Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Absinthe makes the heart enfonden

I took a passing interest, as one does, in this page earlier today. And being ever on the lookout for new words I was struck by the caption of the main graph: UK budget deficit and party in power. Click image to embiggen. Not having my reading glasses, I knew instinctively what to do – I clicked.

Habitués of Index DOT Html (among whom I don't include myself, although I use it from time to time) will know that Big is an HTML element that does what it says on the tin – it increases the font size. Older coders may be tempted to use the Font element; but this is, as that page sternly says (probably peering over its spectacles, if only RFCs could do that sort of thing) 'Deprecated in HTML 4.x/XHTML 1.0.'. Big, on the other hand, gets an indulgent pat on the head: 'HTML: In all 4.x DTDs'.

I let slip the term 'RFC' back there. Excuse me  –  it betokens a youth misspent in the world of software standards. In the wacky world of the internet, engineers looked with scorn at the European standards bodies. Instead, a group of interested parties (who knew and contributed to the right mailing list) got together and produced a draft document – a Request For Comments. If you want the whole intricate tale of documents and drafts and reviews and redrafts and never attaining the status of UAOAP (=Ultimate Agreement on All Points) I'm sure Wikipedia will help. But the point is that even when recognized as BCP (= Best Current Practice – no, it really does mean that, I'm not joking this time) the document is still referred to as an RFC.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, <Big>, and the new verb it has spawned; well, I doubt if there's any way of telling for sure that 'embiggen' is derived from that HTML element, and – whether or not it was – English has a productive rule (and I'll talk about Chomsky some time soon†) that lets you coin a new verb from an adjective, using the prefix 'eN' (where N is a nasal that can be /n/, /m/, or /ŋ/, depending on what follows) and the suffix 'en'. So if I wanted to say 'make more pink' I could say 'empinken' and native speakers of English would understand (while possibly raising an eyebrow, curling a lip, or allowing some other facial contortion to show their reaction to the neologism). Often, only one of the affixes is used (in an established word): feeble => enfeeble, red => redden. But if you're neologizing, there's safety in numbers. And speakers of English as a Second Language may also latch on to this device: can't recall the word for enlarge/magnify/blow up...? Coin a new one – the locals will understand.

There is a tendency towards dysphemism (the opposite of euphemism) among cognoscenti of one kind or another. People who play the violin are accepted (by other violinists) if they call it a fiddle; players in an orchestra can call it a band; readers of DIY books know the value of 'PTFE tape' – but plumbers call it thread tape ... Knowing the right familiar-sounding words marks you out as one of the élite. And while we're on the subject of élite I wonder if that word is referred to in the computer nerds' special transcription system known as Leet*... The HTML reformers who took against the latinate <Font>, wanted to show their man o' t' people status when thinking up an alternative; <Big> filled the bill. (Of course I don't want to belittle the change; there were many things wrong with <Font>, not least of which was that it made the web less world-wide, and contributed to the need for inelegant sticking-plasters like 'Best viewed in <browser-name>' [which besmirched the web in its infancy]).

Google, a corpus of sorts (though one needs to bear in mind the provenance of some of its inputs) now reports well over 300,000 instances of embiggen, although if you restrict the search to UK sites the number falls to just over 20 – one of whch calls it 'that ugly useless word embiggen'. And the word has found its way into only 3 of the dictionaries used by OneLook: Wordnik, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary (not sources with the highest of bars for entry).

Right – that's enough enlatening. Words with '-ia-' spellings await!

*Wikipedia says my guess is right, but that source – a very useful one – is a bit of a Folk-Etymology Sink.

Update 2013.05.06
On the subject of the 'en-' + <adjective> device, teachers of English (et al., but especially teachers) may be interest in a TES Resource I created a few years ago '-en' verbs and 'their' adjectives
In my covering spiel I wrote:
I have not listed this as a blog, but it's 'bloguesque' - in that it is an area that I have simply reflected on as a result of questions in a summer school. The .xls file is the main resource; the .doc file gives further explanations where necessary.
Update 2013.07.28:
And I've just thought of this other one:, of which my intro. says:
Game encouraging word-building, based on scoring points for 'playing' stems and affixes: e.g. help+less='helpless'. 
I've put this update out of order, but it's related to the 05.06 update.
Update 2013.05.10: Here it is.
Update 2013.09.30.11:15
Header updated:

 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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