All of that is to say that I’m embarking on some commentary about language, and there will no doubt be an embarrassing and hilarious typo or two in the blog. If you feel the need to point it out, just don’t be a jerk about it, okay?
I don’t want to talk about typing and spelling, per se, today, but rather certain phenomenon about the way people perceive and use language that is often lumped in with spelling, grammar, et cetera.
What got me thinking about this was a particular short conversation on twitter this weekend. A person noted that their local Walmart had a huge banner up that said “The Fourth of July this year is Thursday July 4.” Which struck him as a particularly dumb thing to put on a banner. I pointed out that at more than one time in my life I have been in a conversation where another person asked, in all seriousness, “What date is the Fourth of July?” One of the people who has done that more than once is a relative—a relative who is known in the family for asking and doing things that are not well thought out, let’s say.
But it isn’t that the people who ask that question are ignorant or stupid—they are simply processing the language in a different way than some of us do. When someone like my online acquaintance or myself sees the phrase “Fourth of July” we process it mentally as “the day in July which comes immediately after the third and immediately preceeding the fifth.” Because we see the words and associate them with the individual and literal definitions of each word.
But for some people, the “Fourth of July” is not perceived as a string of words—it is processed as a single word. By which I mean, “Any of the sequences of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech” (to quote Oxford). Yes, it is written out and it originated as a string of three words, but these people encountered the phrase often enough in their earlier years, before they learned to spell, always together, so that their brain processed it as a single word, “forthuvjoolie” that in the United States refers to the holiday in the middle of summer during which we celebrate the Declaration of Independence by holding picnics and barbecues and eventually shooting off a bunch of fireworks.
And it doesn’t matter that the person has subsequently learned that the word which they think of as a single noun synonymous with “the Independence Day Holiday” is actually spelled “Fourth of July.” On their deepest level of understanding, they conceive of it as a single word.
There is also the complication that, well, sometimes, in certain circumstances, the “Fourth of July” holiday is observed on a day other than the fourth. Because of the Monday Holiday Act (and a lot of corporate policies), government offices and many businesses (including banks) will be closed for business on Monday the fifth or Monday the sixth if the holiday happens to fall on a Saturday or Sunday that year. Nobody moves the barbecues and fireworks to Monday when that happens, but there are other holidays that we observe on a Monday rather than the anniversary of their traditional date, and all of that can get conceptually tied up in people’s minds.
It is especially true if the person in question, like the relative I mentioned above, has come to expect people to correct her all the time because she misunderstands, misremembers, or just gets details mixed up. Especially when a portion of their lives was spent with an abusive parent, partner, et cetera. For someone like that, the question “What date is the Fourth of July?” has an element of defensiveness to it. There is an implied, “I know that I should know this, and please don’t bite my head off for asking what you think of as a stupid question. I just want to make certain I have it right.”
Because people aren’t computers. Our neurological system isn’t naturally compartmentalized. And we all have learned things in different ways both because our brains don’t all work exactly the same way, and because our experiences during formative years were not identical.
Think of it this way: a couple weeks ago I laughed really hard during a panel at the science fiction convention I was attending when a panelist, who has multiple graduate degrees and works in a language related field, mentioned how it wasn’t until his teen years that he realized that the word “rendezvous” that people used to mean a meeting at an appointed time and/or place was exactly the same word as the one he pronounced in his head as “ron-DEZZ-voys” which also meant to meet up. I laughed because that was one of those mistakes I made as a kid, too. Because I encountered the word in print and either inferred the meaning from the context, or if I did look it up in a dictionary, didn’t parse out the pronunciation notation.
Throw in a very slight tendency toward dyslexia, and I leave as an exercise for the reader to parse out why I ended up being laughed at in school one day when I talked about a character being “detter-minded.”
