By Anatoly Liberman
It so happens that this year “December Gleanings” will fall on the 30th. Gleanings follow a harvest, and on this penultimate Wednesday of 2009 I would like to remember the highlights of the twelvemonth now almost gone. Those who follow my posts also know the comments they bring forth, but they have no access to the questions I receive. About half of them reach me “officially,” that is, through OUP. The others come to my email address. Unexpectedly, most are not about etymology (unexpectedly, because the Internet abound in etymological blogs, and there the stream of queries about word origins never runs dry), but about usage and spelling (or rather about everybody’s irritation at seeing words like knight in which neither the beginning nor the middle makes sense). It is those two topics that I want to discuss here.
USAGE. Questions about usage are predictable. Some correspondents ask whether a certain grammatical construction or word is correct, while others express their indignation at seeing English trodden underfoot. This shows that common sense is hard to kill. Permissive scholars keep saying that grammars and dictionaries should be descriptive, not prescriptive and remind us that language changes, though when they begin to teach foreigners how to speak and write English, they immediately turn into disciplinarians and know exactly what is right and what is wrong. Change is indeed an inalienable part of everything that lives, even though linguists can rarely explain why certain pronunciations, words, grammatical constructions, and words yield to others. Those who listen carefully notice puzzling shifts all the time. I grew up congratulating people ON something. This preposition is neither natural nor odd, neither beautiful nor ugly. It just succeeded in suppressing its competitors. Germans congratulate their friends TO, and Russians WITH things. In my lifetime, American English has promoted a fourth variant: about half of those around me congratulate people FOR something and never use ON. In the press, when divorces are being described, X is often said to have separated WITH Y, as though separate were a synonym of (for) split up. In my opinion, separate with is an abomination, but I am not a counselor, and men and women in need of guidance do not come to my office.
I would like to quote a passage from a letter to the editor written in 1892. “Some fool with a very limited vocabulary at his command hears some word or combination of words—possibly a happy and suggestive one, but very far more likely an extremely stupid and ungrammatically constructed one—which is new to him, and he forthwith delightedly seizes it and adds it to his meager store. Seven other fools worse than himself hear it, and each of them appropriates it and is in turn imitated, each by other seven spirits of his own kind. Some newspaper reporter, writing in hot haste, picks it up. Others plagiarize the ‘happy thought’. And the trick is done. English custom sanctions the use of the newest phrase. Words thus not only change, but in some cases altogether lose their proper meaning.” The author of this diatribe was not brought up in the atmosphere of political correctness, but substitute person for fool and he or she (or they, if you prefer) for he, and you will get an accurate description of what happens in every speech community.
The linguistic menagerie consists mainly of copy cats. All of a sudden the most indissoluble infinitives began to split like the couples mentioned above. “She asked me to not come home so late. It is better to slowly read this book. To be or to not be.” Also overnight, instead of a lot of or many, a raft of appeared (a usable but heretofore relatively infrequent phrase). Now rafts float along newspaper columns sometimes at the rate of two per page. Fail has become a buzzword. If all of us were professors of English (or even better of Greek and Latin), English would have remained the same since the days of Hengest and Horsa. Language change is enjoyable to study, embarrassing to witness, and disgusting to participate in.
So should our grammars and dictionaries be de- or prescriptive? I will leave this question to the authors of textbooks and lexicographers. Personally I am very glad that in the past language changed, and changed rapidly, for otherwise there would have been no etymology to study and no language history, which would have left me unemployed (not a good thing even in a prosperous economic climate), but what should those do who are not sure of whether they are “allowed” to say certain things? They should remember that language, in addition to being a means of communication, is also a cultural artifact susceptible to the whims of fashion. Perhaps in clothes, furniture, and everything else, including language, one should be at least slightly behind the latest trend (but I am in general skeptical about the virtues of the cutting edge: “The hardest knife ill used doeth lose its edge”—congratulations—or congrats, as they say nowadays, if you know where Shakespeare said so). Perhaps we are doomed to separate with our spouses. If so, let us be among the last to do it.
SPELLING. Everybody knows that our spelling is maddeningly hard and inconsistent. Native speakers groan under its burden, slightly relieved in the 21st century by spellcheckers. (Relieved… We have peeve, eve, leave, receive, and relieve. The joy of it!). Foreigners do better because they have a Dostoevskyan attitude toward the purifying effect of suffering and believe (beleive? beleve? beleev?) that salvation is cheap at any price. To be consistent, I’ll stay with the end of the 19th century. This is part of what the American Philological Association recommended at that time. 1. Drop ue in dialogue, catalogue, and so forth. 2. Drop -e after short unstressed vowels in words like preterite, definite, hypocrite, and favorite. (Of those only preterit is, for some reason, e-less in American English.) 4. In similar words, after (formerly) stressed vowels, the recommendation to drop -e has also been rejected (consider cigarette). 5. By contrast, program and gram are now the norm in the United States.
To institute such changes would have been easy. Definit and favorit (already no longer favourite) look bare, but the vicious uselessness of final -e in such words cannot be doubted. Although some other suggestions seem to be more controversial, we would probably survive the unification of proceed, precede, and recede (why not procede?). I need not repeat what I have said in my previous posts on the horrors of initial g/k in gnarled, gnash, gnaw, knack, knee, and knock, of intolerable variation of sc and sk (skate versus scathe), and many other things. I am not a fan of “nite klubs,” but with this spelling I feel like changing my habits. After all, I don’t choke on donuts.
On both sides of the Atlantic, some people try to reform spelling. I wish them success and repeat my favorite quotation: “One doesn’t always fight to win.” It is sweet to dream of improvements when buying a new calendar.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”