Monday, April 16, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I feel I have the right to talk sometimes in Grumpy Old Man mode. I say this ironically, of course, because any attempt to talk about language and its current misusage is often greeted with the sneer that only Grumpy Old Men worry about such things and that therefore I must belong to that tribe.

So let me clear away the rubbish first before I get on with my peeves. I am fully aware that language changes, that neologisms are coined in every age, that the meanings of words mutate, that acceptable usage is not static and that – perhaps most important – it is everyday usage that brings about change in ideas of what is acceptable in language, not scholarship and not academe. Language cannot be frozen and language tends to change “bottom up”, not “top down”. It was, after all, a bunch of slobs a few centuries ago who began to ignore the second-person singular pronoun and use only the second-person plural, so that “thou”, “thee” and “thine” dropped out of the language.

In this process, many words acquire meanings quite different from those they used to have. A pedant once told me that properly speakingsophisticated” meant something like “corrupted” or “decadent”. But my rebuff was that, properly speaking, the word has come to mean something like “worldly wise”, “well-informed”, “knowledgeable” or “fashionable”, and it is now fruitless to attempt to revive its former meaning, regardless of what older dictionaries may prescribe. On the other hand (and doubtless showing how inconsistent I am), I am sorry that the verb “anticipate” seems to have lost its earlier, and very useful, meaning. Once “anticipate” meant “to act before others act” as in “The enemy were going to attack but we anticipated them”. Now it appears to have become a weak synonym for “expect” as in “I anticipate he will arrive next week.” Personally I would call it a misusage, but I am waging a losing battle on that one. I do hope, however, that the useful word “decimate” does not get sophisticated (old sense), but I anticipate (new sense) that it will. Increasingly I hear news commentators – among the influential semi-literates of our age – using “decimate” as if it were a synonym for “annihilate, expunge, wipe out”. To be “decimated” means to have lost one tenth of one’s strength or power. An army that is decimated has suffered serious losses, but is still at nine-tenths its strength, and probably therefore capable (after a little re-grouping) of offering battle. This is not what “our reporter on the spot” means when she tells us that most civilians in a Syrian suburb have been “decimated” by government bombing.

In saying all this, I understand that some usages are purely a matter of preference. I believe it is sheer illiteracy to use “less” when you mean “fewer”, and I would cross the road to avoid those who do not understand that “uninterested” is not the same as “disinterested”. On the other hand, some whom I would regard as allies in the wars of linguistic propriety still insist that one must write “all right” and shun “alright” as a mere corruption of “all right”. My own view is that “alright” (= “adequate”) has now taken on a meaning quite different from “all right” (= “completely correct”) and should be accepted as the separate entity it now is.

With regret, I have to accept that some semi-literate usages have their value. Something that bursts easily into flames, or is easily inflamed, is “inflammable”; but for a number of decades now trucks carrying oil, petroleum etc. also bear a warning that their cargo is “flammable” because of the strong possibility that many people will read the prefix “in-“ as a negation. I suppose, for the sake of people not being blown up by mishandling such cargo, this misusage is a matter of public safety.

The pronunciation of words is a different matter from the misuse of words, but it will always cause disputes, especially in countries where a world language (like English) is spoken. In my own country of New Zealand, there is a large cohort of (especially young) people who no longer know how to alter the pronunciation of the definite article when it is followed by a word beginning with a vowel. When one says “the dog”, “the”  rhymes with “duh”. When one says “the apple”, “the” rhymes with “tree”. Increasingly we are getting “duh apple”. Likewise, in pronunciation, the plural of “woman” appears to be disappearing. “Women” in spoken language is often indistinguishable from “woman”, which might cause some annoyance to those second-wave feminists who for a brief period insisted on spelling it “wimmin”.

Conversely, in written language in my country, younger people appear to have forgotten how to spell the ejaculation “eh”, possibly because they don’t read much and have not seen it in print. Some months ago, to be provocative, I put the following post in Facebook:

“Dear Millennials, This is the last day of 2017, so I wish to advise you of an area of written expression in which you fall down woefully. Too many of you seem not to know how to spell "Eh". I have seen semi-literates among you write "Aye" or "Ay" when what you clearly mean is "Eh". Thus I have seen such lamentable locutions as "It's a nice day, ay?" or "Lorde's latest album was pretty crap, aye?". Allow me to advise you that "Ay" and "Aye" rhyme with "sky" "pie" and "many millennials deserve a poke in the eye". When one obeys a captain's order to swab the deck, one says "Aye-aye captain!" When one is greeted by a Scotsman, he says with his habitual courtesy and good manners "Aye, I come from Glas-gee, but I'm nae clatty or blooty, ye Sassenach f*cker". "Eh", on the other hand, rhymes with "hay", "day" and "semi-literate millennials should stay away". In the 1960s, there was a popular English play by Henry Livings called "Eh?", which exclamation is always an interrogative or an expression of bemusment or an invitation to agreement. Please drop this foolish orthographical imposture. Hope you agree with me, eh?”

Of course this received some flak along the “you’re-just-a-grumpy-old-man” lines, but that was to be expected.

Interestingly, many of those who are now most prescriptive about language regard themselves, not as conservative or traditional, but as progressive. We have the growing category of language police, evidenced in a supremely silly article in an international magazine which said that people should stop using “whom” as it was now redundant and pretentious. I appreciate (new sense) that 99 people out of 100 will now say “Who are you addressing it to?” rather than “To whom are you addressing it?”. Even so, “whom” still has its uses and I can’t help wondering whom the article was attempting to influence. More annoying are those who now insist that “their” should be used as a singular pronoun, a neo-usage in which I refuse to participate. This began as an attempt to be gender-neutral in cases where a single subject was used but both sexes were implied. “Everyone took his suitcase and left” was regarded as sexist and was now rendered as “Everyone [singular] took their [plural] suitcase and left.” In the badlands of North American academe, this foolish usage has now become part of the language wars fought by those people of indeterminate gender who want to be addressed in the singular as “they” rather than “he” or “she”.

Let me conclude with some valid quibbles on the growing number of back-formations one now sees in the guise of abstract nouns.

From the verb “abolish” comes the abstract noun “abolition”. I have seen the awful back-formation “abolishment” in print more than once, a certain sign of limited literacy. Similarly, the adjective “anxious” designates how one feels if one is suffering from “anxiety”. The illiteracy “anxiousness” is now appearing in print. In a way, I sympathise with those who try to make an abstract noun out of the adjective “sordid”, because no such abstract noun is in common use. Thus I have seen the awful  “sordidness” in print. But there is such an abstract noun, even if it has not been used widely for many a long year. The word is “sordor”, and I would be a happy man if it were duly revived.

Cannibalising myself, I end with an anecdote I used on another posting on this blog. After everything I have said here, I know it is possible to be too much the pedant in matters of language, and therefore it is possible to be hoist on one’s own petard. I once read a column by a notoriously bullying columnist who was berating common illiteracy as I have been doing here. En route he remarked that he was aware of the “evolvement” of language. Clearly he had never heard of evolution.

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