The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Post-lockdown Coronavocab: pre-booking & walk-ups

This sign outside a local museum recently caught my eye because it contains interesting examples of two word types I’ve been working with lately; prefixes (pre-booked) and phrasal verbs/derived nouns (walk-ups). They also seem to reflect something of the new normal, in the UK at least, at the moment.

Sign outside a museum saying: Pre-booked tickets holders please queue this way (arrow). Walk-ups please queue along the window (arrow)


This is one for the pedants out there! Because, of course, if you book something, you reserve it or buy your ticket in advance. So, what then is pre-booking? The pre- seems like a somewhat unnecessary prefix. And the difference between booking and pre-booking does seem to be a subtle one. Pre-booking simply emphasizes how far in advance you book. It can describe a situation where you can reserve something before it’s officially available to buy. It can just signify the need to book something well ahead rather than leaving it to the last minute and potentially losing out. And in this case, it emphasizes the idea that people need to book their tickets, probably online, ahead of arriving at the venue to avoid crowds of people queuing up.

Until quite recently, in the UK, almost anywhere you visited - a museum, exhibition, garden, restaurant and even most train tickets – had to be booked in advance and typically for a specific time slot in order to help venues to control the number of customers and avoid crowds of people. According to Merriam-Webster, prebook was first used back in 1855, but there does seem to be evidence that it’s seen a spike in usage in the past year (not sure what the spike in 2014 was down to).

Graph showing the usage trend for prebook from 2014 to 2020. Quite high in 2014, then dropping down and staying level for 2015-2019 and rising sharply in 2020


As regulations relax here, however, more places are starting to accept walk-ups; customers who arrive on the day without a booking.

Interestingly, this sense of walk-up doesn’t seem to feature in most dictionaries. Most list the US sense to refer to a multi-floor building without a lift/elevator where you literally have to walk up the stairs. M-W also has a sense “designed to allow pedestrians to be served without entering a building” as in a walk-up coffee counter, also a common feature of pandemic life where anything designed to keep people outdoors has flourished.

A window of a coffee shop through which customers can be served
The walk-up counter at a local coffee shop

Corpus data shows that the ‘customer arriving on spec’ sense has been around for a while, although the inverted commas around the first example perhaps hint at the term’s origins as trade jargon rather than common everyday usage:

Box showing corpus examples for walk-up 2014-2019: The ticket was purchased the day before her departure, inaurline parlance, a "walk-up" fare, which is generally the expensive kind. We recommend making reservations online in advance, as there is often limited walk-up availability. Free registration will be on a walk-up basis on the day of the event. The center can take walk-ups but you're encourgade to pre-apply on-line.

There has very clearly though been a significant jump in usage, which I suspect is less about this being a new term than the fact that, in a time of changing rules and norms, we have more need to differentiate between customers who pre-book and those who arrive on spec, and more clarity over what’s possible. [Note the stats here are for all senses of walk-up.]

Graph showing usage of walk-up from 2014-2020. The line is fairly flat from 2014-2019 and shows a udden peak in 2020.

Interestingly, the 2020-21 data shows lots of walk-up Covid testing sites, but also starts to hint at the opening-up of other venues to casual custom.

Box showing corpus examples for walk-up 2020-2021. If you attend a walk-up testing location in Winnipeg, you will encounter an outdoor queue. There is a walk-up testing site at the former Aldi car park in Rhymney. Click and collect has formed a major part of our business instead of walk-up trade. Customers are encouraged to book in advance; however, walk-ups will also be welcome.


And just when I thought this post was ready to go, I headed out for a walk to take photos of a couple of local walk-up coffee counters and … 1 I found one of my favourite coffee shops has moved its counter indoors – another sign of changing times, but still great coffee – 2 I came across several signs for walk-ins … So, I scurried back to my corpus to check it out.

Photo of a sign saying: Beer Garden open. Walk-ins welcome
A sign outside a local bar

Sign in a window saying: walk-ins
And in the window of a barbers

Again, this is polysemous with its most common use as an adjective to describe large storage spaces – walk-in wardrobes/closets/freezers. I also found several dictionary entries for both the adjective and noun forms to refer to (places that accept) customers who arrive without a booking – most labelled as (mainly) US. The corpus data I looked at for walk-in suggested a more even US/UK/other split than for walk-up (which was quite US-heavy) and it also showed an upward trend in 2020 (again for all uses), although slightly less pronounced.

