Thursday 31 December 2009

On tens, teens, or whatever

This week has seen a dozen requests from radio stations and the press for comment about the same thing: what are we going to call the new decade? There was a similar fuss a decade ago, I recall, when the noughts (noughties, etc) were being debated. An Australian initative a few weeks ago asked for popular suggestions. The winner was one-ders - a piece of word play involving wonders and the ones which will be part of every year. Other suggestions were decnos, tentions, tweens, tennies, and twenteens.

I don't think human linguistic nature has changed much in the past century, so my guess is that what will happen today is the same as happened then. During the middle years of the century, people talked a lot about 'the tens, twenties, and thirties'. Tens was the predominant usage. However, there was also quite a lot of reference to the teens - the OED has citations dating from the 1930s. So the choice, it seems to me, will be between those two. If I had to choose, I would bet on tens, because these days teens has the dominant sense of teenagers, and people may well avoid using it for that reason. But it's not wise to bet, where language change is concerned.

Of course, this is all to do with informal usage. At a formal level, the issue is clearer. We have the choice of two thousand and ten (in British English - two thousand ten in American English) and twenty ten. Again, based on past centuries, speech is more likely to go for the shorter version. It's rare to hear 'in nineteen hundred and ten'. And I've never heard Tchaikovsky's overture called 'eighteen hundred and twelve'.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

On couple (of)

A correspondent writes to ask about the premodifying use of couple without a following of. She has found a usage comment in her Canadian Oxford Dictionary which says that this usage 'is highly informal and should be avoided in writing', whereas her Merriam-Webster states that the usage 'has been called non-standard, but it is not'. "Why has the usage developed?', she asks.

Couple of goes back to the 14th century, whereas the of-less construction seems to be relatively recent. The OED first recorded usage is 1925, and tags the expression as 'US colloquial': 'a couple months in Italy', 'a couple hundred'. The American origin is enough to explain British caution, and thus the difference in attitude of the two dictionaries.

But where did the usage come from? I opt for a phonological explanation. The reduction of of resulted in coupla, usually written that way (as also cuppa tea and suchlike) . That has a first recorded usage of 1908. It would have been a short step to elide the vowel completely. Reinforcement may then have come from the later usage couple more, where of is disallowed, as in: 'Wait a couple more minutes' (cf also 'Wait a couple minutes more'). That began to appear in the 1930s.

The Merriam-Webster comment suggests that the usage has become increasingly accepted in the US, but not everyone agrees. It's made very little headway in the UK, so far.

Thursday 3 December 2009

On being a tragic

A correspondent writes to ask about the noun use of tragic, as in a Beatles tragic or an opera tragic, where it means 'someone who is intensely interested or absorbed in a topic'. She had used it unconsciously in a message to a US colleague, who didn't understand it, and she wonders how widespread it is.

My correspondent is from Australia, where it's quite a common usage - for example, all the instances of opera tragic I've found on Google come from Australia. A site called cricket-blog is headed 'a blog where an Australian cricket tragic talks Ashes' and goes on to say that this is the place 'where cricket tragics rant'. I've never come across the usage, singular or plural, outside that variety. I'm not surprised her American contact didn't get it. A British contact wouldn't have either. I've no idea if it has any usage outside Australia, and perhaps readers of this blog would let me know if they've encountered it elsewhere.

How it developed this meaning is a bit of a puzzle. Presumably it's like the reverse semantic shift we find in such words as wicked to mean 'great'. But when and how this shift took place with tragic isn't established. There are no references to the usage in the OED. All the noun uses of tragic there are related to the traditional meaning: the earliest use, in the late 16th century, meant 'a tragic actor'; then it was used for 'a tragic author'; later, it came to mean 'a tragic work of some kind' or 'a tragic event'. We find such usages as That was a miserable tragic and all the tragics you can think of. But all these earlier (and now obsolete) usages maintain the traditional sense of tragic.