50):
in a

During the depression, said the cowboy to me, I used to hop freights at
once a month. In those days, youd see hundreds of men riding a flatcar or
boxer, and they werent just bums, they were all kinds of men out of work
going from one place to another and some of them just wandering. It was
that all over the West. Brakemen never bothered you in those days
(Kerouac 2004: 35)


Words about Words

The words written in italics are now recognized as belonging to the

American geographical variety of English. Some are creations on the
territory of this variety, others are loan words. To hop freights means to
jump on a train without a paid ticket, a flatcar is a railway carriage with
no roof or walls, used for carrying large or heavy goods, a boxer is a
railway carriage for carrying goods, with high sides and a roof, bum (from
the German Bummler) refers to a lazy person, while brakemen are
people operating the brakes of a train.
The outer circle groups together territories in Asia and Africa to
which English was first transported in colonial contexts and where it has
since existed alongside very different local languages. Many people use
English as a second language within these multilingual contexts and the
language also has an institutional and administrative importance (Davies
2005: 47).
The Indian subcontinent follows the US and UK closely, in terms of
the number of speakers of English. The varieties of English in this area,
including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, are
known collectively as South Asian English, with Indian English as its most
representative exponent, due to the privileged relationships the British
Crown held with India and the mass of users of English in this country.
After India became independent, in 1947, despite its then prime
ministers predictions that English would no longer be used in a
generations time, it was eventually considered the best unifying element in
a region where linguistic complexity has always been obvious. In the
1960s, the three-language-formula was agreed, stipulating that all citizens
should learn a national, a regional and a local language. Since then, English
has had several legislated roles in India: as an associated official language
alongside Hindi as the official one, as a national language alongside Hindi,
Bengali and Tamil, as the state language of Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland
and Tripura, and as the official language of eight Union territories (Davies
2005: 52).
Standard, educated Indian or South Asian English is a pretty
uniform variety that has become as internationally acceptable as British and
American English, though occasional differences in grammar and style
between them are sometimes present. However, the educated variety is not
employed unanimously. The English actually used ranges, according to the
educational, economic and social background of its speakers, from
stigmatized pidgin varieties (Davies 2005: 54), spoken by those with a
lower status, to the standard South Asian English, spoken by the well
educated and more privileged classes of the Indian society.
As Davies (2005) explains, at the phonetic level, Indian English is
characterized by the presence of rhoticity (/r/ is pronounced in words like
port, floor and worker), by the tendency to use fairly evenly stressed vowels
in words like open, and the singsong quality of its intonation (Davies
2005: 54). In terms of grammar, the use of uninverted word order in wh-


Lexical Strata in English

questions is immediately noticeable (Why she is talking like that?) and so is

the use of the adverb only in sentence final position, for emphatic purposes
(We are going there three times a year only instead of We are going there
only three times a year). Other peculiarities are the employment of the
progressive aspect to refer to habitual actions (when the simple aspect
should have been used), the undifferentiated use of the tag isnt it, as in
She is with them now, isnt it? and the adverbial use of there instead of the
introductory or dummy There is / are, for example, Fruit is there, plates
are there (Davies 2005: 54).
From a lexical perspective, a number of words and phrases may be
said to be peculiar of Indian English. Among these, there are, according to
Wikipedia: shift (move from one apartment to another), weatish
complexion (light, creamy brown complexion), expire (to die, especially
in reference to ones family member), acting pricey (playing hard to get),
dearness allowance (payment given to employees to compensate for the
effects of inflation), chargesheet (to file charges against someone in
court), on the anvil (used frequently in the Indian press to mean about to
happen, to take place), out of station (out of town), etc. Local words and
expressions often intersperse with English ones. Dhobi-wallah
(laundryman), bandh (local strike), lathi (police truncheon), lakh
(one hundred thousand), crore (ten million), bheris (fish farms),
dacoities (attacks), quoted by Davies (2005), are only some of these. The
penetration of indigenous lexical items in South Asian English is not a novel
process. It actually began in the colonial period, as British administrators
adopted an ever-increasing number of local words and phrases, many of
which, like brahmin, bungalow, jute, purdah and chutney, are still wellknown as borrowings into English today (Davies 2005: 54).
The expanding circle includes territories in which English has
become or is becoming the most important foreign language (Davies
2005: 46).
Romania is, undoubtedly, one such territory. During the past twenty
years, English has evidently become the most prestigious foreign language
in our country, especially among the younger generations. Prlog (2004)
explains that this is partly the consequence of the temptation of the
youngsters to sprinkle their vocabulary with words belonging to the BritishAmerican super-civilization to which their parents had been denied access.
By doing this, they feel closer to the Western man (usually American),
perceived as a competent, enterprising, prosperous and reliable person
(Prlog 2004: 94). On the other hand, Romanians nowadays are more
frequently exposed to the English language - they can read a large number
of newspapers, magazines and books in English; throughout the country,
they can watch TV channels that broadcast in this language; and they have
numerous occasions of hearing and using English during their travels
abroad or as the language of communication in business settings.
Journalists and public people also contribute to English having a high


Words about Words

status in Romania, by using Anglicisms quite often, both in their spoken

and in their written materials. To these possible reasons why English ranks
the first among the foreign languages circulating in Romania, I may add its
increasing importance in the official school curricula, starting in
kindergarten and ending at university level. Not to mention the fact that
even subjects such as mathematics, physics or chemistry are taught in
English in more and more bilingual schools. Higher education has its share
of programs offered in English, too.
The importance that English has gained in Romania resulted in our
language being a good host for Anglicisms, which have become frequent in
the language of domains such as IT, business, the entertainment industry,
sports, etc.
The words and phrases that Romanian has borrowed from English
fall within two categories, in terms of their behaviour relative to the host
language. Some have remained non-assimilated, others have adapted to
Romanian in various ways, as I have recently demonstrated in an article on
the language of youth entertainment magazines published in our country
(Fril 2010).
Examples of Anglicisms selected from the corpus analyzed that have
been imported and have not undergone any changes include: nouns without
inflections, determiners or modifiers or used as parts of verb collocations
(software pentru gestionarea muzicii software for managing music;
te duci cu gndul la shopping you think of shopping; s-a dat click de
peste nou milioane de ori they gave a click over nine million times),
adjectives used as attributes or as predicatives, in the postive degree (tot
felul de pedepse funny all sorts of funny punishments; am rmas
addicted I remained addicted; trebuie s rmi fair you have to
remain fair) and adverbs used as attributes or as adverbials (caracteristici
de navigare outdoor characteristics of outdoor navigation;
comunitate online online community; backstage se afl cel mai
mare fan his greatest fan is backstage), etc.
In the same corpus, examples of borrowed words assimilated
directly or indirectly are:
nouns that have been assigned Romanian gender by various
means, such as the presence of a Romanian indefinite or definite
article or Romanian inflections for number, case, gender
(masculine: am fost nsoii de un bodyguard we were
accompanied by a bodyguard; designerii ne surpind constant
designers constantly surprise us; feminine: sunt o fan Liza
Minelli I am a Lisa Minelli fan; fanele mai pot spera the
fans can still hope; neuter: completeaz cu un blush roz add
a pink blush; target-ul l reprezint copiii the target is
represented by children);
nouns whose gender is assigned by the presence of a pronominal
adjective or modifier marked for gender (neuter: cum poi pstra


Lexical Strata in English

acest look how you can preserve this look; masculine: este
noul superstar al rockului he is the new superstar of rock);
nouns obtained by derivation with Romanian suffixes, from
English roots (diploma de cea mai bine mbrcat coolgirli
diploma for the best-dressed coolgirli; o fashionist
precum actria K.B. a fashionist like the actress K.B.; Eti
cea mai dulce maroonic You are the sweetest maroonic);
adjectives used in the Romanian comparative and superlative
degrees (cea mai cool pereche de balerini the coolest pair of
shoes; foarte simplu i foarte cool very simple and very
verbs conjugated according to the Romanian pattern (poi
uploada fotografii you can upload photographs; nu tiu s
managerieze problemele sufleteti they cannot manage soul
problems; pe unde am mixat, lumea s-a distrat people had
fun wherever I mixed music).
The stable status that some English words already have in Romanian
may be proven by the fact that they are used in the host language with more
than one of their meanings. This is the case of the word net, for example,
which circulates in Romanian both with its the thing that tennis players hit
the ball over meaning and with the online network meaning. Similarly,
modeling occurs both as the activity of making models of objects and as
the job of working as a model.
Besides borrowings proper, at least two other aspects that my
research on Anglicisms in Romanian youth magazines uncovered may be
considered illustrative of the influence English, as the major foreign
language in Romania, has exerted on our language. On the one hand,
phrases that adopt both the meaning and the structure of corresponding
English phrases have occurred in Romanian. Some such phraseological
calques are cod de bare (bar code), a avea fluturai n stomac (to have
butterflies in ones stomach) and a ine prima pagin (to keep the front
page). On the other, a number of Romanian words have been identified
whose meanings seem to have enlarged under the influence of English
words they share at least one sense with. For example, chimie - the
scientific study of substances and of the way they react with other
substances, got the extra meaning affective relationship between people,
under the influence of the English chemistry, while scndur flat piece
of wood, has come to also mean board with four wheels that one stands on
and rides, influenced by its English partial synonym skateboard.

6.2.2. Ethnic varieties of English

Ethnicity, understood as the common ancestry, race and distinctive
culture of a group of people (whose representatives live in smaller or larger


Words about Words

communities in a certain country), is reflected in the language these people

use. In the case of English, at least two ethnic varieties are very wellestablished: the African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Chicano
The former is spoken by about 90 percent of the black population of
African origin in the United States, the majority of which comes from innercity and working class backgrounds.
AAVE exhibits a number of peculiar linguistic features.
As Davies (2005) indicates, in its phonology, there are certain
characteristics that are shared with Southern US English - the use of the
monophthong /a/ rather than the diphthong /ai/ in words like hide, I and
time, particularly before voiced consonants, and the merging of the short
vowels /e/ and /i/ before nasals, the phonemic distinction between words
such as ten and tin being thus lost. As far as its consonantal system is
concerned, for example, post-vocalic /r/ is not pronounced in word-final
position, before a consonant or in between vowels (in words such as door,
short or Carol). Another distinctive feature is the reduction of word-final
clusters (through the loss of the final consonant) in words like rest, child,
cold (pronounced as if spelled res, chil, and col), although this does not
apply where there is a cluster of voiced followed by voiceless consonants, as
in felt or pump Aspects of the rhythm and intonation of AAVE are also
distinctive. One rhythmical feature that is often reflected in written
representations of the variety is the deletion of the first syllable in words
like about or remember, shown as bout and member (Davies 2005: 67).
From a grammatical perspective, the use of the verb in AAVE seems
to be the most interesting, in terms of its divergence from Standard English
or other US dialects. The verb, to be, for example, is often deleted, both as a
copula (except for cases when it agrees with subjects of the first person) and
as an auxiliary verb, so that sentences like She a doctor, instead of She is a
doctor and He gonna leave instead of He is going to leave are common in
AAVE. When referring to habitual, recurrent actions or lasting
characteristics of things, an invariant form of be is used, so that a statement
like This room is often warm becomes This room be warm. In AAVE,
there is a contrast in aspect between the forms subject+be+verb-ing and
subject+verb-ing without be: for example, she be singin means she often
sings, whereas she singin means shes singing now (Davies 2005: 68).
In addition, as Davies (2005) points out, non-standard subjectpredicate agreement is also peculiar of AAVE (They is there, She dont like
it), alongside the use of aint in negative clauses, together with other
negative words sometimes (She aint got a car, He aint got no money) and
the inversion of the subject and the auxiliary in declarative sentences with a
negative word as subject (Didnt nobody hear her Nobody heard her;
Wasnt nobody there Nobody was there).
Unsurprisingly, the vocabulary of AAVE contains words of African
origin (juke, okra, tote, banjo) and words from English to which Afro-


Lexical Strata in English

American speakers have attached meanings that differ from those of these
words in the mainstream language. Examples of lexical items in the latter
category, as offered by Davies (2005) are: bad for good, uptight for
anxious and jive for insincere talk. To these, Wikipedia adds grey, used
as an adjective for whites (probably from the colour of Confederate
uniforms) and kitchen for the particularly curly or kinky hair at the nape of
ones neck.
Last, but not least, AAVE is also characterized by certain
identifiable discourse strategies and speaking styles (Davies 2005: 69),
called by Smitherman (1995) the African American Verbal Tradition
(AVT). These strategies are visible, for example, in the speech of public
figures who are bidialectal, due to their having been brought up in AAVEspeaking communities and include specific intonation, address systems,
the use of tag questions and so on,closely associated with the signaling of
solidarity within the African American community (Davies 2005: 69). As
Lippi-Green (1997:177), quoted by Davies (2005) has shown:
even when no grammatical, phonological or lexical features of AAVE are
used, a person can, in effect, still be speaking AAVE by means of AVT
rhetorical devices. Thus, while the core grammatical features of AAVE may
be heard most consistently in poorer black communities where there are
strong social and communication networks, AAVE phonology (particularly
intonation) and black rhetorical style are heard, on occasion, from
prominent and successful African Americans in public forums.

