Recently I’ve been getting quite a lot of compliments on how good my English is. On a recent trip to Birmingham (West Midlands, not Alabama) a shop assistant told in me I had a lovely Dutch accent, and how clever I must be to have almost entirely gotten rid of it.
I could have been very flattered were it not for the fact that I’m British. I spent years losing the Birmingham accent I picked up while studying there, and even more years before that trying to shrug off the Geordie accent I grew up with in the gray and green wilds of Northumberland.
But the lovely people who praise my command of English may have a point. Since I’m immersed in Dutch language most of the time, finding the right word in English is becoming more and more difficult, to the point that I have to ask my Dutch husband to translate for me sometimes. I appear to have stopped picking up new words in English too.
Eggcorns are similar to malapropisms in that they are examples of using the wrong word in a familiar phrase. Where malapropisms produce nonsense, eggcorns sound so similar to the original word that they appear to make perfect sense, to the extent that some are eventually are absorbed into the language. Here’s a fascinating essay on eggcorns, which suggests that “this process of the masses’ getting it wrong until it becomes right is common, ongoing, and unstoppable.”
WordPower is a simple but addictive vocabulary game that can be played online, or as an iPhone ap. I’ve tried quite a few vocabulary games recently, and this is the only one so far that has a nice interface and uses words I didn’t already know.
There’s another (slightly easier) vocab game online, that has the added incentive of donating ten grains of rice to the World Food Program for every answer you get right. Ten grains may not seem like much, but it can make a real difference.
Want to make those new words stick? Here are Ten Tips to Improve your Vocabulary.
As a fun exercise at school in my teens, the best English teacher I ever had taught us how to avoid ambiguity in our writing by having us spot misleading newspaper headlines. Soon the wall of her classroom was papered in perfectly awful examples of headlinese, like “McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.” There’s a wonderful term to describe these headlines: crash blossoms.
And then there’s the Cupertino Effect, the tendency of a spellchecker to suggest inappropriate words to replace misspelled words and words not in its dictionary, to which even the New York Times has fallen prey. It may also have inspired Candidate for a Pullet Surprise, also known as The Spellchecker Poem.
Dictionary.com has a surprisingly good blog, full of trivia about etymology, word meanings and the written word. The scope is broad, the topics are hot, and the presentation is fun: you can find out out why New York is called the Big Apple, what to call the biggest numbers in existence, and where the word ‘hello’ comes from.
It’s fifty years since To Kill a Mockingbird was published. I think a fitting way to mark the occasion would be by learning to cuss like Scout Finch.
If you feel that your command of English is just fine, thanks – and of course, if you’re Dutch then it probably is – how about working on your vocabulary in a few fictional languages, like Avatar’s Na’vi, Star Trek’s Klingon or Tolkien’s Sindarin?