Daily Archives: November 16, 2009

A couple things to know

I just encountered yet another person talking about how “a couple things” (rather than “a couple of things”) is wrong and is a sign of the decline of the English language.

It is true that you do well to be aware that “a couple things” will seem informal or even sloppy to some people. But it is a change in progress (and has been for more than 80 years). And such changes herald not the destruction but the continued vitality of the language. Languages that don’t change are dead.

“A couple” is following a course like “a dozen”: from countable noun to quantifying modifier. Some people insist that “a couple” must take “of,” but you will find that those same people happily and without a second thought use a variety of grammatical structures and usages that at one time or another were innovations. “Dozen” passed through the “of” dropping (except when plural, “dozens”) in the 18th century. “Myriad” can still be used with equal justification as countable noun (“a myriad of reasons”) or as modifier (“a myriad reasons”).

Here’s a general rule of thumb: people who decry certain usages and bemoan the declining state of the language generally have a very limited knowledge of the history of the English language and don’t look things up as much as they should.


Look at that i sticking up at the end: is it a cog? No, it’s a lone candle. And what do we smell as it burns? Hmmm… one who knows perfumes might detect a scent of the Congo… But among linguistic cognoscenti, it’s obviously an Italian plural ending, the singular word being cognoscente.

Funny thing, though: while it is common enough to turn to individual names for expertise and inside knowledge – in wine, a Robert Parker or a Tony Aspler, say; in fashion, an Anna Wintour or a Jeanne Beker – one rarely ever comes upon a singular cognoscente. No, there’s always a cloud of knowers, that famous in-group: the people who swirl and sniff their wines and can tell you grape and place at a sip, the people who can tell you what’s hot and what’s not and what you must not be caught dead wearing. The cognoscenti.

The most common word to show up near cognoscenti is among: among the cognoscenti, among wine cognoscenti, among fashion cognoscenti, etc. The plural form of the word is an index to a cultural perception. It is not quite that they are the Illuminati, wielding secret power and arcane knowledge (such as how to make a cabal of power-hungry people stay unified for centuries; they usually start killing each other off or having rifts within months), but they are this level of society, this group. No doubt they have their own special terms for things, meaningless or misleading to the uninitiated.

Indeed, I would venture to say that knowledge of the vocabulary and ability to use it appropriately is, well, the shibboleth of the cognoscenti – the Masonic handshake, as it were. I can remember, back before I learned all about figure skating jumps from my wife, being at a party with her skating friends and making a jokey comment that hinged on a Salchow being somehow a harder jump. One of the others in the conversation remarked how people who don’t skate seem always to pick on the Salchow. I was not one of the skating cognoscenti, obviously. (Here’s a tip: the toughest kind of jump that takes off on a backward edge is, for most people, the Lutz; the Axel is harder still just because of its forward take-off and extra half-rotation. I’m not even counting the Walley, because the judges don’t, either.)

And so, too, with wine, fashion, and a variety of other things. It’s not that vocabulary is the only feature, but it is a mark of knowledge. And knowledge is what this is about: Latin cognoscere, “know,” cognate with cognition (but not with cognate!). Cognoscere was classically pronounced “cog no scare, eh,” but in the Italian cognoscenti the cogn is said as in Cognac and the sc as English sh. You will also hear this word said “cog no scent ee”; is saying it thus a mark of not being among the linguistic cognoscenti? Well, perhaps not if you justify it by saying “I was going with the classical Latin style – you know, the plural of cognoscentus.” Most people won’t know you’re BSing. And if you just drop the [g] and say “caw no shent ee,” well, then you’re saying it in modern Italian. So there. But those who don’t know will think you don’t know. Oh, how dreary.

Oh, and those who know, what do they know about? Well, the field perhaps most often mentioned with cognoscenti is fashion. Art is up there too. It must be something refined, right? Except that the game and hoops are also up there, so I guess it gets to slum from time to time. What do you know…


Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting this word.