A considerably big ethnic group in the United States is that of the

Hispanics people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Spanishspeaking backgrounds. According to Baugh and Cable (2002), in the 1990
US census, 60 percent of the Hispanics reported their national origin to be
Mexican and it has been estimated that Mexican-American English, or
Chicano English is now spoken by around 30 million people in the US.
Like AAVE, Chicano English is characterized by a number of
distinctive features. The main differences from Standard English lie, in its
case, in pronunciation. A selection of phonological characteristics of
Chicano English has been made by Davies (2005), following Tottie (2002).
It includes, among other features: the devoicing of /z/ to /s/, so that spies
sounds like spice, and of /v/ to /f/, in word-final position, so that live come
to be uttered like life; the reduction of consonant clusters, so its is
pronounced /iz/; the lengthening of /e/ in words like intention, send; the
shortening of /i/ in words like feel and week, etc. The tendency to place the
stress on the final element of compounds (police department rather than
police department) and to utter statements with a rising rather than falling
intonation also characterize Chicano English from a phonological point of
In terms of grammar, as Williams (2005) and Fought (2003)
pointed out, divergence of Chicano English from the Standard variety,


Words about Words

occurring mainly under the influence of the speakers mother tongue,

Spanish, may be illustrated by: the use of double negation (I didnt do
nothing, She didnt want no advice); the expression of possession for the
third person through prepositional phrases rather than nouns (The car of
my brother is red, I live in the house of my mother) and non-standard form
in the pronoun system in general (They have to start supporting
theirselves at early ages, Hes a guy, he could take care of hisself); the
regularisation of the past tense and other uses of non-standard verb-forms
(I aint ok, I havent wrote in a long time, It spinned, Those were the
people that I hanged around with, I had like three weeks that I had came
out the hospital before I got shot); the use of the auxiliary would in
conditional clauses (If I woulda been a gangster, I woulda been throwing
signs up; If TT wouldntve dropped those fumbles, then the Bills wouldve
won); the use of the preposition in instead of on (Macarena got in the bus,
We got in our bikes and rode down the hill), of for instead of the adverbial
phrase so that (For my mum can understand, For she wont feel guilty),
Just like users of AAVE, speakers of Chicano English employ a
number of words present in mainstream English, with a peculiar meaning.
What Fought (2003) finds interesting about these lexical items is the fact
that, contrary to general expectations, the meanings they are used with
seem to be influenced by the semantics of Spanish only in few cases. For
illustrative purposes, she quotes from the interviews she took to speakers of
Chicano English: fool, for guy, not necessarily pejoratively used (Man,
fool, you can take the bread out the oven); kick it, to mean to hang
around, but also, more generally, to wait for a while (Just kick it, do it
tonight); talk to, meaning to date (We started talking and then I didnt
talk to him no more; I talk to his sister); tell for ask (If I tell her to jump
up, shell tell me how high; Can you answer questions in Spanish?/It
depends on what you tell me); barely, meaning recently (I just barely
checked in); American for European-American or white (It wasnt the
American lady, it was the other one), etc.
Ethnic varieties of English (and of any other language, for that
matter) play an important role in preserving the shared identity of a
particular minority group within a majority mass. It is because of this that
members of an ethnic minority will not give up using its characteristic
vernacular (although, on occasions, the standard language is used,
especially by the upper educated classes) and will fight, by cultural and
political means, to ensure its survival.

6.2.3. Social varieties of English Standard English


Lexical Strata in English

Standard English (SE) is the variety of English considered the

norm in an English-speaking country, usually associated with users
belonging to the upper well-educated social classes on the one hand, and to
the media and the official social, scientific, political, cultural, etc. settings,
on the other. SE is also the variety taught to learners of English as a foreign
language. However, it should not be understood that it is spoken by
members of the upper social classes and in the previously mentioned
contexts only it is spread, admittedly, in a non-uniform way, across the
whole social spectrum and it is encountered in less formal environments as
Trudgills (1999) attempt at describing SE, in terms of both what it
is and what it is not, resulted in highlighting the fact that, on the one hand,
SE is not an accent. It can be identified mainly by its vocabulary, grammar
and orthography, but not by its pronunciation. In Britain, there is a high
status and widely described accent known as Received Pronunciation
(RP), referred to during the former half of the 20 th century as Kings
English, Queens English and BBC English also, which is
sociolinguistically unusual when seen from a global perspective in that it is
not associated with any geographical area, being instead a purely social
accent associated with speakers in all parts of the country, or at least in
England, from upper-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds (Trudgill
1999: 118). There seems to be wide agreement, though, on the fact that,
while users of RP also speak SE, not all speakers of SE speak it with an RP.
According to Trudgill and Chesire (1998), about 10% of the population in
Britain speak SE with some form of regional accent, even if this is not very
distant from RP. Therefore, it is justified to say that while RP is, in a sense,
standardized, it is a standardized accent of English and not Standard
English itself. This point becomes even clearer from an international
perspective. Standard English speakers can be found in all Englishspeaking countries, and it goes without saying that they speak this variety
with different non-RP accents, depending on whether they came from
Scotland or the USA or New Zealand or wherever (Trudgill 1999: 118).
SE is not a style either (style being regarded as a language variety
that can be placed on a continuum, ranging from very formal to very
informal). Trudgill (1999) considers it appropriate to assert the
independence (at least theoretical, if not always practical) of the parameter
standard non-standard from the parameter formal informal. According
to him, a sentence like The old man was bloody knackered after his long
trip may be considered a clear instance of SE, though couched in a very
informal style (Trudgill 1999: 120), while a sentence like Father were very
tired after his lengthy journey would be, for most, an example of nonstandard English (due to the grammatically incorrect agreement between
the subject and the verb), couched in a rather formal style (Trudgill 1999:
120). What follows from here is that, even if SE tends to be used at the
formal end of the continuum mentioned (a fact imposed by context), it is


Words about Words

not impossible for it to be employed in an informal way, too. Stylistic

switching occurs within the variety in question and not between it and
another one.
Following the same line of thinking, Trudgill (1999) argues that
equating SE to register (seen as a variety of language connected to a
particular topic, subject matter or activity, such as mathematics, medicine,
physics, law, etc.) would be as inappropriate as equating it to style or
accent. It is of course true that it is most usual in English-speaking
societies to employ Standard English when one is using scientific registers this is the social convention, we might say. But one can certainly acquire
and use technical registers without using Standard English, just as one can
employ non-technical registers while speaking or writing Standard English.
There is, once again, no necessary connection between the two. Thus,
There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys is a
nonstandard English sentence, couched in the technical register of physical
geography (Trudgill 1999: 121). As the author suggests, the way of
mingling non-standard grammar with standardized vocabulary illustrated
by the sentence just quoted is not uncommon in certain linguistic
communities, such as, he says, the German-speaking Switzerland, where
the local non-standard dialect is used in almost all contexts of
communication, for nearly all purposes. Here, a discussion between two
philosophy professors on Kants ideas, carried on employing the
terminology specific to their area of expertise and, at the same time, the
phonology and grammar of the local dialect, would not come as a surprise
at all. Thus, what is emphasized is the fact that there seems to be no sound
reasons why technical vocabulary should be considered the prerogative of
standard varieties only and that if you are a nonstandard dialect speaker
and it is possible to acquire new non-technical words within your own
nonstandard dialect, it is sadly by definition impossible to acquire technical
words without switching to the standard variety (Trudgill 1999: 121). In
other words, there is no necessary connection between Standard English
and technical registers (Trudgill 1999: 121).
Once what SE is not has been made clear, the question of what it
actually is arises naturally. As already stated at the beginning of this
section, SE is a language variety, a dialect which displays characteristics
that individualize it as pretty unusual among the other dialects of English.
In general, as Trudgill (1999) points out, dialects are geographical
and social varieties at the same time, situated along a continuum. Unlike
them, SE cannot be considered part of such a continuum, due to the nature
of standardization itself. There is really no continuum linking Standard
English to other dialects because the codification that forms a crucial part of
the standardization process results in a situation where, in most cases, a
feature is either standard or it is not (Trudgill 1999: 122). As such, SE is
considered by the author a purely social dialect and, due to its great
sociological importance, no longer a geographical one, though, for some


Lexical Strata in English

particular purpose, one may speak about Scottish Standard English, or

American Standard English, or British Standard English. However, the
differences between these are actually almost imperceptible and even in
England, we can note that there is a small amount of geographical
variation at least in spoken Standard English, such as the different
tendencies in different parts of the country to employ contractions such as
Hes not as opposed to he hasnt. But the most salient sociolinguistic
characteristic of Standard English is that it is a social dialect (Trudgill
1999: 123).
SE is the dialect spoken as their native variety by about 12 to 15% of
Britains population, this segment being concentrated at the top of the
social scale. The further down this scale one gets, the more numerous nonstandard forms of language one comes across. From a historical point of
view, SE was selected (though not through a conscious process of decision
making by regulatory bodies such as academies, for instance) as the variety
to become the standard one precisely because it was the variety associated
with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth and prestige.
Subsequent developments have reinforced its social character: the fact that
it has been employed as the dialect of an education to which pupils,
especially in earlier centuries, have had differential access depending on
their social class background (Trudgill 1999: 124).
Once agreement has been reached on the fact that it would be
inappropriate to talk about a specific SE accent or about peculiar SE
vocabulary, the most obvious features that make SE differ from other nonstandard English dialects lie at the level of grammar. Though they are not
very numerous, the social significance of these features seems to be
undeniable. From among them, Trudgill (1999: 126) quotes the following:
Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the
auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms. This is true
both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish
between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I do, he does, and the
past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary
did and main verb done, as in You done it, did you?;
Standard English has an unusual and irregular present tense verb
morphology in that only the third-person singular receives
morphological marking: he goes versus I go. Many other dialects use
either zero for all persons or -s for all persons;
Standard English lacks multiple negation, so that no choice is
available between I dont want none, which is not possible, and I
dont want any. Most nonstandard dialects of English around the
world permit multiple negation;
Standard English has an irregular formation of reflexive pronouns
with some forms based on the possessive pronouns e.g. myself, and
others on the objective pronouns e.g. himself. Most nonstandard


