Category Archives: language and linguistics

The ongoing demise of English

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be. As people who have to deal every day with the abuses of common users, we will surely all agree with this sentiment: “our unfortunate ears are doomed not only to excruciate in the torments of bad grammar, but to agonize under the torture of a viciousness of expression and a corruption of phraseology, the ridiculousness of which alone saves us from the death with which we are frequently threatened.”

Does that seem just a touch overstated and stiff? Well, it’s from The Vulgarisms and Improprieties of the English Language, published in 1833 by W.H. Savage, so we have to allow for minor changes in common phraseology. But look, here’s an author not from the 1800s who agrees: “the English language, as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of the most approved authors, often offends against every part of grammar.”

That was Robert Lowth, writing in 1762, and standards have obviously degraded since then without our noticing. Even in Lowth’s time things had gone downhill over the preceding half century; compare Jonathan Swift in 1712 telling us “that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; … and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Surely we can agree that it is better, and more consistent, to capitalize all Nouns, as Swift and his Contemporaries did.

Too late on that. Our language has been sliding, sliding, sliding. We could have heeded the advice of the pseudonymous author of Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech in 1885, and we would not now say “transpire” when we mean “occur,” or “fix” instead of “make fast” to mean “put in order, repair,” or “smart” to express “cleverness, brightness, or capability.”

We would also, in heeding other style guides of a mere century ago, know better than to write such a monstrosity as “The suspect was planning to use a car to raid the warehouse.” We would know that “suspect” should be “suspicious person,” that “plan” and “raid” are not verbs, and that “car” does not mean “automobile.” But, alas, we have fallen too far.

Or we have grown too far. Growing pains are felt more sharply by some than by others. Just as many of my generation will swear that the best music was written before 1990, quite a few people will insist that the best English is the kind they remember having learned as children. We don’t know, of course, how reliable their memories are, and we may wonder why they haven’t put childish things away, but so it goes. Stern voices over the centuries have taught us that English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be… and it never has been.

Etymology in dire straits

A very common mistake, and source of linguistic misinformation being passed around, is the assumption that because A resembles some apparently older B, B must be the source of A. Such resemblances are suggestive and worth investigating further, of course, but without a historical record, you can’t say A comes from B – and if the historical record pretty clearly indicates something else, then it undermines the initial hunch. It’s true that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when there’s sufficient contradictory evidence, the absence of evidence does gain some weight. (And, as historical linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) At the very least, as the likelihood narrows, your appealing account is in increasingly dire straits.

I’m listening to some Dire Straits right now, not by coincidence. I decided to play them after being forwarded this account:


The Origins of the phrase “In Dire Straits”

In Hebrew “The Three Weeks” is also referred to as Bein ha-Metzarim (בין המצרים), or “Between the Straits” or “In Dire Straits”. It is based onLamentations 1:3: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.” Thus, when you next hear someome refer to being “in dire straits” you’ll know it comes from the exile of Jews from Israel.

What are “The Three Weeks”? I’ll get into that at the end. But first, let’s dive into some dire straits.

The phrase in dire straits – or even just the two words dire straits – is not to be found in the Bible; the passage quoted from Lamentations is one of two uses of dire in the King James Bible (which gives us most of our quotable terms from the Bible), the other being in Job 20:22, “In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: ever hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” Thus a translation of the Hebrew phrase into in dire straits is one using an idiom seemingly not traceable to an English translation of the Bible. Quotes from Shakespeare are often confused with Biblical quotes, but the only use of straits in Shakespeare is from As You Like It, act V scene iii: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” The word straits (plural) doesn’t appear in Bartlett’s Quotations at all! Dire shows up 22 times in Shakespeare but not once in the King James Bible. Its first appearance in English, mutated from Latin dirus, is in the mid-1500s, and it caught on as a useful adjective. Likewise, as we see, straits and in straits and in a strait (and even great straits and desperate straits) were long used figuratively – since the mid-1500s also, in fact. But they don’t show up together until much more recently.

Google ngrams graphs the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. According to a newspaper column from 2000, the first use of dire straits together that can be dug up in anything recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.” But Google Books takes us back a bit farther, giving several hits in the decades around 1900. It finds it in an article about Paganini from 1892; there is one from the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890: “He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still”; there is one from the story “A Masai Adventure” by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888: “he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.” Even then, the phrase seems established.

