A word so dreadful and rotten

February 16, 2020

Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:

Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.

In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.

Read the rest of this entry »


Podcast recommendation: Talk the Talk

April 30, 2019

‘We get a lot of binge listeners,’ says linguist Daniel Midgley in episode #221 of Talk the Talk. I’m one of them. When I first encountered Talk the Talk, a podcast about language and linguistics based in Australia, I listened to an episode here and there. Soon I came to like it so much that I wanted to listen to everything they had recorded.

So I downloaded all the mp3s and got stuck in, usually while walking. It took a while because there are, at the time of writing, 360+ episodes, more or less one a week since November 2010. Early episodes are short, 10–15 minutes, then they grow to 40–65 minutes. I had to binge to catch up, and I enjoyed every minute.

A podcast’s appeal hinges not just on its topics and ideas but also, critically, on its people. This is highly subjective, of course, but I’ve bailed on podcasts before because I found the presentation style too dour, too portentous, too breathlessly enthusiastic. No such problems with the Talk the Talk hosts, whose company is affable and edifying.

Talk the Talk logo has dark red text on a light grey background, with a medium-grey speech bubble overlaid. Below "Talk the Talk" is a subtitle: "A weekly show about linguistics, the science of language."

Read the rest of this entry »


Book review: ‘Talk on the Wild Side’ by Lane Greene

September 21, 2018

Language today is partly tame and partly wild, and the two will always be in tension. —Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side

It’s funny how many people profess to love the English language yet express this mostly by moaning about how others use it. Turns out they only love one dialect: the formal English they were taught at school. Other varieties receive their scorn and condescension. Everyday developments like dropped sounds or shifts in meaning are taken as signs of imminent linguistic ruin.

To fear that change could so corrupt English that it would slip into terminal decline is to misunderstand what language is and how we use it. No language in recorded history has ever devolved into grunts, but that hasn’t stopped people worrying that English will, if their favourite scapegoat – young people, managers, Americans, northerners, anyone not white and middle-class – carries on ‘mangling’ it the way they do.

If you have concerns about English being degraded, grab yourself a copy of Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene, newly published by Profile Books (who kindly sent me a copy). In fact, if you’re at all interested in language change and the remarkable efforts people have made to thwart or control that change, you’ll find much to enjoy in Greene’s book.

Read the rest of this entry »


Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

July 16, 2018

George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.

The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.

Read the rest of this entry »


Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.

*


Compulsive pedantry

March 28, 2018

When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.

A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.

We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)

The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.

Do you remember when

Things were really hummin’.

Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?

Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.

I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.

Read the rest of this entry »


Gender-neutral language in the workplace

December 12, 2017

I wrote an article on the importance of gender-neutral language in the workplace for UK job-board company Totaljobs. The article considers work-language in a cultural context and the harmful effects of gender-biased usage. Here’s an excerpt:

Studies have shown that when words like man are used generically to refer to people, readers tend to picture men only, not a balance of men and women – let alone women only. Phrases like man’s origin and modern man overlook women’s contributions to civilisation; man-made and man as a verb downplay women’s labour. This kind of language is not harmless: it helps subordinate women in social and political relations. . . .

Language is not neutral or used in a vacuum: it incorporates personal assumptions, social norms, and cultural ideologies. This is why it’s important to consider language critically as a social and political tool and to watch for biases in usage. Language reflects the world it’s used in, but it’s also active in maintaining or redesigning that world. It can be a tool of discrimination or one of empowerment.

You can go here for the rest. Totaljobs commissioned the article as part of research they did on gendered language in job ads. They analysed over 75,000 of their own ads and summarised the results here.