Touchous about “whom”

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker, celebrates a few regional terms in US English, and suggests some good sources for learning more about them:

A curious recent example is unthoughted, meaning thoughtless, with the related adverb unthoughtedly and noun unthoughtedness (heard mainly in the South and South Midlands, according to DARE). Given another spin of the language-change wheel, it’s easy to imagine this being the normal morphology and thoughtless the obscure one.

More exotically, consider the BFG-esque honeyfuggle, an old-fashioned term meaning (among other things) “to flatter, sweet-talk; to wheedle; to ballyhoo”. There’s a related noun, equally fun to say: honeyfoogler, meaning a flatterer. [Read the rest.]

While I’m on the subject: DARE – the Dictionary of American Regional English – has hit financial trouble and is seeking help. It appears, as far as I can tell from samples and reviews, to be a masterwork of modern lexicography, and deserves rescuing.

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Next I revisit the fuss over whom, in To whom it deeply concerns. This was triggered by an article at the Atlantic that quotes me and other usage specialists on the word’s declining status. Some of the comments there were, shall we say, on the alarmist side.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that language is somehow not supposed to change, when in fact change is one of its central qualities. English has survived the loss of umpteen inflections, with no significant effects on its expressiveness. People who lament whom’s decline, and protest that they like the word, may continue using it – they needn’t stop just because it’s becoming less popular.

Nor is whom sure to disappear: there’s every chance it will persist in set phrases (for whom the bell tolls) and, more generally, right after prepositions, especially in formal settings (The applicants, all of whom live locally, will be notified today). Tellingly, COCA (1990–2012) has 17 examples of all of who versus 1429 of all of whom.

I also discuss why whom has fallen from favour, among other things.

Comments, as always, are welcome at either location, and my archived articles are here.

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11 Responses to Touchous about “whom”

  1. Alina says:

    I love how “honeyfuggle” sounds :). I have just added a new word to my vocabulary. As for “whom”, I don’t think people will stop using it too soon. I know I won’t (only in suitablle context, of course).

  2. John Cowan says:

    (Off-topic for this post, on-topic for this blog.)

    I’d like some information from native speakers of Hiberno-English, the English variety spoken in Ireland (all counties). I figure this is a good community to ask.

    Consider these three kinds of possessives applied to body parts. None of them are part of Standard English, but they are all used in other languages and possibly in spoken Hiberno-English too.

    1) The head of him is very large.

    2) The head on him is very large.

    3) The head to him is very large.

    It would be extremely helpful to me if you could say which of these (if any) you would use, and when, and when (if ever) you hear them spoken by others. Comments like “Sure, I say that all the time” and “Not me, but people around me say it often” or “My grandmother used to say that” or “Not around here, but I believe it’s said in the North|South|East|West” would be even more helpful.

    If it helps, substitute something else for the “is very large” part; that doesn’t matter. Any other body part would work too.

    Speakers of other varieties, if you yourself regularly use any of these kinds of possessives, please tell me.

    If you don’t want to go on record with this, private mail to cowan@ccil.org works for me.

    (Stan, would you consider making this a post so it’s easier to link to? Thanks.)

  3. Stan says:

    Alina: Yes, honeyfuggle demands (nicely) to be said aloud! I’ll keep using whom too, but only when I feel it’s justified.

    John: I’d be glad to give your query a post of its own. Feel free to drop me an email next time.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I couldn’t see your reference to whoopensucker which made me touchous but then again I could be honeyfuggling.
    XO
    WWW

  5. John Cowan says:

    Sorry, I will next time.

  6. Barrie says:

    In an article in this week’s ‘Radio Times’, Joan Bakewell writes:

    ‘They make wills and remake them, juggling bequests according to whom is in or out of favour.’

    The clause pulls in two directions. ‘According to’, as a preposition, needs an object form after it, and the verb ‘is’ needs a subject form before it. While ‘whom’ persists, and I agree that it will for some time, there’s no way round this kind of difficulty.

    Geoffrey Pullum identified similar problems in a post on the Lingua Franca blog last year: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/11/30/one-rule-to-ring-them-all/

    • Stan says:

      The clause pulls in two directions.

      Exactly, Barrie. This came up in the comments at Macmillan, too: a reader suspects there’s been a “curious upsurge of the hypercorrect among newscasters”. Certainly it’s a very common source of uncertainty.

  7. Adrienne says:

    First-time commenter- I’ve been reading your blog for a while but haven’t said hi yet.

    I saw an NPR article called ‘Whom do you hang with?’ on a friend’s facebook today and was reminded of all your recent posts on ‘whom.’ Massive style clash there, I’d say.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/04/16/177512687/a-whom-do-you-hang-with-map-of-america

  8. Barrie says:

    By coincidence, this link has just been posted in a LinkedIn grammar group of which I am a member. I made the comment that
    there is absolutely nothing wrong with ‘with’ coming at the end of the clause (because that, too, had been raised), and that ‘whom’ was quite out of place in the context.

  9. Stan says:

    Adrienne: Hi, and welcome! I subscribe to Krulwich, so I saw that article yesterday and found the title amusing. You’re right, I think: it’s an odd and awkward mix. There’s an unnecessary reluctance among some writers and editors to use who in such contexts.

    Barrie: I agree with you about that whom. And it’s amazing how deeply the canard about stranded prepositions has seeped into public consciousness, and how long it has lasted. Misinformation can be very hard to erase.

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