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Photo of a person's mud-splattered legs running through a deep muddy puddle for the concept of "common as muck" as discussed in the blog post "Irregular gleanings and a last shot at Modern English usage" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

Irregular gleanings and a last shot at Modern English usage

By definition, “The Oxford Etymologist” deals with the origin of words. Therefore, usage is discussed in it rarely and only in the context of language history. That history need not be ancient. Some phenomena emerged “the day before yesterday,” or as the famous historian Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay used to say, in the memory of the men (!) still living. Such is the case of the fillers like and you know. Professor Valerie Fridland, whose book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English was at the center of the latest two posts, did not participate in the discussion, but quite a few people provided their comments, and I would like to respond to them.

There can be no doubt that like and you know have a phatic function. He is a fool, you know is not quite the same as he is a fool. Arthur Clennam wanders from one Barnacle to another in the Circumlocution Office (Little Dorrit) and tries to find out the truth about Mr Dorrit’s imprisonment. The gentlemen are less than helpful, and one of them says to his colleague (another Barnacle): “He wants to know, you know.” This is funny. As long as like was a relatively rare hesitation phenomenon (“I… like… felt lost among so many new faces”), we understood the message. Granted, one need not speak and should not speak by the book. Oral speech has a style and a charm of its own. But I refuse to see the charm in what I overheard the other day: “We, like, went, to the store, and I, like, asked the manager how much it will cost. He said…”

Arthur Clemmon. He wanted to know, you know.
(The Diamond Edition of Dickens’s Little Dorrit. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham via victorianweb.org. Public domain.)

The use of like has become a disease, a symptom of a lazy, undisciplined mind, and the epidemic of like is nothing to be happy about. It reminds one of medieval epidemics: someone would begin to dance, a neighbor would follow suit, and soon the entire village would dance itself to death. Coughing in a concert hall and a paroxysm of laughter described by Victor Hugo in L’homme qui rit belong to this category. Uninhibited speech need not resemble a flow of verbal sewage. One of our correspondents mentioned the use of so at the beginning of each sentence. It is the same sewage ~ “so-age” (most puns are feeble, aren’t they?).

The overuse of emphatic adverbs is also “phatic.” The speaker appears to be constantly ill at ease. Hence the free flow of very. As a result of this inflation, very loses its meaning. If everything is very interesting, very clever, and very, very beautiful, overstatement becomes the norm, and its message is lost. Adverbs like actually, definitely, and certainly have also become fluff. It is actually the best book I have ever read:  strong but no longer impressive. Enough has been said about the horror of buzzwords. To repeat: oral speech need not consist of well-thought out, “bookish” statements. The charm of oral communication consists precisely in its unpremeditated character, in its spontaneity. But useless epithets and adverbs are ballast, a sign of vacuous speech. Does this phenomenon have a history? Yes. Is it endowed with a function? Yes, indeed. Is it common? Oh, yes. But so is dirt. Stay away.

Popular usage tends to triumph in the end, and “wrong” or questionable forms become the norm. One of our correspondents mentioned a few “language peeves” that have been discussed again and again. Are things centered on or around something? Only center on makes sense, but center around has been used for so many years that the fight is lost. Talking around (rather than about) an issue no longer sounds wrong. It reminds one of beating about the bush and means talking about something again and again without coming to a definite conclusion. Try and instead of try to. Whatever the impulse behind try and before an infinitive, this construction has been around for about five centuries, and attempts to eradicate it are doomed to failure. The realtors only sold three houses last month. Indeed, the sentence is slipshod: only would be more in place before three. But only often occurs before verbs. Consider: “I only wanted to say something.” The next step is to “We only sold three houses.” Perhaps a bit clumsy but understandable.

Actually, dancing themselves to death.
(“Imago Mortis” via Picryl, public domain)

Some of the most famous examples of competing forms are sneaked versus snuck, dove against dived and pled again pleaded. They will remain as variants in American English for some more time, and in the future (or so it seems), one of them may triumph over its competitor. The popularity of snuck, dove, and pled (on the analogy of stuck, strove and bled?) is a curious case of the victory of irregular forms. In American usage, I cannot help saying it coexists with I cannot help but say it. No one can predict how long this state of unsteady equilibrium will persist.

