Tag Archives: OED

Countdown to Christmas – Question 13: Friday 13th December

It’s a topical vocabulary question today. What’s the word used to describe “the fear of the number 13?” Hint: fear of the number 13 is different from the fear of Friday the 13th itself. 

Fear of the number thirteen

ANSWER: triskaidekaphobia!

The word triskaidekaphobia is a relatively new word – and for lexicographers, anything from the early 20th century is “new” – and was coined from the Greek treiskaideka, which means “thirteen” and phobos, meaning “fear.” The Oxford English Dictionary has the first published use of the word in Isador Henry Coriat’s Abnormal Psychology in 1911.

The specific fear of Friday 13th has two words: paraskevidekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia. The latter is simply triskaidekaphobia with the prefix, frigga, which is the name of the Norse goddess after whom Friday originates. It’s origin is obscure but certainly recent i.e. 20th century. The former, appears to be traceable to Dr. Donald Dossey in his 1992 book Holiday Folklore, Phobias, and Fun, is also a Greek coinage: paraskevi meaning “Friday,” dekatria meaning “thirteen,” and again, phobia means “fear.”

But wait, you eagle-eyed readers exclaim, how come both treiskaideka and dekatria both mean “thirteen?” Well, treis on its own means “three” and deka means “ten, and the Greek word for “and” is kai. So, the former is literally “three and ten” whereas the latter is simply “three ten.”  Score another point for the Dudes as being “edutainers” – you may not realize it, but reading our blog is an education; we just do it oh so subtly 😉


Article on paraskevidekatriaphobia from the Macmillan Dictionary Buzzwords blog.

Definition of triskaidekaphobia in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Little Things DO Matter – Even Little Words

Sometimes the linguistic stars align and a lexical event of supernova proportions takes place. More specifically, unless you’ve been taking a vacation on an island without an internet connection or phone service [1] you’ve doubtless learned about the word twerk and, if you’re really unlucky, seen it demonstrated by pop princess Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. Once the idol of millions of teen girls across the world, Miley is now the idol of millions of aged perverts who can’t wait for her to make a real porn movie instead of the “R”-rated performance she provided for the VMA Awards ceremony on August 25th, 2013.

Public domain image

Let’s twerk!

Tempting as it is to pander to the prurient and show you videos and pictures, there’s little need to do that because at this moment in time as I suspect 50% of the world’s internet content is already full of such material, and if you start typing “Miley Cyrus” into your search engine, you’ll probably get millions of links even before you get past the third “l” in her name!

As an SLP working in AAC, my interest is strictly professional and concerns the revelation from August 28th that twerk has officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) site – that’s just three days after Miley’s graphic demonstration. So, just in case you are unsure, here’s the actual definition of twerk as used by Oxford:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
Verb [no object]: informal.
Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Surprisingly, it was first noted in the 1990’s, and it is thought to be an alteration of the word work in the sense of “work it, baby, work it.” Normally when new words are added to the ODO, it’s fairly low-key and only word nerds really care. However, in this instance, it’s as if the Oxford marketing department had contracted with Miley to do her bump-and-grind act purely to promote the “release” of the new word – and a spectacular release it was! As I write, typing twerk into Google search returns 20,300,000 hits. Hell, “The Speech Dudes” only gets a paltry 4,990,000 hits!

So let’s think a little about what we can learn from this little episode because we, the Dudes, would like to think of our little piece of cyberspace here as being educational – in the most laid-back of ways, of course.

When the inclusion of twerk was announced to the world, thousands of commentators leaped forward to say that it was now a “real word” because it was “in the dictionary.” I want you all to take another look at that second phrase, “in the dictionary.” The significant element is the use of the word the as a determiner that precedes a noun. Typically, we use the – often referred to as the definite article – to refer to a single, specific thing. But we use the word a (0r an) – the indefinite article – to refer to one of many things. There is a world of difference between “Pass me the pencil” and “Pass me a pencil.” There’s an even bigger difference between, “Hey, you’re just the man!” and “Hey, you’re just a man!” And although some folks treat the and a/an as merely “fillers” that can be ignored, there are some occasions where they are absolutely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Tell me “You’re the shit!” and I’m happy; tell me “You’re a shit!” and I’m a wee bit upset.

