I’ve recently become aware of these language-oriented blogs:

Cognition and Language Lab focuses on “experiments through the Web testing human reasoning, particularly in the domain of language”: “Long-time readers know that the major focus of my research is on how people resolve ambiguity in language.” This post has a nice quote from Van Berkum, Koornneef, Otten, Nieuwland (2007):

However, the flexibility of language allows us to go far beyond this. For example, as revealed by a brief Internet search, speakers can use “girl” for their dog (“This is my little girl Cassie…she’s much bigger and has those cute protruding bulldog teeth”), their favorite boat (“This girl can do 24 mph if she has to”), or a recently restored World War II Sherman tank (“The museum felt that the old girl was historically unique”). Such examples reveal that for nouns, it is often not enough to just retrieve their sense, i.e., some definitional meaning, from our mental dictionaries.

The Ideophone, by Mark Dingemanse, PhD student in the Language and Cognition group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, bills itself as “Notes on expressivity, African languages, and more”; there are all sorts of interesting posts on things like Expressivity in Berber and Mawu folk etymologies, but what I want to highlight here is the latest post, On the history of the term ‘ideophone’, which LH readers may be able to help with. Mark writes:

A common term for expressive vocabulary in African linguistics is ‘ideophone’… According to the OED, the term ideophone can be traced back to an 1881 work by philologist/ethnomusicologist Alexander J. Ellis. … Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down the citation provided by the OED, which runs thus: ‘1881 A. J. ELLIS Synops. Lect. Lond. Dialectical Soc. 2 Nov., Mimetics, ideographics, and ideophonetics. Fixed ideograph, variable ideophone, and their connection.’ (Suggestions welcome.)

As I wrote him, “I thought I was good at digging up the OED’s sources, but this one defeats me; I’ve googled everything that seemed relevant and come up empty. The London Dialectical Society (as you’ve doubtless discovered) did a lot of paranormal investigations (Logie Barrow calls it ‘the semi-respectable London Dialectical Society’), and Ellis gave a talk ‘On Discussion as a Means of Eliciting Truth’ that was published in 1879, but I can’t find anything combining him, the Society, and the year 1881.” So can any of you clever folk do better?

Update. Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower provides the answer in the comments:

The OED is citing a printed card announcing two of the London Dialectical Society’s November meetings, mailed by Ellis to James Murray (they were friends), and subsequently deposited by Murray in the OED archives.

Thanks, Jesse!


  1. Mark is a real hero on Wikipedia:
    He’s done fantastic work on linguistic topics, particularly with respect to African languages.

  2. The OED is citing a printed card announcing two of the London Dialectical Society’s November meetings, mailed by Ellis to James Murray (they were friends), and subsequently deposited by Murray in the OED archives.

  3. Thanks very much!

  4. Thanks indeed, Jesse! And thanks also to LH for harnessing the power of the LH Truth Squad — this is wonderful, and so fast!

  5. The ideophone entry was revised in November 2010; it now reads:

    (a) A term used by A. J. Ellis (in contradistinction to ideograph) for a sound or group of sounds denoting an idea, i.e. a spoken word; (b) an onomatopoeic or sound-symbolic word, especially one belonging to particular classes in Bantu languages.

    1881 Mimetics, ideographics, and ideophonetics. Fixed ideograph, variable ideophone, and their connection.
    A. J. Ellis, Synops. Lect. London Dialectical Society 2 November (O.E.D. Archive)

    1909 Ideophone. In phonetics, the auditory symbol of a word or phrase that is perceived as a whole and thus constitutes a single idea. Ideophones are distinguished as sensory or motor, according as the sound or group of sounds corresponding to the word or phrase is heard or spoken.
    Century Dictionary Suppl.

    1935 The ideophone is in Bantu a special part of speech, resembling to a certain extent in function the adverb.
    C. M. Doke, Bantu Ling. Terminology 118

    1954 Some English Ideophones.
    G. V. Smithers in Archivum Linguisticum vol. 6 73

    1964 Examination..brought to light, both in Swahili and in kindred languages of the Coastal area, a number of what have been..called ideophones.
    Afr. Lang. Studies vol. 5 87

    2002 Take the subtle onomatopoeic expression and sound symbolisms that have been noted for many African languages, especially their rich acoustic system of ideophones.
    R. Finnegan, Communicating iii. 69

    (Among the many other annoying features of the revamped online OED is that they’ve reformatted the citations so that you have to do further reformatting when quoting them.)

