chaff

The NPR affiliate radio station KPCC in Los Angeles broadcast an interview with me today (listen to it here) about my article “Kill the apostrophe!” (as republished on Slate). Their website has drawn a few comments, pretty much in the same line as the comments the article has gotten on TheWeek.com.

One comment I particularly liked in defence of the apostrophe was “I like it because you get to separate the people as wheat from the shaft.” Ah, honest: the apostrophe is there so you can look down on some people. It shows who doesn’t know English well enough!

Mind you, so does making an eggcorn error in a common phrase. “Wheat from the shaft”? Um, heh heh, as two subsequent commenters quickly pointed out, that’s chaff, not shaft…

It’s an understandable error: we just don’t thresh or winnow grain by hand anymore; chaff is something most of us have no literal personal experience of. On the other hand, we know what wheat looks like, kernels of grain on a stalk – that is, a shaft… So this commenter has reanalyzed it to make it something that makes sense to him.

There we go, one of the great sources of error in the English language: “It’s obvious!” Something looks like it should be so, so it is assumed that it must be so. Another great source of error, on the other hand, is “It’s too obvious!” (or “It’s too simple!”). We have a tendency to prefer the marked (the less obvious or less usual) in many cases, especially thanks to our perverse spelling and our heavily idiomatic usage patterns.

Our perverse spelling… Oh, we do chafe at it. And yet we look down on anyone who has not achieved sufficient mastery of it. At one time in our history we added an erroneous s to iland because we thought it came from Latin insula. Several attempts, some very persistent, have been made by various parties at various times since then to remove that s, but the ordinary user won’t tolerate it – that would be wrong and uneducated! – and so it stays in. We do love our mumpsimuses. And we do love to use the perverse rules of our language as means of social control and exclusion. And we have a long and popular history of language complaining (the link is a PDF).

How about the spelling of chaff? That’s easy, isn’t it? Sure, no problem. We just take it as a given that [f] at the end of a word is represented by a double letter as a rule. Why? Because it is! Sshh! Look at the nice ff like heather in the breeze.

But of course it wasn’t always thus. The Old English spelling was ceaf, which for the pronunciation and spelling rules of the time was a perfectly phonetic spelling (they said it almost exactly as we do, but with the tongue moving towards the middle of the mouth during the vowel).

It’s such a nice word, in its way, isn’t it? It really has a sound rather like what I imagine winnowing would sound like, throwing up the grain and letting the wind blow away the undesired light bits while the grain falls to the floor to be collected. Or maybe like threshing, beating the grain to separate the useful from the useless.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that with language? Have the unnecessary crap and the silly fake rules blown away in the breeze, or flail it away? But, ah, what is and isn’t unnecessary, and why? How much of these assorted accretions lends flavour and interest, too? And what about the people who would like to keep the chaff in just so that fools can choke on it while the wise simply pick it out?

Such as our commenter. Yes, sure, let’s keep apostrophes just so we can see who has learned how to use them and exclude those who have not. But let’s make sure we extend that reasoning to every bit of English: all idioms, all grammar, all spelling… Our commenter would surely not be chuffed to find he’d given himself the shaft.

Well, let those without error thresh out the first chaff. (This is where, as with the biblical precedent, all should retreat, ashamed. In reality, several will charge forward… and give each other a good thrashing. Oh, by the way, thresh and thrash are in origin the same word.)

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