Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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Plus, you can use it like this now

October 7, 2013

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

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The trouble with ‘fulsome’

May 4, 2013

The word fulsome is used quite regularly by public figures in Ireland, often politicians promising or demanding apologies. Whenever this happens, it is criticised as an “incorrect” usage: see for example this letter to the Irish Times, which supports its point by reference to the AP Stylebook.

This is not a new complaint, but it is a debatable one. The trouble isn’t that fulsome is being used incorrectly, but that it has more than one common and legitimate meaning in modern English. Compounding this is the awkward fact that some of its meanings are contradictory and used in similar contexts, so the speaker’s intent isn’t always obvious.

The disputed meaning of fulsome – “abundant, copious, full” – is the earliest sense of the word, dating to Middle English and described by Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (MWCDEU) as “the etymologically purest sense”. It fell out of favour but returned in the 20th century, attracting criticism. Though often considered a less than proper usage, it is popular, and broadly applied:

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A radical awareness of language’s mutability

March 28, 2012

I recently read Henry Hitchings’s Defining the world: The extraordinary story of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, and I recommend it heartily to those of you who enjoy its principal fields of interest: words, history, literature, biography, and lexicography.

As well as recreating the history of Johnson’s Dictionary, which was first published in 1755, Hitchings’s book serves as a frank and affectionate portrait of Samuel Johnson himself, and as a vivid profile of 18th-century England. It’s an elegant and enthralling account that includes a keen analysis of Johnson’s linguistic attitudes and shows how these developed over the course of creating his mighty work.

Before beginning the Dictionary in earnest, Johnson wrote a lengthy Plan of an English Dictionary, in which he presented his ambitions for the book and his suitability for the task. It was addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield in order to win his patronage. Chesterfield, we read, was “obsessed with propriety of usage . . . and with embalming or even bettering the language”. Johnson said the dictionary’s chief intent would be “to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”.

The order of these aspirations is no accident. Johnson’s characterisation of English as “licentious” and “inconstant” has what Hitchings refers to as “a distinctly moral cast”. But although the emphasis on stability was “consistent with [Johnson's] own political instincts”, Hitchings suggests that it was probably exaggerated for Chesterfield’s sake: years later the Dictionary’s preface would contain a sober and eloquent acknowledgement of the irresistibility of linguistic change.

From Defining the world:

Linguistic conservatives like Chesterfield were afraid that unchecked changes in general usage would cause the English of the eighteenth century to become as bewildering to its inheritors as the language of Chaucer was to them. They were correct, of course, in seeing that their language was in flux. Then and now, the engines of this change include international commerce and travel, which involve contact with other languages; shifts in political doctrine or consensus; translations, which frequently preserve the idiom of their originals; fashion (in Johnson’s age, the nascent cult of sensibility), whose adherents require a special figurative language to articulate their refined and rarefied perspectives; and advertising, which uses foreign terms to connote mystique. These transfusions are what keep a language alive, but this is a modern view. Chesterfield could not begin to see that change was a force for the good. With time, Johnson’s conservatism — the desire to ‘fix’ the language — gave way to a radical awareness of language’s mutability. But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what’s there, and not just what one would like to see.

250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary remains “not merely readable, but vital”, Hitchings writes, its every page brimming with philological lore and choice quotation. It is not just a landmark in lexicography but a great work of literature, described by Robert Burchfield as “the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank”.*

The sixth edition of the Dictionary (1785) is available in multiple formats from the Internet Archive: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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* My Tumblr blog has a short passage by Burchfield on semantic drift.


Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it.

July 21, 2011

This post is in three parts: the first comments on the Queen’s English Society (QES) and the Academy of Contemporary English formed under its auspices; the second introduces two groups set up to oppose them; the third makes some general remarks. It’s a long post, but not as long (or cranky) as my earlier “The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities“, which you might like to read first, for context.

Wikipedia has a few basic facts about the QES and its Academy. You probably know that Wikipedia is a portmanteau word created by blending wiki with encyclopedia. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend asking the people at the Academy what portmanteau words are, because they do not know:

And this, we are told, “is where the Academy is in its element”. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a “[reason] why English is being debased”. Though you could, if you were so inclined, make the case that English is debased by hopelessly muddled definitions.

Behind the QES’s dubious claims to authority and good judgement in English usage lies an ignorance of how language works and an ignoble attitude to non-standard expression. My earlier post has many examples. This one has some more.

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The enormity of Webster’s Third

November 4, 2010

“I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.” – Lionel Trilling

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, first published in 1961, was among the most contentious reference books of its time. It signalled a clear editorial shift from its 1934 predecessor, most controversially in that it empirically described conventional English usage more than it prescribed ‘correct’ usage (as Webster’s Second had done). Where W2 had liberally applied labels like erroneous, incorrect, improper, vulgar, and ludicrous, W3 preferred to label words as substandard and nonstandard, and did so only infrequently.

The response to its publication was mixed, to put it mildly. Some luminaries accused Webster’s of abandoning its authority; others denounced the book’s permissiveness (unlike W2, it included many taboo words; this remains a sticky subject). Wilson Follett described its makers as “patient and dedicated saboteurs”, declaring their work “a scandal and a disaster” and fulminating that it had “thrust upon us a dismaying assortment of the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous”. Jacques Barzun said that he didn’t read it all, but that he laughed at least once on every page he read.

So much for the sobriety of Merriam-Webster’s cardinal virtues of dictionary making: accuracy, clearness, and comprehensiveness.

The New York Times advised its staff to keep referring to W2, feeling that its successor could “only accelerate the deterioration of the mother tongue”. The National Review found W3 “big, expensive and ugly” and said it had “only one standard – inclusiveness”. The Journal of the American Bar Association called it “a flagrant example of lexicographic irresponsibility”, while the Richmond News Leader said that no school or library was compelled to buy it,* and that “no English teacher need respect its corruptions” [via]. Dwight Macdonald, in an influential savaging in the New Yorker, called it a “massacre” and wondered “where completeness ends and madness begins”. He said it had “made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself”.

Solid structure? Himself?! At this point I need to remind myself that yes, he was writing about the English language.

A few critics were less caustic and appreciated W3’s non-judgemental approach and modern linguistic sense. (Though they generally had reservations too.) Mario Pei noted its “many commendable features”, predicting that it would “enjoy a healthy life, even if not too prolonged”, while Robert Burchfield described it as “a bold landmark fashioned to meet the needs of the present”. Ethel Strainchamps praised the dictionary in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, then wrote a follow-up article that addressed the shortcomings of some of the criticism. She believed the attacks suggested a “cultural lag”, about which more below.

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