Spoken British National Corpus 2014.

Tim Dowling at the Guardian writes about a worthwhile new project:

Almost nothing is marvellous these days, but everything is awesome. According to a study by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, Britain has all but abandoned the former adjective in favour of the latter.

Early evidence from their project, the Spoken British National Corpus 2014, shows that “awesome” now turns up in conversation 72 times per million words. “Marvellous”, which 20 years ago appeared 155 times per million words, now appears just twice per million. “Fortnight” is also on the endangered list, as is “cheerio”. …

The project is now calling on people to send in MP3s of their conversations – they’ll even pay a small amount – in order to gain a wider sense of how the language as it is spoken has changed over the years.

The press release is more specific: “For each hour of good quality recordings we receive, along with all associated consent forms and information sheets completed correctly, we will pay £18.” See the link for further details, and send in those MP3s. (Thanks, Eric!)

Comments

  1. “Almost nothing is marvellous these days, but everything is awesome.”

    It’s surprising to hear that, as the use of “awesome” remains a stereotypical description of US Americans. I’ve heard from multiple Brits their annoyance at visiting the US and hearing “That’s awesome” on a regular basis there.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    A more modern (I think) Briticism is to use “brilliant” as an all-purpose positive descriptor in contexts where AmEng might suggest “awesome.” I wonder how that one’s holding up. (Note that the other two things the story claims are “endangered,” viz. ‘fortnight” and “cheerio,” are close to non-existent in AmEng and sound very markedly British to the AmEng ear.)

  3. It’s interesting that, while British vocabulary seems to be gradually aligning with American vocabulary, the same is not true of phonology. I wonder if anyone has tried to explain this difference.

  4. American English used to have lots of regional vocabulary: for example, a frying pan was known as a spider in New England, but not elsewhere. This sort of thing was used by dialect geographers to divide the region into dialects. Many of these terms are obsolete or at best obsolescent now, but the old boundaries are still there: they have become boundaries between accents, and indeed new American accents have arisen, creating a more complex phonological map. Perhaps the same thing is now happening on a wider scale: more accents (such as LME) on top of a common lexical basis. By no means is all the traffic in vocabulary one way, either: Briticisms are leaking into American English too.

    As for explanations, they are as hard to find as in any area of linguistics. But my guess would be that we learn vocabulary throughout our lives, and have many ways to do so (including the much-bemoaned influence of movies and TV), whereas our accents tend to stabilize early in life unless we have reasons to systematically alter them later.

  5. Jeffry House says:

    Those British persons still using “marvellous” will never withstand this:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=StTqXEQ2l-Y

    Note the 21 million views.

  6. This rapid decline of marvellous and the ascendance of awesome are puzzling to me. Does this mean that people of all ages, even adult users of marvellous are abandoning it? I would have thought these usages are tied to particular generations.

    I haven’t found a means to search the corpus, but I would like to be reassured that naff is alive and well.

  7. My youngest son, a native British English speaker, peppers every other phrase with ‘awesome.’ Now I see why. I’m hovering between ‘beautiful’ and ‘swell.’

  8. If you add ‘bloody’ to ‘marvellous’ it sounds uncomfortably posh British.

  9. John Emerson says:

    “Fabulous” had a somewhat similar history. It used to mean “like a fable” / “implausible” but came to mean “really nice”. Hollywood PR men might have had a hand in it.

  10. There was a book I read as a child that I have mostly forgotten, about two Scottish kids who are visited by an English cousin whom they dislike. But one piece of dialogue stuck in my mind, as the hated Sassenach reveals the shallowness of her character by exclaiming: “Oh, how wizard! How super-wizard! How absolutely wiz-biz!”

  11. David Marjanović says:

    By no means is all the traffic in vocabulary one way, either: Briticisms are leaking into American English too.

    Most famously wank.

    Oh, how wizard!

    Could that be a euphemism for wicked?

  12. According to Jonathon Green, “wizard” in this sense is originally US, which astonishes me. Checking the OED, sure enough, the first citation is “1922 S. Lewis Babbitt xvii. 216 The Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew..is a wizard soul-winner.” But the entry has not been revised, and I suppose it’s possible Lewis was reflecting an early US borrowing of a UK term that hadn’t turned up on a citation slip by 1928. Not an easy thing to search for at Google Books.

