How slang catches on, survives, and fades:
The schwa is never stressed? Ridiculous, says Geoff Lindsey:
Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*
This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:
“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”
People invent languages for different reasons. It’s always a creative act, but artistic expression is not always the main motive, as it was for Tolkien. It may be a political undertaking, as with Esperanto. It can be a pastime, a linguistic or an intellectual exercise, or a job, which is how Klingon came to be. And it can be a mixture of these and other things.
Filmmaker David Cronenberg came close to ticking a few of these boxes early in his career. On a recent re-read of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley (Faber & Faber, 1992), I came across this brief discussion of Cronenberg’s linguistic aims for his first film, the avant-garde Stereo (1969):
I wanted to create a novel mode of interrelation. There is no speech [in the film], but we know there is a kind of speech in gesture. Every community has a whole unspoken dictionary, and I wanted to invent one of my own. I had seriously thought of having the people in the film speak a tongue I had invented, but it’s very tricky to avoid making it ridiculous. I tried to get the alienness of culture involved in the film in subtle ways. One of them was to have that balletic sense of movement.
Pauline Kael in Going Steady (1970), a collection of her film reviews for the New Yorker, writes about something of perennial interest to book-readers and film-watchers:*
If you’re going to see a movie based on a book you think is worth reading, read the book first. You can never read the book with the same imaginative responsiveness to the author once you have seen the movie. The great French film critic André Bazin believed that even if movies vulgarized and distorted books they served a useful purpose, because they led people to read the books on which the movies were based. But when you read the book after seeing the movie, your mind is saturated with the actors and the images, and you tend to read in terms of the movie, ignoring characters and complexities that were not included in it, because they are not as vivid to you. At worst, the book becomes a souvenir of the movie, an extended reminiscence.
I sympathise with both Kael’s and Bazin’s positions. ‘Read the book first’ is sound advice, but it’s not always practicable. And the ‘saturation’ and ‘souvenir’ effects that Kael describes, while undeniable, are not always calamitous, especially if enough time passes between watching the film and reading the book.
If I see a film that’s based on a book I decide I want to read, I tend to wait a while to allow the memory of the film to fade. Among other things, this reduces visual interference from the actors and scenes. I prefer my own visuals to manifest when I read – the ‘imaginative responsiveness’ that Kael cherishes – and that’s trickier, sometimes impossible, when a film experience was recent or particularly vivid.
Even among fans of Wes Anderson, his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) remains relatively unsung, less seen and less acclaimed than the likes of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. It lost money and wrong-footed viewers, but over time it found its audience – some of them, anyway. Martin Scorsese, for one, loves it, and so do I.
Bottle Rocket is a sweet, slacker caper film about lifelong friendship and inept crime. It’s a heist film, road movie, and buddy comedy in one. Two of those buddies are Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, brothers in real life, starring in their first feature film. Luke’s character has a love interest (‘Which part of Mexico are you from?’ ‘Paraguay’), which prompts the following reflection in a letter to his sister:
In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about various aspects of language use and innovation. Here are excerpts from the latest three posts, in chronological order. Click the titles to read the rest:
When contact gained popular use as a verb (‘Please contact us later’), critics rejected it as a corruption and a ‘hideous vulgarism’. Nowadays most people are unaware it was ever a problem. But the same controversy has clung to the verbs impact and architect – even though both have been around for centuries. At major athletics events, there is always ‘harrumphing from the stickler brigade’, as Liz Potter reports, over the verbing of podium, medal, final and gold. For some, it’s still a tough ask.
Some films are so popular and linguistically memorable that their lines enter widespread use. It can happen with a line in a classic film, such as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (Gone with the Wind), ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (The Wizard of Oz), ‘I’ll be back’ (The Terminator), and ‘Play it again, Sam’ (Casablanca – even though that line is never used in the film). Sometimes it’s not a catchphrase but a new word that enters the language indirectly: gaslight from the 1944 film is a good example.
Easy → easier and easiest illustrates another rule, one of spelling. When the adjective ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i (heavy → heavier, not *heavyer). There are two other spelling rules. When the adjective ends in a mute e, add –r or –st, not –er or –est (late → later, not *lateer). And when it ends in a consonant after a stressed, single-letter vowel, double the consonant (fit → fitter, not *fiter). Once we learn these rules, we can apply them broadly.