Category Archives: language and linguistics

ombud

I’ll assume you’re familiar with the word ombudsman, which refers to a person who arbitrates complaints for a newspaper, government agency, or similar organization. It comes from Swedish, where it’s been a word for a good long time, descended from Old Swedish umboþ ‘commission, order’ plus man. English borrowed it in the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s, and for a while after, every ombudsman was in fact a man. But by the later 20th century there were ombuds…women? But it seems a bit clunky to have to specify the sex of the ombuds…person? But, then, why say man, woman, or person at all? We already resolved this neatly with chair, which replaces chairman, chairwomanchairperson with a nice bit of metonymy (like using crown or state to refer to government things). And whereas chair is a thing of its own and so in some contexts may be ambiguous, there is no ambiguity if we say ombud. It’s clearly a short form of ombudsman (or whatever). K?

Question, though. If we take man off ombudsman, that makes it ombuds, not ombud. But then what’s the plural? Ombudses? But if we make it ombud, which can pluralize to ombuds if you ever need to, where’s the original s? But the in the original is a genitive, not a plural; it allows ombud (or in the original umboþ) to modify man.

But do we have a real basis for changing ombudsman in the first place? This question has come up on various occasions, and various people have had various things to say about it. A colleague pointed me to a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly that quoted a couple of people weighing in on it as certain kinds of people will:

Put simply, the word ‘Ombudsman’ is not an English word: it is Swedish. It does not therefore lend itself to conversion to the ‘ombudsperson’ or ‘ombudswoman’ that the manual suggests… it makes it meaningless because such suffixes are not recognised as Swedish’.

“Ombudsmand”, a Scandinavian word, has the etymological meaning a “man who is asked for something”, ie, help or redress. Washington has shorn the title down to a meaningless “ask-for”.

There are… problems, let’s put it nicely (why?)… with these objections. Ombudsman, borrowed into English, is no longer a Swedish word. If I call either of the persons who made this objection ignoramus, I’m not saying in Latin “we don’t know,” which is what Latin ignoramus means; I’m saying in English a noun that describes the person as pointedly ignorant. If I see him in a restaurant and ask the maitre d’ to show the ignoramus out, he can object all he wants that maitre d’ is meaningless because it just means ‘master of’ (with the original hotel deleted), but he’s still going to find his butt (and the rest of him) on the street, hopping the next bus. And even though bus is short for Latin omnibus, which is a dative Latin plural of the adjective omnia ‘all’, and even though the bus is part of the inflectional ending and not the root, the short form bus is not meaningless for us. We know exactly what it means in English, regardless of what a Latin speaker might have thought.

But what about the objection that in Swedish man doesn’t mean ‘man’? We don’t change human to huperson or hu, after all. But, then, we don’t say “hu man” as though it’s another kind of man; we say it as though it’s an adjective derived with the suffix –an from hume. (In fact, that’s pretty close; it’s from Latin humanus, derived from homo, which is indeed gender-neutral; ‘man’ is vir.) Well, what is the word for ‘man’ in Swedish? Why, it’s man. Man is also the word for ‘husband’, and it is not the word for ‘woman’ (that’s kvinna) or ‘wife’ (fru). Swedish for ombudsman is ombudsman, using that same man; the spelling ombudsmand comes from Danish (there is no language called Scandinavian; the several Scandinavian languages do have differences in their words). Swedish man is directly related to English man – by which I mean it’s the same word used in the same way in a not-that-distantly-related language. The fact that man is used broadly in Swedish the way it used to be used broadly in English does not mean it’s gender-neutral; it means Swedish is still masculine-normative in this regard.

So we borrowed ombudsman into English, which really means we borrowed ombud(s) and already had man. And when we hear it, we hear the man at the end, and it is masculine-normative. If it weren’t really from man, there would be a different argument to make – should we change a word just because it sounds like something problematic?* But it is from man. It is accurately read as English man and is received and dealt with as such.

Editors know that if there’s a tricky phrasing, one that leads to syntactic vexation, the best solution is to rephrase. And if there’s a turn of phrase that might upset some people, you’re best rewording if you can. An important tool in the editor’s toolkit is a nice sharp sword for cutting Gordian knots. Ombudsman is a place to use that sword. Slice true and clean and you get ombud and ombuds. And if anyone objects too strenuously, the sword is still sharp; let them look to it. Any complaints can be addressed to the ombud.

 

*That’s a fun debate, but if you want to cut to the chase, we already do that in various ways. Newscasters say harassment and Uranus in ways that avoid saying ass and anus per se, and the British pronunciation of bomb is no longer identical to that of bum, as it once was. There are other examples I probably don’t need to list of words that sound like even less acceptable words; though unrelated, they’re often avoided, because why bring unpleasant things to mind? Like it or not, we do it, because we can hear it.

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Pronunciation tip: The One Ring inscription

Everyone knows the inscription inside the One Ring from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of course, but most of us can’t get the pronunciation quite right. Discover the secret to saying it so Sauron will seek you out, and get a little bit of linguistic insight while you’re at it:

Oh, and happy April 1.