  13. LH: The OED has a citation of ‘wizard’ c1440 as a ‘sage,’ a ‘wise man.’ The meaning of “a man who ‘does wonders’ in his profession: in recent use often trivially applied to an expert,” dates to 1620 in a publication in London (in a translation of Cervantes).

  14. But that’s not the sense under discussion. It is, of course, a possible origin of that sense.

  15. Not quite related, but in the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election, when corrupt bon vivant Edwin Edwards ran against ex-klansman David Duke, Edwards said that “the only thing we have in common is that we’re both wizards under the sheets.”

  16. LH: Sorry, I misunderstood. Is the meaning for wizard you were referring to ‘wicked?’

  17. marie-lucie says:

    The Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew..is a wizard soul-winner.”

    Doesn’t this agree with “a man who ‘does wonders’ in his profession”? in this case, probably a preacher who gets people to repent, to be “born again”, and such, more skillfully and successfully than others in the same trade?

    whiz kid = wiz kid ?

    Since most Americans pronounce w and wh identically, I wonder if the phrase whiz kid was originally wiz kid? (I don’t mean necessarily spelled that way).

  18. Is the meaning for wizard you were referring to ‘wicked?’

    No, it’s a general all-purpose modifier expressing a favorable attitude, a la “smashing,” “tip-top,” and the like.

  19. Or, in today’s argot, “awesome.”

  20. Isn’t “wicked” a general all-purpose modifier expressing a favorable attitude, at least among some groups in Boston?

  21. Well, yes, but i suspect the Venn diagram of those who use those words has a tiny intersection. (Though both groups are nonrhotic.)

  22. David Marjanović says:

    “the only thing we have in common is that we’re both wizards under the sheets.”

    ROTFL!

    Isn’t “wicked” a general all-purpose modifier expressing a favorable attitude, at least among some groups in Boston?

    No idea about Boston, but this usage shows up in at least one Harry Potter film, and I’ve read “wicked smart” a few times in a context that indicates it was meant favorably.

  23. Yes, I do think that usage of “wicked” goes well beyond Boston, and I was assuming GeorgeW was familiar with it and using it to define “wizard”. I wasn’t postulating any overlap between users of “wizard” and “wicked” in those senses.

  24. Ah! Sorry, it’s very muggy today and my brains are poached. My apologies to GeorgeW if that was his meaning.

  25. I know the feeling. I’m not sure why summer chose Memorial Day weekend to appear on the east coast.

  26. For a boy (never a girl) to call something marvellous “absolutely wizard” had gone out by the 1950s & 60s, my childhood. To my ear, wizard is extremely middle-class, and possibly pre WW2. It’s the kind of word you might find it in the William books, by Richmal Crompton.

  27. “Ah! Sorry, it’s very muggy today and my brains are poached. My apologies to GeorgeW if that was his meaning.”

    I was just guessing the ‘wicked’ meaning since this would not be a huge step from some of the older meanings. I don’t think I have heard the ‘wicked’ usage and definitely not the ‘awesome’ meaning.

    (I was born and have lived most of my life in the South except for periods in Washington state and the Middle East).

  28. J. W. Brewer says:

    To tie back to a point made earlier in the thread, plenty of people in more recent decades (generalizing from my own anecdotal experience) have grown up in the greater Boston area without acquiring (presumably because their parents and a critical mass of their schoolmates’ parents grew up out of the region?) the distinctive non-rhotic phonology but did pick up and use some of the distinctive lexical items such as that distinctive use of “wicked” as an all-purpose and often-positive intensifier.

  29. Maybe Eliot was already punning on the double meaning of “wicked” in the 1920s in The Wasteland:

    “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
    Had a bad cold, nevertheless
    Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
    With a wicked pack of cards.”

  30. Oh, and “blooming marvellous” is still a hardy perennial pun among British gardening journalists. Just Google it and see.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    hardy perennial

    I see what you did there.

  32. I remember as a child meeting fabulous monster (i.e. ‘mythical, legendary monster’) and thinking it must mean ‘very impressive monster’. De te fabula narrantur.

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