Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some ill-wished words

Today's Globe column is about the recent word ban at Chicago's WGN-AM. I didn't go into the differences between spoken and written English, but thinking about how "banned words" for the oral and written media might differ did prompt a moment of what may be insight.

I've always wondered why so many editors dislike some for "about," as in "some 300 marchers waved signs." (The OED's earliest citation for the usage is from Boethius, in 888, and there's no record of its being disparaged) But when I saw some on the WGN list, I thought, well, it's not all that common in spoken English; maybe editors have decided that since they see it only in print, it must be a journalistic tic.

I don't hear it that way at all. I agree that "fled on foot" is journalese (though I don't despise it), but "some 300" has had a long and flourishing career in non-journalistic prose, and really shouldn't be stigmatized.

On another subject entirely, I was pleased that none of my editors boggled at my use of "ill-wishing," which I think of as more British than American English. I used it as a simple opposite of "well-wishing," but in the book where I first encountered it in the '70s -- Fay Weldon's novel "Down Among the Women" -- it's used in the more specific sense "put a curse on": "Now Emma has ill-wished the hens."

But now I'm wondering, is ill-wishing is actually more common in BrE? It's not all that old, it turns out; the verb isn't recorded until the 19th century. The OED's cites are British, but Google Books has an example from an 1862 issue of the Boston Review: "The neighbors, sore perplexed at the strange movements of the child, came to the conclusion that some one must have 'overlooked' or 'ill-wished' her."

Maybe Lynneguist can enlighten us; but even if not, you should be reading her blog, including today's discussion of dishwashing and teakettle-heating in the British and American dialects.


jhm said...

Perhaps tangentially, this reminds me of a personal usage. Oftentimes in Mathematics, it is important for rules (for lack of a more rigorous term) to be "well defined." I, maybe under the influence of BrE books, TV and lyrics, describe something possessing the absence of this quality as being 'ill defined.'

Interestingly, the more common usage in textbooks and lectures was "poorly defined."

lynneguist said...

I haven't got strong intuitions about ill-wishing, so I checked the British National Corpus versus the Corpus of Contemporary American English. The BNC had 3 examples in 100m words, and COCA had 1 example in 400m. So, I'm not sure that the numbers are big enough to be reliable, but this would indicate that it's 12 times as likely in British as in American.

MelissaJane said...

In that Boston Review snippet, I find the use of "overlooked" even more surprising and interesting than "ill-wished." I gather that as in the Fay Weldon book, the sense is "cursed"? I'm not familiar with overlooked used in that sense; are you?

Jan said...

MelissaJane: No, I'd never heard that "overlook," but the OED (in an entry revised March 2010) has it from 1579 -- "To cast the evil eye on; to bewitch. Now chiefly regiona." -- with quotes from Shakspeare ("Vilde worme, thou wast ore-look'd euen in thy birth") and Canadian author Robertson Davies ("If somebody had overlooked your cattle he could take off the spell"), among others.