Word-lover interview: Lynne Murphy of Separated By A Common Language

Word-lovers abound in the Collins Dictionary community, and so here begins an interview series with some of the ones we’re lucky enough to count as friends of the blog.

Lynne Murphy blogs at Separated By A Common Language and tweets as @lynneguist. She’s interested in the differences between American and British English, dictionary making and dictionary criticism, relations between words—especially antonyms

What’s your favourite language?
I think it would be dishonest and ungrateful to say anything other than English. It’s the one I know best and use everyday. But when English is not looking, I flirt with other languages and my most recent flirtation is always my favo(u)rite and these days that’s Swedish. (Unfortunately, I never have any cause to use it these days.)

What’s your favourite word?
My usual answer is ‘reciprocity’. I love to say it and it has a generous meaning. But I’m also very fond of ‘bowlfood’, nice, lovely, tasty, warming food that comes in a bowl. All my favo(u)rite foods–stews and soups and pastas. And the word is so nice and round in the mouth that it reminds me of the food even more. Most people who write ‘bowl food’ put a space in it, but it works as a compound word, and so I think it should be written as one. (Read Lynne blogging on ‘prototypical soup’– Ed)

What’s your favourite non-mother tongue word?
Swedish ‘fika’. They have made having a coffee break into a verb. This is a sign of a very advanced civilization.

What’s your favourite book or poem?
Hm. Today I’ll say Lolita.

Who’s your favourite author / poet:
The one I’m married to: P.D. Viner.

What’s your favourite line from a poem, quote, lyric or motto
You’re very into these favourites, aren’t you? There are many reasons to like a line: because it is a good description of something elusive, because it has a lesson for living, because it’s a clever turn of phrase, etc. And there are so many good ones. But since I’m responding to this on the day that Maya Angelou died, I’m going with her: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

What is your favourite obscure word?
One I’ve had to use a lot recently was ‘anarthrous’, meaning ‘without a definite article’.

If you were stranded on a desert island with three books, what would they be?
The Boy Scout Handbook, a big dictionary of English and the biggest Swedish-English dictionary, just in case any Swedish sailors came to rescue me.

When do you remember realising you loved words? Any early wordy memories?
I’m not sure. It’s kind of like how I love breathing. It’s such an integral part of my life that it’s hard to tease it out from other things. When I was four or five I had a joke I told: What do you call a cat who drinks lemonade? A sour puss. (One has to remember here that American lemonade is not the fizzy drink of that name in the UK.) I loved that joke even though I didn’t properly understand the pun for some time afterwards.

What do you wish for other people to experience, enjoy or get out of words?
One of the great things about words is that there’s so much to get out of them. If we all got the same things out of them, we’d lose the opportunity for some very interesting discussions. So, I’m more interested in hearing what other people get out of words than in wishing anything on them. But when I lecture about language, the thing I try to impress upon people is how absolutely amazing children’s acquisition of language is. When we talk about child development, we tend to talk about children and what ‘they’ do. But children aren’t ‘they’, they’re us in the past tense. We all did that. We’re all amazing.

What is your most hated word of grammar mistake?
When people type ‘of’ instead of ‘or’. (Apologies! – Ed)

Other wordy bloggers / twitter users you love?
There are many, so I’ll be choosy and give a special shout-out to some that are run (or heavily contributed-to) by (post)graduate students. Linguistics Research Digest from Queen Mary University is great for keeping up with current research in linguistics (with a sociolinguistic slant). It’s written in a way that is accessible to non-specialists. Linguisticpulse.com is a newcomer with a data-driven approach to words (for example, if words like ‘bossy’ or ‘articulate’ tell stories of sexism or racism). And scratchtap.com is another newcomer dealing with writing systems.

Tell us a language joke
The past, present and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

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Thanks to Lynne for kicking off the series! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Lynne’s answers – we think fika should be widely adopted for starters! And who else you’d like to see us interview?

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