4 Subtle Changes to English People Hardly Notice

iStock
iStock

Everyone knows that language changes. It's easy to pick out words that have only been recently introduced (bromance, YOLO, derp) or sentence constructions that have gone out of style (How do you do? Have you a moment?), but we are constantly in the middle of language change that may not be noticeable for decades or even centuries. Some of the biggest and most lasting changes to language happen slowly and imperceptibly. The Great Vowel Shift, for example, was a series of pronunciation changes occurring over 350 years, and not really noticed for over 100 years after that. It resulted in an intelligibility gap between Modern and Middle English and created the annoying misalignment between English pronunciation and spelling. But it was impossible to see while it was going on.

These days, however, it is possible to spot subtle linguistic changes by analyzing large digital collections of text or transcribed speech, some of which cover long periods of time. Linguists can run the numbers on these large corpora to determine the direction of language use trends and whether they are statistically significant. Here are 4 rather subtle changes happening in English, as determined by looking at the numbers.

1. SHIFT FROM "THEY STARTED TO WALK" TO "THEY STARTED WALKING"

There are a number of verbs that can take a complement with another verb in either the "-ing" form or the "to" form: "They liked painting/to paint;" "We tried leaving/to leave;" "He didn't bother calling/to call." Both of these constructions are still used, and they have both been used for a long time. But there has been a steady shift over time from the "to" to the "-ing" complement. "Start" and "begin" saw a big increase in the "-ing" complement until leveling out in the 1940s, while emotion verbs like "like," "love," "hate," and "fear" saw their proportion of "-ing" complements start to rise in the 1950s and 60s. Not all verbs have participated in the shift: "stand," "intend," and "cease" went the "to" way.

2. GETTING MORE PROGRESSIVE

English has been getting more progressive over time—that is, the progressive form of the verb has steadily increased in use. (The progressive form is the –ing form that indicates something is continuous or ongoing: "They are speaking" vs. "They speak.") This change started hundreds of years ago, but in each subsequent era, the form has grown into parts of the grammar it hadn't had much to do with in previous eras. For example, at least in British English, its use in the passive ("It is being held" rather than "It is held") and with modal verbs like "should," "would," and "might" ("I should be going" rather than "I should go") has grown dramatically. There is also an increase of "be" in the progressive form with adjectives ("I'm being serious" vs. "I'm serious").

3. GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO

It's pretty noticeable that words like "shall" and "ought" are on the way out, but "will," "should," and "can" are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. "Going to," "have to," "need to," and "want to" cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

4. RISE OF THE "GET-PASSIVE"

The passive in English is usually formed with the verb "to be," yielding "they were fired" or "the tourist was robbed." But we also have the "get" passive, giving us "they got fired" and "the tourist got robbed." The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject—getting fired, getting robbed—but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger.

This article draws on work by Mark Davies, Geoffrey Leech, and Christian Mair.

25 Words You Didn't Know Were in the Dictionary

iStock
iStock

With perhaps three-quarters of a million words in the English language, it's fairly reasonable to suggest that you probably won't get around to learning them all, and that there'll be plenty of words hiding away in the dictionary that you’ll never need (or want) to know.

In some cases, that's a real shame: Look closely enough and the dictionary contains dozens of eminently useful words, like euneirophrenia (the pleasant feeling of contentment that comes from waking up after a nice dream), zwodder (a cloudy, befuddled mental state caused by not getting enough sleep), and snollygoster (a disreputable politician). But in other cases—as with the 25 weird and obscure words listed here—not knowing or using them might be totally understandable.

1. ARCHIMIME

Two male friends laughing and imitating each other
iStock

As well as being one of the strangest words in the dictionary, archimime or archmime is also perhaps one of the strangest occupations in history: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archimime was "a chief buffoon or jester" whose job involved attending funerals and impersonating the deceased person. (No, really.)

2. AWESOMESAUCE

A glass bottle of cranberry sauce being transferred from bottle to bowl
iStock

Yes, this slang word for anything particularly awesome was added to the dictionary (or at least the online arm of Oxford Dictionaries) in 2015, along with the likes of fur baby, wine o’clock, manspreading, and mkay.

