Daily Archives: September 24, 2009

Fulford fulminates – pfui.

The National Post‘s Robert Fulford has gone on a grammar gripe to mark the unofficial but much-bruited National Punctuation Day.


More “language as gotcha game” thinking. While standards are important in language, they exist to serve communication, not vice-versa. We certainly want children to learn consistency and discipline in their usage, but we should also want them to think about why they do what they do and to focus on language as something enjoyable and to put their main emphasis on effectiveness of communication. Punctuation ranting leads to truly a**hole-ish behaviour like this: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=522. Come on, perspective, please! Language exists for connecting people; if in our focus on language we disrespect people, we have lost the thread entirely.

And to address the apostrophe issue that Fulford fulminates on, I need to point out again that apostrophes on possessives are neither necessary (we get by fine without hearing them in speech) nor historically appropriate. They were forced into the language during the Renaissance by people who mistakenly believed that our possessive was contracted from “has” and who thought the written forms of words should manifest their origins (but only to some extent… for instance, a b was reinserted in debt to make it look more like debitum; why not add the i and the um while you’re sticking in silent letters?). “Ancient tradition” my ass. Fulford should take a short course in the history of the English language and study some Old English inflections. (See faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/courses/handouts/magic.html to see what our possessives used to be – they’re in the G. row, for “genitive.”)

The comments on Fulford’s article give further evidence to my contention that most people who go on about other people’s grammar don’t know grammar as well as they think they do. One fellow attempts to maintain a strict distinction between literal “farther” and figurative “further” when there is only a general trend, not a lexicalized difference. In response, another fellow, trying to sound authoritative, writes “written by whomever feels the urge,” which is altogether nonstandard; the relative pronoun here is the subject of a subordinate clause, and as such should be in the nominative, if we’re going to be insisting on the rules. Another one corrects someone on a supposed misplaced comma that’s not actually misplaced. And so on.

English is fun because it’s crazy. But it’s also frustrating for the same reason if you’re trying to be a stickler about it. Three points of advice:

a) remember why you’re using it;

b) know your stuff, and know what you don’t know;

c) enjoy it, please, and let others do the same.


OK, stop. Don’t look up. Close your eyes and spell this word out loud.

OK, check now. How’d you do?

This is indeed the sort of word that may confuse ya – or outfox you. A variety of spellings may be found for it; fuschia, fuscia, and fucia are all common enough. And they would seem to make more sense. How did it come to be spelled that way, anyway?

Well, rather, how did it come to be pronounced that way would be the right order of things. It was named (in 1703) after 16th-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. He’s far from the only person to have a plant named after him by appending the neo-latinate ia on the end; for instance, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico, introduced the plant subsequently named after him to the US (and you will notice that the /i/ has been dropped in common pronunciation), and American anatomist Caspar Wistar had a now well-known plant named for him after his death (there was obviously some inconsistency in the spelling, given that we call it wisteria).

So anyway, Fuchs, which is German for “fox,” is not pronounced like “fewsh”; it rhymes with kooks, even in German (the velar fricative becomes a stop before the [s]). In theory, this word should be said “fooks-ya.” But aside from that sounding rather rude in Northern England, the average anglophone who looks at this word is unlikely to think of saying it that way.

The next question, though, is: what do fuchsia look like? I’m sure you know what colour they’re supposed to be. No doubt Herr Fuchs had no idea that, a half millennium after his time, his name would have transmuted from a reference to an animal known for being red to a soft, mushy word for a very floral, feminine kind of magenta. But the flowers actually come in a variety of kinds of red and purple. As for the flowers, they’re dainty little things that grow drooping downwards, looking rather like escapees from an especially florid ballet production, petals out like skirts and stamens down like spindly legs.

But it seems that the colour beats the flower in popular usage now. This word tends to be found near other colour names and near words such as dress, silk, hair, and lipstick. Not that the plant is rare or difficult; it’s actually quite hardy, surviving, like this word, rather better than you might expect.

Now, look again at this word. Does it look like a word for that kind of flower or colour? Really, I don’t know; you tell me. The f by itself bears a certain resemblance to the flower, but if I look at that fu and the ch it seems rather unfriendly and coarse. If, on the other hand, I think of how it’s pronounced and just glance at it as an ensemble, the effect of the sound takes over; I forget its past and heed its “fewsha.”