Now the sad part is that we were doing this specifically because we’re both working on hall costumes for NorWesCon (at the end of March). My husband actually found things for one of his costumes, but what did I find? Well, I found a copy of the 1951 edition of the World Publishing Company’s New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Yes, that whole thing was the official title. This was one of the dictionaries produced after the legal ruling that found the Merriam-Webster Company could not prevent other companies from using Noah Webster’s name on their dictionaries even though they weren’t actually using Webster’s original dictionaries nor operating under the auspices of the agreement made between Mr. Webster’s estate and George and Charles Merriam back in 1843.
The World Publishing Company only produced this edition, a two-volume version, and a slightly revised 1953 edition before selling out to Macmillan Publishing USA. This dictionary, while being labeled “unabridged” and spanning approximately 2300 pages isn’t exactly one of the most highly regarded, given that a third of that page count is actually a desk encyclopedia, and the editorial staff hadn’t been working on it for as long as some of the more storied dictionaries. Which isn’t to say that it’s a poorly made dictionary.
But its primary claim to fame is that the editorial staff for this edition was headed up by Professor Harold Whitehall, of the University of Indiana. Whitehall was an interesting choice to edit an American dictionary because Whitehall was British. Whitehall was born in 1905 in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, England. He got his first degree at Nottingham University, studied for a while after at London University, before coming to the U.S. where he obtained is Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He taught at the University of Iowa, at the University of Wisconsin, and Queen’s College New York, before settling at the University of Indiana where he spent the rest of his academic career. While he was at Michigan, he served as assistant editor of a Dictionary of Middle English (the English spoken during the 12th, 13th, and 14th Centuries), which was probably why he was recruited by the World Publishing Company.
And why it’s important that Whitehall worked on this dictionary is, that while the number of words and depth of the definitions weren’t on a par with other unabridged dictionaries of the time, the New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary had the most thorough etymologies of any America-published dictionaries published up to that date. Because linguistics—specifically the history and derivation of our language—was Whitehall’s passion.
When Macmillan acquired most of the World Publishing Company, they already had a staff of dictionary editors, but they asked Whitehall to stay on, created the post of Linguistics Editor for him, and they released several more editions of this dictionary for subsequent years, before the company was acquired by another publisher in 1998, who sold off the reference division to yet another company in 1999 and so on. Whitehall stopped working for them some time before 1960, though he continued to teach English and Linguistics at the University of Indiana until his death in 1986.
In honor of my finally acquiring my own copy of this dictionary famous for bringing a new level of etymological rigor to American dictionaries, this is a perfect time to talk about why understanding when your dictionary was created and how it is being maintained is important. Don’t assume that just because there are lots of free dictionaries available on the internet that anyone started with a high quality source or experts are keeping it up to date. And this is important because the language is a living thing that changes over time.
For instance, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). As the 1951 edition puts it (shown in the picture above I took the other night):
“ter-rif’ic, a [L. terrificus, from terrere, to frighten and facere, to make.] Dreadful; causing terror; adapted to excite great fear or dread; as a terrific form; a terrific sight.”
How did the word come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. People used it sarcastically to refer to something that wasn’t horrifying at all—quite the opposite—and people hearing that usage while not being familiar with the word themselves inferred its meaning from context. And soon everyone was using terrific as a synonym for “wonderful” instead of “horrible.”
Notice from the image above, there is no other definition given. If we jump ahead to one of my 1987 dictionaries, for instance, we find the primary definition being “causing great fear or terror”, the second as “remarkable or severe” and only the third definition, marked informal is “very good or wonderful.” Whereas my 2001 Oxford New American Dictionary lists the “causing terror” definition as archaic, but even then, the primary definition is “of great size, amount or intensity,” and the second sense of “extremely good or excellent” is still listed as informal. Although that may be because the editorial board of the Oxfords include a lot of British people. Most of my American published dictionaries from the late 90s on list something along the lines of “extraordinarily good” as the primary definition.
But this is part of the reason I am obsessed with dictionaries and how they are made. I have watched the meanings of some words change in my lifetime. It’s important to know this happens, particularly if you ever read books or stories written many years ago.
Some words don’t mean what they used to. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some confusion and consternation from time to time. Did I mention, that while consternation now means “feelings of anxiety or dismay” that is once used to mean “terrified”?
“Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.
Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”
This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.) The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.” My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
I included the above quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent book on writing in my tribute to Le Guin last week. It’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use in a blog post about fake grammar rules for a while, and now seems like a good time.
There are rules of grammar and learning them is important. However, it is also important to recognize that not everything someone tells you is a rule actually is. There are a number of so-called grammar rules that people have been passing down from generation to generation in schools, writers’ groups, and so on that simply are wrong. Some of them are due to a misunderstanding that has become common enough that people adopt it as a rule. Others have been the result of a small group of Latin scholars attempting to force a convention from the Latin language on to English out of a belief that Latin is somehow a purer language.
Others are a bit more complicated.
English pronouns are such a case. It wasn’t that many centuries ago that people had to keep track of more pronouns. The King James Version of the Bible was translated during a time when English speakers used thee, thou, you, ye, they, thine, their, and so forth. There were circumstances where it was incorrect to address someone as you rather than thou, and it generally came down to your social relationship. You use thou when addressing someone who was socially inferior, and you the other way around. This wasn’t just about class. Parents would use thou when talking to their children, for example, and children would use you when addressing parents and so forth. One also used thou for people with whom you were intimate—and I’m not talking about sex, this would be with close friends and so forth (though also one’s fiance or spouse would be appropriate, obviously).
Thee was the objective form of thou—this is parallel to the distinction between me and I which still exists in the language today. Ye was the plural form of you.
So what happened to all of those extra pronouns? We slowly stopped using them. Thou starting going away in the 17th and 18th Century in London as changing socio-economical norms started making it harder to tell which social class people were in. You didn’t want to offend someone who ought to be addressed as you by saying thou! I mention London specifically because etymologists have tracked where and when thou fell out of usage. There are regional dialects in England today where thou is still used, and they all occur in corners of the nation furthest from London.
Now let’s look at they. Lots of people object to using the singular they. It comes up frequently now because as transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary people embrace their identities some ask us to use different pronouns. A transgender person who was assigned male at birth may ask their friends, family, and acquaintances to stop using he/him/his and start using she/her/hers, for instance. And some people aren’t comfortable with either of those and ask us to they/them/their. This makes some other people uncomfortable.
It makes some people so uncomfortable that they post rants about it on their academic blogs, railing against the singular they in one paragraph, and hilariously using a singular they in another.
The truth is, they has been both singular and plural for at least 675 years. That’s how long ago dictionaries have found samples of they being used in both the singular and the plural. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer (14th Century), Shakespeare (17th Century), Jane Austen (18th Century), Lord Byron (18th and 19th Century), and the King James Bible (17th Century) of the singular they.
So the first answer to people citing this rule is to inform them it isn’t a rule of English grammar and never has been.
The second is to point to that history of the decline of thou in favor of you. An entire language shifted because people didn’t want to accidentally offend each other. In other words, there is a precedent for adapting English usage to accommodate our mutual sensibilities.
And finally, the third answer is that after being informed of the above two facts, anyone who continues to raise a fuss about using the singular they to refer to someone after being asked to use it is doing so out of a feeling of discomfort due to bigotry. And none of the rest of us are under any obligation to put up with bigoted jerks.
Or, as someone else put it:
This modern world is full of quandaries and conundra, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have human people with human feelings, and on the other hand, you have an entirely insentient entity, the English language, which is wholly incapable of being hurt or offended in any way. Obviously you don’t want to upset either camp, but which do you prioritize? Living, breathing people — members of a systemically and institutionally marginalized minority — who have specifically identified the pronouns that people like you are to use for them so as to avoid causing the exact kind of offense that you profess to be concerned about committing? Or a theoretical concept that not only has no way of knowing whether you’ve used it incorrectly but in fact changes so rapidly that the notion of “correct” is functionally moot anyway, not to mention that being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication? You’re in a mighty fucking pickle, here!
