Blog comments don’t usually astonish me. Here’s an exception:
Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the teacher had her grammatical pet hates – the chief ones were the common “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be”. Present it in an essay and the offense was actually cut out of the copy and the offender sent out to the garden near the turf shed at the back of the school, with a shovel…I kid you not. Some poor unfortunate classmates found the humiliation of holes on the pages of their copies worse than the burial process. I do be anxious even now, fifty years later when I recall it
There’s a world of difference between advising children to mind their Ps and Qs and sending them outside to bury examples of non-standard expressions in a hole in the ground. The former is essentially figurative and gently instructive; the latter is intensely physical and apparently pathological, a cruel and unusual punishment. In my response I described the teacher as a quintessential peevologist: that is, one who indulges in peevology, albeit an extreme example of the type. These are new terms for an old avocation. Mr. Verb and commenters have outlined how the word peevology came about — from Jan Freeman’s original peeve-ology, based on Ben Zimmer and others’ peeveblogging — while John E. McIntyre has offered a succinct and helpful definition:
peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.
I suspect that prejudice against the Irish language and its veiled re-emergence in Hiberno-English lay behind the Scissors & Shovel method described above. The methods may have changed but the attitude remains widespread today. We have, for example, what the NY Times described as Twitter scolds: Twitter users who feel compelled to criticise what they perceive as lapses in grammar, spelling, or style — many of which are not lapses at all, or are objectionable only to those determined to find petty fault. Peevologists go straight for the peeve, sometimes at the expense of facts, manners, and context.
But here’s a mild and inoffensive example: last week I wrote whimsically on Twitter that “Om nom nom” was omnomnomatopoeic. Although I don’t broadcast every fanciful portmanteau that occurs to me, I thought omnomnomatopoeic was worth sharing with its potential audience of portmanteauphiles. For the most part the response, where it occurred, was positive, but even the informally well-established “Om nom nom” incurred disapproval:
My request for an explanation went unheeded. Maybe the “travesty!” remark was just a joke — more about that below. (Edit: SpellingPatrol, “Friend to all”, has since unfollowed me. Oh well.)
Adopting a rigid and intolerant position on English usage guarantees frequent indignation. Maybe this is part of what motivates peeving. After all, what would a pedant (or stickler) do if there were nothing to be pedantic about? All that energy needs an outlet. As an editor I find pedantry useful, but only inasmuch as it is soundly and sensibly applied in designated contexts: I decline the indignation, the flaming torch, and the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ offhand remarks and casual conversations. What pet peeves I have I keep in perspective and adjust according to circumstances and new information. This is not a new concept:
It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value. (George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776)
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