A Vast and Ever-Changing Collection of English Words
Solveig S. | Thursday, December 17, 2015
The Cambridge English Corpus is a collection of several Billion English words. What can this gargantuan collection of vocabulary teach us about our changing habits around the festive season?
Cambridge English Corpus
investigates how we use, learn and teach English. It is the largest accumulation of its kind in the world, constantly updated, and aims to reflect language as it is really used across the world. The Corpus is collected from a wide variety of sources: the internet, newspapers, books, radio, magazines, universities and schools, as well as everyday conversation.
This blog is based on a recent talk given by the Cambridge Corpus and Dictionary teams around the theme of Festive Vocabulary; which eloquently illustrates the fluid nature of the English language.
How we talk about the festive season has undergone
many changes in the past 20 years. To see this clearly, the Corpus can be split into different time periods: for example one from the 90s, and
Boxing day, as the British call the 26th
of December, used to be the day when employers gave their employees gifts to take home to their families in the form of boxes. This is now a major
shopping day, and the day of the year with the greatest number of returns, showing the change towards an American model similar to the Black Friday sales following Thanksgiving. Interestingly, Black Friday is much more prevalent in written media than in everyday spoken language. The collocation Christmas Sale has become more popular, and spend as in to spend time or money . Retailer and shopper are also on the rise. New vocabulary has arisen in relation to partying
such as frolic and bash, as well as the intriguingly visual knees-up . The word hangover has also been used much more recently, a slightly worrying trend.
Differences between the UK and the US: Happy Christmas is a very British expression, not much used in the US, where Season’s Greetings is much more common. Tinsel, the sparkly material found everywhere in the UK over the holidays, is not widely used in the US; it seems to be a very British thing. In Britain we also talk about Father Christmas whereas in the US it’s all about Santa. Six to seven times more commonly, to be precise.
Some things don't change. Merry Christmas still tops the list
of seasonal word searches, as does Christmas Day and Christmas tree - expressions that haven’t waned in popularity since the 60s. A tradition that has been abbreviated is the quintessentially British tradition of going to see the pantomime, a holiday musical play, now known simply as panto. This is seven times more commonly spoken about in the UK as anywhere else in the English-speaking world.
Festive Food is being
revised: certain elements were common 20 years ago which are now on the way out. Pudding seems to be a lot less popular, and mince pies are twice as much discussed as Christmas cake. In the same vein, mashed potatoes are mentioned much more often than the roast
variety, but turkey remains popular. An odd one is postprandial, relating
to the period during or after dinner, when your blood sugar is decreasing. The most popular drink in Britain according to the Corpus,
both in the 90s and now is, perhaps unsurprisingly, tea!
Your Dictionary never rests. The Corpus is constantly evolving, gathering new words to ensure that the language in our dictionaries, and the language we teach, is up to date and reflects how English is really used today. For an intriguing overview of how the world feels about the festive period, visit Cambridge University Press' season's feelings monitoring site