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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


English is not pure or in peril

November 25, 2017

On Twitter yesterday, Bryan Garner shared a quote by Arthur Schlesinger on language usage that I hadn’t come across before; it seems to be from Schlesinger’s 1974 essay ‘Politics and the American Language’:

The purity of language is under unrelenting attack from every side – from professors as well as from politicians … and not least from those indulgent compilers of modern dictionaries who propound the suicidal thesis that all usages are equal and all are correct.

There’s a lot going on there, so I’ll break it down a bit. The elided material after ‘politicians’, by the way, clunkily extends the list of attackers to include newspapermen, advertising men, men of the cloth, and men of the sword.

While we can blame men for many things, this ain’t one of them. Politically Schlesinger may have leant liberal, but linguistically he was reactionary, if that line is any indication. Its points are ignorant and extremist (‘attack’, ‘suicidal’? Come on), and laden with false premises and invidious doom-mongering.

As the Pet Shop Boys sang, I’ve got a different point of view:

To elaborate: If English were not so gloriously impure, so amenable to borrowing willy-nilly from other tongues from the year dot, we may not be speaking it today. If it survived at all, its reach – geographically and expressively – would be more provincial.

This capacity to absorb bits of other languages is a feature, not a bug. Anyone banging on about a language’s ‘purity’, unless it’s a computer language, or a constructed language that has never been used in conversation, needs a history lesson, stat.

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A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

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