Words about Words

dialects have a regular system employing possessive forms

throughout i.e. hisself, theirselves;
Standard English fails to distinguish between second person
singular and second person plural pronouns, having you in both
cases. Many nonstandard dialects maintain the older English
distinction between thou and you, or have developed newer
distinctions such as you versus youse;
Standard English has irregular forms of the verb to be both in the
present tense (am, is, are) and in the past (was, were). Many
nonstandard dialects have the same form for all persons, such as I
be, you be, he be, we be, they be, and I were, you were, he were, we
were, they were;
In the case of many irregular verbs, Standard English redundantly
distinguishes between preterite and perfect verb forms both by the
use of the auxiliary have and by the use of distinct preterite and past
participle forms: I have seen versus I saw. Many other dialects have
I have seen versus I seen;
Standard English has only a two-way contrast in its demonstrative
system, with this (near to the speaker) opposed to that (away from
the speaker). Many other dialects have a three-way system involving
a further distinction between, for example, that (near to the listener)
and yon (away from both speaker and listener).
What is considered SE from a grammatical point of view should be
regarded without losing sight of the fact that language is continuously
changing and that it might very well happen that what is labeled nonstandard at a certain moment should become the norm. The reverse
phenomenon is also possible what is today considered standard language
might enter the category of non-standard forms in the future. Slang
If SE is a variety of language associated mainly with the upper and
well-read classes of society, slang is considered the attribute of lower social
classes chiefly. It may be contrasted with jargon (technical language of
occupational or other groups) and with argot or cant (secret vocabulary of
underworld groups), but the borderlines separating these categories from
slang are greatly blurred, and some writers use the terms cant, argot, and
jargon in a general way, to include all the foregoing meanings (Varanakov
online: 4). However, just like in the case of SE, this does not mean that
slang is never used by speakers not belonging to the portions of society just
Slang may be defined as a variety of language characterized by the
use of very informal and generally short-lived non-standard words, phrases
and meanings (coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened


Lexical Strata in English

forms, extravagant, forced or facietous figures of speech (Varanakov

online: 4), new meanings that have been attached to old words or narrow
meanings of words that have become generalized). Thus, it is a language
variety that exhibits distinctive features at the level of vocabulary, grammar
not being particularly different from that of mainstream language.
Slang originates in various subcultures or occupational groups in a
society (police, medical professionals, computer specialists, sports groups,
religious denominations, drug addicts, criminals, etc.). Within these, slang
words and phrases are initially suggested by an individual, usually, as a way
of expressing hostility, ridicule or contempt (Varanakov online: 5) either
towards the members, values, attitudes or behaviour of her / his own group
or of a different group. However, only after these lexical elements are
widely adopted by the group or subculture within which they were created
do they have chances of becoming real slang (a one time usage does not
guarantee their survival as part of the language variety under discussion).
Following this stage, if the group or subculture has an extensive enough
contact with the mainstream culture, these words and phrases may spread
and become known to a greater number of language users. For example,
cat (a sport), cool (aloof, stylish), Mr. Charley (a white man), The Man
(the law), and Uncle Tom (a meek black) all originated in the
predominantly black Harlem district of New York City and have traveled far
since their inception.
A slang expression may suddenly become widely used and as quickly
dated (e.g. 23-skiddoo for get lost). It may become accepted as standard
speech, either in its original slang meaning (bus, from omnibus) or with an
altered, possibly tamed meaning (jazz, which originally had sexual
connotations). Some expressions have persisted for centuries as slang (such
as booze for alcoholic beverage). In the 20th century, mass media and rapid
travel have speeded up both the circulation and the demise of slang terms,
while television and novels have turned criminal cant into slang (five grand
for $5000).
Changing social circumstances may stimulate the spread of slang.
Drug-related words (such as pot and marijuana) were virtually a secret
jargon in the 1940s; in the 1960s they were adopted by rebellious youth;
and in the 1970s and 80s they became widely known (Varankov online: 7).
Besides expressing ridicule, hostility or contempt, as hinted at
above, there seems to be other reasons that motivate the birth of slang.
Possible such reasons, as Partridge (1933), quoted by Fox (online: 7)
suggests, are: the exercising of ingenuity, wit and humour; the desire to be
different, novel or picturesque (either positively or as in the wish to
avoid insipidity negatively), to be unmistakably arresting, even
startling, to escape from clichs, to lend an air of solidity, concreteness,
to the abstract, of earthiness to the idealistic, of immediacy and
appositeness to the remote (in the cultured, the effort is usually
premeditated, while in the uncultured, it is almost always unconscious


Words about Words

when it is not rather subconscious); to lesson the sting of, or, on the other
hand, to give additional point to a refusal, a rejection, a recantation; to
reduce, perhaps also to disperse the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive
seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing); to soften the
tragedy, to lighten or to prettify the inevitability of death or madness, or to
mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery,
ingratitude); and / or thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to
endure, to carry on, to speak or write down to an inferior, or to amuse a
superior public, or merely to be on a colloquial level with either ones
audience or ones subject matter; to show that one belongs to a certain
school, trade, or profession, artistic or intellectual set, or social class, in
brief, to be in the swim or to establish contact and, hence, to show or prove
that someone is not in the swim; to be secret - not understood by those
around one (children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies,
and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in prison, are the chief
Slang is not restricted either temporally or geographically. All
historical periods and all geographical areas have had their own slang.
Chaucer used gab for talk and bones for dice as early as the 14 th century,
pansy became the slang word for weak or effeminate boy in the 15 th
century, while, during the Elizabethan period, words such as nun for
prostitute, rake for a morally loose man, fishmonger for a woman who
keeps a brothel and to die for to have an orgasm crossed the border from
common language into the category of slang, together with Shakespeares
costard (a big apple) for head and clay-brained / knotty pated for slow
of wit. Examples of British slang include: air biscuit an expulsion of air
from the anus, a fart, carry out alcohol brought from a bar with the
intention of taking it home or away, legless very drunk, pearl harbour
cold weather, spare tire a roll of fat around ones midriff, while,
among the slang words and phrases peculiar in America, there are: fix
dose of drugs, to go bananas to go crazy, honcho boss,
megabucks a lot of money, mickey mouse nonsense and waste of
time. In Australia, crow eater a person from Southern Australia, cut
lunch sandwiches, liquid laugh vomit, to veg out to relax in front
of the TV circulate as slang and so do bompie a fat girl that is easy to get
into bed, to crash to go to sleep, to graze to eat, skinner gossip,
spook and diesel cane spirits and Coca-Cola, in South Africa.
As suggested above, though most extensively used by the lower
social classes, slang makes itself room in the speech of educated members
of the high society as well. To illustrate this, Varanakov (online) quotes
George Washington who used redcoat for British soldier, Churchill who
chose booze for liquor and Lyndon Johnson who opted for cool it to mean
calm down, shut up.
Professionals in various areas and representatives of particular
groups of society use, each, their own sang. Thus, doctors, nurses and other


Lexical Strata in English

medical staff refer to accidentally leaving a surgical instrument inside a

patient as burying the hatchet, to a proctologist as a rear admiral, to an
obstetrician as a baby catcher or to a surgeon as a slasher. They also call
the rheumatism department in a hospital rheumaholiday, on the grounds
that it is, usually, a less busy department, and refer to performing varicose
vein surgery as digging for worms, while a patient who is unable to get out
of bed is, for them, a beached whale. Students sprinkle their talk with slang
elements, too. On the website of the University of Leicester
(, for example, the glossary of slang terms used by the
students here includes: bees knees or mutts nuts for greatest, best, a
brown nose for someone who makes fake friends to advance socially or
professionally, death stick for cigarette, to talk to the hand as a sarcastic
dismissal to show that the listener does not care what the speaker is trying
to say. Thieves, on the other hand, have had their difficult to decipher slang
ever since prisons first appeared. Thus, for those populating jails, a cadillac
is an inmate dorm bed or single bunk, to do the Dutch refers to
committing suicide, big jab, stainless steel ride and doctorate in applied
chemistry are all used in connection with the lethal injection, to kill ones
number means to serve ones time or to get out on parole, to cling rock
to sell cocaine, sweet kid an inmate who allies with an older, more
experienced inmate, possibly for protection or knowledge, etc.
As previously indicated and exemplified so far, slang is based on
coinages or arbitrarily changed words, clipped or shortened forms,
abbreviations, new meanings that have been attached to old words or
narrow meanings of words that have become generalized. Metaphor and
comparison play an important role as figures of speech on which slang
builds. The former combines with rhyme to give birth to a clear cut category
of the variety under discussion the rhyming slang, especially well
represented in the case of Cockney, the variety of English spoken by the
working class Londoners. Illustrative examples of Cockney rhyming slang,
selected from online sources, include: apples and pears (stairs), Jack and
Jill (restaurant bill), Oxford scholar (dollar), pigs ear (beer),
pleasure and pain (rain), street (field of wheat), trouble and strife
(wife), etc.
According to Katamba (2005: 170), the rhyming slang lexicon is
quite fluid. There are some phrases like joy of my life and storm of my life,
meaning wife, which are of long standing. But there are also many
ephemeral rhymes, e.g. those that involve the name of a celebrity who is
still in the limelight (e.g. Germain Greer beer, Al Pacino capuccino, etc.).
Others fall somewhere in between: dancing flees keys, dog and bone
phone, drum and fife knife, etc.

6.2.4. Written and oral varieties of English


Words about Words

The differences between the spoken and the written varieties of

English are generally agreed upon. Although they have been a familiar
subject in many linguistics books so far, the previously well drawn
separation line between the two has become quite blurred recently, under
the influence of the development and more and more extensive use of
communication channels such as the email, mobile phones and online chat
rooms. Thus, new varieties of English, specific to electronic communication,
have evolved and deserve the same amount of attention as the language
used in traditional oral and written settings.
Spontaneous speech, one form of oral communication, occurs
when people talk naturally and informally, without having planned in
advance what they are going to say. This is not to mean that spontaneous
talk is just small talk for the sake of talking, that the interlocutors have no
conscious aim in their talk whatsoever, but rather that linguistically, they
have not already worked out what form of the language they are going to
use to express what they want to say. In their heads, they may well have
quite clear intentions, but they will actually express these intentions
spontaneously, if and when they get the chance to in the course of the
conversation (Davies 2005: 92).
Although informal conversation does not seem to be closely
controlled, a set of rules is still applied by the speakers, even if
unconsciously most of the times. These are connected to the use of formulas
to open or close a dialogue, of greetings or pragmatic idioms (adjacency
pairs of the kind Im George. / Nice to meet you; Im sorry! / No problem.;
Have some more cake! / No, thank you, Ive had enough, etc.), to giving
feedback (by using, for example, discourse markers such as yes, I know,
exactly, sure, etc.), asking and answering questions, making and
responding to suggestions, signaling the intention to keep or to yield the
floor (in the former case, by, for instance, pausing at a moment when the
sentence is still incomplete and when, therefore, the interlocutor feels
discouraged to take over; in the latter, by pausing when an idea has been
completely expressed, directly asking for the interlocutors opinion or
displaying suggestive body language looking more steadily to the person
to whom the speaker is willing to give the floor, nodding, etc).
Davies (2005: 92) lists some of the non-fluency features that are
characteristic of spontaneous talk as follows:
abandoned / incomplete words such as thi-this and abandoned
and / or reformulated sentence structure, such as I could always
get the tickets from theres a new box office down you know,
when you go through that new shopping archade
syntactic blends, where the structure of the sentence changes in
mid-stream, e.g. About two hundred years ago we had ninety-five
percent of people in this country were employed in farming.


Lexical Strata in English

mispronunciations and slips of the tongue, e.g. par cark for car
park (syllable-onset consonants swopped); win a pin for with a pin
(where an anticipated consonant is articulated early).
fillers like er, erm.
repetition (often combined with hesitation), such as itsitsn
not that I want to be critical but
Unlike spontaneous speech, rehearsed speech is, in some ways,
prepared before it is uttered for an audience. This is, on the one hand, the
case of speeches thought over and maybe even drafted before they are
delivered to the listeners and, on the other, of drama, in whose case lines
are learned by heart by the actors and then reproduced before the
spectators. Therefore, though the aim of the speaker in these cases is to
sound as spontaneous as possible, what s/he says does not come out in the
same way as it does in the case of fully unprepared speech. Some nonfluency characteristics are preserved (syntactic blends, fillers, hesitation
markers, etc.) though - intentionally in the case of theatre, possibly
uncontrolled in the case of public speakers.
Traditional written texts are characterized by features that are the
consequence of their being produced in a more controlled manner than oral
discourse. The final version of a written text, one that might have been
arrived at after several revisions, is a string of coherent sentences that
reflect a logical sequencing of ideas. These sentences tend to be much
longer and more elaborated than those in spoken discourse, with no
(intentional) grammatical mistakes and with a higher level of vocabulary.
Features such as these, however, seem to no longer be detectable as
such in recently evolved forms of electronic written texts like emails
and text-messages. In such contexts, they rather mix with features of oral
communication. The extent to which one category of features is better
represented as compared to the other depends on the level of formality of
the electronic texts. Features of orality prevail over those of written
language in informal circumstances, while the situation is reversed in the
case of electronic texts exchanged in more formal environments.
The mixture of oral and written language features in the case of
online messages enabled Danet (2002: 4) to consider digital
communication as, paradoxically, both doubly attenuated and doubly
enhanced. It is, as she explains, less rich than both speech and writing. As
compared to face-to-face spoken interaction, it does not benefit from the
contribution of non-verbal and paralinguistic cues to the meaning carried
by words themselves (although, as I shall indicate below, attempts are made
at substituting the absence of these cues by symbols that stand for feelings,
attitudes, reactions, etc). By comparison to traditional writing, on the other
hand, its digital variant is attenuated because the text is no longer a
tangible physical object. Printing is optional, and in synchronous modes
of typed chat, communication on the fly is the thing, not an optional textual


Words about Words

log of what happened (Danet 2002: 4). However, electronic

communication may be considered enhanced speech, since, unlike
ordinary spoken language, it leaves traces, and can therefore be reexamined as long as we are logged on, the program is open and the text is
retained in the computers memory. We can reread what the other person
or we have jus written (Danet 2002: 5). It may also be looked at as
enhanced writing, since in its real-time interactive modes, the medium
restores the presence of ones interlocutor, long absent in the production of
extensive texts. Moreover, it is far easier to establish immediate
communication with the writer of an asynchronous message or text than in
the past, making it more dialogic than in print culture (Danet 2002: 5).
Davies (2005) points out some characteristics of emails and text
messages that follow from their being produced at the intersection of
speech and writing, and from their being delivered through the electronic
Thus, one major area in which emails differ from pen and paper
letters is the extent of the variability (Davies 2005: 102) of the former,
that is the author of an email can revise it, add parts to it or remove
portions of it, without this literally leaving marks on the text itself. An email
may also lose its formatting while it is being sent so that what the text looks
like on the authors screen might not be similar to what it looks like when it
reaches its addressee.
Emails differ from traditional letters from a stylistic point of view,
too. Bullet points are used quite frequently in the electronic texts and usual
punctuation and spelling are sometimes consciously not adhered to.
Commas are lightly used, capitalization is often missing where it should
have been present, but it is employed when it would not have been expected
in a traditional piece of writing (when, for example, emphasis is drawn on a
particular portion of the text), typing errors occur repeatedly, etc.
Emoticons (combinations of keyboard characters meant to indicate certain
emotions) or smileys (faces used for the same purpose) are employed in
emails, to replace the actual spelling out of feelings. Among these, as Davies
(2005: 103) lists them, there are:
Emoticons are used in text messages exchanged on mobile phones
as well, here, more than in the case of emails, in order to ensure speed in
communication. It is for the same reason why textese or chatspeak
consisting, among others, of slang, alphanumerics of the kind B4 for


Lexical Strata in English

before, M8 for mate, 2G2BT for too good to be true, GR8 for great
and abbreviations such as CU for see you, RU for are you, BRB for be
right back, UGTBK for you got to be kidding or OMG for oh, my God is
also peculiar of this type of writing (however, if used in excess and between
people who are not equally familiar with it, it may impede communication
rather than facilitate it). In fact, writers of text messages quickly become
adept at reducing every word to its minimum comprehensible length,
usually omitting vowels wherever possible, as in Wknd for Weekend, Msg
for Message or deliberately using shorter misspellings, such as Wot for
What. The spaces between words are also sometimes done away with in a
text message, with word boundaries shown by upper case letters, as in
ThxForYrMsg (Thanks for your message) (Davies 2005: 104).
Other types of omissions in text messages, meant to ensure their
brevity imposed by the set number of characters that can be typed, include
the absence of opening and, sometimes, closing formulas, the usual
exclusion of the senders name, of the subject personal pronoun I, of
copulative verbs and certain prepositions.
The above mentioned characteristics of text messages are as well
peculiar of the conversations carried on in chat rooms. However, though
not absent, they tend not to be that frequently encountered in another form
of online writing, that specific of message boards. Unlike in the case of text
messaging and the exchanges in chat rooms, which are synchronous forms
of communication, message boards are net forums to which people can
post messages at a more leisurely pace, often over days or weeks (Davies
2005: 104). The fact that communication is asynchronous in their case
(points of view are recorded at a certain distance in time) allows the senders
of the messages not to write them under the pressure of time and, therefore,
to compose them (in quite numerous cases, though not all) with the amount
of attention to vocabulary, grammar, spelling and punctuation usually paid
in pen-and-paper letter writing. The following extract from an online
exchange of opinions on the 2010 box office top movie Avatar (posted on
the Rotten Tomatoes message board) may be considered illustrative for
the way in which features of oral, informal communication, of previously
discussed text messaging and of traditional, careful writing mix in a new
form of text. Abbreviations such as cg for computer generated, lol for
laugh out loud, reduced forms such as Cmon, for Come on, ellipsis in
sentences such as you expected more?, were like the opposite (containing
the filler like and a subject-verb agreement mistake), omissions such as I
came in the movie for I came in the movie theatre, informal forms of
words such as yep for yes, typing errors and the use of lower case where
the upper case should have been employed combine with elaborated
sentences and structures such as In my opinion, it was incredibly overhyped which naturally caused critics to analyze it more pessimistically
than they normally would, a visually epic and narratively engaging film,
emphatic word order as in It was not the violence at where it was flawed.


Words about Words

It was that James Cameron converted acting, talent and plot to a Visual
Eyegasm. It is as if all things which make movies great and elevated
vocabulary of the kind flawed, laughable, detrimental effect, critical
reception, etc:

C. Fuchs. On March 11, 2010. 02:59

For all its powerful technologies, Avatar cant get out from under its
essential cardboardness.
Brittany W. On March 11, 2010. 06:14
Cardboardness? What movie theater were you sitting in? Try waking up to
watch the movie
before judging it.
Derrick. On March 24, 2010. 06:19
Ill disagree with the comment above me. It was not the violence at where it
was flawed.
It was that James Cameron converted acting, talent and plot to a
Visual Eyegasm. It is as if all
things which make movies great are no longer
Steeping Razor. On May, 18, 2010. 01:24
I agree. I finally saw Avatar, and many parts were overly silly and
laughable. It was best when the military was attacking Pandora, but overall it
felt like Saturday morning cartoons from
the 80s. I found myself laughing
when I knew it was trying to be serious. The dialogue
often awful, the
acting too hammy for its own good.
Stephen G. On May 20, 2010.02:50
Hu, you expected more? I came in the movie expecting it to be ****y, but i
was wrong.
Were like the opposite.
Enoch, C. May 25, 2010. 13:20
lol some people in the theater cried when the marines killed that big***
tree in Pandora. i wanted
to slap them.
The Creeper. May 29, 2010. 6:42
I fully agree.
Vicky M. June 9, 2010. 6:40
Dances with Wolves, thats all I have to say.
Jason K. June 9, 2010. 11:08
yep dances with wolves, fern gully, Pocahontas. avatar doesnt have an
original storyline
and all it really is to most people who notice is just a giant
cg effect which is really sad
because the
academy didnt even notice this
when the put it up for an oscar


Lexical Strata in English

Alyssa W. June 13, 2010. 11:35

Cmon, how can you not like this movie?
A55 Velcro. July 3, 2010. 7:42
I can easily not like this movie for many reasons.
Chris K. August 16, 2010. 3:56
Its a shame that the film marketing has had a detrimental effect on its
critical reception. In my
opinion it was incredibly over-hyped which
naturally caused critics to analyse it more
pessimistically than they normally
would. Although it doesnt quite fill the shoes its makers boast, the movie is still a
visually epic and narratively engaging film I cant help loving!



Dictionaries are repositories of words so frequently resorted to
that their inexistence would be unconceivable at present. Each of us must
have opened such a book about language at least once to look up the
meaning(s) of an unknown word, to check its spelling, to find information
about its etymology, its history, its synonyms / antonyms or its
equivalent(s) in (an)other language(s).

7.1. Types of dictionaries

The range of publications that are called dictionaries is very wide.
One may distinguish between dictionaries that treat a single language
monolingual dictionaries, and those that treat more than one, usually
two and, less frequently, three languages bilingual or trilingual
Within the former category, there are reference books whose
purpose is primarily historical and whose aim is to describe the vocabulary
of a language within certain limits of time. For English, the best known
historical dictionaries are the Oxford English Dictionary (edited by James
Murray in 1933, with a second edition in 1989, coordinated by John
Simpson and Edmund Weiner), which describes the birth, death and
semantic and formal development of English words since 1150 and its
abbreviated version, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (edited by
Lesley Brown and printed in 1993), in which these aspects are charted
beginning with 1700. Synchronic dictionaries of English include, among
others, A Thesaurus of Old English (compiled by Jane Roberts, Ch. Kay and
Lynne Grundy, in 1995), the Middle English Dictionary (edited by S. Kuhn
and J. Reidy, in 1969) and quite numerous dictionaries of contemporary
English, some of which will be dealt with in what follows.
Dictionaries of contemporary English are not only the most
numerous, they are also the most diverse. They differ according to
dimension - from desk-size, through concise, to pocket and smaller, with
varying numbers of pages and coverage, and according to format
publishers have made their dictionaries available not only in print form, but
also in the electronic medium, either on CDs or online. Moreover, they
belong to different categories as far as their intended target users are. Some
are meant for a young audience at various stages in their growth and
educational development. Of these, the monolingual learners dictionaries,
compiled to meet the needs of the intermediate to advanced learners of
English as a second or foreign language, are an interesting class of works
that have been at the forefront of lexicographical innovation in the last


Words in Dictionaries

half-century (Jackson 2002: 129). After the publication, in 1948, of

Hornbys Advanced Learners Dictionary, which, since then, has been
reprinted twelve times, at least four major dictionaries for learners of
English have been compiled: the Macmillan English Dictionary for
Advanced Learners (2002, 2009), the Longman Dictionary of
Contemporary English (1978, 1987, 1995), the Collins COBUILD English
Dictionary (1987, 1995, 2001) and the Cambridge International
Dictionary of English (1995). Other monolingual dictionaries the
general-purpose ones - target the adult English native speakers and are as
numerous and diverse as the learners dictionaries. Within this category,
there are the Collins English Dictionary (1979, 1986, 1994, 1998), the
Concise Oxford Dictionary (with eleven editions since 1911), the Longman
Dictionary of the English Language (1984, 1991), the Websters Third New
International Dictionary of the English Language (1961), etc.
A wide range of specialist reference books adds to the two categories
of monolingual dictionaries already mentioned. Some of these focus on
linguistic aspects of language. There are dictionaries of pronunciation, such
as the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1997) and the Longman
Pronunciation Dictionary (2000), dictionaries of spelling, such as A
Dictionary of Spelling. British and American (1964), dictionaries of
etymology, such as An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1967)
or Douglas Harpers continuously updated online etymological dictionary
or dictionaries devoted to particular lexical units from among which one
may quote the Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary (2006), the Longman
Phrasal Verbs Dictionary (2007), the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary
(2006), the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2005), A Dictionary of American
Idioms (2003), the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English
(2002), the Dictionary of Selected Collocations (1999), the Oxford
Dictionary of English Proverbs (1935), etc. Quite a number of monolingual
dictionaries have been compiled based on semantic relations between
words, especially, but not only, on synonymy and antonymy. Thus, the
market has recent publications such as the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms
and Antonyms (2007), the Oxford Learners Thesaurus: A Dictionary of
Synonyms (2008), the Wordsworth Dictionary of Homonyms (2007), etc.
Besides these, there are various dictionaries that define the
terminology specific to a domain (which share characteristics with
encyclopedias, in terms of the extent of their definitions or explanations
and in that they include entries for personalities in the field to which the
dictionary is dedicated): the Longman Business English Dictionary (2007),
A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (2006), the
Dictionary of Law (2006), the Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry (2009),
The Dictionary of Cell and Molecular Biology (2007), etc.


