minor OED annoyance

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 26 23:09:51 UTC 2010

There seems to be a bit of inconsistency in treatment of parallel

> English, adj. and n. (and adv.)
> A. adj. (and adv.)
> 1. Of or belonging to England (or Britain) or its inhabitants.
> 2. Designating animals and plants native to or originating in England
> or Britain, esp. to distinguish them from similar or related species
> encountered elsewhere.
> 3.
> a. Of or relating to the West Germanic language spoken in England and
> also used in many varieties throughout the world (see sense B. 2a);
> (of words, idioms, grammar, etc.) belonging to the English language;
> (of literary compositions, speeches, etc.) written or spoken in the
> English language.
> b. With modifying word, as North English, Southern English, etc. Cf.
> sense B. 2b.
> 4. Characteristic of or marked by the behaviour of an English person;
> possessed of virtues or failings regarded as peculiar to English
> people. In quot. 1785 as adv.
> B. n.
> I. Senses relating to the people.
> 1. With pl. concord, and freq. with the. English (occas. British)
> people, soldiers (etc.) considered collectively. In Old English also
> with sing. concord: an English person.
> II. Senses relating to the language.
> 2.
> a. The English language.
> b. Usu. with modifying word: the English of a specified period,
> region, or group, or a variety of English used for a specific purpose.
> Also: English of a particular standard or quality (see also King's
> English, Queen's English at the first word); the English which is
> typically found in the writings of an individual author.
> c. English language or literature as a subject of study or examination.
> d. As a count noun: a variety of English used in a particular context
> or (now esp.) a certain region of the world; (in pl.) regional
> varieties of English considered together, often in contradistinction
> to the concept of English as a language with a single standard or
> correct form.
> 3.
> †a. A translation made (or to be made) into English. In later use
> (School slang): a ‘crib’. Obs.
> †b. An English equivalent of a foreign word. Also with of. Obs.
> c. A passage or sentence in English to be rendered into another
> language, as an exercise. Now hist. and rare.
> d. The English used to translate a foreign word or phrase. Also with for.
> 4. The English at an author's command; means of expression in English.
> †5. The true meaning underlying a statement, the plain sense of
> something; = plain English n. 2.Obs. rare.
> ...

This is rather extensive, if incomplete--there are "other" meanings
listed in part III and under special compounds. Now, compare that to

> Italian, adj. and n.
> A. adj.
> 1.
> a. Of or pertaining to Italy or its people; native to or produced in
> Italy.
> b. Of or pertaining to ancient Italy; = Italic adj. 1a, 1b
> [c-e omitted]
> 2. As the designation of the modern language of Italy (see B. 2).
> Hence of words, etc.: Belonging to this language. Of books, etc.:
> Composed or written in this language.
> 3. Applied to the form of handwriting developed in Italy, and now used
> in Great Britain, America, the Latin countries, and other countries of
> Western Europe, which approaches in form to italic printing: opposed
> to the Gothic hand, formerly used in England and still in Germany, etc.
> B. n.
> 1. A native of Italy.
> 2. The Italian language.
> †3. One versed in the Italian language; an Italian scholar. Obs.
> 4. pl. (ellipt.) Articles (defined by context) imported from Italy.
> 5. Ellipt. for Italian cloth n. at Special uses 2. Also attrib.
> [6 omitted]

Italian is a bit shorter than English, although it might be
understandable since OED is an /English/ dictionary. But most of the
parallel meanings are communicated with separate sub-entries.

Now compare Chinese.

> Chinese, adj. and n.
> A. adj.
> Of or pertaining to China.
> B. n.
> 1.
> a. A native of China. [The plural Chineses was in regular use during
> 17th cent.: since it became obsolete Chinese has been singular and
> plural; in modern times a singular Chinee has arisen in vulgar use in
> U.S. (So sailors say Maltee, Portuguee.)]
> b. sing. Chinee.
> 2. The Chinese language.

That's it! No adjective for language, no distinction between people and
places. But there is one list that's longer--"special compounds", a
number of them derogatory. I have no problem with the latter. But I
expect more under the main definitions.

This observation was brought on by Dennis Baron's Facebook post,
ostensibly concerning the cultural stereotype of a modern Jewish
tradition of eating out at Chinese restaurants for Christmas (I'm only
half-kidding--just like shrimp cocktails at NYC bar-mitzva receptions).
The original post and some of the comments caused me to observe that the
word "Chinese" was used in several different meanings within a short
span. But when I looked it up in the OED, I found nothing of the
sort--all of them were lumped under A.1. But this is absurd! Surely
there are more than subtle differences between the word in "Chinese
grammar", "Chinese calligraphy" and "Chinese dress"--one is
characteristic of the language, one of place of origin and one of
people's cultural habits (or manufacturing place of origin, depending on
usage). These are three separate sub-entries under "English", two under
"Italian" and only one under "Chinese". Hence the puzzlement.

But that's not the only omission.

I was looking through special compounds and spotted a number of holes
and misses. First, think about "Chinese grammar"--it is more than
occasionally used to describe something incomprehensible. But, worse
yet, "Chinese" is frequently used in the same sense as Shakespearean
"Greek". No entry in OED at all.

"Chinese revenge"--a form of revenge that is unexpected because of one
or more different components--it's form, timing and reciprocity. There
are a number of blog/news posts across the net that refer to shoddy
quality of products made in China as "Chinese revenge"--but this is only
a contemporary development from an old slight.

"Chinese calligraphy"--unlike the general use of "calligraphy", this one
also refers to an art form and a general cultural practice that has no
parallel (with a few individual exceptions)

"Chinese food"--I am fine with this not having a separate entry under
compounds, although the meaning is actually not quite as obvious as one
might be led to believe by the regular definitions (Chinese food as a
style more than place of origin, just like "Mexican food" has no
connection to Mexico whatsoever). But I am baffled by the entry that
/is/ there:

> Draft additions July 2002
> B. n.
> colloq. (chiefly Brit.). (a) A meal served at a Chinese restaurant;
> (also) a Chinese takeaway meal; (as a mass noun) Chinese food. (b) A
> restaurant serving Chinese food.

Chiefly British? In what universe? If I went out for Chinese last night,
I certainly was not doing it in London. This is an absolutely
unnecessary qualifier, especially for 2002! [In fact, a parallel meaning
for "Italian" is completely missing--no such parallel for "English", of
course, for obvious reasons ;-) ]

"Chinese parsley" has an entry; "Chinese celery" does not--although
there is considerable difference between American "celery" and "Chinese
celery". It's the same species, but one is grown mainly for the stems
(stalks), the other for the leaves. "Chinese parsley" entry does
correctly identify the alternative as "cilantro" (although IMO it should
not be "cf. cilantro"--it /is/ cilantro).

"Chinese broccoli" has no entry--I suppose, one could live with that,
but some of the compounds that are listed are far more obscure.

> Chinese cabbage n. one of two brassicas, /Brassica pekinensis/ or /B.
> chinensis/.

This is just wrong. It might have been identified as such back in 1888.
What is referred to as "Chinese cabbage" today is actually /Brassica
rapa/ subsp. /pekinensis/ and /Brassica rapa/ subsp. /chinensis/. The
former is mainly napa cabbage (a.k.a. nappa) and the latter is many
varieties of bok choy. /Brassica rapa/ cultivars are also known as field
mustard, turnip greens, broccoli rabe (a.k.a. rapini, raps, etc.),
mizuna (a type of Japanese salad green), canola (a.k.a. rapeseed).
However, only the napa cabbage and bok choy are usually referred to as
"Chinese cabbage" (there is also "Chinese mustard", which is actually
the same species).

Note that "napa" entry is correct:

> In full napa cabbage. A form of Chinese cabbage, /Brassica rapa/ var.
> /pekinensis/, with pale green leaves forming a tight barrel-shaped
> head, which is used in salads and oriental dishes.

The entry for "bok choy" is somewhat different, but still closer to
correct than the entry under "cabbage":

> A kind of edible Chinese cabbage, /Brassica rapa/ (Chinensis group),
> having broad, smooth-edged leaves which taper into succulent broad
> white petioles.

"Italian" also has some minor problems. Consider

> Italian dressing n. a salad dressing consisting of oil and vinegar
> typically seasoned with garlic, oregano, basil, dill, fennel, and
> sometimes minced red pepper.

Yes, garlic, basil and oregano are associated with "Italian dressing",
but not fennel or dill, which are both anise-like flavor agents. Being
quite anal about such things, I went through a number of recipes for
Italian dressing and ingredient lists on several commercial blends. Not
one had either dill or fennel. Virtually all had parsley, in addition to
oregano and garlic; most had basil and thyme. To include uncommon
ingredients in the dictionary definition it just plain silly.

There is one missing under "English" as well, although it might properly
belong elsewhere.

Body English
> a follow-through motion of the body, as after bowling a ball, in a
> semi-involuntary or joking effort to control the ball's movement

AHDE has it:
> 1. Bodily movement in a usually unconscious attempt to influence the
> movement of a propelled object, such as a ball.
> 2. The usually irregular movement or spin of a propelled object as if
> it were influenced by this twisting.

So does MW11, which lists it back to 1908:

> bodily motions made in a usually unconscious effort to influence the
> progress of a propelled object (as a ball)

As does Encarta

> ball player's body language: natural and unconscious body movements
> made as if to influence the movement of a thrown ball or other moving
> object ( informal )

OED has it neither under "English", nor under "body", but it clearly
belongs under "English, adj. and n. III. 8.", which is the entry for "to
put (the) English on", as it was obviously derived from it.

In any case, aside from all the omissions and errors, there should be
some consistency between similar terms and English, Italian, Chinese are
all similar (as well German, French, Japanese, etc.). There should be no
assumption that someone looking for "Chinese" will also look up
"English" to see all the nuances that are missing in the former
definition but are present in actual live use.


PS: The "Japanese" entry clearly suffers from the same problem as
"Chinese", as the OED entry is even more abrupt. [It's actually
identical to the "Chinese" template, except for 1.b., which is not present.]

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list