Stewart´s corner

New Oxford Dictionary of English

This completely new dictionary was published in August 1998 with the claim: «Oxford publishes the most important new English dictionary for 100 years». With 350 000 words at a price of GBP 29 or NOK 380 in Norway it is certainly value for money. However, it has provoked reactions as it is compiled on the basis of how people actually use words, rather than how experts think people use words (or perhaps should use them). Take the word graffiti which is the plural of graffito in Italian. Careful writers in English insist on a plural verb and ridicule those who write things like: «I don't need drugs, the T-shirt graffiti proclaims» (The Observer). The New Oxford breaks with tradition and states: «The most common modern use is to treat graffiti as if it were a mass noun, similar to a word like writing, and not to use graffito at all. In this case, graffiti takes a singular verb, as in the graffiti was all over the wall. Such uses are widely accepted as standard…rather than mistakes». When the same treatment is given to data and media which the New Oxford states are widely accepted in standard English with singular or plural verbs, traditionalists have started crawling out of the floorboards with letters to the editor reminiscent of Pope's «Whatever Is, Is Right».

It must be invigorating for the language to have a fresh approach that only modern technology can provide and I feel that the New Oxford's claim to be «The foremost authority - the most comprehensive coverage of current English» is justified. The dictionary is based on a series of databases of written and spoken English, some with over 100 million words, and took 30 co-authors and numerous other consultants around six years to compile. All definitions are more straightforward than usual as each word has a core definition. Backbone is defined as «the series of vertebrae in a person or animal, extending from the skull to the pelvis; the spine». Then two or more subsenses usually follow, such as here: the mainstay of an organization and strength of character. Grammar is clearly explained: information is classified as a mass noun, not NU or U, as in other dictionaries. About 2000 new words are included and terms that might be considered sexist, racist or derogatory are indicated: handicapped should now replaced by disabled; businessman/chairman should only be males and business person, chairperson should become the standard terms. Many proper names have been included with brief encyclopaedia-like notes: «Sami is the name by which the Lapps themselves prefer to be known» and «Trondheim a fishing port in west central Norway» - a definition that is a bit fishy, if you ask me, but even the Oxford cannot get everything exactly right.

Tricky words

curriculum, syllabus (in education)
Curriculum (Norw. fagplan, undervisningsplan) means either the subjects in a course of study: «The National Curriculum stipulates the core subjects and foundation subjects to be taught in State schools in England and Wales», or a course of study usually at university: «The curriculum requirements of a cand. philol. degree at NTNU». Curriculum is the singular form. Curricula or curriculums are the plural forms.
Syllabus (Norw. pensum) means the subject matter in a series of lectures, or the set reading usually in a single subject: «This is an extensive syllabus». Syllabuses is the recommended plural. Syllabi is not the recommended plural. One English style guide labels syllabi as pedantic. If syllabus is kept to one subject and curriculum to the content of a degree or a course of study, there should be no confusion. Webster neatly defines the syllabus as the content of the curriculum. Unfortunately, some people are less precise and use these terms as synonyms.

extra-curricular activities, extramural activities
Extra-curricular activities is a general term for activities in a school, college or university that are  additional to the teaching: «Extra-curricular activities include our sports, drama, music and chess clubs». The term also has a second connotation outside education, for someone who is having an affair: «Old Bill is notorious for his extra-curricular activities».
Extramural activities is a BE term that means teaching activities that are given for those who are not students of a university. Often these are off campus: «Our extramural activities include Internet-based teaching and summer courses». This term should not have any negative connotations.

Expanding English
(from the New Oxford Dictionary of English)

Page Three girls - «Page Three: a feature which formerly appeared on page three of the Sun newspaper and included a picture of a topless young woman».

Spin doctor - «(informal) a spokesperson employed to give a favourable interpretation of events to the media, especially on behalf of a political party».

Lunch box - «(humorous) a man's genitals». I am told that it originates from the tabloid press and refers to Linford Christie's tackle, encapsulated in lycra running shorts.

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