A different case is the confusion or clash of similar words, the emergence of nonsense words like irregardless, and the eternal surprise at the fact that flammable and inflammable are close synonyms. The misuse of beg the question is famous. Those who do not know that the phrase is a translation of the Latin formula petitio principii understand beg as “ask.” Similar and deceptively similar forms are destined to get into each other’s way. Such are acuity and acuteness. They are indeed synonyms, but acuity (as applied to thought, hearing, and vision) is rather bookish and should be used with care. Genealogy is invariably pronounced in America as geneololgy, obviously, under the influence of geology, psychology, and the rest. (How is it in British English?) I am so much afraid of using the correct form in my lectures that always say “genealogical information.” Along similar lines, I also have a strong dislike for zoology, with the first syllable pronounced like the word zoo, but here I am not alone in my dislike. A curious case is fulsome. It did at one time mean “full of something” but narrowed its meaning and now seems to be used only in connection with fulsome flattery. It can no longer be made to mean “complete.”

Returning to like in a different context: as I said versus like I said. Like I said, like I did it, and so forth were and are extremely common non-standard forms in British English. They were taken to America and never acquired the stigma of vulgarisms there. One can be taught not to use the phrase like I said, but it will prevail anyway (incidentally, I wince at anyways.) Let us agree that like I said is correct in America, along with gotten and many other forms no longer accepted in King’s English. My special peeve is the grammar in sentences like “the problem of connections remain unsolved.” This grammar is ubiquitous in American English. Finally, I wanted to thank our correspondent who told me about the dual pronouns in the Carinthian dialect. I knew about it from books (because I teach a course “German Dialects”), but hearing such things from native speakers is much more inspiring than seeing a mention of them in a book like Deutsche Mundarten.

A kukri and kukuruz have nothing in common.
(L: Brigade of Gurkhas, via Picryl, public domain. R: Corn farmer, via Pxfuel, public domain)

This brings me to the end of the comments and questions inspired by the latest two posts. One query has nothing to do with usage. Our reader knows the Slavic word kukuruz(a) for “maize/corn” and wonders whether it has anything to do with kukri, the national weapon of Nepal. There is no connections at all. The Slavic word is usually supposed to be of Turkish origin, but this etymology is not quite certain.

Conclusion. Culture is a vulnerable commodity. It perishes unless it is taken care of. There is no need to be a retrograde but no virtue in defending, promoting, and celebrating every piece of popular trash. Language, in addition to being a means of communication, is an integral part of culture.

Featured image via Wallpaper Flare (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Another peeve: ‘epicentre’, used by people who mean ‘centre’ and do not know the difference. Being more fulsome it will probably win.

    Am I correct in thinking that ‘A likes B’ once had the meaning ‘B equals A’ and that at some point subject and object flipped? The cognate ‘lige’ in Danish means ‘equals’, at least in mathematics. So “syv minus fem liger to”. My surmise is that “it likes me” (pre-flip usage) was an abbreviation of “it likes my fancy” or some such phrase.

  2. James

    “Fulsome” has every resonance of “complete” in my neck of the woods. I’ve yet to hear it used in common parlance to mean excessive flattery.

  3. craig fritch

    My 9 yr old grandson has an arsenal: Guess what, Can I tell you something, actually, literally.

  4. Adam Apt

    My mother, who was a manuscript editor, used a more pointed example to illustrate the importance of using care when positioning ‘only’ in s sentence. (My guess is that the example is not original to her.)

    ‘She only kissed the three men.’ vs ‘She kissed only the three men.’

  5. Stephen Goranson

    Sanction can mean allow or not allow.
    Even if now common, writers who swap its and it’s or your and you’re do not, for me, help their proposals.

  6. Maurice Waite

    The popularity of ‘snuck’, ‘dove’, and ‘pled’ may be down to hypercorrection: for fear of revealing one’s ignorance with a faux pas like ‘teached’ for ‘taught’, there is a tendency to favour strong forms, hence ‘the leaflet highlit the changes’, or ‘this has proven difficult’. Often the favoured form is normal in a different sense, as in ‘he hung himself in his cell’, or ‘the driver sped in a 30mph zone’.

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