Tag Archives: proper English

The lord, the bishop, and the harlot: an etymological fallacy

This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/blog/2014/12/quest-post-the-lord-the-bishop-and-the-harlot-an-etymological-fallacy/

“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”

There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”

Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.

Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”

But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:

Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.

“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”

“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”

As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”

The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.

At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.

Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.

Laxity and language

It is a common assumption that lax language is an indicator of lax thought – that a careful thinker will use careful language. Typically riding along with this assumption is another: that “careful language” means formal language adhering to a particular set of prescriptive norms.

The first assumption may seem reasonable enough, prima facie, though, as we will see, there are important limitations and reservations to it. The second assumption is a non-sequitur, the sort of idea that would have a person wear a tuxedo to a construction job. But its effects are pervasive. In fact, it’s been shown that people will rate more highly a weak argument expressed in formal language than a good argument expressed in casual language.

Part of the problem is a general conflation of formality with care. One can use formal words without being careful about them, and one can quite deliberately and carefully use slang and other casual language for effect. Some of the most effective messages in politics and advertising have been crafted in informal language. Indeed, great philosophical insights and thoughtful analyses can be expressed in language that seems sloppy. “You oughta do the same things to other folks as you’d like them to do to you.” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) “Look, the only thing I know is: I know. Ain’t nothin’ sure beyond that.” (Cogito ergo sum.) “If you got one thing in a place, you can’t have another thing in exactly the same place just then.” (Two bodies cannot occupy the same space.) True, the flavour is different, and the language may be less concise (though in some cases the plain version of an analysis is actually more concise – see below). But the understanding conveyed is the same. And beyond that, there are many professional engineers and similar people who are very vigorous and careful thinkers, but whose English is riddled with errors and nonstandard usages. Their drawings and equations are, of course, perfectly reliable.

Among world languages and cultures, sophistication of morphosyntax, whatever that may be (is it greater complexity or greater elegance? it’s almost undefinable), does not seem to correlate with sophistication of thought. And, more importantly, adherence to prescriptive norms can actually evince lack of thought – dogmatism without regard for effect – while masquerading as intelligence. A mind that can only manage one mode of communication regardless of context is not careful, it’s inflexible. And, in spite of what many people would have you believe, inflexibility is a mark of an inferior mind, not a superior one.

In short, it is reasonable to expect that careful thinkers will also more likely be careful users of words. But care in use of words is often misunderstood. Colloquialism can be very inventive – in fact, the inventive spirit is the source of much slang – and “proper” language can be very thick-headed.

To look at the limiting effect of the formality prejudice, consider academic writing and similar registers such as medical jargon. They present themselves as being more precise, and in academic writing the expectation is that this apparently rigorous language is giving a rigorous analysis and adding new perspective. But much of the time they don’t say anything truly new or present a truly fresh perspective. Consider the difference between medical jargon and regular speak: “Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.” “Don’t take Viagra if you have high blood pressure.” Both mean the same thing; the first simply adds the medical in-group sense (“I know this subject, so listen to me”) and uses standardized terminology – and is less likely to be understood by the people who actually use the drug. Much academic writing does the same: the words are not the keys to new understanding; they are just the keys to the door of the private club, the secret passwords to the clubhouse.

This is a topic of which I have some knowledge. I read a lot of academic jargon while getting my PhD, and wrote some of it too (though I always tried to be readable). Defamiliarization, properly done, requires new metaphors, new perspectives, new angles, and not simply more obscurantist ways of saying the same old thing. The only insight given by “Senescent canines are unreceptive to education in novel behaviour modes” that is not given by “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is that it’s possible to say something in ten-dollar words that you could easily say in two-bit words. And, on the other hand, “Adaptability is inversely correlated with age” may seem the most direct and precise statement of the concept, but it’s not as effective in conveying the idea and making it stick. What good is precise information if it’s not retained?

True, new angles of thought and deeper analyses can lead to different use of language, can even demand certain kinds of novel terminology, and one does need to write with precision and key the reader’s mind to receiving the information in a certain mode. I’m not saying don’t write using the academic register! Those expensive words are like expensive wines: people may pay more attention to what they can get from them. But there’s quite a lot out there that is really unremarkable thought packaged in bloated syntax, like a taxi driver who takes you through Jersey and Staten Island to get from Manhattan to JFK Airport – you pay more, it takes longer, but the end result is no different.

I don’t want to say that all academic writing is BS. “Academic BS” does not equal “all academic writing.” And I don’t want to say that people should write in an inappropriate register. As I say so often, language is known by the company it keeps; people will receive your prose on the basis of the expectations created by your choice of words and syntax. But one ought not to hide behind needlessly abstruse syntax and vocabulary; there is still a responsibility to produce actually fresh ideas rather than just putting new lipstick on the old pig.

And, more generally, as many a salesman and preacher knows, putting things in nice, direct language can be very effective and clear. And, as many a body in universities and business management knows, you can often hide the fact that you have little to say by saying it with impressive-sounding words. But that’s often, not always, and you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

So don’t fool yourself. Hiding behind formal language is one of the most pervasive kinds of laxity in English usage – not evidence of careful thought but a means of avoiding it. Remember: if you can’t explain something clearly in plain language, you don’t really understand it.