—Bad Advice On Grammar-Policing Gender-Neutral Pronouns via The Establishment
I know in the 90s I used the word with friends and acquaintances of both genders. One butch lesbian friend was very fond of using “Dude!” to mean, “You can’t be serious!” for instance. So even though I knew that the word originally meant (back in the 1800s) a foppish young man who dressed in overly-fashion-conscious clothes and affected a sophisticated manner, and then later had morphed to describe a man from the city visiting the western countryside who was unfamiliar with physical labor and the necessities of life on the range, I thought of it as a gender-neutral term.
But it’s not… Read More…
It is rare to find a t-shirt with a dictionary joke, so of course I ordered it. But I commented to one of the friends who had sent me the link that there was one problem. There is no way that the dictionary pictured is unabridged. Look at how easily the person is holding it with only one hand. It would need to be a fairly thin dictionary to be held that way.
Seriously, look at the picture on the t-shirt. He’s not even using all four fingers! The pinkie, at least, is curled under.I own four unabridged dictionaries. I got out the smallest of them, and tried to hold it as they are in the picture. I can hold it with one hand for a short time, but notice that I have to cup my hand under it, to support all the weight. Three fingers are on the front, but the pinkie is still helping, by stabilizing the dictionary’s weight. You can’t tell in the picture, but it was hard to hold it still, because it’s too heavy and awkward.
The friend thought I was being silly to point this out. And it is a silly t-shirt, which I was delighted to order. I’m going to wear it and let people laugh at the joke. And it’s true, it would be extremely painful to be literally thumped with a hardback book the size of one of these unabridged dictionaries.
Labeling myself a dictionary thumper is not inaccurate. I can be pedantic about the meanings and usage of words. I also get that way about syntax, which would make me more of a style guide thumper, but that joke wouldn’t work as well. People know what a dictionary is, but a style guide, not so much.
I’m nowhere near as pedantic about grammar as people expect. And I’m not pedantic about words in the way that people expect, either. Being a technical writer by profession for over two decades, I can’t begin to count how many times co-workers and other colleagues have come to me with questions about spelling and usage that fall on the fringes of what I think the heart of language is. See, folks think of grammar and usage in very stiff and absolute terms. They believe that there is always one and only one correct way to use a specific word. I’ve always assumed this comes from having been admonished in school for doing something incorrectly, so that they think of grammar as a long list of prohibitions: “Thou shalt not dangle thy participles” and so forth.But there are no official lists of rules handed down from on high. Language has rules that have evolved as we’ve used it. Word meanings change over time. New social, cultural, and technological situations require new ways of describing or discussing what’s going on. And the beauty of English is that there are thousands of correct ways to construct a sentence to convey a particular meaning. “The man walked down the road” means the same thing as “He walked down the road.” Structurally those things are nearly identical, so they barely count as two ways, but we could also say “He plodded along the street.” Or we can add more details, “The man, stoop-shouldered and sun-burned, trudged beside the highway.” We can turn the structure around, “The crumbling road guided his footsteps to his destination.”
All of those are correct ways of explaining the same basic situation. But they all evoke different moods and details. What makes a particular version of each of those right or wrong is the context, which is not a matter of grammar at all.
Besides saying “Certified Dictionary Thumper,” the t-shirt includes a slogan. “Have you been soteriologically extricated?” Soteriology is a synonym for salvation, deliverance, or liberation. Extricated means to be disentangled, rescued, or released. So the slogan literally means “Have you been rescued in a liberating way?” Or more simply, “Have you been saved saved?” Which is redundant. If I were feeling the need to use the multisyllabic soteriologically, I would have chosen the slogan, “Have you been soteriologically explicated?” Since to explicate is to define something to have had something defined or explained to you.
I strongly suspect that that was the original joke, probably told to the artist by someone else, and somewhere along the line someone misheard. Explicated and extricated sounding quite similar when spoken aloud.
Of course, that just gives me more to explain if someone asks what the shirt says. Which, for someone like me, makes it even more of a win-win.
As the poster says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”
In 1066 William II of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, effectively conquering England (though it took him several more years to secure his victory). Among the changes William the Conqueror wrought on English society was to place a number of his French and Norman allies into positions of power throughout the kingdom, and Norman French became the language of the elite.
