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 Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.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 developmental overkill of language

June 1, 2014

In his excellent natural history of language, The Power of Babel, linguist John McWhorter describes dialects – and it’s all dialects – as “developed far beyond the call of duty”. He’s referring to the way languages tend to become structurally and idiosyncratically baroque:

Left to its own devices, a human language will tend to elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space that would not even occur to many humans as requiring attention in speech and become riddled with exceptions and rules of thumb and things only learnable by rote. This process tends to achieve its most extreme expression among groups long isolated, but any language that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years exhibits some considerable degree of “developmental overkill.” It is this feature of human language that contributes to why learning other languages as an adult is such a challenge. No language has been goodly enough to remain completely tidy and predictable, no language has not stuck its nose somewhere where it didn’t really need to go, no language classifies objects and concepts according to principles so universally intuitive that any human could pick them up in an afternoon, and in none of them are there classifications indexed to currently perceptible cultural concepts in anything better than a highly approximate manner.

This tendency towards complex over-elaboration manifests inevitably in any language that has been around long enough. The converse is that new languages have relatively little such ornamentation, which emerges only through centuries or millennia of “sound erosions and changes, grammaticalizations, rebracketings, and semantic change”.

Pidgins are simplified languages, largely stripped of unnecessary complication, that arise for utilitarian reasons between groups who lack a common tongue. So when these are “born again” as full-fledged languages, in the form of creoles, the results are comparatively free of overdevelopment – before the engine of encrustation gets going again for subsequent generations.

Palindromic poems and related wordplay

April 1, 2014

As a child I was very taken with anagrams and palindromes and similar wordplay. The interest waned or mutated over the years, but not fully, so when I stumbled upon Howard W. Bergerson’s book Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973) in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, available for all of €2, I quickly picked it up.

palindromes and anagrams - howard w bergerson, book coverThe book contains most or all of the well-known palindromes, like Madam, I’m Adam, Able was I ere I saw Elba, Live not on evil, and (maybe most famously) A man, a plan, a canal – Panama; to which, incidentally, J. A. Lindon wrote a parody: A dog, a pant, a panic in a Patna pagoda. Other enjoyable one-liners include:

Drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard.

Hell! A spacecraft farce caps all, eh?

Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do? Good, I did!

I saw desserts; I’d no lemons, alas no melon. Distressed was I.

The next three invited combination into a cryptic mini-narrative:

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Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

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Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

January 13, 2014

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

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Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

January 10, 2014

In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.

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