One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
All in a word: eccentric or quirky?
Words don’t exist in isolation. They have strong attractions for other words, and form patterns and associations that are often regular and predictable, though not usually rigid or permanent. These patterns form part of the innate knowledge of a native speaker of the language.
Understanding a word and its behaviour means looking at the other words, or collocates, with which it’s typically found. Corpus analysis software, such as the Sketch Engine software used by Oxford Dictionaries (see www.sketchengine.co.uk) has revolutionized this kind of research because it can be used to build a detailed statistical profile of a word and its collocates in a matter of seconds, revealing typical usage and indicating the connotations that the word may carry.
Below you can see the collocational profile for the word eccentric in the Oxford English Corpus. The column headings describe the relationship of the words listed to the word in question, so that words listed in the first column as ‘modifiers’ are adverbs, as in ‘slightly eccentric’, ‘somewhat eccentric’, and so on, while words listed in the second column under ‘modifies’ are nouns modified by eccentric, as in ‘eccentric millionaire’ and ‘eccentric character’. The third column lists adjectives which co-occur with eccentric.
What does this tell us about eccentric? We can spot a number of technical uses (orbit, contraction, femoral, axial), but if we leave these aside and focus on the main sense of the word, some characteristics emerge. Eccentric often occurs with adverbs like endearingly, charmingly, and delightfully, and with other adjectives like lovable and colourful: it appears to have positive connotations. Collocates like millionaire, billionaire, old, elderly, rich, wealthy suggest that we are most likely to use eccentric of elderly, wealthy people. Recluse, reclusive, loner, lonely (and perhaps bachelor) suggest solitary people. It’s intriguing that the collocational profile includes both uncle and aunt: are aunts and uncles more likely to be eccentric than any other relatives, or are these relatives simply more likely to be solitary, wealthy, and elderly? Finally, it appears that you are most likely to be described as eccentric if you are British or German than any other nationality.
Compare this with the word quirky. Although quirky has a similar meaning to eccentric, collocation reveals different patterns of use:
Whereas eccentric is associated with being elderly, rich, or reclusive, quirky is most strongly associated with being humorous or youthful: collocates include playful, cute, whimsical, funny, and adorable. Unlike eccentric, quirky is not typically used of people, but rather of their behaviour and characteristics (humour, smile, etc.). Quirky is also associated with art and creativity: songs, lyrics, films, and novels may be quirky, but very rarely eccentric.
Collocation patterns rarely indicate absolute ‘rules’: it wouldn’t be wrong to use eccentric of a young person, or quirky with reference to an old person. But collocation does indicate the implicit connotations and attitudes that go along with the language we use, and which influence our choice of one word rather than another: it feels more natural to describe a rich old uncle as eccentric and to describe his young niece as quirky, rather than the other way round.Back to Using the Corpus.
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