This is one of the reasons English has a number of pairs of nouns—one with an Old French root, the other with a Saxon root—which mean the same thing, but one word in the pair is thought to be more formal or fancy and the other casual. Examples include poultry and chicken, purchase and buy, or scarlet and red.
Not all of the words borrowed from French happened at that time. With only the narrow English Channel separating the isle of Great Britain from France, English had no shortage of opportunities to mug French for some new words or phrases. And that’s just one language. Since speakers of Ænglisc started raising families in the British Isles in the 4th or 5th Century, we’ve stolen from every language we could. Leaving us with an embarrassment of riches in the synonym department.
This wealth of words with similar meanings leads some writers into excess, with the thesaurus aiding and abetting their literary crimes. The most noticed version of this crime is the Dialog Attribution Transgression. It’s dialog where John exclaims, Sue retorts, Jim rejoins, Walter observes, and so forth. When what the author really means is that John said one thing, then Sue said another, then Jim said something, and finally Walter said something.
It’s wonderful that the language has all these verbs that can describe a person speaking, but when every line of dialog uses a different verb, the reader stops following the story and wonders which verb you’re going to resort to, next. The author does this because he or she thinks that the repeated appearance of the word “said” is going to bother the reader. The mistake here is misunderstanding what is important in a fictional depiction of a conversation. The most important thing is what the characters actually say. The next most important thing is to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Most of the time, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth are not even of tertiary importance. If you write the dialog correctly, the reader will infer a lot of those things just from the rhythm of the sentences.
Unfortunately, you only learn to do that by practicing a lot. And that takes time.
It’s perfectly all right to use some of those other verbs sparingly. For example, if there’s a tense conservation happening between a couple of characters, one character threatening the other, the threatened person may very well mutter resentfully, “For now…” or “You’ll be sorry” at the end. The fact that the person is muttering it, adding it as a threat of his own that he mostly doesn’t want to be overheard is probably important to the plot. But they really need to be reserved for situations where how someone says something is important to the story.
Dialog attribution isn’t the only place this sort of literary crime can occur. British author Simon Winchester likes to tell the tale of a student who, when assigned to write an essay describing how to do something, chose to write about how to transplant flowers, and apparently decided that saying one would need to wash their hands afterward, because their fingers would be dirty just didn’t sound academic enough. So he poked around in the thesaurus looking for other words that meant dirty (or earthy, as they would say in England), which eventually led him to refer to the need to wash one’s “chthonic fingers.” Chthonic is usually defined as “of or related to the underworld,” and thus often has demonic and even Lovecraftian connotations. It appears as a synonym for earth-related words because it originally referred to thing of or related to being buried or otherwise under the ground, and in myth the metaphorical afterlife was said to literally be deep underground.
My own tale, as an editor, was a writer who submitted a science fiction story set on a very inhospitable planet. After spending a paragraph describing just how deadly the planet’s atmosphere was, the author then transitioned to talking about some other aspect of the planet with the phrase, “…beneath that empyrean envelope…” Empyrean is a word that comes to English ultimately from Greek by way of Latin. And depending on where you look it up, it is defined as angelic, divine, God’s dwelling place, or the highest heaven in certain ancient cosmologies. In other words, heavenly. Not exactly a word that springs to mind for an atmosphere that will burn your skin off within seconds of contact, which seems more hellish. The writer had gone to a thesaurus, beginning with “sky” and looking up other words listed there until he found this one. Which he didn’t look up in a dictionary, he just typed it in and kept going. That’s a particularly bad idea with an unfamiliar synonym of a synonym of a synonym.
A lot of aspiring writers come at the craft with the notion that great writers know a lot about words, and therefore if you want to be good, you need to use a lot of words. But first, you have to be sure you know what the word means, including uncommon connotations. A word by itself has a lot of different meanings. In context, that meaning narrows. Which is why what writers really need to know a lot about is sentences.
Howsoever, that is a digression to be cogitated during a different diurnal cycle.
Or should I just say, a topic for another day?