I tell Boston about Celtics

Edgar B. Herwick III, of the National Public Radio station WGBH in my erstwhile stomping grounds of Greater Boston, got me on the phone (Skype, actually) to find out why Celtic music is “keltik” but the Boston Celtics are “seltik.” Of course, I told him. You can listen to the radio show, or read the script, or both:

Why We Pronounce ‘Celtic’ Music And Boston ‘Celtics’ Differently

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.

Poetic inversion in all of us command

Originally published in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada

Our anthem has been updated! It’s gotten royal assent! If you haven’t yet, you will need to get used to singing “true patriot love in all of us command.” And, perhaps less frequently, to hearing people complain about the change.

Some will contest the grammar: “Shouldn’t it be ‘in all of our command’?” And some will fulminate against the perceived “political correctness”: “It’s an inversion of the natural order!” Both sets of people are off base, but – inadvertently – the second set have the answer to the first set’s complaint. It is an inversion… but a grammatical one.

Here’s the old version: “O Canada, our home and native land, True patriot love in all thy sons command.” What don’t you see there? An apostrophe on sons. It’s not a possessive! The sentence is an imperative – a command (fittingly). It addresses Canada (the O gives that away), says it’s our home and native land, and then tells Canada, “command true patriot love in all thy sons.” Only because it’s an anthem, and it’s in a formal register, and it’s poetry, it moves the verb to the end to make it work with the metre and rhyme.

This is something we ought to learn in school: poetic inversion, or anastrophe if you like twenty-dollar Greek terms. Poetry often made use of it when end-rhymes were in vogue: “‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore’” is from Poe’s “The Raven”; “Else the Puck a liar call” is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You occasionally find it in other national anthems; Nigeria’s has the line “Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey.” But for our own times, with free verse in the ascendancy, we’re more likely to hear anastrophe from Yoda: “Begun the Clone War has.”

The grammatical confusion is no surprise; you can’t hear the lack of apostrophe. But if it were “all thy sons’ command” – and now “all of our command” – the sentence would have no verb; command would be a noun. As it is, it’s not saying that true patriot love actually is in all of our command; it’s an imprecation, fervently wishing that Canada command true patriot love in all who sing the anthem.

Is the phrasing awkward? Very. Could it be rewritten better? Much. Would a larger change ever get through parliament? I sincerely doubt it.

Anyway, we can’t let mishearings win the day. If we did, the French anthem might declare that Canada’s valour has been fooled twice and will protect our hearths and fingers: “Et ta valeur, deux fois trompée, protegera nos foyers et nos doigts.”* Nope. Won’t get fooled again.

 

*The original is “Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protegera nos foyers et nos droits”: “And your valour, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and rights.”

Does verbing impact the language?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly.

A favourite crank for language cranks to crank is the demon of verbing. It wrecks our language, they protest! They target such usages as impacted and referenced in business-speak and medalled in broadcasting. While liberal-minded linguists may see these words as just more of the odd flowers that bloom in the spring (and spring up throughout the year, for that matter), the grumblers want to weed them out.

Just recently, for instance, the Guardian gave column space to one Jonathan Bouquet, who fumes at such conversions and would like to bin them all. He welcomes loanwords, he protests, but “there are some constructions that still grate”: impacted and reference, for two, and “Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use ‘headquarter’ as a verb.” He especially dreads “the fullest flowering of such manglings” during the Olympics, with medal and podium used as verbs.

I honestly can’t tell whether Mr. Bouquet sincerely believes what he writes, or whether he’s taking the, uh, mickey. Although his position is extreme, there are many who hold the same views. But it’s not really the movement of words from one class to another that nettles them – it is the movement of people from one class into another. They dislike the words because they dislike the self-important upstarts who use them: barbarous posers putting on airs and commandeering the language.

I state this with confidence because when they air their grievances they nearly always characterize the sources of these usages peevishly, and because they inevitably use – without comment, without even noticing – words that are the product of exactly the same process: verbs that were nouns first, nouns that were verbs first, adjectives that were nouns first, and so on. They accept and use the fruits of conversion, except when someone they don’t fancy uses a word that looks new to them.

Do I overstate my case? Consider verbs Mr. Bouquet used gladly: grate, flower, mangle. If I look at the rest of his brief rant, I see also – used ingenuously – the verb monitor and the noun import. But take a look at the rest of what I’ve written here. How many words can you count that are regularly used as multiple classes of word? Let’s see: crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look… Look, whenever you scan a book (or book a scan), you’re sure to spy some verbing. English would not be English without it.

And if you’re fine with all those but not with impact, reference, medal, or podium as verbs, why is that? Is it because those latter four could be rephrased using existing words? Consider how many of the words you’re fine with could be paraphrased reasonably well. This is English. We are the ancient spice shop of languages. We have far more words than we need – but we can use them all to good effect. When we take dislikes to words, it’s almost always related to our ideas of the people who use them.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a word you don’t like. But it’s best to be clear on why you don’t like it.

Are you like “I don’t, like, LIKE like ‘like’”?

My latest article for The Week is about a word almost everyone loves to hate – and yet we all still seem to like using it:

What’s not to like about ‘like’?