  6. Do they really use a two-dot ellipsis?

    (I’m fond of it, personally, but it’s very unusual and non-standard.)

  7. Yes, they do and (I think) always have. Presumably a space-saver, from back when that was a consideration.

  8. Always have, yes. Jesse Sheidlower: “It’s solely a space-saving device. I forget the exact numbers, but somewhere there’s a statistic on how many miles shorter the OED is because of the use of two-dot instead of usual three-dot ellipses.” (Now that they’ve expanded almost all abbreviations, it’s a little surprising that they haven’t changed the two dots to three.)

  9. David Marjanović says

    They don’t just use only two dots, they also omit the spaces on both sides (and the brackets, but far too many other people do that, too… though, actually, the two-dot ellipses are so unusual they already signal “this can’t possibly be in the original”, so brackets aren’t needed. Smart.)

  10. The book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (see previous Language Hat post) discusses the rising popularity and standardization of the three-dot ellipsis in a chapter on “Ellipsis and modernity”, citing an 1897 edition of Hart’s Rules that specifies four dots, then only three in the 1902 edition. Chicago started out calling for four dots “except in very narrow measures”, and didn’t reduce it to three until 1949.

    The book notes that the phrase “dot, dot, dot” is equivalent to “et cetera”, but wasn’t (at time of writing) yet in the OED. It was entered in the full revision of dot in 2019, with an earliest citation from 1886:

    1886 The true letter-reader will never endure to be scanted of the smallest P.S... We are luxuriously eavesdropping while Swift in his night-gown and slippers babbles his ‘little language’ to Stella, and when he abruptly breaks off a dot, dot, dot, we have a sensation of sudden deafness.
    Pall Mall Gazette 22 February 5/1

    Noetica has expounded on spacing between and around the dots.

  11. Mark Dingemanse’s blog is still running (linked from here in a 2019 post on ideophones), no need for Wayback Machine links; the original links will work if you change markdingemanse.nl/the-ideophone to ideophone.org. (This is good, would be even better if he’d put a search function on his blog’s front page.) In particular, On the history of the term ‘ideophone’ has an added note on a paper of his:

    Note: Looking for a modern definition of the term? Check out “‘Ideophone’ as a comparative concept” (2019). That chapter supplies the following: Ideophone. Member of an open lexical class of marked words that depict sensory imagery. It provides evidence and arguments for the cross-linguistic utility of this definition.

  12. Fixed, thanks!

  13. Cartoonist Dan O’Neill, one of the first and one of the most original of the ’60s underground cartoonists, has made the two-dot ellipsis one of his signatures, just as Herriman did with unclosed double-quotes.

  14. John Cowan says

    and [omit] the brackets, but far too many other people do that, too

    “[…]” was originally used only in legalese, where ellipsized quotations of ellipsized quotations are common. Everyone else feels, I think, that what you have to mark is that the quotation of the original source is incomplete, and nemmind who made it so.

  15. Everyone but your humble servant.

  16. to me, and i have no idea why (my first exposure was to a stylebook was 1980s MLA, at my mother’s knee, but i’ve always been pretty much an improviser), “[…]” is for longer omissions (certainly a sentence, sometimes a long phrase), and for situations where there is a grammatical discontinuity in the resulting quotation.

  17. David Marjanović says

    (…) does not occur in scientific writing, any ellipsis is […].

  18. John Cowan says

    Everyone but your humble servant.

    Tell me, what do you do when you are quoting Alice, who is quoting Bob, who is quoting Charlie, from whose text there is an omission? It could be Alice’s or Bob’s or yours, and how do you tell the difference?

  19. what do you do when you are quoting Alice, who is quoting Bob, who is quoting Charlie, …

    If I agree with A, B and C, that the omission is not material to the issue, I remain silent. If I think omitted text is material, I’ll say so outside of the quote-quoted quote — to the effect A would have had a different take on B if only B had realised C omitted ” blah blah “.

    (This sort of commentary is quite common in close investigation of Philosophical issues — things like: was Bishop Berkeley really as daft as represented in Russell’s H of W P. To which the answer is ‘no’ — if you read Berkeley in full. Whether His Reverency was still wrong is a different matter.)

  20. What AntC said, basically, though I can’t actually recall any particular instances when I had to deal with that.

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