Monday, 22 February 2010

Whatever happened to the Persian Gulf?

It appears that the thought-provoking non-fiction smasharoo Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? is read in all the best radio production offices, and when they think geographical name-changes, they think Campbell. It seems I am going to be on the BBC World Service discussion programme World Have Your Say between about 6 and7pm tonight. Which is to say in less than an hour. Sorry you missed it!

Saturday, 20 February 2010


In response to my musings on the English word Nigerien, meaning “of or from Niger”, a friend suggests “Nigerois”. This would indeed be less confusing than Nigerien, and is fairly well attested on the Web, though not in any dictionary I can find apart from Merriam Webster Online.

A blogger “siphoning off a few thoughts” has a nice take-down of what s/he calls this “tricky English fake word of the day” here. “Nigerois is tricky because not only do we not refer to people as they refer to themselves [Nigérien], we went to the trouble of creating a word that sounds to an English speaker as if it were French.” A very good point: the tendency to deliberately foreignise English words, sometimes in order to show off an over-confident and sadly incomplete linguistic awareness, can lead to some grotesque results.

Two pet hates of mine are “Galician”, when pronounced with an affected lisp to seem more Spanish, and even worse the nonsense word “Andalucian” (again with the lisp that paradoxically isn’t even characteristic of the Spanish of that area). The adjective Galician (in Spanish, gallego, in Galician, galego), referring to Galicia in northwest Spain, is pronounced “ga-LISS-ian”; to add the lisp is like missing off the s in Parisian — “pa-REE-an” — in order to show off the fact you know the s is silent in French in the word Paris (“pa-REE”), although the French word is of course parisien.¹ Meanwhile we have a perfectly good English word for the region known in Spanish as Andalucía: it’s Andalusia (“anda-LOOSE-ia”²), and the adjective is Andalusian (“anda-LOOSE-ian”). But as so often, a little learning is a dangerous thing. The Spanish adjective is andaluz (“anda-LOOTH”). The ridiculous invention “Andalucian”, or even “Andalucían” (“anda-looth-EE-an”), is neither English nor Spanish, but gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google.

It makes you think. Maybe there is a role for properly-compiled dictionaries after all? Maybe we can’t always rely on muddling through with Google, the lexicographical equivalent of “ask the audience”.

¹ And in the same vein we might add Munich, when pronounced with an affected German-style fricative “ch”, forgetting the fact that in German it’s not Munich anyway but (as you know, gentle reader) München.
²I gather it comes out in US English as “anda-LOOZH-a”. Yuck.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dictionary fail

There are certain nationalities we don’t really have a proper word for in English, or at least feel pretty uncertain about. I’m talking demonyms, or gentilics if you prefer. What’s the name for someone from Afghanistan? An Afghan surely, but we often hear Afghani, presumably on the model of Pakistani. There is also of course the afghani, the unit of currency of Afghanistan, but dictionaries do not tend to recognise it as an adjective or a nationality.

Especially problematic are Francophone ex-colonies where English just uses the French word; there’s a pattern of sorts with Senegalese, Congolese, Togolese,¹ but there are many other possibilities. Seychellois, but Chadian and Burundian. Benin — Beninese or Beninois? Comoros? — Comorian, but I had to look it up; I could have believed Comorese, and there’s some evidence for that idea on Google if not in dictionaries.² Madagascar? — Malagasy (not to be confused with Monegasque which means from Monaco). Burkina Faso? “Burkina Fasan” gets over 1000 Google hits, but looks ridiculous; Burkinabé seems to be the word even in English. Côte d’Ivoire? — Ivorian, but how do you pronounce it, “eye-VORE-ian” or “ee-VWAR-ian”?