The earliest hit I can find goes all the way back to the 1700s: the (long) epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780, which has at lines 719–720 “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.” This is clearly a literal use! But could have been a seed for later figurative uses if some of the authors had been educated in the classics in translation. But I can’t find it in a search through a fairly good corpus of English fiction books (novels and collected stories) from 1710 through 1920. It seems to have gained some momentum for a reason uncertain to me in the early 1900s; the Roosevelt speech no doubt helped at least some. The first time the phrase shows up in the Hansard (transcribed debates) of the British Parliament is 1884, and its use accelerates slowly: 1 hit in the 1890s, 2 in the next decade, 5 in the 1910s, 12 in the 1920s, 19 in the 1930s, 14 in the 1940s. There’s no sharp jump as we might expect if it showed up in a single important source.

The term, anyway, according to the Google ngram, rose in usage through the 1900s, peaking in the 1930s and holding fairly steady, but then it started to climb again in the early 1980s… which is when the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene (they were formed in 1977 and had their first hit – “Sultans of Swing” – in 1978, but they became really huge starting in 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations, one of which for Best New Artist). Usage of the term dire straits has been climbing ever since, even as the band Dire Straits has subsided from charts somewhat.

Now for that Hebrew phrase: בין המצרים (bein hamitsrayim) names the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz through roughly the ninth of Av, The Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples, a time of solemnity for observant Jews. I like Wikipedia’s commentary:

The Three Weeks are historically a time of misfortune, since many tragedies and calamities befell the Jewish people at this time. These tragedies include: the breaking of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; the burning of a Sefer Torah by Apostomus during the Second Temple era; the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain shortly before Tisha B’Av 1492; and the outbreak of World War I shortly before Tisha B’Av 1914, which overturned many Jewish communities.

But while Wikipedia puts in a “cf ‘dire straits’” next to the literal “Between the Straits” translation, it just links to the Wiktionary definition. There is no evidence I can find that links the term dire straits historically to this period; the connection appears to be a modern one, made readily enough once the phrase dire straits was common. We don’t much use the term straits outside of names and figures of speech anymore, so when we see it in one place (Between the Straits), it’s unsurprising if we connect it to another common collocation (dire straits). It just doesn’t happen to be the origin as far as the historical evidence I can find goes.

By the way, בין המצרים is, I find, also translatable as “among the Egyptians”: בין (bein) means ‘between, among, amid’; ה (ha) is ‘the’; מצרים (mitsrayim) is ‘Egypt’ – Wiktionary points out that the name of Egypt has a dual ending (–im) perhaps because Egypt was formerly two realms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and it says “Connections have also been drawn to מֶצֶר ‎(métser, “border, limit”) and מיצר \ מֵצַר ‎(meitsár, “sea strait”).” Still, the closest to Egyptians that dire straits seems to come is the Sultans of Swing.

They made a podcast. I know, right?

Sometimes when the weather gets so summery I just get so busy summering that I forget things I did a while ago and sent off. I know right? Well, here’s one: a podcast version of my article on “I know, right?” It’s a nice reminder of how much of what we say is verbal gesture rather than literal denotation.

‘I know, right?’: The anatomy of a wonderfully nonsensical phrase

Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada.

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,” declared a New York Times headline. Noted linguist David Crystal had made some comments noting that the period is not requisite in text messages, and as such is used only “to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression,” as article author Dan Bilefsky paraphrased Crystal. From this, Bilefsky – who, just to be cute, left the period off the end of every paragraph in the article – drew the conclusion that the period is going out of style in English generally. As did (obviously) the headline writer.

Which is rather ironic. Tell me: how often are periods used at the ends of newspaper headlines? (Rarely, in case you’re not sure.) And yet this insistent omission has not, over the course of the past century, ushered in the demise of periods in the language generally, or even in newspaper articles in particular. (Bilefsky’s is an ostentatious exception, but that is not because its headline doesn’t end in a period.) Nor has the programmatic omission of forms of ‘be’ in headlines led to their omission elsewhere, although they are left out in other forms that are equally “telegraphic” – for the same reason: economy of space trumps smoothness.