3. BATRACHOMYOMACHY

A frustrated-looking businesswoman at a meeting, leaning back in chair with her hand on her head
iStock

If you know your classics, you might know this one already: A batrachomyomachy is a petty quarrel or pointless argument. That might sound straightforward enough, but when you find out that it literally means "a battle between frogs and mice," things take a turn for the unusual. The word batrachomyomachy actually derives from an ancient Greek parody of Homer's Iliad in which a frog accidentally drowned a mouse that was sitting on its back, sparking a brutal war between the two species.

4. BUTTOCKER

A smiling man wearing a head lamp working at a mine
iStock

A buttock (in this context at least) is the next portion of a coalface to be broken up and mined out. A buttocker, according to an early 20th century Glossary of the Mining Industry, is someone who does precisely that.

5. CALLIPYGIAN

A young woman doing yoga with one leg raised in the air
iStock

Derived from the Greek word callos, meaning "beauty" (as in calligraphy or calisthenics), someone described as callipygian has beautifully shaped buttocks. Originally an architectural term from the early 1800s used to describe the figures of classical sculptures and artworks, the word has been in wider use since the late 1900s.

6. CEPHALOMANCY

Close up of a donkey on a grassy mountain
iStock

Sages and forecasters have used ever more bizarre methods to tell the future over the centuries, from observing the shapes of the clouds (aeromancy) to the shapes and patterns of the ashes from a fire (tephromancy). Among the strangest of all these fortune-telling practices was cephalomancy—a method of foretelling the future in which a donkey's head would be boiled or roasted on an open fire, and significance taken from the movements or crackling of its bones. One particular use of this kind of divination was in assessing a guilty party: A list of names would be read aloud while the head was cooked, and if the donkey's jaw moved or cracked when someone's name was spoken, they were said to be the guilty party.

7. EUOUAE

Antique sheet music set up on a church lectern
iStock

Euouae is actually a mnemonic abbreviation used to memorize the sequence of a particular cadence in a certain hymn (and so the jury is out as to whether it actually constitutes a word). Nevertheless, it's found its way onto the pages of some dictionaries and as such is said to be the longest word in the English language consisting entirely of vowels.

8. FEAGUE

A white horse in a barn
iStock

According to the English lexicographer Francis Grose's aptly-titled Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, feague is a verb meaning "to put ginger up a horse's fundament." If that sounds too ridiculous to be true, don't worry: You can always replace the raw ginger with a live eel. Both methods, Grose explained, were apparently once used "to make him lively and carry his tail well," thereby earning his owner a better price at market. Etymologically, the word is something of a mystery­, but one theory suggests that feague might once have meant merely "to agitate" or "to enliven," and the later more specific (and more unpleasant) meaning derived from there.

9. GANDER-PULLING

A group of white geese on a blue background
iStock

Take a live goose. Cover it in grease. Suspend it by its feet from a crossbar. Then ride a horse underneath it and, as you go by, try to pull the goose’s head off. That’s the definition of the sport (if it can be called a sport) of gander-pulling.

10. HIPPANTHROPY

A farmer smiling at his cow across a metal bar
iStock

Coined in the 1800s, hippanthropy is the mental delusion that you are turning into, or have turned into, a horse. Not quite the word you want? Try boanthropy, the delusion that you're an ox. Too specific? Try zoanthropy, the delusion that you are turning into an (unspecified) animal.

11. HOPLOCHRISM

A steel sword point over a background of burned paper
iStock

Derived from a Greek word, hoplon, for a weapon, hoplochrism is an old form of medicine in which the weapon or tool that caused a wound would be treated and anointed in the same way as the wound itself, in the belief that doing so would somehow speed up the healing process. You can decide for yourself whether it ever worked.

12. LANT

Two cold beers in glasses on a wooden bar
iStock

As a noun, lant or leint is stale or aged urine, which was once stored and preserved for its chemical and supposed medicinal properties. As a verb, to lant is to mix urine into beer to make it taste stronger. If ever there was a word you might never want to come across, surely it's this.

13. POGONOLOGY

A close-up of the lower half of a strawberry blond, bearded, freckled man's face
iStock

First used in English in the 18th century, a pogonology is a treatise on or written description of a beard.

14. PTOMATIS

Red wine pouring out of a bottle and into a glass
iStock

If ever you needed an incentive to drink, owning a ptomatis might be it. Derived via Latin from Ancient Greek, a ptomatis is a cup or similar drinking vessel that needs to be emptied before it can be put down, as it is shaped in such a way that it won't stand upright open-end up.