For anyone who hadn’t noticed…

…I am not a prescriptivist grammar Nazi and I don’t think the language is going to hell in a handbasket.

I had thought that this was fairly obvious, but I guess that some of the things I say may lead one to that conclusion if one does not have the context of my other opinions. I shall have to be careful to be clearer.

I mention this just because I had a debate with a fellow editor recently, my side of which I revised a little and posted here as “Streamkeepers of the language.” I’ve just found out that said fellow editor characterized that debate as “a lengthy debate with a fellow editor who feels very strongly that the English language is going to hell in a handbasket.”

Oh dear. The fact that I disagree with people who are trying to exert certain influences over certain usages, and that I wish to encourage others to resist those influences, does not mean that I think English is going to hell in a handbasket. Apparently this is less obvious than I thought it was.

Just to make sure anyone who is interested can know what my positions on language and language change are, here are some particularly germane posts:

For an in-depth exploration and appreciation of language change, check out “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion.”

For a detailed explanation of register, which is the question of different levels of English usage for different situations, go to “What flavour of English do you want?

For good ammunition against people who complain that the language is going to hell and who want to impose prescriptivist rule, read “When an ‘error’ isn’t.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from, of course, including salvos against grammar Nazis at “A new way to be a complete loser,” “For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?“, and “Fulford fulminates – pfui!” among others.

I hope that sets the record straight.

A new way to be a complete loser

I have just read an article in the New York Times, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” about a set of people who have taken it on themselves to correct sloppy grammar on Twitter whenever and wherever they find it. Some even have automated programs that will send criticisms to complete strangers.

This is, perhaps, not surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. To think that there are people whose lives are so pathetically devoid of any sense of control or significance that they feel the need to dispense wholesale rudeness personally to anyone who fails to match their idea of grammatical perfection! These people need to go out and buy some manners. Even the cheap kind of manners they can get at discount stores will prevent this. This sort of behaviour is like walking down the sidewalk looking for people who are, for instance, wearing stripes with plaid, or even blue with green, and saying rude things to them about it.

I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it: The rules of language are made to serve communication, not the other way around. The rules of grammar that we have are a codification of common practices that arose through actual usage, and the point of them is to give people a clear and consistent means of communicating with each other – so one human mind can reach out and come into contact with another human mind. Grammar is the means. The moment it is taken as the end, we have what is now commonly known as a FAIL. To use a Buddhist analogy, what these people are doing is like focusing on the finger rather than on the moon that it is pointing at.

Or let me use an analogy familiar to concert-goers. How often have you been at a concert, or the opera or ballet, and heard someone across the theatre going “SSSHHHHH!” at someone? Tell me, now, how often have you heard the person they were shushing? The SSSHHHHH is louder and more disruptive than what it aims to correct. It is a form of rudeness pretending to be a form of enforcement of politeness.

Likewise, while it may be bad manners to tweet in all caps, it is much worse manners to send a tweet to someone out of the blue carping on their use of all caps. And while making a lot of typos may be a little distracting and may seem to show imperfect concern for the reader, that’s hardly at the level of rudeness shown by those who tweet back complaining about them.

The truth is that no one is a perfect user of English all the time. It’s not really possible, since there are points of dispute such that some people will think one thing correct and others will think a different thing correct. But, more than that, English is not one language with the same rules and structures all the time. It has a variety of levels of usage appropriate to different contexts. (See “An appreciation of English: A language in motion” for some background.) It is as wrong to use formal locutions in a casual context as vice versa, for instance. And certain grammatical “errors” can be a good way to signal a casual, friendly context – don’t say it ain’t so.

More to the point, one thing I have never failed to observe is that anyone who is inclined to be hostile about other people’s grammar inevitably makes mistakes and has false beliefs about grammar. Often the very thing they’re ranting about they’re mistaken about (see “When an ‘error’ isn’t”). But beyond that, you can feel sure that they will get other things wrong even by the prescriptive standards they adhere to, be they idioms, points of grammatical agreement, or what have you. And you can feel entirely certain that they are utterly uneducated in linguistics, having false beliefs about, for instance, what is and isn’t a word.

Am I advocating an “anything goes” approach to grammar, whereby we toss out all the rules? Of course not. I’m a professional editor, after all. If you want to deliver a polished message, you want to make sure that it doesn’t have deviations that will distract or annoy people. There is a reason for having standards – we want to make sure we all have a point of reference so we can communicate with each other. But, again, the point of those standards is to serve communication, not the other way around. They are tools. They are not indicators of a person’s quality. An infraction of them causes no one injury.

And breaking grammatical rules is simply nowhere near as bad as being unspeakably rude to people about their use of grammar. Let it go, people. The English language is not being destroyed by people who make typos. The most damage that has been done to English has been done by people who appointed themselves its correctors.

What flavour of English do you want?

This is taken from a presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Edmonton, June 2008. For the bibliography and a concise summary of some key points, see the handout (PDF, 72 KB)

I thought I wouldn’t call this “Register, collocation, and reflected meaning” because, well, that sounded a little dry. And I’m going to be starting into this subject with the use of a metaphor of sort. The metaphor I’m going to be using—and I think it’s a pretty viable one—is, as you may have guessed, that a piece of a text is like a piece of food. A document is like a dish. Words are like ingredients. Continue reading

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
Continue reading