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11 Examples of the Odd Dialect Called 'EU English'

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Every profession has its in-group ways of using language, but not every profession requires native speakers of many different languages to communicate with each other every day.

The European Union requires just this, and the people who work there, hashing out, drafting, and translating documents use English in a very particular way. A 2013 EU report outlined some of the unusual qualities of EU English, pointing out that, “over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English.”

Much of that unrecognizable vocabulary is the result of translations or non-native-speaker errors that make a certain kind of sense, but depart from the usual English. Because documents in the EU influence the way other documents are drafted as well as the way discussions proceed, the unusual vocabulary items tend to spread around until they are part of the general professional jargon. Here are 11 examples of words used in EU documents in an odd new way. 

1. TO PRECISE/PRECISION 

The Committee urges the Commission ... to precise which period before confinement is meant.

Without further precisions, this could lead to support for poorly justified financial instruments.

Precise is sometimes used in EU documents as a verb to mean "make precise," or specify. It is also used in this sense as a noun, precision, which is supposed to mean "that which is used to make things precise"—in other words, details or specifications.

2. DISPOSE OF

The Commission may not be able to assess the reliability of the data provided by Member States and may not dispose of independent information sources.

There is an emerging tendency to use dispose of not to mean "get rid of," but to have or possess. This strange usage probably comes from the fact that we say to have at one’s disposal to mean "have free use of." In regular English it is not possible to transform that phrase into dispose of in this way.

3. IMPORTANT

The annual accounts give detailed information on the financial corrections confirmed, implemented and to be implemented and explain the reasons for which an important amount is still to be implemented.

Important is sometimes used to mean large or significant. Something that is significant can be important, but important carries more connotations of being crucial or having an effect on things than significant does. It’s a subtle distinction that a non-native speaker really can’t be blamed for not having full control over. 

4. OPPORTUNITY

The Court questioned the opportunity of introducing these measures in such an uncertain economic climate.

Here opportunity is used to mean "the quality of being opportune," or "opportuneness." According to the raw rules of word formation, there’s no reason it shouldn’t mean that, but we already have a set meaning for opportunity—favorable circumstances or a chance for success. 

5. PUNCTUAL

The management of the above mentioned feed sectors is subject to close co-operation with the Member States through regular (generally monthly) meetings of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, section on Animal Nutrition, and punctual expert groups meetings where appropriate.

Punctual should be able to mean "point by point," or "from time to time," as it does in German and other European languages. But it in English we only use it in the sense of "arriving at the agreed-upon time." In EU documents it is used to mean occasional or periodic. 

6. ACTUAL

This appropriation is intended to cover basic salaries of the staff, as listed in the attached table, based on the actual regulations and on the probable adjustments.

Actual is famous for being one of those "false friend" words. It looks like the same word in French (or German or Spanish) but means something different in English. In English it means real or existing, while in other languages it means current. In EU documents in takes on the European meaning.

7. EVENTUAL

They both opposed an eventual imposition of anti-dumping measures as they considered that it could lead to a cessation of imports of the product concerned from the PRC79.

Another false friend, we take eventual to mean "happening at some point in the future," while in other languages it means possible. The eventual imposition referred to here is a possibility, not a plan.

8. EXPERTISES

Priority should be given to the ORs’ health system, training and education in order to optimise local human resources and expertises as greatest potential drivers of growth in the ORs83.

Expertise is normally a mass noun that doesn’t have a plural form: we don’t say expertises but areas of expertise. In EU English, however, it often shows up in the plural. It’s always good to have more expertises than you need.

9. PLANIFICATION 

Simplified procedures and better planification should make it possible to even out the caseload under FP6, improving internal control and speeding up processes.

Planification shows up a lot in EU English. It assumes the existence of an unusual verb planify, meaning something like plan. Basically, planification is planning, but longer.

10. COMITOLOGY

The Commission must draft new rules setting out the powers and workings of the bodies replacing the Committees in the framework of the now-abolished comitology procedure, to ensure that the new system operates properly.

The report states that there are 1253 instances of this word in an EU document database but “not only does the word not exist outside the EU institutions … it is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two m’s and two t’s) and a suffix that means something quite different (-ology/-logy means 'the science of' or 'the study of'). It is therefore highly unlikely that an outsider would be able to deduce its meaning, even in context.” It means something like "having to do with committees."

11. ACTORNESS

 EU Actorness in International Affairs: The Case of EULEX Mission in Kosovo, Perspectives on European Politics and Society.

Another EU-specific invention, actorness means something like "the quality of being a party which is taking an action." Though it makes for strange English, it is a rather more efficient way to express a concept that the EU discusses a lot.

 [h/t: Fun language podcast The Allusionist]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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