FOULDS: A language bedunged, edging toward nothingburgerness

It snowed this week, but why didn’t it snew?

After all, the wind blew the snow across the streets. It didn’t blowed the snow.

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Such is the maddening discrepancies of the English language, which has few hard and fast rules.

And, those that it does have (I before E except after C, or when it says neigh as in neighbour and weigh) have so many exceptions (caffeine, glacier, science) as to render the language a lexicon outlaw.

During a break in her class, my daughter texted me with the “snew” query. Why, she asked, don’t we use “snew” rather than “snowed” when referring to winter’s first blanket of white?

As I understand it, snow in that form is a verb, which is why the past tense is “snowed.” Then again, we have “grow/grew” and “blow/blew,” so I am no more the wiser.

It is confusing enough for those of us raised in the English language. How do those brought up in a language with rational rules learn English later in life without opting to sign their discussions?

Interestingly, at least for my daughter’s edification, “snew” as the past tense of snow did indeed once exist. According to the Etymology Dictionary, snew succeeded the Old English “sniwan,” before being replaced by “snowed” sometime in the 17th century.

All of which brings us to the rules of the English language. Are there truly any?

Language changes drastically from century to century, from generation to generation and from decade to decade, as is evident in literature and music.

In this age of the internet, it seems the English language is evolving (or devolving, depending on your perspective) click by click.

Four times a year, when the people behind the Oxford English Dictionary reveal additions to the 162-year-old chronicler of English language, furious debate follows.

The latest additions, revealed last October, numbered 1,400, including “idiocracy” (a government of ignorant people), “nothingburger” (a person or thing of no importance) and “bedunged”

(to be covered in dung).

Today, the arbiters of English at Oxford use computer wizardry to compile dictionary entries. Oxford says it has in excess of 10-billion words of 20th and 21st-century English, mostly found on the


An average of 150-million words are added every month.

From there, machine technology and human expertise work together to sort through the letters and find words to add to Oxford or update origins and meanings of existing entries.

The database scours everything, from the most arcane literary journals to newspapers to social media sites, which is why, in 2015, Oxford enraged many by choosing a non-word as its word of the year.

Four years ago, a pictograph known as the “tears of joy emoji” was Oxford’s word of the year:

tears of joy emoji

Never has the urge been stronger for ardent Oxford fans to ditch their “ou” and “re” and defect to Merriam-Webster.

When compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, each word was collected manually, painstakingly. It took 71 years to publish the first edition, in 1928.

As documented by Simon Winchester in the remarkable book, The Professor and the Madman, a huge number of those first collection of words, more than 10,000, were submitted via the mail by Dr. W. C. Minor, a U.S. Civil War veteran who was at the time incarcerated in an insane asylum in England after shooting a man on the street. Minor had a hellish experience in the war.

It’s not known if the not-so-good doctor mailed the word snew to Professor John Murray at Oxford, but we can be sure the tears of emoji pictograph never crossed Minor’s path.

If, by chance, it had, we can be confident he would have deemed it a nothingburger, language blasphemy fit for an idiocracy, perhaps, but not for Oxford.

Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds

© Kamloops This Week


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