Words about Words

7.2. English lexicography

7.2.1. British lexicography
As Jackson (2002) explains, the beginnings of English lexicography
may be traced back to the Old English period, specifically to the sixth
century, when the Roman form of Christianity was introduced and the
monastic life flourished. The language of the Roman Church being Latin,
the manuscripts that the priests studied at the time were written in it. On
reading them, they would sometimes write corresponding English words for
the foreign ones, below or above the latter, to help their own understanding
of the texts or as a guide to future readers. These interlinear glosses
(Hullen 1989) were later gathered in a separate manuscript, as a glossary,
which may be considered a prototype dictionary (Jackson 2002: 31). In
time, the words in the glossaries started to be ordered alphabetically,
initially, after the first letter, then, by the second and subsequent letters or
During the Middle Ages, Latin continued to play a very important
role not only in church, but also in the educational system. It used to be the
lingua franca of teaching and learning at European universities (Cambridge
and Oxford being at the forefront of these) so that, when schools for
preparing students for entry to these universities were founded, the
demand for instructional material for teaching and learning Latin
vocabulary and grammar increased. As Jackson (2002) indicates, two
dictionaries were compiled to meet this demand: the Latin-English Hortus
Vocabulorum (printed in 1500) and the English-Latin Promptorium
Parvulorum (printed in 1499).
During the Renaissance, the significance of Latin reached another
level, through the publication of Roman literature works either in the
original or in translation. In numerous cases, translators chose to add a
Latin-English glossary at the end of their translations, a practice which
continued until lexicography developed enough to make it unnecessary. The
Renaissance witnessed not only the revival of the classical Latin and Greek,
but also an increase of the interest in Europes vernacular languages, due,
especially, to a boost in traveling. Such interest lay at the basis of the
publication of several bilingual dictionaries, among which there are, as
pointed out by Jackson (2002): for French and English - John Palsgraves
Esclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530) and Randle Cotgraves A
Dictionaire of the French and English Tongues (1611); for Italian and
English - John Florios A Worlde of Wordes (1598); for Spanish, English
and Latin - Richard Percyvalls Bibliotheca Hispanica (1591), etc.
The first monolingual English dictionary is considered to be Robert
Cawdreys A Table Alphabeticall, printed in 1604, and, as the author quoted
by Jackson (2002: 33) explains, conteyning and teaching the true writing,


Words in Dictionaries

and understanding of hard, usuall English wordes, borrowed from the

Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French. There are around 2500 words in this
dictionary, for which synonyms or explanations in plaine English words
(Cawdrey, cited in Jackson 2002: 33) are provided.
John Bullokars An English Expositor followed A Table
Alphabeticall in 1616, with more numerous and diverse entries and more
extensive explanations. Both these publications led the way to Henry
Cockermans The English Dictionarie, first published in 1623. Though
inspired by the two previous publications, Cockermans dictionary differed
from them in some respects. On the one hand, it addressed a larger
audience, of which the learners of English as a foreign language were part.
On the other, besides the lists of hard words with their explanations, it
also contained a list of vulgar words together with their refined or
elegant equivalents, as an aid to writing with good style and, following
the practice of some Latin-English dictionaries, a list of Gods and
Godesses (Jackson 2002: 35).
Monolingual dictionaries continued to expand, mostly in the
direction of lexemes outside the everyday vocabulary. Etymology began to
be of concern to English lexicographers so that, by the end of the
seventeenth century, two etymological dictionaries had been published:
Stephen Skinners Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae (1671) and the
anonymous Gazophylacium Anglicanum (1689).
The beginning of the eighteenth century brought changes as far as
the focus in monolingual English dictionaries is concerned. Dictionary
compilers began to show a more consistent interest in including in their
works, besides borrowings, as numerous native words as possible. Such
interest, together with that already manifested for etymology, is obvious in
the two dictionaries that dominated the period, Nathaniel Baileys An
Universal Etymological English Dictionary, published in 1721, and his
Dictionarium Britannicum, of 1730, the latter, a rich source of inspiration
to Samuel Johnson. Largely similar, these publications had a more
extensive scope and addressed a wider group of users than their
predecessors. As the author described the former dictionary (quoted by
Jackson 2002: 37), it was meant for comprehending the derivations of the
generality of words in the English tongue, either antient or modern, from
the antient British, Saxon, Danish, Norman and Modern French, Teutonic,
Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, each in their
proper characters and also a brief and clear explication of all difficult
words and terms of art together with a large collection and explication
of words and phrases usd in our antient statutes and the etymology and
interpretation of the proper names of men, women, and remarkable places
in Great Britain; also the dialects of our different countries. To which is
added a collection of our most common proverbs, with their explication and


Words about Words

Lexicographers attempt at introducing native words rather than so

many borrowed ones in their dictionaries was paralleled in the eighteenth
century by the scholars and authors concern for the state of the English
language, especially for its being spoiled, as they considered, by loan words.
The example of the Academie francaise, who thought of dictionaries as
instruments that could help in codifying the French language and in
prescribing what was acceptable in it, prompted similar opinions on the
part of the English scholars. Of them, Samuel Johnson embodied, in a
monumental work, his awareness of the important role a dictionary may
play in ascertaining and fixing a language.
His Dictionary of the English Language, printed in 1755, remained
the foremost dictionary of the English language for a century, and its author
was acclaimed as the one who had done for English single-handedly what it
had taken forty French academicians to do for their language. Johnson not
only produced a monumental dictionary by a method, involving the
collection of evidence (citations) and using the evidence to construct the
entries, which became standard lexicographical procedure, but he also
reflected in the Plan on the nature of the dictionary compilers task and
the issues that face lexicographers (Jackson 2002: 46).
The methodological aspects that the author addresses in the Plan of
a Dictionary of the English Language (1747) and which he adhered to in
the making of the dictionary proper concern the selection of the words to be
included, their orthography and pronunciation, their etymology,
morphology, syntax and interpretation (i.e. definition) and the use of
citations to support his statements. The chief intent of the dictionary was,
the author declared (quoted by Jackson 2002: 42), to preserve the purity
and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom, in other words, to include
as many native words as possible, without completely excluding loans
(those belonging to the professional jargons were considered of special
interest to the users of the dictionary). In terms of orthography, Johnson
suggested that no major changes away from the then practice should be
made where this was clear and that innovation should be introduced only if
it could have been given sound reasons for, while, in respect of
pronunciation, the stability of which is of great importance to the stability
of a language, because the first change will naturally begin by corruptions in
the living speech (Johnson cited by Jackson 2002: 43), he proposed to
determine the accentuation of all polysyllables by proper authorities and
to fix the pronunciation of monosyllables, by placing them with words of
correspondent sound (Johnson cited by Jackson 2002: 43). As far as
etymology is concerned, Johnson distinguished between simple and
compound words and, within the former category, between primitive
and derivative ones. Primitive words were necessarily traced back to their
original form, and those for which this could not be determined were
excluded from the dictionary, in a declared attempt to secure the language
from being over-run with cant, from being crowded with low terms, the


Words in Dictionaries

spawn of folly or affectation (Johnson quoted by Jackson 2002: 43). The

inflections of English words being irregular, they were diligently noted in
Johnsons dictionary, as was syntax, too inconstant to be reduced to rules
(Johnson quoted by Jackson 2002: 43). Phraseology was also paid due
attention. Defining the words and phrases with brevity, fullness and
perspicuity seemed a difficult mission to the lexicographer, made so much
so by the necessity of explaining the words in the same language. In order
to accomplish this mission, Johnson did not only select monosemantic
lexical items, but also set himself the task of distinguishing between the
various senses of polysemantic words, which he decided to provide in the
following order: the natural and primitive signification first, then the
consequential meaning, then metaphorical sense, followed by the
poetical, the familiar and the burlesque senses. All Johnsons
observations were to be supported by citations.
The popularity of the Dictionary of the English Language continued
in the nineteenth century, when it was joined by another publication of the
kind Charles Richardsons A New Dictionary of the English Language,
published in 1837. By mid century, both these dictionaries were considered
limited as far as their coverage of the English vocabulary, especially that of
the earlier history of the language, was concerned. This opinion was made
public by the representatives of the Philological Society, formed in 1842,
for the investigation of the Structure, the Affinities, and the History of
Languages; and the Philological Illustration of the Classical Writers of
Greece and Rome (Jackson 2002: 47). The Societys concern about the lack
of coverage by the then existing dictionaries prompted its members to
consider the necessity of having a new dictionary of English imperative.
Under the circumstances, Herbert Coleridge was appointed the first editor
of the dictionary to be and work on gathering the material needed started.
Coleridge was succeeded as editor by Frederick Furnivall and, due to his not
being able to efficiently deal with the task of compiling the dictionary as the
sole editor, he was joined by James Murray in 1878. Ten years later, after
around five million slips of paper containing words and their full
bibliographical details had been collected from about one thousand readers
and processed by the two editors and their assistants, the first volume of the
New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (later to become the
Oxford English Dictionary - OED), containing words under letters A and B
was published. It took forty years and the addition of Henry Bradley,
William Craigie and Charles Onions to the team of editors to complete de
In the Preface to Volume I, Murray expresses its aim as follows
(quoted by Jackson 2002: 51): the aim of this dictionary is to furnish an
adequate account of the meaning, origin and history of English words now
in general use, or known to have been in use at any time during the last
seven hundred years. It endeavors to show, with regard to each individual
word, when, how, in what shape, and with what signification, it became


