Tag Archives: dictionaries

making jam

botanical drawing of a type of fig showing four figs on a branch with four leaves and a halved fig at the bottom of the drawing showing the inside of the fruit

Fico rubado [Ficus carica sativa or Common Fig], print from Pomona Italiana: Trattato degli alberi fruttiferi conteneate la Descrizione delle megliori varietáa dei Frutte coltivati in Italia, accompagnato da Figure disegnate, e colorite sul vero (1817–39) by Giorgio Gallesio. Book held in the New York Public Library in New York, USA. Public domain.


I looked out the window the other day and saw a magpie and a wattlebird in the small fig tree in our garden. It was time to have a look at the figs. I don’t like figs but I don’t like to let food go to waste either, if I can help it, so I looked up some recipes and made fig jam. Sugar, a bit of water, a bit of vanilla, a bit of pectin, a couple of old jars and a fair amount of patience. Money for jam, indeed.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word ‘jam’ back to 1736, to Nathan Bailey’s second edition of the Dictionarium Britannicum, in which (according to the OED) Bailey states that the word stems ‘prob. of J’aime, i.e. I love it; as Children used to say in French formerly, when they liked any Thing’. In 1755, however, in his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson writes: ‘I know not whence derived’. The OED is careful, too, stating that the word is perhaps derived from the verb ‘to jam’ in the sense of ‘to bruise or crush by pressure’.

Last year, I made my first ever marmalade from cumquats from our garden. Also a great success! Still according to the OED, ‘marmalade’ is an older word than ‘jam’, borrowed from the Portuguese marmelada and dating from 1480. It was originally used to describe a solid quince paste that could be cut in cubes. Citrus fruit only came into the picture from the 17th century onwards, as an optional ingredient, but these days the word ‘marmalade’ is almost exclusively used to denote a preserve made of citrus fruit.



shutterstock_556707718C&R_Nils Versemann

Image © Nils Versemann/Shutterstock.com.

Sometime last week, on the train home, I sat next to a woman who was talking on her mobile phone. She was quite loud, so I couldn’t help overhearing her say, ‘He comes to these meetings with all these problems and we then have to solution them’. I imagine people sitting opposite may have seen me wince. She used ‘solution’ as a verb at least twice more in the phone conversation, so it’s more than likely an acceptable term in her industry. I’m not quite sure why ‘offer solutions’ wouldn’t do instead — or ‘solve’, if that is what she is doing with ‘these problems’ …

The verb ‘solution’ is probably the second-ugliest verb I’ve heard recently, a close second to ‘weaponise’. Although I don’t like them, both verbs are perfectly acceptable language innovations in English. They are instances of verbing, the conversion of a word other than a verb (in these cases a noun) into a verb. Whereas the verb ‘solution’ simply copies the noun ‘solution’, in ‘weaponise’ the suffix ‑ise has been added to the noun ‘weapon’.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates ‘weaponise’ back to 1938, although, these days, it seems to be used figuratively more often (compared with the quotations in the OED). According to the OED, the verb ‘solution’ has existed since 1891 but only as meaning ‘treat with, fasten or secure by, a solution’. It hasn’t been registered (yet) as meaning ‘solve’ or ‘offer a solution’.

Verbing has been around forever. So have nouning (making a noun out of a word that is not a noun, for example ‘ask’ in ‘a big ask’) and adjectiving aka adjing (making an adjective out of a word that is not an adjective, for example ‘fun’ in ‘a fun activity’). Resistance to it has been around forever as well.

Some of these new verbs are useful and stick around; others just disappear — I hope the verb ‘solution’ as I overheard it will go that way …



etching showing Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson (1817) by Thomas Priscott (active early 19th century), after Thomas Trotter (c. 1750–1803). Etching held in the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, USA. Public domain.

Part of my job is to correct grammar. The longer I do this job, the more I learn how diverse and elastic language is. And that certain ‘grammar rules’ are really not grammar rules but my personal preference.

As I’m fighting my own urge to make unnecessary changes to other people’s writing, I’m also growing increasingly averse to articles such as ‘19 grammar rules you’re getting wrong’ that float around on the internet. More often than not these lists contain ‘rules’ that are not hard and fast rules, or indeed ‘rules’ that have nothing to do with grammar at all. And they fail to acknowledge that language is always changing and that it is a creative tool.

‘Grammar police’ and ‘grammar Nazis’ are ugly epithets used for people who like to publish such lists. They have been around much longer than I realised. Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language (published in April 1755) calls them grammaticasters, a more likeable term in my opinion, and cites a quotation from 1678.

Image showing the lemma for the word grammaticaster in Samuel Johnson's dictionary.

Entry for the word ‘grammaticaster’ in the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Book held in the British Library in London, UK. Public domain.

The suffix -aster is borrowed from Latin to form pejorative nouns for naming people who pretend to be what they are not or who pretend to be more than they are. A poetaster is an unskilled poet; a philosophaster is a bad philosopher; a medicaster is a quack doctor; a criticaster is a petty critic.

The 1864 revised edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language quotes playwright Ben Jonson as using the word ‘grammaticaster’ as early as 1601, in his satirical play Poetaster (although the Oxford English Dictionary dates this to 1616).

Grammar snobbery is a phenomenon with a long history, it seems.