July 15, 2004

Doing the word warp again

I've defended George W. Bush against those who ridicule his alleged violations of the norms of English word formation. This is partly out of a sense of fair play, and partly because I've been known to over-generalize a morphological pattern myself, on occasion. For example, I recall once rambling on for a bit about semanticians, until a friend gently inquired whether I might be talking about semanticists.

So when I followed a referral link to Blogwell's London Journal, browsed along through a few articles, and read this sentence:

Ken's one of the people who first got me interested in nineteenth-century America, though his specialism now is contemporary American fiction.

my reaction was "Aha! another morphology victim. Using specialism where the standard term is speciality (or specialty). Perfectly understandable because of backformation from specialist," and so on.

But the Clinical Medical Services of the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne offer this listing of "Staff by Research Specialism"; Jonathan Lee Recruitment offers this page of "Rail vacancy specialisms"; and so on. Specialism must be a Britishism, I told myself.

Still, the OED gives citations from 1856, so you'd think I might have noticed. The third-oldest citation introduced me to another unexpectedly unfamiliar word, divarication:

1876 GLADSTONE Homeric Synchr. 212 This divarication into specialism..is a sign of an old..condition of study and practice.

And the AHD dictionary just blandly defines specialism as "1. Concentration of one's efforts in a given occupation or field of study. 2. A field of specialization", without any usage note.

I'm starting to feel like I've slipped though one of those hackneyed hyper-dimensional cracks, into a universe that's linguistically just a bit askew. Perhaps here it's semanticians, after all?

Gack -- the OED gives

1921 H. E. PALMER Princ. Lang.-Study 62 The lexicologist or semantician will study the meanings.

1975 Language LI. 207 This distinction [between competence and performance]..is constantly attacked..by the ‘semanticians’.

Still, I can console myself with these Google counts, which suggest that I haven't slipped too far in hyperlexical coordinate space:

medical specialism
medical speciality
medical specialty
his/her specialism is
310+115 = 425
his/her speciality is
3,240+982 = 4,222
his/her specialty is
17,600+10,800 = 28,400

[Update: James Dreier emails to point out that I originally checked only "speciality", not "specialty" (the latter being the American version, at least in this particular parallel universe, and the former being what the AHD calls "chiefly British"). Oops. The omission is now corrected. ]

[Update #2: Ray Girvan wrote this:

On no particular evidence (although a skim of Google seems to
bear it out), in UK usage I think there's a difference of tone. To me,
"specialism" implies an area of academic study; while "speciality"
implies a flair or talent in a popular area.

"I've written several monographs in the area of my specialism,
environmental effects of Mousterian variability in peat bogs".

"My speciality is juggling chainsaws".

Interesting. I'm still flabbergasted that I've managed to miss "specialism" entirely, all these years. Then again, I'm the world's worst proofreader, so maybe I just silently adjusted them all to specialty/speciality.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2004 07:11 AM