Words about Words

English; what development of form and meaning it has since received;

which of its uses have, in the course of time, become obsolete, and which
still survive; what new uses have since arisen, by what process, and when;
to illustrate these facts by a series of quotations ranging from the first
known occurrence of the word to the latest, or down to the present day; the
word being thus made to exhibit its own history and meaning; and to treat
the etymology of each word strictly on the basis of historical fact, and in
accordance with the methods and results of modern philological science.
The editors followed this initially stated goal very closely, though not all the
common words of the language were included - to observe Victorian
sensibilities, coarse slang vocabulary was left aside and so were some
scientific and technical terms.
Words in the OED are divided into three classes: Main words,
Subordinate words and Combinations. The first class includes single
words simple, derived or compound which from their meaning, history
or importance, claim to be treated in separate articles (Murray qtd. by
Jackson 2002: 53). Subordinate words are variant and obsolete forms of
main words, and such words of bad formation, doubtful existence, or
alleged use, as it is deemed proper, on any ground, to record eg. afforse
(obsolete variant of afforce); afforest (obsolete variant of athirst), etc.
(Murray qtd. by Jackson 2002: 53). Both Main and Subordinate words are
headwords in the dictionary, the latter being printed in smaller letters than
the former. Combinations are derived or compound words that do not need
to be defined or which can be briefly explained on the basis of their
cognates. They are dealt with under the main word that represents their
first element.
The entry for a Main word consists of four parts: Identification
(where spelling, pronunciation, grammatical class, inflections for irregular
nouns and verbs and the particular domain or subject area to which the
word belongs are mentioned), Morphology (where the form-history of the
words is charted, by reference to their etymology, to subsequent changes of
their form in English and to other various facts about their history), the
Signification (where the focus falls on the meaning(s) of words) and the
Illustrative Quotations (at least one for each century during which the
meaning of a word was known to have been in use).
Although the first edition of the OED might have had flaws, it was
for sure a monumental accomplishment in the field of lexicography, a
valuable tool for students of English and scientists who explored its content
for all kinds of scholarly endeavors.
Some of these flaws were eliminated in the two supplements (1933
and 1972-1986) and the second edition of the dictionary, which was
published both in print (1989) and in electronic format (1992): a wide range
of colloquial expressions and words belonging to regional dialects (English
spoken in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, etc)
were added alongside specific terminology in the fields of sociology,


Words in Dictionaries

linguistics, computer science (the use of subject labels was significantly

extended), the distinction between main and subordinate words was
abandoned (though the labeling of words as obsolete or archaic was
preserved), Murrays transcription system for pronunciation was replaced
by the International Phonetic Alphabet, etc. Needless to say, the electronic
version of the dictionary offers ways of searching for the information it
contains that are not possible in the case of the paper variant.
The third edition of the OED, which Oxford University Press has
planned to publish in the very near future, will surely bring even more
improvements to the already existent dictionary.

7.2.2. American lexicography

Across the Atlantic, interest in asserting the identity of a new nation,
freed from under the British influence (the American colonies became
independent from Britain in 1776) fueled the scholarly concerns of a
number of linguists. Of them, Noah Webster was a fervent proponent of the
spelling reform which was supposed to individualize the American way of
writing words as compared to the British (only a limited number of
Websters suggestions were, however, put in actual practice and are still
observed today the or spelling for our in words such as favour, colour,
labour, the er for re in words like theater, center, meter, and the single
consonant where British English has a double traveller, equalling,
Besides advocating the spelling reform as a means of strengthening
a national American language (his endeavour in this area took the form of
the Elementary Spelling Book, or the Blue-Back Speller as it was known
to the very numerous readers who used it in the eighteenth century
America), Webster attempted at compiling an American English dictionary,
with the same nationalistic-oriented purpose in mind. This attempt was
entitled A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Published in
1806, it was not a fully original work, but rather an extension of John
Entiks New Spelling Dictionary of the English Language, printed in Great
Britain in 1764. To it, Webster added about 5000 new words collected from
his readings and believed to have reflected life in America and an appendix
containing a range of encyclopedic information such as foreign currency
conversions, weights and measures, a list of local post offices, and
Chronological Tables of Remarkable Events and Discoveries.
The Compendious Dictionary paved the way to what was to be a
truly American dictionary 20 years later. In 1828, Webster published An
American Dictionary of the English Language, containing about seventy
thousand entries, of which only a limited number were words belonging to
American English (some of them not even native, but borrowed) - bobsled,
gerrymander, moccasin, squash, wigwam, etc. Unfortunately, the authors
preference for quotations from American authors rather than British ones


Words about Words

to support the definitions of words in his dictionary only managed to

illustrate the existence of insignificant differences between the two
geographical varieties of English. To counterbalance the criticism of this
shortcoming and that of the often flawed etymologies, much appreciation
was directed towards Websters definitions, which were considered more
accurate, more comprehensive, and not less carefully divided and ordered
than any previously done in English lexicography (Morton 1994: 43),
reason enough for Murray, the editor of the OED to call the American
lexicographer a born definer of words (Jackson 2002: 63).
Websters view that America should distinguish itself linguistically
from Britain was not supported unanimously. Some scholars continued to
consider the latter the authority to look at for guidance in linguistic and
lexicographic matters. One of these scholars was Joseph Worcester, who
coordinated a new edition of Johnsons dictionary, which he entitled
Johnsons English Dictionary, as Improved by Todd, and Abridged by
Chalmers; with Walkers Pronouncing Dictionary, Combined. Two years
after the publication of this work, in 1829, Worcester published an
abridgement of Websters American Dictionary, from which he omitted
many of the original etymologies and citations, but which, on the other
hand, he enriched with words he encountered while editing Johnson. It was
only in 1930 that Worcester published a work of his own The
Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary. By comparison
with the two previous dictionaries, this contained more words and a
spelling system that combined features of what Johnson and Webster
suggested. Special attention was paid to pronunciation, while
considerations regarding etymology were abandoned altogether.
Webster reacted with accusations of plagiarism towards Worcesters
publications, which the latter denied. This exchange set the beginning of a
twenty-year dictionary war, in which Worcesters dictionaries represented
a conservative and Anglocentric approach to lexicography, and Websters
championed the distinctiveness of American English and the necessity for
America to set its own linguistic standards (Jackson 2002: 63). In 1841,
Webster published the American Dictionary, a revised and enlarged
version of his 1828 dictionary. Worcester responded with the Universal
and Critical Dictionary of the English Language, in 1846. This was
followed, in 1846, by a single-volume, improved version of the American
Dictionary, published by the Merriam brothers, who bought the publication
rights from Websters heirs, immediately after the lexicographers death.
The next to fire in the war was Worcester, who brought out a completely
new work, in 1860, the Dictionary of the English Language, soon
acknowledged as the best available work of its kind, on both sides of the
Atlantic. But Webster was to triumph in the end, by launching by the
editors Noah Porter and Carl Mahn of a thoroughly revised version of the
American Dictionary, in 1864. This became the dictionary of preferred use
in education, the law and printing presses (Jackson 2002: 64) and it went


Words in Dictionaries

stronger and stronger on the market (the second edition was especially
praised by both critics and users) until it reached its third edition, in 1961.
This last version contained 450,000 words (unfortunately, 150,000 less
than the second edition), defined in an innovative manner. As Gove, the
chief editor of the dictionary, indicated (quoted by Jackson 2002: 65), the
primary objective of precise, sharp defining has been met through
development of a new dictionary style based upon completely analytical
one-phrase definitions throughout the book Defining by synonym is
carefully avoided. Though praised for the defining procedures, the
American Dictionary met with disapproval due to its stating word
meanings in actual use, instead of giving editorial opinion on what these
meanings should be. This approach was seen by many as a damaging
drawback of the work, since if people could no longer look to their
Websters dictionary for an authoritative pronouncement on what the
meaning ought to be, how words ought to be pronounced, spelled and used,
then they were adrift in a linguistic sea without any chart or compass
(Jackson 2002: 65), a piece of criticism which will probably be taken into
account in the preparation of the fourth edition of the dictionary, which
began in 2008.

7.3. Dictionaries for English and Romanian

Though interest in English has risen considerably during the past
twenty years, after the fall of the communist regime in Romania and the
opening of the country towards the international world, a number of
English-Romanian dictionaries were published before the 1989 Revolution
that have remained landmarks in our lexicography. Even more numerous
works of this kind have been printed starting with the late 90s.
According to Arvinte and Chioran (1978), the first such dictionary
was Marele dicionar romn englez, published by Virgil Hlceanu, in
1900. This was followed, in 1908, by Lolliots Dicionar englez-romn and
by Weppers Dicionar englez-romn, in 1937. Other English-Romanian
dictionaries are: Dicionar englez-romn (edited by Sdeanu, Andronescu,
Pop and Streinu, in 1958), Levichis 1960 Dicionar romn-englez (with a
revised and enlarged second edition published in 1965 and the latest
version in 2005), Dicionar de buzunar englez-romn and Dicionar de
buzunar englez-romn, both published by Andronescu in 1961, Bogdans
Dicionar englez-romn, printed in 1965, Dicionar de buzunar englezromn i romn-englez (Banta 1969), the Romanian Academys Dicionar
englez-romn, coordinated by Levichi and printed for the first time in
1974, with a second edition in 2004, Dicionar englez-romn. 70.000 de
cuvinte by Levichi and Banta (1997, 2005), Dicionar englez-romn.
35.000 cuvinte, by Banta (2005), Dicionar romn-englez, printed in
2000 and reprinted in 2002 and coordinated by Nedelcu, Murar, Bratu and


Words about Words

Banta, Levichis Dicionar romn-englez. 60.000 de cuvinte, with a first

edition in 1998 and a second, enlarged one, in 2005.
The latest dictionaries show improvements as compared to those
printed up to the 90s (which does not mean to say that older dictionaries
are not still useful tools for todays linguists, translators, learners and
teachers of English). The content of two Romanian English dictionaries of
the same author, Leon Levichi, published at a distance in time of almost
half a century, may stand proof of this evolution. For illustrative purposes,
some elements of the two editions will be discussed comparatively in what
His 1960 Dicionar romn-englez comprises about 30.000 head
words, most of them taken from Dicionarul limbii romne moderne,
published by the Romanian Academy, in 1958, with a small number of
words added from other sources. Archaisms, regional variants of words,
double forms, diminutives and augmentatives in the monolingual source
dictionary were left out of Levichis work. Instead, very frequently used
words were given special attention (a fact reflected in the high number of
constructions and examples that accompany them).
Since the meaning or the shadow of meaning of a word is always
context-dependent, synonyms and specific collocations should be used with
great care. Therefore, these were given special attention in the dictionary.
When the need was felt for the clarification of certain aspects of synonymy,
various strategies were resorted to - explanations within brackets,
abbreviations indicating the domain or the register to which certain
synonyms belong or the use of these words in specific word combinations.
For example, the Romanian adjective istoric may be translated into English
by two ideographic synonyms - historic and historical. The entry in the
dictionary makes the difference between the two clear: istoric I. adj.
(privitor la istorie) historical; (de importan istoric) historic. On the
other hand, for the Romanian adjective mic, for example, the dictionary
mentions a rather reduced number of collocations in which it follows the
noun: copil mic little child, degetul mic the little finger, efort mic
slight effort, parte mic small / inconsiderable part.
The translation of the Romanian words and phrases by stylistic
equivalents seems to have been one of the authors constant concerns. Thus,
on the one hand, where relevant, words and phrases are accompanied by
implicit explanations such as F for familiar / familiar, S for savant /
scholarly and sl for slang: acas adv a veni de ~ 1. to come from home.
2. fig. F to twig, to tumble; aa mai vii de ~ F (asta e alt poveste) thats
another pair of breeches; gdilitor adj. tickling, S titillating;
dovleac ...2. (cap) F pate, nut, sl thinking mug . On the other hand, the
cases when the stylistic value of the word or phrase in Romanian does not
correspond to the suggested English equivalent are highlighted by using
arrows. For instance, in galerie s.f. 4. teatru gallery, Fthe gods,
paradise, the arrow indicates that, while the Romanian teatru is neutral


