May 8, 2013, 12:01 am
Image from Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th-century collection, U. of Aberdeen
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Adam was the guy whose first job, on direct orders from God, was to name all the animals. Not so easy, at the rate God created them! Thanks to his rush job, today we’re left with lots of animal misnomers.
(And don’t try to tell me that Adam didn’t speak English. What language do you think the Lord used when he inspired King James to write the Bible?)
Here’s the full story, as reported in the King James Bible, Genesis 2:19-20:
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle,…
May 2, 2013, 12:01 am
“Literally” humor is common on the internet, as in this Cyanide and Happiness comic strip
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Being an arbiter of language, that is. This one came from a friend via Facebook:
Ben, would you mind adjudicating a grammar dispute?
Here’s the quotation:
“As something as horrifying as this afternoon in Boston is literally unfolding, as we are worrying about loved ones who may be affected, we already have to worry about the consequences of backlash violence.”
I say the events were not literally unfolding. My friend says they were, because “reveal” is a valid definition of “unfold.”
Please put us out of our misery.
Here’s my reply:
I will give you my favorite kind of answer, which is that you’re both wrong! “Unfold” means “reveal” only through metaphor, a figure of…
April 30, 2013, 12:01 am
“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”
She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but while Noun is the least discriminating (very much the club that you wouldn’t want to belong to given that it would take just anybody), the most exclusive one, with the slowest growth, is probably the one traditionally called “conjunction”—the category of words like and, or, and but.
New nouns are added to English probably several times per day, while for conjunctions the rate would be better…
April 29, 2013, 12:01 am
A petting zoo is usually a cute, cuddly place. But the zoo of pet peeves about language isn’t cuddly at all. It’s filled with creatures captured in the wild of everyday use—misspellings, grammatical solecisms, clichés—and visitors come not to pet them but to voice outrage at their mere existence.
Look—there’s that awful hopefully! Here’s no problem, you guys! There’s my bad and conversate and graduate college! There’s a complete collection of Lake Superior State University’s annual catch of banished words—double down, job creators, bucket list, guru, yolo and the rest. And look who’s sitting right here in our presence, the big bad historical present!
The zoo of language pet peeves is run by the vast sect known as Prescriptivists. They bring their children to the zoo to teach them to recognize those awful usages and keep away from them. True, there are…
April 17, 2013, 12:01 am
Talking about North Korea with a friend the other day I referred to the country as a monarchy, and my friend looked distinctly puzzled, as if I was misinformed, as if the DPRK was some kind of democratic republic.
It’s funny how some issues of straight political substance are misrepresented as being about word definitions, and sometimes vice versa.
Whether the benefits of marriage should be accorded to same-sex couples seems to me to be a substantive political issue—a civil rights issue—and not (as I argued in a recent post here) about the definition of the term marriage. But the opposite is for a purely linguistic matter—about whether a certain dictionary definition fits—to be wrongly treated as having political substance.
What could make anyone think that North Korea is not a monarchy? It looks to me like one of the cruelest and most corrupt monarchies in human history…
April 16, 2013, 12:01 am
To the language gourmet, nothing is as delectable as a mistake. A correct spelling, punctuation mark, word choice, or pronunciation doesn’t tempt the palate; it merely indicates that the author has successfully followed convention. To put it another way: Happy utterances are all alike; each unhappy utterance is unhappy in its own way. You could write a book about the latter. Call it something like “Eats Shoots and Leaves,” and you might have a best seller.
There is one kind of mistake that’s so delicious, even its perpetrator is often amused. That’s the “slip of the tongue,” immediately recognized by the speaker and quickly corrected, often with a smile.
The most famous tips of the slung are those attributed to the Rev. W.A. Spooner, late (1844-1930) of Oxford University, who is said to have said something like: “You have hissed the mystery lectures; you have…
April 10, 2013, 12:01 am
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
As a result,…
April 8, 2013, 12:01 am
In my April 4 post I called George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (P&EL) “A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational.” I couldn’t substantiate all these charges in one post; I dealt with just one specific piece of silliness. Let me now explain why I charge P&EL not just with silliness but with intellectual dishonesty.
Orwell affects to believe that we users of English could improve the state of the language, “if enough people would interest themselves in the job.” For example, we should be able “to laugh the not un- formation out of existence.”
He means phrases like seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley (which he quotes from an essay by Harold Laski as a typical example of…
April 2, 2013, 12:01 am
Technology giveth, and technology taketh away. What it gives in instantly accessible information, digital readouts, and spell checkers, it takes away in research and memory skills, the ability to tell clockwise from counterclockwise, and spelling proficiency. And once we have started down the path of any of these innovations, it is hard, if not impossible, to turn back. Thus from a generation reliant on computerized spell checking has emerged a new problem: the ubiquitous homophone. Every professor I know has encountered the problem:
- He retired at the peek of his career.
- The Pilgrims learned to cook maze.
- She soon came to her census.
- What a waist of time!
- For all intense and purposes …
A few of these are genuine spelling errors; most are typos that a spell checker either approved (peek) or offered to correct with the correct spelling of a homophone (offering waist, for…
March 22, 2013, 12:01 am
A putative grammar outrage blew up a week ago in Britain when the Conservative-dominated Mid Devon district council announced plans to “abolish the apostrophe.” The signs for Beck’s Square, Blundell’s Avenue, and St. George’s Well would under the new policy say Becks Square, Blundells Avenue, and St Georges Well. Indeed, the council has been using apostrophe-free signs for years, like other districts (the pictured sign for Baker’s View is in neighboring Teignbridge district). The proposal was simply to make the tacit policy official.
But out came the usual suspects to froth and fulminate. A spokesperson for the Plain English Society, Steve Jenner, launched straight into a slippery-slope argument (as if nothing had ever been written on fallacies or critical thinking): “It’s nonsense,” he raged; “Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”…