Graph showing usage of walk-in from 2014-2020. Line is fairly steady 2014-2019 and rises in 2020

Box showing corpus examples for walk-in: It had stopped accepting walk-ins, reduced seating in lobbies ... According to ... that meant no walk-in, drive-through or home tests available for people in Bolton. Appointments have replaced walk-ins. Vaccinations at all sites are done by scheduled appointment only with no walk-ins. However, it does have five tables outside at the front for walk-ins, which are weather dependent.

I don’t know about you, but it was the final example above that really typified my recent experience of either not going out because it’s too much of a nuisance to get a booking or of shivering outside in a not-very-summery British summer!

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Monday, July 19, 2021

Coronavocab: the pingdemic

I haven’t posted about coronavocab for a while, largely because the corpus I was using to track new words last year hasn’t kept up – and currently only has data up to Jan 2021. I should say that the folks who’ve been putting together the Timestamped JSI Web Corpus did an amazing job keeping pace last year, so it’s really no surprise that they’ve finally had to slow down.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist posting about this latest new coinage, just because it’s such a great creation. So, this post is based on anecdotal evidence and some googling. To explain the pingdemic though, I need to take a step back first.

be/get pinged (verb, usually passive) 

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) introduced a phone app last year that’s designed to track coronavirus infections. Apparently, it’s been downloaded by millions of people. It works in two main ways, firstly it uses Bluetooth to detect whether you’ve been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for Covid-19, i.e. you’ve been close to them for more than about 15 minutes.

You also use it to check in to places like restaurants by scanning a QR code, so that if there’s an outbreak connected to the venue, you can be alerted.


And if you receive a notification via either of these methods, you get pinged to tell you to self-isolate for 10 days.

If I get pinged, there is only me - so the shop would have to close. (BBC

More than half a million people in England were "pinged" by the NHS Covid-19 app in a single week (ITV news)

Employers report staff shortages as thousands of workers pinged (Personnel Today

What do I do if I am pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app? (The Times

More people in Leeds were 'pinged' by the NHS Covid app than anywhere else in the country last week (Yorkshire Evening Post


In recent weeks, the number of infections in the UK has increased dramatically – although thankfully, with many people now vaccinated, those cases have largely been mild or asymptomatic. Along with that, thousands of people are getting pinged every day resulting in a pingdemic where increasing numbers of people are being told to self-isolate, leading to many businesses being short-staffed or even forced to close.

NHS Test and Trace is penetrating through walls and forcing neighbours to self-isolate in the latest sign of a ‘pingdemic’. (Metro

Amid both the pingdemic and face mask rule confusion, we asked our readers what they are most worried about this summer (Telegraph

Bin collections have also been hit by the pingdemic in Wyre council in Lancashire. (Guardian

The cause appears to be the so-called “pingdemic”, with essential staff being told to self-isolate because they have been in contact with a coronavirus case. (Independent

Inevitably, this is going to be a fairly short-lived new term, but I still find it oddly pleasing – what with the light-hearted nature of the word ping which brings a bit of fun amongst the gloom and also because it just mirrors the word it’s based on so nicely. 

and fully-vaxxed (adjectives)

One reason why the pingdemic might not be with us for too much longer is that in a few weeks, the guidelines are due to change so that people who’ve been double-jabbed and fully-vaxxed will no longer have to isolate and will instead just be asked to take a Covid test.

From 16 August, double jabbed individuals and under 18s will no longer need to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 (UK government website

Double-jabbed Britons have been given the green light to jet to holiday hotspots like Greece and Italy this summer without quarantine. (Evening Standard

People who have not been double jabbed will have to test negative for COVID-19 within 24 hours of arrival in France if they are travelling from the UK, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Greece. (Sky News)

The phenomena of the double x in vaxx (short for vaccine/vaccinate) is an odd one. Other verbs ending in x don’t double their final consonant; taxed, faxed, relaxed. It’s not a new coinage as it’s been used in the context of anti-vaxxers (people opposed to vaccination) for several years – and it may have originated in the controversial anti-vaccine film; “Vaxxed”. Whatever its origins, in the past few months it’s blossomed - and freed itself of those connotations.

