Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.

I tell San Francisco how to say Pyeongchang

The local ABC news in the San Francisco Bay Area asked me if they could use my video on how to say the 2018 Olympic venue names in one of their news clips. I said yes, of course – I mean, if I don’t want people to see these videos, why do them? (Of course I know most people don’t really care about how to say non-English names accurately. I don’t mind; the videos are just for people who want to know.) You can see the clip here:

How do you pronounce Winter Olympics location ‘Pyeongchang?’

Winter Olympic pronunciation tip: Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan flagbearer

Here’s a quick pronunciation tip. Heads turned when a well-oiled bit of beefcake carried a flag for Tonga in the freezing air of the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies. And what was his name again?

…uh… Say that again?


narcissus, daffodil

Life is not always a bed of roses. (Good thing, too, what with those thorns in the stems.) For some people, it is more a bed of narcissuses.



Did you know that a daffodil is a narcissus? You did? I guess some people actually pay attention to what flowers are called and all that.

For the rest of us, Narcissus is a whole genus of pretty flowering plants that bear names such as narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil. Some are yellow through and through. Others are white but orange in the fuzzy bits. Some look like stars, some like shooting stars, some like cartoon characters. They are all just as pretty as their namesake.

Who is probably not their namesake.

You know who Narcissus was, right? The mythological youth who was extremely good looking but only had eyes for himself? He drove would-be lovers to despair; he was finally tricked into seeing his reflection in a pond, fell in love with what he saw, and died staring at his unattainable idol: himself. It has been said that Narcissus is the namesake of the flower. It has also been said, by equally classical sources, that he is not. The overall historical record suggests that the flowers had the name before the mythical character was ever spoken of.

Which is not to say the self-gazer was named after the flower. The Greek root that the flower probably traces back to, and the person may or may not, is ναρκάω narkaó ‘I grow numb’, the same root that gives us narcotic. The smell of the flower may be anaesthetizing, perhaps – or it may be because the flower is poisonous when eaten (and in large-enough quantities can be fatal). Why not just lie back in a bed of them and become comfortably numb instead. Forget your worries… and all those other people out there who seem to cause them.

Think instead about daffodil. Not Daffy Duck, the spluttering cartoon character who always blamed his problems on those around him (I won’t say he had narcissistic personality disorder, but inability to accept responsibility for negative things goes along with insistence on taking credit for positive things as a key feature of it). That would be a name confusion, whereas daffodil is just, like narcissus, sort of a name confusion.

It goes like this: there is a Greek word, ἀσϕόδελος asfodelos, which is another name for the narcissus and for some similar-looking flowers. You may have heard of asphodels, which are not the same as narcissuseseses. Well, the name attached to the narcissus and came through French and some other languages and landed in English as affodill. But through some mysterious attachment, perhaps from a French d’ carried along, perhaps from a Dutch de attached, perhaps from some English cling-on such as what turned Ed into Ted, it gained a d at the beginning. It may be daffy, but will you, nill you, it will do it.

Subsequently the word asphodel was re-borrowed in unaltered form for a lily-type plant. Just to add to the confusion.

But why be confused? Lie back in the daffodils and think only of yourself, and become numb. Or eat one. Wait, don’t do that; they’re poisonous. But like many things that are poisonous, they also have a medicinal use (the dose makes the poison, you know!). Well, they have several traditional medicinal uses, but there is one prescription drug that is made from one of the alkaloids in it: galantamine. It’s used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Although I suppose a true narcissist would refuse to accept the possibility of needing galantamine. Well, forget about that. Come look at this pond over here.

Winter Olympic pronunciation tip: sz – Polish vs. Hungarian

With the Winter Olympics, you’ll see a slight increase in the number of Eastern European names you haven’t encountered before, including a definite uptick in ones containing sz. Most of those will be Polish or Hungarian. And that’s where the trouble starts, because it doesn’t sound the same in Hungarian as it does in Polish. So I’m going to tell you how to say not just sz but every available combination of c, s, and z in each of the two languages.


On University Avenue in Toronto a memorial sculpture reaches heavenward commemorating fallen Canadian airmen and -women. It takes for its name the motto of the Royal Air Force: Per ardua ad astra. This is often translated as “Through hard work to the stars,” but ardua is the accusative plural or a noun, nominative singular arduum, literally meaning ‘steep place’ and figuratively ‘difficulty’. It is the source of our English word arduous. The motto could perhaps even be translated as “Climbing steeply to the stars.”

We have never reached the stars. We have never even come close. Their light comes to us, but our bodies cannot get to them. We have gotten to the moon, and we have sent probes to the sun, our one local star, but those pinhole glimpses of the empyrean that freckle the night sky are beyond reach, no matter how steep the climb. There’s no point in promising otherwise.

But that’s not the point, is it, really. I mean, yes, the stars are supposed to be metaphors for our dreams, but they’re not a great literal metaphor; they’re entirely unreachable, and what would we do with them if we got them? No, the point is not the attainment. The point is what they spark in us: desire. Here is a poem that Heather Wheat (@heatheryreads) wrote recently:

We were never
meant to touch

the stars,
only to lust


their burning.

We receive their light, the rays of their flames, and something in us glows in response. This is the point. Hard work is of no value if it has no relation to desire. It should be fuelled by desire, and its result should be either the attainment of desire or the enjoyment of feeling it. The arduum is a route, the steep stairway to heaven, but the true means and end is ardor: Latin for ‘flame’, for ‘brilliance’ (literal), and for, well, ‘ardour’: fervent desire or love. (When we spell it ardour it is because of the word’s transit through French on its way to us.) The accusative plural is ardores, and I would say Per ardores ad astra: through ardours to the stars.

The flames of the stars cause our own flames to burn, sympathetic ignition at a distance. They will never receive our bodies – they would just burn them if they did – but our burning desires will send our light back towards them and, more importantly, towards those nearer to us.

And in our lives, too, we have more local stars, inspirations and aspirations; we do not need to touch them, it is not to us to capture them; only see what burns in them and the same flame will lick up in us. Through ardour we become stars, the objects of our own yearnings.

Winter Olympic pronunciation tips: Finnish

I’m getting back onto the Winter Olympics, which are impending. Finnish names come up in a number of winter sports, and people often freak out needlessly and make easily fixed mistakes when trying to say them. Here are four tips to remember if you want to get reasonably close on the pronunciation of Finnish names. Pour yourself six shots and let’s go!