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Your questions answered

In this section of the magazine, we give you a glimpse of the questions posed to us by students and teachers alike. You may find that you’ve had the same queries yourself, or that your students keep coming up with similar questions. But if you feel that you still have a few more lexical questions that you’d like to get off your chest, fill in this form and we'll get back to you!

This month the answers are provided by Elizabeth Potter, freelance lexicographer and author of the articles on 'Word Formation' and 'Metaphor' in the Macmillan Essential Dictionary.

Your questions answered
Question 1
What's the verb that describes the way most birds walk (to and fro; sort of mild rocking moves)?

There are many, many verbs in English that describe walking movement. A search using the Advanced Search feature of the Macmillan English Dictionary CD-ROM gives over 60 results, including verbs such as patter, waddle, totter, shuffle and stalk, but none of them seems to fit this particular case. I don’t think there is a specific verb in English to describe this movement. The best verb I can think of to describe the way birds walk is bob. This is generally used for all kinds of up-and-down movement, such as boats on water, or someone’s head:

The little boat bobbed up and down on the waves.
She turned to her sisters now, her head bobbing.

It’s quite possible that this verb came to mind because of the words of the old song about a robin that is ‘bobbin’’ along. Of course for the song, the verb was probably suggested by the rhyme with ‘robin’, but it still seems a pretty good way of describing a bird’s movement, back and forth as well as up and down:

A common sandpiper bobbed on a boulder on the hillside.

Question 2

Why is it that tanorexic means someone wanting a tan, yet the word anorexic means (in effect) going without food. The ex contained within the words comes from the Latin, meaning ‘without’. So surely tanorexic would mean not wanting to tan, and tanaholic would refer to someone who tans a lot? Perhaps you could shed some light on this.

I can see why you would think anorexic is linked to the Latin ex, but in fact the etymology is Greek - an meaning ‘without’ and orexis meaning ‘appetite’. A word with a similar etymology is anoxia, an absence of oxygen.

I think the WOTW article makes clear the reason why people wanting to talk about this phenomenon have latched onto the term anorexia - it carries the necessary associations of unhealthy and even life-threatening behaviour associated with eating disorders. This is precisely what doctors and health experts want to suggest about an addiction to tanning. Anorexia is also largely, if incorrectly, associated with teenage girls and young women, and tanning addiction seems to disproportionately affect this group as well. Finally, there is the fact that the coinage simply involves sticking the letter ‘t’ on the front of the existing word - most successful coinages link into existing features of the language, enabling people to grasp their meaning at once. The terms tanaholic and tanoholic are also used, but are much less frequent (2,530 and 408 Google hits respectively), while tanaholism is almost non-existent. I would suggest this is probably because they are much less immediately understandable, as well as being less memorable.

I would just add a note that the term tanorexia seems to have caught on. Since the WOTW article was written (September 2007), hits for it have increased enormously whilst tanorexic, in contrast, is becoming less frequent (34,400 and 36,000 hits respectively).

Click here to find out more about how new words are formed.

To read more questions and answers, go to the Index page.