Two-thirds of adults in the UK are now double-vaxxed  (City AM

Canada may let fully vaxxed Americans visit next month (The Suburban

Work ongoing to understand the profile of fully vaxxed people with severe outcomes. (Metro

Can anyone out there confirm I have this right for what is needed to travel from UK to Majorca next week please - both adults double vaxxed last jab a month ago. (Mumsnet)

Interestingly, that last example, a comment from an online forum, shows how while pingdemic is probably more one for journalists and headline writers, being pinged, jabbed and vaxxed have all passed into people's everyday vocabulary.

We’ll have to wait and see how long the pingdemic lasts and what new coronavocab coinages continue to emerge as the situation develops …

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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

“Then we’ll write the dictionary”: underestimating the lexicographic task

Last year, I became a member of the expert panel for the AS Hornby Trust Dictionary Research Awards (ASHDRA). The awards are designed to fund dictionary-related research – that might include research into dictionary usage or research aimed at developing new resources, for example in areas not covered by conventional dictionaries or for under-resourced contexts.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a flurry of Zoom meetings with my fellow panel members to discuss this year’s applications and decide which projects to fund. It was fascinating to read all the different proposals that came in from around the world and to discuss their merits and drawbacks. There are a whole range of criteria used to assess the proposals – which I don’t plan to go into here – but this year, one issue seemed to come up across a number of the applications. In projects that had some kind of resource as an end result – not necessary a full-scale dictionary, but often a vocabulary reference for a specific context – there was an underestimate of how much time, work and expertise goes into producing a good lexicographic resource – on whatever scale.

Time and again, I found myself reading proposals that started off with an interesting aim, a solid foundation in existing research and theory, and a strong proposal for the initial research stages – involving collecting data, reviewing existing resources, maybe creating corpora, conducting interviews/questionnaires with stakeholders (such as teachers), analysing data to create word lists, etc. But then when it came to producing the actual resource, there was often just a couple of sentences which amounted to not much more than “and then we’ll write the dictionary”. Having worked as a lexicographer and materials writer for more than 20 years, my reaction was often “Woah! Hang on a moment – do you realize just how much goes into compiling a dictionary?

It often seemed to be the case that little detailed thought had gone into the design and format of the resource that would result from all the research. And perhaps of even more concern, there was rarely any mention of plans to pilot the resource with learners to see if it was something they could and would use. Some of the kinds of questions that sprang to my mind included: [click to enlarge the images]

Questions: 1. What about design and format? What will an entry actually look like on the page/screen? 2. How much information will you include in each entry? Too much may be confusing, not enough is unhelpful. 3. How will you make the information clear and accessible to learners? There’s no point including details which users don’t understand or notice and so ignore. 4. How will you pitch the content appropriately to your target audience? What’s right for university students won’t be the same for young learners. Lower-level learners will need a different approach to higher levels.

More questons: 5. Remember that what seems clear and obvious to an academic linguist caught up in language research may not be so appealing to your average learner for who probably just wants a quick and simple answer to their look-up.  6. Will your format work equally for different types of words (function words, concrete/abstract, phrases, multi-sense words …)? Can you find a format that’s consistent but flexible enough to deal with these differences? 7. Will you use a defining vocabulary? What about your defining style (traditional, full sentence or a pragmatic mix)? Will you create a style guide? 8. What about images – will you commission illustrations or use photos? Where from? Remember commissioned artwork and stock photos both cost money. And don’t forget about copyright issues!

I could go on and on. As I looked at the specific challenges of different projects, different issues sprang to mind. Creating a useful reference resource isn’t as simple as throwing the results of research down on paper.

So, how could applicants have got around this issue? In discussing cases where someone had a really promising idea but underestimated the lexicographic part of the project, one potential solution we came up with was a more scaled-back proposal that could effectively become a pilot study. In the same way that a commercial publisher would usually start off with a sample to be reviewed and piloted, researchers could put together just a small number of entries of their planned resource to pilot with students and teachers in order to work through some of the issues above, to try out different designs and formats, and hopefully, come up with something that really works for their target learners.  At the end of this process, they would come out with a solid sample that they could use as a proof of concept to move forward and seek further funding for a full-scale project. This would also, hopefully, give them a clearer idea in terms of where to focus their research efforts to create the final resource and so, to a degree, avoid wasted effort.

From my perspective, the processes of assessing and discussing the proposals has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on my own accumulated knowledge as a lexicographer; all those things you absorb over the years and start to take for granted as an ‘obvious’ part of the process of creating a vocabulary resource, but which perhaps aren’t so obvious after all.


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