Today I’m bringing you a post written specially for OUPblog by Jeremy Butterfield, author of Damp Squid. In it he examines what people like and dislike about language, and how linguistic changes come about.
Speakers hold very strong views about what’s right and wrong, good and bad in language; and they are hugely creative with it, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally.
With regard [sic] to what’s good or bad, the media have pounced on a list of the ten most hated phrases and expressions in English. In pole [poll?] position comes “at the end of the day”; in the middle “I, personally”; and at the bottom “it’s not rocket science.”
But you can bet your bottom dollar* that everybody’s hate list would be different. The Washington Post books blog lists these uses, none of which are in my list: that said, indeed, stunning, walking the walk, talking the talk, and pro-active. While Lynne Truss wages war on profligate punctuation, William Safire deflates flapdoodle and gobbledegook. In Britain the Queen’s English Society laments that words “ain’t wot they used to be,” while the American Literary Council, with more imagination, continues to champion spelling reform.
As the Latin tag has it: “quot homines, tot sententiae”—there are as many opinions as there are men. But if I worked for the town council of Bournemouth, Britain, I would be in deep doo-doo for using such an elitist language as Latin at all. The council has outlawed a score of words, including via and vice versa, on the grounds that most people don’t study Latin these days. Other councils have banned French in lieu and vis-à-vis. Why stop at Latin and French? Most people don’t study German, Greek or Italian, so while we’re at it, why not proscribe words from those languages too?
Which leads me to ask: where do our linguistic hate lists come from? Are they passed on as cultural memes, or are they purely personal?
At the end of the day [sic], personally, I [sic] think they are both. As the song from South Pacific says: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…”, and people learn to hate these phrases—as they learn any prejudice—from family, teachers, peer groups and media. But others are individual, even idiosyncratic; and both types can be extremely irrational. When donning my linguist’s hat, I say there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” in language: using such words constitutes a major category error. Doffing my linguist’s bonnet, though, I want to scream when I hear another glib politician talking about “moving on” and “drawing lines” under scandals and disasters. But is that a linguistic judgement or a moral one?
The second aspect I mentioned is creativity. Possibly at least half our language consists of gobbets we endlessly recycle: if it didn’t, communication would be unbearably fatiguing. But that still gives us tremendous leeway to be creative. We can pun, not just for momentary amusement, but also to create new words which stand the test of time: doppelgoogler, fauxtography, churnalism. We can invent outrageous similes: as useful as discussing the odds on sunrise tomorrow/as a bus pass in the Mojave/ as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.
People can also modify—subtly, or less subtly—some of the language gobbets they inherit. Take “damp squid” itself. Originally, something disappointing could be described as “a bit of a damp squib.” Compared to many idioms it is not old, the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dating back only to 1847. Now, a squib is a firework, and damp fireworks don’t ignite, whence the association with disappointment. Originally, the metaphor was “transparent”: it didn’t need interpretation. But nowadays most people have forgotten what a squib is, so they have to assimilate this unknown word to one they do know. Moreover, if they only ever hear the phrase, and never read it, it is easy to imagine how their ears replace squib with squid, and, hey presto, a new idiom is born. In the Corpus the original is still much more common, but on Google the newer version is in the majority.
If we change English in this way, we are indulging in “folk etymology”. Folk etymology is what happens when people alter words and phrases to make them fit their understanding of English. Classic examples are cockroach, bridegroom, and chaise lounge, which are now an accepted part of the language.
Presumably, such changes start individually somewhere—or possibly several people modify the word or phrase in the same way at around the same time. Individual changes of this kind are called “eggcorns”, from an erroneous spelling of acorn. For changes to be defined as “eggcorns”, they must make semantic and conceptual sense (otherwise they are just plain old malapropisms).
If you listen and watch out for them, you may be surprised. Some of my favourite eggcorns and folk etymologies are: to nip something in the butt, Jesus crisis (from a 3-year-old), escapegoat, to pass something with flying collars, post-dramatic stress disorder, and chickens coming home to roast.
*The Oxford Corpus tells me that “to bet your bottom dollar” is used much more in Britain than in the US, as I suspected.