What do students want to know about lexicography?

As I discussed in my previous post, I’m thinking seriously about putting together a student assignment for next year where each student (or possibly small groups) investigates the history and context of origin of a particular word, phrase, or group of related words, or a similar etymological puzzle, using online tools like Google Book Search, etc. Some of these might involve antedating – finding earlier instances of old words – while others might be decade-by-decade comparisons of the frequency of two versions of the same word, or investigations of borrowings among English dialects. The idea is to give students exercises that are feasible for people without advanced degrees in the field, but that give them a sense of excitement at making research discoveries. The trick is that most students (really, most people) don’t have a good sense of what constitutes a problem that is both interesting and feasible. I couldn’t possibly just set my students loose with the admonition “Go! Seek!” At the very least, they need guidance to find workable research topics, and some examples of possible topics they might choose or emulate. So this morning I brainstormed up a few ideas of projects that seem interesting to me, but then again, I’m not a good judge of what would be interesting to my students, because to me, virtually anything relating to English lexicography is interesting by its nature.

My criteria are as follows, roughly:
– For most students, the project needs to focus on English words, not those in other languages.
– Really the topics would need to relate to the last 200-300 years, with a heavy emphasis on post-1900 material. Prior to 1800 the full-text searchable databases / corpora are relatively few and inaccessible.
– Ideally I want students to find topics relating to their own interests/hobbies/specialties.

1. What is the origin and history of the wrestling term ‘suplex’?
2. What is the pattern of use of the verbs ‘to unfriend’ vs. ‘to defriend’ in recent usage?
3. When and how did the nonstandard phrase ‘I could care less’ originate?
4. What is the history of the slang terms ‘first base’ / ‘second base’ / ‘third base’?
5. What is the historical and regional distribution of ‘eighth grade’ versus ‘grade eight’?
6. What effect did the movie Crocodile Dundee have on the diffusion of Australian slang into American English?
7. When did the old spelling encyclopaedia lose its ‘ae’?
8. How did the medical term ‘stat!’ (for ‘right now!’) enter more general usage?
9. What is the history of the terms ‘flammable’ vs. ‘inflammable’ vs. ‘uninflammable’ vs. ‘unflammable’?
10. What different spellings of the loanwords ‘quesadilla’, ‘guacamole’ and ‘enchilada’ are attested in their early history in English?
11. When and how did the term ‘Xerox’ become a verb ‘to xerox’ – and is it becoming less common?
12. How and when did ‘donut’ enter English as an alternative to ‘doughnut’?
13. To what extent have coined words from The Simpsons become part of written American English?
14. How and when did the chess terms ‘stalemate’ and ‘checkmate’ become used figuratively?
15. When using a Swiffer cleaner, do you ‘swiff’ or do you ‘swiffer’ your floor?
16. What is the geographical and historical origin of the irregular verb form ‘snuck’?
17. What is the history of the relative frequency of ‘ketchup’ vs. ‘catsup’?
18. How, when, and in what context did the suffix ‘-teria’ develop?
19. How and when did the slang term ‘wife-beater shirt’ arise?
20. To what degree have American mechanical/automotive words like ‘wrench’ and ‘fender’ entered British English?
21. What is the distribution and comparative history of ‘tsunami’ vs. ‘tidal wave’?
22. To what degree did the author H.P. Lovecraft re-popularize rare and obscure words in other printed sources?
23. How, where and when did ‘fridge’ become an abbreviated form of ‘refrigerator’?
24. How and when was ‘gestalt’ borrowed into English from German, and how did it lose the capitalization / italicization that would indicate it is a foreign loanword?
25. Was the word ‘misunderestimate’ really coined by George W. Bush or does it have a longer history?
26. Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hannukah, Channukah, etc? Is there, or has there ever been, any agreement as to how to spell Hanukkah in English?
27. What is the history and distribution of the synonyms ‘Celsius’ and ‘centigrade’?
28. When and in what contexts did committees start to have ‘chairs’ rather than ‘chairmen’?
29. What is the history of the synonymous element names ‘tungsten’ vs. ‘wolfram’?
30. What is the origin and history of the African-American English word ‘dap’ for a fist bump?

I’d be interested in any ideas you have for additional questions / topics, or any comments on the project.
Edited 06/13: Expanded the list to 30 topics.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

3 thoughts on “What do students want to know about lexicography?”

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