In this instance, the reality is that twerk has been added to a dictionary and not the dictionary. If it had been added to the dictionary, we’d have had to be clear which one that was, and then agree that is was the only one that matters. For me, “the dictionary” is the 20-volume complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd edition, and anything else is “a dictionary.” But for twerk, as I mentioned earlier, the dictionary in question is the Oxford Dictionaries Online dictionary, which is a very different beast than the OED. A number of commentators failed to mention this, and indeed some suggested it was the OED.

Picture of a dictionary

Is it in the dictionary?

The ODO is what you would call a “living dictionary,” which is aimed at capturing the global lexicon as it exists now. It’s a less profane and more researched version of the Urban Dictionary, which is also a living dictionary but without vetting or investigation. Words can, in fact, be taken out of the ODO if they cease to be used, whereas once a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. This is because the OED is a “historical dictionary” that aims to trace the meanings of a word from its earliest known use through to either its demise (anyone used shrepe [2] lately?) or its latest meaning. For example awful didn’t originally mean “terrible” but “wonderful” – it referred to something that left you full of awe.

Something else we can learn is the speed at which a new word can be used in its constituent morphological forms i.e. twerk, twerking, twerks, and twerked. Using ghits [3], we see the following hit figures, which gives us some idea of the distribution of the word as a whole [4]:

     twerk: 20,300,000
     twerking: 17,700,000
     twerks: 2,850,00
     twerked: 439,000

Not surprisingly, we find that an adjective form also exists, twerky (71,200 ghits) but there’s a dearth of adverbial examples with twerkily only scoring 84 ghits, which is close to nothing. I should, however, now total all these up because they are all forms of the base form twerk, pushing the total ghit score up from 20,300,000 to just over double at 41,360,200.

For folks working on teaching vocabulary, the “teachable moment” from the whole Miley Cyrus debacle would be to use the word twerk as a springboard for reinforcing regular morphology. Thus, any worksheet along the following lines would be splendid:

“Miley Cyrus says she likes to TWERK. In fact, she TWERK___ a lot! We saw a video yesterday and she was TWERK____. Some people think she shouldn’t have TWERK___ at all.” [5]

So there you have it. Vocabulary, morphology, frequency studies, and the critical importance of the definite and indefinite articles. And who says the Speech Dudes site isn’t educational?

[1] If you’ve never done this, it’s highly recommended. It’s what used to be called a vacation, when you went away to somewhere very different from your home and spent one or two weeks doing fun and relaxing things that were not work related. Sadly, many people are now permanently connected to their jobs via smart technology and actually start their vacation mornings by checking work emails or making a couple of calls. This is not called a vacation; it’s called working from home – for which you don’t get paid. Cutting yourself off from the world is surprisingly difficult and something you really have to plan for and work at. Try it – and see if you have the will to do it!

[2] Shrepe means “to scratch” and comes from the Old English screpan=to scrape, which in turn came from  Old Norse skrapa=to scrape or erase, and ultimately from an unattested but re-constructed Germanic word *skrap-=scrape. Shrepe sadly went out of fashion in the 13th century but it’s good to pull such words out of the closet once in a while and wear them for just a day.

[3] Ghit is short for “Google hit,” which is the number of hits an entry in the Google search box gets. It appears just below the search term in a phrase such as About 39,300 results (0.13 seconds). It’s not an official measure in the world of corpus linguistics but it a pretty useful “quick and dirty” way of estimating web frequencies. If you find a word or phrase that only has ONE ghit, it’s called a googlewhack. Try slipping that one into your next conversation at the bar.

[4] Trying to define a “word” is not as easy as you might think. For example, are eat, eats, eating, ate, and eaten 5 words or just one? After all, the difference between eat and eats is simply based on whether you are talking about the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person i.e. I/you/we/they eat but he/she/it eats. One way to get around this is to talk about something called a LEMMA, which is basically the dictionary form of a verb – such as twerk. A dictionary would, for instance, have the word eat as an entry, but not necessarily eats, eating, or eaten. It would, however, include ate because it’s a very irregular form of the lemma, eat.