Words in Dictionaries

from a stylistic point of view, the English gods or paradise are marked
stylistically as informal. In bele-arte s.f. pl.nv. fine arts, the arrow is
used to point at the fact that bele-arte is marked as an archaism in
Romanian, while, in English, fine arts is not.
As far as grammar is concerned, as indicated in the Preface of the
dictionary, both the Romanian and the English words are given in their
basic form (nouns, in the Nominative case, adjectives, with their positive
degree, verbs, in the short infinitive, etc). The plural (pl.) indication is
present when the noun in question (either with all or with only some of its
meanings) does not have a singular form or is seldom used in the singular
pomei s.m. pl..cheek bones; pierdere s.f. pl. (de viei) casualties,
losses. Since nouns in the common gender are very numerous in English,
the feminine forms of the Romanian masculine nouns are mentioned as
separate entries in the dictionary only when English has such forms
actri s.f. actress; baroneas s.f. baroness; arin s.f. ist.
The 2005 edition of Levichis Dicionar romn-englez (whose
content was assembled in part by the authors daughter, on the basis of her
fathers manuscripts) contains double the number of entries in the initial
work as indicated in the Preface, those in the 1998 edition of the
dictionary alongside other words and phrases selected from Dicionarul
explicativ al limbii romne (1998). Unlike in the 1960 edition, Romanian
poetic and technical terms, archaisms, regional variants of words,
diminutives and augmentatives were given more prominence this time.
Words such as insul (poetic) isle, crunt (poetic) hoary-headed,
grizzled; albaspin (in botany) hawthorn, hedgethorn, barotermograf
(in physics) barothermograph, cumen (in chemistry) cumene,
labiovelar (in phonetics) labiovelar; a meremetisi (archaic) to repair,
to restore, pisar (archaic) clerk, secretary, schingi (archaic)
torturing, torture, zarif (archaic) beautiful, tremendous; ahotnic
(regional use) passionate of, anxious, eager to do something, leuit
(regional use) weakened, feeble, worn out, mntergur (regional use)
towel, a meleui (regional use) to stir; gruncior (diminutive of
grunte) small grain, granule, tiny particle, cscioar (diminutive of
cas) little house, fetioar (diminutive of girl) little girl,
lboaie (diminutive of lab) big hand, buboi (augmentative of bub)
boil, furuncle have been introduced in the latest edition.
Words in the common word stock of Romanian are given even more
detailed attention here. The example below illustrates how the material in
the 2005 dictionary has enriched as compared to the information offered in
the 1960 edition:
amintire s.f. 1. (memorie) memory. 2.

amintire sf 1 remembering; reminding,
mentioning etc. v. aminti; mention,


Words about Words

remembrance, recollection. 3. (suvenir)
keepsake, token, souvenir. b) ca ~ for a
keepsake; n ~a (cu gen.) in memory /
commemoration of

rememebrance; memory 2 (memorie)
rar memory 3 pl i remembrance,
recollection, memory; reminiscence 4 pl
i (suvenir dintr-o cltorie etc) token
(of remembrance); souvenir; keepsake 5
pl i (meniune) rar mention 6 pl i
(memorii) memoirs a) ~i din copilrie
childhood memories / recollections,
reminiscences of childhood; ~i triste
sad memories b) ca ~ (din partea +
gen) for a keepsake (from); de
binecuvntat ~ of blessed memory;
de trist ~ of sad memory; n ~ea
+gen: a) in memory / remembrance of;
monument etc.) to the memory of b)
(unei cltorii etc) as a souvenir / a
memento of c) a pstra ~a cuiva to
cherish smbs memory, to keep smbs
memory green; a renvia ~ea + gen to
refresh ones memory of / about;
triete din ~i he lives on his

The authors initial concern with the differences between Romanian

and English in terms of synonymy, collocations and stylistic matters
increased, so that the explanations in these areas are more elaborate in the
newer version of the work under scrutiny. Thus, the details in the entry
istoric have been extended to: istoric I , -i, -e adj 1 (privitor la istorie)
historical; (d. timpurile cnd s-au nregistrat fapte istorice) historic 2 (de
importan istoric) historic. Also, the equivalents for the adjective mic,
whose presence in the 1960 edition I have highlighted above, are much
more numerous in the 2005 variant of the dictionary, and so are the
collocations in which they occur. Among these collocations there are: ap
mic shallow water, bere mic small beer, cadou mic small
present, camer mic small / little room, cas mic small / little
house, distan mic short distance, format mic small format/size,
liter mic small letter, main de scris mic portable typewriter,
noapte mic short night, soacr mic the brides/wifes mother,
suflet mic - base/mean/selfish/ungenerous soul/spirit, etc.
As far as stylistic aspects are concerned, in suggesting the English
equivalents for the Romanian words and phrases, the indications F for
familiar / familiar, S for savant / scholarly, scientific, and sl for slang have
been preserved. However, a number of other indications are added to these
in the more recent dictionary. Some are the following: euf for euphemism /
euphemism, glum for glume / jocular, ir for ironic / ironical (detept - ir


Words in Dictionaries

wise man, a wise man of Gotham, sapient), lb cop for limbajul copiilor / the
language of children (mam lb cop mum(my), mom(my), momma), livr
for livresc / bookish and P for popular / folk (ma (furtun) P flexible
tube). The arrow symbols and have been taken over to the newer
edition - the former, to indicate that the Romanian equivalent does not
correspond to the stylistic indication in English, the latter, to show that the
English word or phrase does not have the same stylistic value as the one in
Romanian. An arrow pointing down, , was added to the list of symbols in
the 2005 edition, for especially (agonale - la vechii greci agons,
libertate - ca lips de constrngere freedom, n sens abstract liberty,
rzbuna - pe cineva to revenge).
Additions were made to the 2005 edition of Levichis dictionary
from a grammatical point of view, too. Nouns in Romanian are included
both with their singular and with their plural form (wherever the latter
exists) and, like in the older edition, the fact that some nouns have forms
for the plural only and different forms for the two genders has been
highlighted. If, in the first edition, it is only the masculine singular form of
adjectives that is mentioned, in the 2005 dictionary, all possible forms of
adjectives are indicated (as the case may be): masculine and feminine
singular, masculine and feminine plural. In the case of verbs, besides the
bare infinitive, the first person singular forms for the present, perfect
simplu (approximately simple past in English) and past participle
indicative are specified.
Hard copies apart, the Internet has lately offered the possibility of
working with online general dictionaries that are available on sites such as,,, etc. Unfortunately, many of these
need obvious improvement in terms of both the number of words and
phrases included and the way the existent ones are defined and described.
The number of specialized dictionaries for English and Romanian,
in the field of the science of linguistics, has remained much more reduced
so far, by comparison with the quite numerous general bilingual
dictionaries, some of which have been enumerated above. Among those that
cover specific areas of linguistics, there are the following: Dicionar de
neologisme ale limbii engleze (Volceanov 1998), a collection of about 6000
words and phrases that, as the author indicates, entered English during the
last two decades of the twentieth century (the entries are in English, while
the explanations are given in Romanian); Dicionar de argou, eufemisme i
expresii familiare englez-romn (Balaban 1999), comprising slang selected
from various regional varieties of English, for which Romanian equivalents
are provided, special attention being paid to multiple meanings, synonyms,
specific usages and examples that clarify certain senses; and a number of
phraseological dictionaries such as Dicionar Englez Romn, Romn
Englez frazeologic (Nicolescu et al. 2005), Dicionare Englez Romn de
exprsii i locuiuni (Hulban 2007), The Great English Romanian


Words about Words

Dictionary of Idioms (Sileanu, Poenaru 2007), Dicionar de colocaii

nominale englez-romn (Prlog, Teleag 1999), Dicionar englez-romn
de colocaii verbale (Prlog, Teleag 2000).
All these dictionaries are useful both for learners of English and for
specialists and translators. Among them, the dictionaries of collocations
seem to represent a particularly helpful category of linguistic tools.
In learning a foreign language, usually, more attention is paid to
grammar and basic vocabulary, than to combinations of words (idioms and
phrasal verbs being, sometimes, exceptions from this approach). As stated
in the argument to Dicionar englez-romn de colocaii verbale (Prlog,
Teleag 2000), in order to use a foreign language correctly (whether for
everyday or professional communication or in the process of translation), it
is vital to know whether two or more words can be combined so that the
lexical units thus obtained should sound natural. Collocability is a matter of
language specificity rather than one of certain universal semantic
restrictions and, as such, the correct employment of collocations is part of
the native speakers linguistic competence. This is why even those proficient
in a foreign language sometimes use inappropriate collocations. The
usefulness of bilingual dictionaries of collocations is, therefore,
The two works cited last offer information that shed light on
differences between English and Romanian that a non-native speaker of
English might disregard. Thus, as far as nominal collocations are
concerned, for example, in many cases in Romanian, the latter noun is in
the genitive case and the (pseudo)quantifier is accompanied by an adjective
meant to render the meaning of the former as exactly as possible (a spurt of
speed o creetere brusc a vitezei; a switch in opinion o schimbare
brusc a opiniei); while, in English, the former noun is the quantifier, in
Romanian, it is the latter noun that serves this function (lashings of drinks
butur berechet; tons / a power of money bani cu carul / lopata);
sometimes, the equivalent of an English nominal collocation is a noun +
adjective / participle structure, in which the latter element plays the role of
the Engish (pseudo)quantifier (the ghost of a smile un zmbet vag / un
zmbet abia schiat); other times, a single Romanian noun corresponds to
a collocation in English (a piece of information o informaie) or the
English collocation may be rendered into Romanian only by paraphrasing
(never does a scrap / a stitch / a stroke of work nu muncete / nu face /
nu lucreaz nimic; nu pune mna pe nimic).
Verbal collocations may pose difficulties to non-native users of
English, too. Some of these difficulties are highlighted in the preface to
Dicionar englez-romn de colocaii verbale (Prlog, Teleag 2000). For
example, in English, certain nouns combine with the verb to make and
others with the verb to do, while, in Romanian, only one verb is used a
face. Thus, we say to make a journey (a face o cltorie), to make progress
(a face progrese), a face patul (to make the bed), but to do the shopping (a


Words in Dictionaries

face cumprturi), to do ones homework (a-i face temele) and to do ones

duty (a-i face datoria). There are also situations when English uses only
one verb and Romanian uses several. For instance, the following
collocations with the verb to brush are translated using different verbs in
Romanian: to brush ones clothes a-i peria hainele, to brush ones nails
a-i freca unghiile, to brush ones teeth a se spla pe dini. Sometimes,
the entire English collocation is translated by a single verb in Romanian
to take a hit a lovi, to give odds a avantaja or it is rendered into
Romanian by paraphrase to split an infinitive a intercala un adverb
ntre elememtele infinitivului. Also, the verb, the noun or the adverb in the
English collocation finds itself an equivalent in a Romanian phrase to file
an interrogatory a pune la dosar un interogatoriu, to run a relay a
alerga n proba de tafet, to spread thinly a ntinde un strat subire,
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Dicionar economic englez-romn i romn-englez (Niculescu 2009),
Dicionar juridic englez-romn i romn-englez (Lister, Veth 2010), etc.


