Flouting class and flaunting mnemonics

December 5, 2011

It’s the start of a new month, which means it’s time to report on what I’ve been writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog over the last few weeks. Five posts on words and language are linked and excerpted below, or you can go straight to my archive of articles.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a sign that read: “Help impact a child, donate your vehicle”. This is a usage of impact that bothers a lot of people, and I can’t say I’m fond of it myself. But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it.

So how does “impact” impact you? This post considers the word in the context of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory, which says that as we acquire vocabulary it becomes “loaded with the contexts (linguistic, generic and social) in which we repeatedly encounter it”. And it seems we can’t help wanting others to support our impressions:

We have a tendency to generalise from our feelings, leaping too easily from “I dislike this usage” to “This is wrong” or even “No one should ever say this anywhere.” It’s natural that we would want to universalise our preferences, but it’s not very reasonable or practical. Better to examine why we might object to a legitimate word. This can have a surprising impact. [more]

People sometimes adopt new modes of speech to advance in work or society or to dissociate from certain areas or attributes and so on. This may be part of what inspired the much-derided “Dortspeak” in and around Dublin.

I look briefly at the accent and at Received Pronunciation in RP and Dortspeak. RP, also known as BBC English and the Queen’s (or King’s) English, is not so exalted nowadays as it once was, but for a long time it had powerful social prestige:

An RP accent, even a modified one that combines it with regional qualities, has prestige because it implies a certain level of education, social status, prosperity and perhaps political power. Centuries ago it was the accent of the courts and high society in London and the home counties; people moving there to advance in life often adopted it as their own.

Later, RP became the accent of public schools and the BBC, which strengthened and stabilised its status as the “standard” form of English speech. It was (and remains) linked to class consciousness. [more]

Class consciousness was a recurring theme on Macmillan Dictionary Blog during November, which was its “class English” month and featured excellent posts by a range of regular and guest contributors.

My next article, Through the class ceiling, broadens the discussion in my previous post from accents to dialects:

Standard English is an important and useful variety of English, but its status comes from historical circumstance rather than inherent linguistic superiority. This point is sometimes missed by those who hold that there is an ideal form of English — which typically corresponds to the form they were taught or to which they aspire.

Later I quote from Jean Aitchison’s book Language Change: Progress or Decay?, in which she describes how Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary may have encouraged belief in a false hierarchy of linguistic properness:

Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. . . . in many instances [he] pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes [more]

Leaping forward a few centuries, High-speed tech jargon explores online lingo and its rapid turnover:

Jargon is part of a sublanguage, and is subject to forces of change just like our common vocabulary is. Technology evolves quickly and its jargon is churned out at a corresponding rate. Entire avenues of research and use are rendered obsolete by superior (or better commercialised) developments, so what were technological buzzwords one year might be unrecognisable just a few years later.

After considering (and linking to) a few recent articles on tech jargon, two of which find fault with its ubiquity or opacity, I conclude that

So long as jargon is reasonably transparent and pitched at the appropriate level, there is no cause for alarm; when communication fails because the words we use are too obscure or esoteric, people will either stop reading or let us know. [more]

Finally, Avoid flaunting your confusion is about commonly confused word pairs like flaunt vs. flout, and how we can use mnemonics and other methods to help remember which word is which.

To remember that flaunt means show off, for example, you could think of the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. To make it doubly effective, address the other word in the pair, too: notice the lout in flout and think of a lout flouting the law . . . .

Mnemonics can help us only if we put them to work. First we need to be aware that there’s a difficulty, and to take responsibility for it. The tricks we devise can be personally meaningful or arbitrary and absurd, so long as they’re readily brought to mind. The more memorable they are, the more reliably they’ll do the job. [more]

Feel free to share your thoughts below or at the aforelinked posts.