Book review: Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea

August 26, 2014

In his groundbreaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, with his customary insight, wrote:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

If the history of the English usage wars shows us anything, it’s how overpowering that temptation has proved, and still proves, to be. No special training is required to be an amateur grammarian, and so the annals of language commentary fill with unfounded peeves from those who like to tell other people they are Doing Language Wrong.

ammon shea - bad english -a history of linguistic aggravation - perigee book coverOf course, there has always been an opposing force from those who know the perils of setting usage advice in stone, of saying a certain word must mean this and never that and so it should be forevermore. Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.

Ammon Shea’s new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (a copy of which I received for review from its publisher Perigee Books), is a very welcome addition to the canon of usage commentary. It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.

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The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read The Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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Book review: ‘Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue’, by Jonathon Green

June 17, 2014

Just as culture has its counterculture, so language has its nonconformist, outsider self. Why it’s called slang is an enduring mystery to etymologists and lexicographers, but the elusiveness only adds to its intrigue.

Much of slang by its very nature goes unrecorded, or at least did so before the internet turned half the world into quasi-publishers. This makes tracking the history of slang a real challenge – how do you flesh out something that never had a proper skeleton to begin with?

Enter Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, whose new book Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue provides a sturdy history. (Its publisher, Atlantic Books, kindly sent me a copy for review.) Language! is a thoroughly engaging account of slang’s development from the early days of criminal cant to the broader current-day incarnations stemming from our cities’ subcultural and multicultural vernaculars.

Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.

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Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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He cursed the curse that would not come

April 14, 2014

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.


Language rules of the Third Reich

April 8, 2014

Last week I read Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, and thought the following passage would be of interest to readers of Sentence first since it deals specifically with the euphemisms and language rules (Sprachregelungen) used by the Third Reich.

In Arendt’s text the following comprises a single paragraph, but I’ve introduced a few breaks to make it easier to read here:

All correspondence referring to the matter [Final Solution] was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” (Aussiedlung), and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung); deportation – unless it involved Jews directed to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto” for privileged Jews, in which case it was called “change of residence” – received the names of “resettlement” (Umsiedlung) and “labor in the East” (Arbeitseinsatz im Osten), the point of these latter names being that Jews were indeed often temporarily resettled in ghettos and that a certain percentage of them were temporarily used for labor.

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An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?


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