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Abbreviation, 61
acronyms, 62
adjectives, 18, 24, 37, 38, 43, 44, 48, 53,
55, 56, 62, 84, 88, 103, 106, 107, 109,
134, 135, 163, 165
Adverbs, 55, 56
affixes, 36, 37, 38, 39, 59, 60, 84
allomorphs, 35, 40
Alphanumerics, 62
American lexicography, 159
analogy, 59, 63, 72, 93
antonyms, 82, 83, 84, 122, 123, 152
antonymy, 5, 74, 153
archaisms, 81, 125, 126, 163, 173

Deflection, 60
denotation, 5, 69, 70, 71
derivation, 5, 39, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 129,
Diachronic lexical strata, 125
dictionaries, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 16, 65, 71, 74,
112, 127, 129, 152, 153, 154, 155, 157,
160, 161, 162, 165, 166, 167

Early Modern English, 15, 27
Eponyms, 62, 64
ethnic varieties, 136
expanding circle, 6, 130, 133

Back-formation, 59
binominals, 5, 54, 99, 122, 123
borrowed words, 19, 32, 59, 60, 93, 134
borrowing, 15, 20, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29,
31, 34, 60, 79, 128
borrowings, 16, 18, 21, 23, 24, 27, 30, 31,
81, 93, 133, 135, 155
British lexicography, 154

folk-etymology, 5
French words, 22, 27, 28, 29

geographical varieties, 18, 130, 160
grammatical words, 10, 11
Greek words, 7, 16, 21, 27

Change of accent, 61
Clipping, 57, 58
code-switching, 20, 28
collocations, 5, 6, 74, 99, 100, 101, 102,
103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 134,
162, 164, 166
compound, 8, 13, 33, 39, 44, 47, 48, 49,
50, 51, 52, 58, 59, 66, 156, 158
compounding, 5, 15, 39, 57, 59, 129
compounds, 13, 14, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51,
52, 55, 57, 58, 59, 127, 137
connotation, 5, 22, 24, 69, 71, 73, 74, 77,
Contraction, 58
conversion, 5, 39, 49, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56,
57, 88, 89, 112
converted, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 149, 150

historisms, 126
homographs, 86, 91
homonyms, 37, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90
homonymy, 5, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91
homophones, 86, 87, 91
hyponymy, 5, 85, 91

idioms, 5, 74, 75, 82, 99, 101, 110, 111, 112,
113, 114, 115, 119, 127, 146, 166, 173
Indian loan words, 33
infixes, 36
inflections, 14, 38, 88, 134, 156, 158
Inner circle, 6


interjections, 50, 54, 56, 66

Italian words, 31

polysemy, 5, 52, 88, 89, 90, 91

Portuguese words, 31
prefixation, 39
prefixes, 36, 39, 40, 41, 42, 45
prepositions, 18, 41, 47, 50, 53, 54, 100,
104, 107, 149

Latin words, 23, 24, 25
Lexical strata, 5, 125
lexicography, 6, 7, 11, 12, 17, 154, 158,
160, 161
lexicology, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 83
linguistic sign, 5, 66, 67, 68, 71

Recent loans, 34
reduplicatives, 47, 50
reference, 6, 19, 67, 69, 70, 71, 77, 82, 92,
98, 125, 129, 133, 152, 153, 158, 173
Richards, 67
root, 16, 35, 36, 39, 40, 47, 57, 60, 64, 84,
roots, 36, 39, 42, 46, 60, 135

markedness, 5, 71, 72
meaning, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 19, 24, 25,
26, 35, 36, 39, 40, 45, 51, 52, 54, 55,
56, 57, 59, 60, 62, 63, 64, 67, 69, 71,
74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 81, 82, 83, 84, 87,
88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97,
99, 101, 105, 108, 109, 110, 112, 114,
121, 122, 123, 126, 131, 135, 138, 143,
145, 147, 152, 156, 157, 158, 161, 162,
meronymy, 5, 84, 85
metaphor, 5, 27, 91, 96, 97, 113, 124
metaphors, 95, 96, 97
metonymy, 5, 64, 91, 96, 97, 113
Middle English, 14, 24, 27, 31, 92, 152,
Modern English, 14, 15, 17, 24, 26, 59, 60,
61, 125, 153, 169, 172
morpheme, 35, 40
morphemes, 34, 35, 36, 37, 109
multi-word units, 99

Saussure, 5, 66, 67, 171
Scandinavian words, 25
semantic change, 5, 92, 93, 94, 95
Semiotic Triangle, 5, 67
sense, 5, 15, 36, 51, 54, 69, 70, 71, 73, 75,
76, 81, 82, 84, 87, 88, 89, 94, 96, 97,
99, 106, 107, 110, 113, 121, 129, 135,
139, 157
slang, 6, 71, 78, 79, 93, 142, 143, 144, 145,
148, 158, 162, 164, 165, 173
Spanish words, 20, 31
Standard English, 6, 136, 137, 138, 139,
140, 141, 142, 172
stem, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 48, 86
suffixation, 42, 59
suffixes, 36, 39, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 135
Synchronic lexical strata, 130
synonyms, 14, 71, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79,
81, 93, 123, 152, 155, 162, 165
synonymy, 5, 71, 76, 77, 79, 81, 153, 162,

native words, 18, 155, 156
neologisms, 5, 81, 126, 127, 128, 129
Nonce words, 65
Nouns, 37, 53, 55, 102, 109, 165

trinominals, 99, 123

Ogden, 5, 67
Old English, 13, 18, 60, 88, 152, 154, 171
orthographic words, 9
outer circle, 6, 130, 132

Verbs, 37, 55, 56, 61, 107, 120, 153, 172

phonological words, 8, 9
phrasal verbs, 99, 120, 121, 166

word, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 19,

20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 34, 35, 36,


39, 40, 45, 46, 47, 49, 50, 52, 57, 58,
59, 60, 61, 62, 64, 66, 67, 69, 70, 73,
74, 75, 78, 79, 81, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92,
93, 94, 95, 96, 99, 100, 101, 107, 109,
110, 121, 122, 123, 126, 128, 129, 130,

131, 132, 135, 136, 137, 144, 148, 149,

152, 157, 158, 161, 162, 163, 165
word meaning, 64, 66, 69
Words as vocabulary items, 9
words from Dutch and German, 30


I. LEXICOLOGY THE SCIENCE OF WORDS....................................................7
1.1. LEXICOLOGY................................................................................................................7
1.2. THE WORD...................................................................................................................7
1.2.1. Orthographic words........................................................................................8
1.2.2. Phonological words.........................................................................................8
1.2.3. Words as vocabulary items...........................................................................9
1.2.4. Grammatical words......................................................................................10
1.3. BRANCHES OF LEXICOLOGY......................................................................................11
II. SOURCES OF THE ENGLISH VOCABULARY..............................................13
2.1. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE ENGLISH VOCABULARY..................................13
2.1.1. The Old English period (450-1066).............................................................13
2.1.2. The Middle English period (1066-1500)....................................................14
2.1.3. The Early Modern English period (15001800)......................................15
2.1.4. The Modern English period (from 1800 onwards)..................................17
2.2. SOURCES OF THE ENGLISH VOCABULARY................................................................18
2.2.1. Native words in English...............................................................................18
2.3. BORROWED WORDS IN ENGLISH.............................................................................19
2.3.1. Reasons for borrowing.................................................................................20
2.3.2. Adaptation (nativisation) of loanwords...................................................22
2.3.3. Direct and indirect borrowing....................................................................23
2.3.4. Latin words in English.................................................................................23
2.3.5. Scandinavian words in English..................................................................25
2.3.6. Greek words in English................................................................................27
2.3.7. French words in English..............................................................................27
2.3.8. Words from other European languages in English................................30
2.3.9. Words from non-European languages in English..................................32
2.3.10. Recent loans in English..............................................................................34
III. WORD FORMATION............................................................................................35
3.1. FREE AND BOUND MORPHEMES...............................................................................35
3.2. ROOT.........................................................................................................................36
3.3. AFFIX........................................................................................................................36
3.4. STEM.........................................................................................................................39
3.5. MAIN MEANS OF WORD-FORMATION.......................................................................39
3.5.1. Derivation.......................................................................................................39 Prefixation............................................................................................................39 Suffixation............................................................................................................42

3.5.2. Compounding.................................................................................................46 Orthographic characteristics of compounds....................................................46 Phonological characteristics of compounds....................................................46 Morphological characteristics of compounds..................................................47 Syntactic characteristics of compounds...........................................................50 Semantic characteristics of compounds...........................................................51

3.5.3. Conversion......................................................................................................52 Nouns obtained by conversion..........................................................................53 Adjectives obtained by conversion...................................................................55 Verbs obtained by conversion...........................................................................55 Adverbs obtained by conversion.......................................................................56

3.6. MINOR MEANS OF WORD FORMATION.....................................................................57

3.6.1. Clipping...........................................................................................................57
3.6.2. Contraction....................................................................................................58
3.6.3. Back-formation.............................................................................................59
3.6.4. Folk etymology..............................................................................................59
3.6.5. Deflection........................................................................................................60
3.6.6. Change of accent...........................................................................................61
3.6.7. Abbreviation...................................................................................................61
3.6.8. Alphanumerics..............................................................................................62
3.6.9. Eponyms.........................................................................................................62
3.6.10. Nonce words................................................................................................65
IV. WORD MEANING..................................................................................................66
4.1. SAUSSURES APPROACH TO THE LINGUISTIC SIGN...................................................66
4.2. OGDEN AND RICHARDS SEMIOTIC TRIANGLE.....................................................67
4.3. BHLERS ORGANON MODEL...............................................................................68
4.4. WORD MEANING.......................................................................................................69
4.4.1. Denotation and reference.............................................................................69
4.4.2. Denotation and sense...................................................................................70
4.4.3. Denotation, connotation and markedness................................................71
4.5. SENSE RELATIONS BETWEEN WORDS.......................................................................73
4.5.1. Synonymy.......................................................................................................74 General characteristics of synonyms.................................................................74 Types of synonyms..............................................................................................75 Sources of synonymy..........................................................................................79

4.5.2. Antonymy.......................................................................................................81 General characteristics of antonyms.................................................................82 Types of antonyms..............................................................................................83

4.5.3. Hyponymy and meronymy.........................................................................84

4.5.4. Homonymy....................................................................................................86 Types of homonyms............................................................................................86 Sources of homonymy........................................................................................88

4.6. POLYSEMY.................................................................................................................89
4.7. POLYSEMY AND HOMONYMY....................................................................................90
4.8. SEMANTIC CHANGE..................................................................................................92
4.8.1. Causes of semantic change..........................................................................92 Extra-linguistic causes of semantic change......................................................92 Linguistic causes of semantic change...............................................................93

4.8.2. Results of semantic change.........................................................................94 Extension or widening of meaning...................................................................94 Narrowing or restriction of meaning...............................................................94 Degradation of meaning....................................................................................94 Elevation of meaning.........................................................................................95

4.8.3. Transfer of meaning.....................................................................................96 Metaphor.............................................................................................................96 Metonymy...........................................................................................................97

V. MULTI-WORD UNITS IN ENGLISH.................................................................99

5.1. COLLOCATIONS..........................................................................................................99
5.1.1. Definition.........................................................................................................99
5.1.2. Characteristics and classification.............................................................100
5.2. IDIOMS....................................................................................................................109
5.2.1. Definition......................................................................................................109
5.2.2. Characteristics and classification.............................................................110
5.2.3. Pragmatic idioms........................................................................................119
5.3. MULTIWORD VERBS................................................................................................120
5.3.1. Definition......................................................................................................120
5.3.2. Characteristics and classification............................................................120
5.4. BINOMINALS...........................................................................................................122
5.4.1. Definition......................................................................................................122
5.4.2. Characteristics.............................................................................................122
5.5. PROVERBS...............................................................................................................123
5.5.1. Definition.......................................................................................................123
5.5.2. Characteristics.............................................................................................124
VI. LEXICAL STRATA IN ENGLISH.....................................................................125
6.1. DIACHRONIC LEXICAL STRATA...............................................................................125
6.1.1. Archaisms......................................................................................................125
6.1.2. Neologisms...................................................................................................126
6.2. SYNCHRONIC LEXICAL STRATA...............................................................................130
6.2.1. Geographical varieties of English.............................................................130
6.2.2. Ethnic varieties of English.........................................................................135
6.2.3. Social varieties of English..........................................................................138 Standard English...............................................................................................138 Slang...................................................................................................................142

6.2.4. Written and oral varieties of English......................................................145

VII. WORDS IN DICTIONARIES...........................................................................152
7.1. TYPES OF DICTIONARIES.........................................................................................152
7.2. ENGLISH LEXICOGRAPHY.......................................................................................154
7.2.1. British lexicography....................................................................................154
7.2.2. American lexicography..............................................................................159
7.3. DICTIONARIES FOR ENGLISH AND ROMANIAN......................................................161