15. QUOMODOCUNQUIZE

uccessful businesswoman multitasking with six arms at once, holding various implements
iStock

Q-words are always a bit on the unusual side, but quomodocunquize is in a field of its own. Derived from a Latin word, quomodocunque, meaning "in whatever way possible," to quomodocunquize is to make money or earn a living by any possible means.

16. RUNNING-BUTTOCK

Two wrestlers in stance on stage
iStock

Thankfully not as unpleasant as it sounds: A running-buttock is the name of a wrestling move dating from the 17th century.

17. SHIVVINESS

A pile of wooden splinters and sawdust
iStock

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something. Derived from that—in the sense that a loose thread or tag in a garment might be unpleasantly scratchy—shivviness is the uncomfortable feeling caused by wearing new underwear.

18. SMELLFUNGUS

A skeptical-looking man with a finger on his lower lip
iStock

In his A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), the author Laurence Sterne invented a character named Smelfungus (albeit with one L) who was habitually unimpressed with everything he cast his eyes on during his travels. Sterne based the character on fellow travel writer (and chronic nitpicker) Tobias Smollett, and in doing so gave the English language a brilliant word for a dour, pessimistic faultfinder.

19. SOOTERKIN

A blond woman sitting on a kitchen counter near the stove
iStock

As definitions go, that of sooterkin is probably among the strangest of all in the dictionary: It refers to a monstrous part-human creature said to be given birth to by Dutch women who sat on stove tops to keep warm.

20. SPANGHEW

A toy frog jumping through the air
iStock

According to a quotation in the English Dialect Dictionary, spanghewing was the name of "a cruel custom" that involved "blowing up a frog by inserting a straw under the skin at the anus." The inflated frog was then bowled across the surface of a pond, and whoever could toss or spanghew their frog the furthest won the game. Thankfully, nobody goes around spanghewing anymore and so the word—on the rare occasion it is used—is typically used to mean "to hurl violently into the air."

21. SYPHILOMANIA

A blood vial that has tested positive for syphilis
iStock

Should you ever need a word for it, the tendency of doctors "to overdiagnose syphilis, or to treat patients for syphilis unnecessarily," is syphilomania according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

22. TATTARRATTAT

The back of a long-haired young woman knocking on a door with a blue knocker
iStock

James Joyce invented this word for the sound of someone knocking on a door in his novel Ulysses (1922). As well as being just a particularly strange word, it also has the distinction of being the longest palindrome in the OED.

23. THUMB-BUMPER

A happy smiling man in a blue shirt giving a thumbs up
iStock

In addition to being a term from pinball, a thumb-bumper is 'one who closing his fist firmly but with the thumb sticking out fiercely drives it against the buttocks of another." Why you would have to do that, and why it happened frequently enough to warrant a definition in the English Dialect Dictionary, is a mystery. And probably best kept that way.

24. TYROTOXISM

Various types of cheese on a cutting board and a wooden table
iStock

Should you ever need a word specifically to describe being poisoned by cheese, here it is.

25. WHIPPERSNAP

A little girl with blond hair and large black funny glasses
iStock

To behave like a whippersnapper? That's to whippersnap.

Google Translate Now Lets Your Smartphone's Camera Read 13 More Languages in Real Time

iStock.com/nazar_ab
iStock.com/nazar_ab

Your days of lugging around foreign-language dictionaries while traveling are behind you. As VentureBeat reports, Google Translate's in-app camera now recognizes 13 new languages, including Arabic, Hindi, and Vietnamese.

In 2015, the Google Translate app launched a feature that allows users to translate written text in real time. All you need to do to use it is to tap the app's camera icon and point your phone at the words you wish to decode, whether they're on a menu, billboard, or road sign. Almost immediately, the app replaces the text displayed on your camera with the translation in your preferred language.

The tool initially worked with 27 languages and Google has introduced more over the past few years. With the latest additions, Google Translate now recognizes about 50 languages.

Many of the new languages now compatible with Google Translate—including Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Thai—are widely spoken in South Asia. Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, and Punjabi are four of the 10 most common languages on Earth.

Google Translate users can download the new update now for iOS and Android phones.

[h/t VentureBeat]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER