For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.
After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.
Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.
Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:
What the roading company really means, I tell myself grumpily as I watch my fuel gauge plummet, is alternative. … Yet you often hear alternate used to mean alternative. “We’ll have to come up with an alternate plan,” for example. It offends my ear.
But my ear can take a running jump. One accepted definition of alternate (with the stress on the second syllable) is substitute. In fact, an understudy to the first choice actor in the theatre is often called exactly that: an alternate.
When the roading contractor says to use an alternate route, he has – at the very least, and whether he knows it or not – a reasonable case to support that usage, backed up by most dictionaries. Use a substitute route. Why not?
And what gives any dictionary the authority to declare what’s acceptable? Usage. Dictionaries are a reflection of how the language currently sounds and what native speakers regard as acceptable.
Circular as this argument may be, it’s the best we’ve got. Language does not arise out of a series of arbitrary rules, and certainly not out of logic. No, language arises out of custom. If enough people agree on a usage, then that usage is “right”, regardless of what you, I or my ear think.
Quite right, though I would clarify that dictionaries neither have nor would claim ‘the authority to declare what’s acceptable’ – that’s something readers project on them. They record the language, and may add labels to clarify a word’s status. But the authority of dictionaries is a complicated social epiphenomenon.
Friends, Romans, countrymen… seems to have stopped or gone on hiatus: issue 193 from June 2018 is the last one posted. But you can read the full archive or order the highlights in the form of Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines. (Disclosure: Grace sent me a copy of his book and said my writing on language influenced his newsletter.)
About those words in the title: Snotrils is what Grace’s nephew called nostrils as a child, and Grace uses the coinage as a peg to write an issue on metathesis: how horse came from hros, bird from brid, and so on. Ferroequinology, meanwhile, is a humorous word used by trainspotters to refer to their field of study – iron horses.