[5] I admit that shamelessly using Miley Cyrus’s despicable behavior to teach language worries me no more than when I used beer bottle tops as poker chips to teach my daughters to count. Some may question my use of alcohol and poker for my “teachable moment” but hey, what can I say – I’m a dude!

Urban Dictionary: The Speech Therapist’s Secret Weapon

wordle for this article

Wordle for this article

One of the most exciting things about language is that it’s in constant flux. Each and every day, new words get coined or new usages of old words appear. Sometimes, old words roll back the stone of the tomb and undergo an amazing resurrection. It’s also almost impossible to go through 24 hours without getting into a discussion – or argument – about words and meanings, with everyone eager to toss their own hats into the linguistic ring and fight to the metaphorical death for their interpretation of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of how we speak. Get five people around a table at a bar in the evening and you’ve got the makings of a damn good night out.

At some point in the intercourse, someone is pretty much guaranteed to whip out their smartphone of choice in an attempt to prove they are right.  (“Look, I’ll prove to you that fritiniency[1] is a real word!”)

The big question to ask at that point is; which dictionary are you using? There are so many to choose from, and so it’s not good enough to define a “real” world as “one that’s in the dictionary” unless you’re prepared to back it up with citing your source. I stand by [2] the hard-cover 1989 2nd edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary as my touchstone, along with its online edition, which has the advantage of adding new words at regular intervals. It is possible to have access to the online version on your smartphone (I have it on my Droid) but it can be costly if you don’t have access to an account at a university library [3].

After that, I’m a sucker for the online Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which I use extensively for words that either have an American origin or American meanings that are aren’t reflected in the OED. I also recommend the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English because it is primarily aimed at language learners and so has fairly simple definitions.

But for sheer audacity, profanity, fun, and currency, the Urban Dictionary is hard to beat. In fact, I’d say it can’t be beaten. It’s based on popular vote rather than any scholarly or scientific measurement, so just about anybody can submit a word and folks then vote on whether it’s a “word” or not. Lexicographers – professionals who study words for inclusion in dictionaries – don’t really see the UD as a “dictionary” but more as a dumping ground for hopeful monsters.  For example, as I type, the “Word of the Day” (9/9/11) is party hats, which is defined (by someone called “logos”) as “erect and pointed nipples.” The demonstration sentence is “hey, it must be cold outside because your mom has got her party hats on.” Interestingly, it also has the definition from 2005 of “Brittish [sic] (and occassionaly [sic] American) slang for condoms.”

Party hats

Party hats

UD is littered with such words and definitions. According to the site’s tagline, there have been 6,069, 024 definitions since 1999, and there’s a good chance that 6,069,000 won’t ever make it to the OED. But what you do get from skipping through this tsunami of trivia is a sense of how people understand words. You find out so much about how the man on the Clapham omnibus or Joe Sixpack sees language.

Let’s look at the party hats example simply because it is so current. First, the most obvious thing that stands out – pun intended – is that this is a compound noun made up of two already existing words. Using old words to build new ones is a common enough feature of English, and whether or not Mr. Average can actually tell you that you can use two bound morphemes to create a compound, he can do it! We can also see that it demonstrates the use of a plural morpheme. There is no example of it being used in the singular to refer to a nipple but type “party hat” nipple into Google (the quotes do an exact search and ignores “party hats”) you will find folks using it in the singular. For the really curious, you might want to look at how the UD defines the singular party hat; it has many more connotations than nipple!

Another crucial thing to notice is that people have a knowledge of metaphor that may well exceed their ability to explain it. To use party hats for “cold nipples” requires an understanding that words are inherent polysemous i.e. they have many meanings, and that such polysemy can be guided by semantic features. In this case, it is the semantic feature of “looks like.” In fact, this sound very much like the reasoning behind using Semantic Feature Analysis as a therapy tool; and that’s because it is!