Zaire/Zaïre no longer exists (read all about it in that seminal work of “nostalgic geography”, Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, if you can still find a copy), and perhaps linguistically speaking we should be glad of that, but what was the adjective: Zairean? Zairian? Zairese? Zairois? All with or without dots above the i, of course. The Central African Republic, perhaps the world’s most soulless and inconvenient country name, is a puzzle. Surely not “Central African Republican”; Wikipedia says it’s just “Central African” but that’s hopelessly ambiguous. We can only hope they revert one day to Oubangui-Chari/Ubangi-Shari, or perhaps Ubangi, or even just Bangui after the capital — presumably that works for Mexico and Panama and Guatemala. And/or Andorra.

But I digress, as ever. It’s often when a country is thrust from obscurity, and seemingly always for bad reasons, into the spotlight of the news that we become aware of these uncertainties. Niger has always been an odd one. The river is the Niger (“NIE-dger”) but the country is Niger (“nee-ZHAIR”, à la française). But what on earth do you call an inhabitant of the place? Not a Nigerian, that’s someone from Nigeria. The word is Nigerien, or even Nigérien “nee-ZHAIR-ian”, a strange mixture of French and English sounds. Again, with no disrespect to either nation, it’s an inconvenient confusion. You’d certainly want to double-check your travel doocuments; I once saw a travel agent confess on national television to booking someone onto a flight to Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, when they wanted to go to the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan.

In the light of recent news events, Collins Dictionaries might want to think about revising the entry in their online French dictionary (right). The French for Nigerian is not nigérien, that means from Niger. As the French-to-English entry shows. In this electronic age, it’s all too easy to catch dictionaries out like this.

¹ Oddly perhaps, we also have cases like Marshallese, though the Marshall Islands have no French influence that I know of. There’s also Ceylonese, presumably connected with Sinhalese, and OED records various oddities and archaisms such as Tyrolese and Bengalese, and even Swahilese for Swahili.
² In Dictionarese?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Fake your booty

The comedian Alex Horne (who hopes to do the same himself) claims that “Beyoncé got a word in the dictionary”. Ah, the dream of every slightly deranged word-fanatic, to “get a word in ‘The’ Dictionary”. The word in question is “bootylicious”, and it’s all the more impressive an achievement considering that la Beyoncé was still at primary school at the time of the first recorded citation of “bootylicious” in OED. She may have popularised the word, but she certainly didn’t invent it, and if the credit is hers, the OED entry doesn’t get round to namechecking Destiny’s Child until its third citation.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Tits and teeth

Wireless, now there’s a word that’s had a comeback. Everything seems to be wireless these days. Even clothes: I see you can even buy a wireless bra.

(I see this from clicking in aid of free mammograms at, you understand, something I recommend you do as well, and not from perusing underwear catalogues or anything like that, obviously.)

Nowadays gadgets often talk to each other using something called Bluetooth, apparently named after the tenth-century Scandinavian king. So the obvious name for this amazing wireless technology would be, what, Bluetit?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

London, or was it Liverpool? Somewhere round there

Here’s one I missed at the time, from the Guardian of 2 November 2009:
These are uncertain times for The Chambers Dictionary and for The Observer.¹ I have been told that the publishers Chambers Harrap will be wound up, its Glasgow staff made redundant, and its reference list transferred to Hodder Educational in London.
Of course, redundancies among Chambers’ Glasgow staff would have been a small price to pay, considering, er, there weren’t any, what with the company being based in Edinburgh, and all that. But hey, it’s all the same, it’s just Scotland, or is it Ireland, whatever, I dunno, somewhere a long way off on the Celtic fringe anyway.

¹This being the Guardian² (or as they would say The Guardian), italics in the titles of books and newspapers are taboo — can anyone explain this perverse and obscurantist aspect of their house style?
² OK, I know you’re supposed to write “The Guardian” not “the Guardian”, but I just don’t like that for some reason and I feel at liberty to define my own quirky house style for my own blog. Even if I don’t see why a famous national newspaper should be allowed to.³
³ I say “national” but of course it used to be the Manchester Guardian. Or was it the Newcastle Guardian, I dunno. Somewhere round there.