And there is the point. Not all occasions of use of English (or any other language) are the same. Different occasions of communication for different purposes use different components, structure, vocabulary, grammar, and – yes – puncutation. In short, different purposes use different genres. Of course they do! You don’t write a shopping list like a personal letter (“Dear Me: It has been a while since I’ve been shopping, hasn’t it? Could I by any chance manage to pick up some eggs, milk, onions, celery, and fenugreek? That would be splendid if I could. Thanks so much, Yours, Me”). You use what you need, add things as befits the occasion (for politeness, clarity, ornament, what have you), and leave things out for the sake of effect or efficiency.

And if you have declared a particular item unnecessary for the run-of-the-mill functioning of the text, you have it available to use for special effect. Your full name on a government form is a simple requirement of the genre; your full name when spoken by your mother is not required, so it can carry a connotation of concern or disapproval. Poetry, with its line breaks, has less need for capitals and punctuation, so their use and omission can have stylistic significance.

And so it is with periods in text messages. As they are superfluous to the needs of the genre, they have gained expressive potential. Since a simple “end of message” is conveyed by (wait for it) the end of the message, a period can be extra firm, pointedly conclusive. Wilf Popoff has recently given us some instruction in this and similar details of the text message genre, and Frances Peck has addressed the related sub-genre of email salutations. These genre-specific recastings of pieces of punctuation are not losses to the language or even the genre – how can an increase in expressive potential be a loss? But it is also unlikely to spread to genres that need periods to separate sentences in paragraphs, such as the body of news articles… even if it has long since been a feature of headlines.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.


“It’s not the scenicest day,” I said to Aina, looking out the train window at a cloudy sky as we headed to Niagara for some wine and walking.*

Or perhaps I should spell that scenic-est, so you know I wasn’t saying it like “see nicest,” even though what is scenicest is nicest to see.

“Is that a word?” you may be thinking – or perhaps typing in an email to me. Well, I used it and you understood it, so yes. But is it a well attested word? No. You can find a couple hundred hits for it on Google, but it’s a safe bet most of them are – as I was – self-consciously using it as an awkward construction rather as Lewis Carroll used curiouser.

Why wouldn’t I just say most scenic? Because I like playing with words. Now it’s your turn: Tell me why scenicest shouldn’t be allowed. It’s a two-syllable word, after all, and it’s quite common to append –er and –est to one- and two-syllable words. The selection of those for which more and most are reserved is almost random-seeming. At the very least, the distinction is not black and white. For some words, it is a matter of personal taste which to use: beautifuller and beautifullest were formerly common enough, but now it seems we see the two-word version as the more beautiful.

I do think that what we see is part of the problem here. For assorted historical reasons (mostly to do with palatalization before front vowels in Latin and Romance languages), c “softens” before e and i. But the sound /k/ does not have an actual allophonic alternation with /s/ in modern English. We just retain the rule about c because of our borrowings from French and Latin. This makes a problem when we have something that sounds fine but runs into a spelling issue. Take chic. Lovely word, stylish, smart. Borrowed from French. By borrowed I mean adopted – actually I mean stolen. Anyway, it’s treated like an English word: it’s one syllable, so instead of saying most chic we often just add the –est and make it chicest.

Which looks horrible on the page. And chic-est looks at least as bad. And you can’t add or swap in a k because chikest would look completely wrong and incomprehensible and would conduce to yet another inaccurate pronunciation, and chickest is chick plus est. Somehow the chicest word to say is one of the unchicest (let’s say least chic) words to write.

Well, what do we expect? It should be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

Am I the only one who feels certain that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious should be two words? Normally, morphologically, we can add only other suffixes after a suffix, not a whole new root, let alone a prefix plus a root plus a suffix. And yet that’s what appears to come after the the ic in supercalifragilistic. Another bit of evidence to marshal for its being two words is that the spelling would seem to require a pronunciation like “–listi sexpi–,” which is clearly wrong.

Which takes us back to our problem of the orthographic scenery. Now, –ic words often used to be spelled with a k, as in musick and magick. So could we borrow on that and make it scenickest? Hmm. It looks a bit of a snickerfest. It may also tempt a person to shift the accent onto the second syllable because of the “heavy” consonant ck.

Or we could just keep using it and writing it and people will get used to seeing it and saying it. That’s how a lot of things in English have come to be as they are.

We ought not to be distracted by looks, anyway. A cloudy day may be warm and lovely. Indeed, when the sun is out and it looks most scenic, you are at greater risk of getting burned.


*It was not a reference to the fact that we would not be taking in a play at the Shaw Festival, even though scenic referred to the stage a century before it referred to the natural environment – it comes from a Greek word for a stage.