This is the “secret weapon” element to accessing the Urban Dictionary – if you are allowed to [4″]! A stunning number of entries in the UD can be broken down by associative meanings. One of our #SLPeeps friends on Twitter, @kimberlyslp, tweeted just yesterday that “Kids don’t know words until they understand the semantic relations between them” followed closely by “Word retrieval improved when child knows the connections between words – the words are now closer together.”

Now do you see the link between how people use the Urban Dictionary and how humans learn words? The use of semantic relations isn’t just a “nice thing to do” it is, in fact, and essential! For a kid to know that the word glasses can refer to both things you wear to help you see and things you drink from, they have to comprehend the underlying semantic association of <MADE-FROM>; to know that swing is both an action and a noun, they have to understand <ACTION> as an associative strategy.

OK, so I’m not suggesting you necessarily start working on teaching the associative strategy of to your kids using the Urban Dictionary’s party hat – although I know a few young adults  and adults who’d revel in such wickedness! – the general point is that trawling the UD to see what real people use to make word associations is a great way to get new ideas for your teaching strategies.

The more masochistic readers – or sadistic educators looking for new articles to toss out to their students – might like to try to get hold a paper by Grondin et al (2008) entitled Shared features dominate semantic richness effects for concrete concepts [5]. Although the specific research is focused on noun-based association strategies, it is generally aimed at adding to the body of knowledge that suggests;

One factor that has emerged as important in understanding the computation of word meaning is the richness of a word’s semantic representation. Specifically, in many experimental tasks, participants respond more quickly to words having richer semantic representations. (p.1)

And the Urban Dictionary has no shortage of “rich semantic representations” on offer.

David Crystal, who once complained about being described as a “national treasure” because it sounded like he was dead, has a short, readable article online called Teaching Vocabulary: The Case for a Semantic Curriculum, which outlines the concept of using semantic fields as the basis for vocabulary teaching. Well worth downloading, although the quality of the scan is a little grainy.

There are a number of free “semantic feature” grids available out there on the interweb thingy but if you don’t want to expend extra energy by clicking to leave this page and go search, here is the Speech Dudes’s very own SFA Sheet 9-9-11 in a soothing shade of green. Feel free to print as many copies as you want and share with folks. It’s in PDF so anyone should be able to get a copy.

Semantic Feature Analysis sheet

SFA Sheet

[1] And yes indeed, fritiniency IS a real word, which dates back to 1646, and sometimes you may see it as fritinancy. It means “to twitter” and anyone following the Speech Dudes is fritiniencing on a daily basis. It comes from the Latin fritinnire, which means “to twitter” along with the noun-creating suffix, –ancy, which also derives from Latin.  There’s also a genus of plant called fritillaria, so called because ones of its defining visual characteristics is a checkered appearance reminiscent of a dice box – and the Latin for “dice box” is frittilus. This comes from the same root as fritiniency and refers to the sound of dice shaking, which is like the twittering of birds and crickets. Stick around – the Dudes have LOTS of trivia like this to share 😉

[2] Literally. I have my OED stacked on a narrow, four-shelf bookcase that’s taller than I am. This either demonstrates how big the OED books are or how short I am.

[2] If you are not a member of a university library, you are making a big mistake. Big. Huge! Most universities – or maybe just the good ones – will let you be a member, which also gets you access to online databases that include more journals than you can imagine. Trendy as it might be to think that a combination of Google and Wikipedia is all you need to find “facts” and “truth,” those big building filled with square paper things we call “books” are still useful. So do yourself a really, really big favor and go to your nearest big university library and sign up.

[4] Another fritinancer in the SLP twitterverse is the prolific @SLPTanya, who revealed in a moment of weakness that her palce of work didn’t allow access to the Urban Dictionary because it is deemed inappropriate. So it may well be that wherever you work could have some limitations on website access established by the High Poobahs of the System Administrators. You may have to simply sneak access by other means and keep the UD as a guilty pleasure. Sometimes I think downloading porn would be more acceptable to some system admins…

[5] Grondin, R., Lupker, S.J. and McRae. K. (2009). Shared features dominate semantic richness effects for concrete concepts. Journal of Memory and Language, 60, 1-9.