When to Use Bad English

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada “Editing Goes Global” conference in Toronto on June 12, 2015. Headings are PowerPoint slides.

Title slide

As editors, we’re here to make sure the text doesn’t look sloppy or uneducated. We’re expected to uphold standards of good grammar, and – no matter what the text – keep it from using bad English. Right?

Rhett Butler

Frankly, sometimes we shouldn’t give a damn. And, more importantly, sometimes we should give a damn. And a shit. And a colloquialism. And maybe even a grammatical error.

Really? Yes. Our job is to make sure that the English in the document is appropriate, certainly. But there’s a difference between bad English and inappropriate English. English that is too informal is inappropriate in many places, but English that is too formal is inappropriate in many others.

What we want to do is this: Continue reading

Hello, Ireland!

My latest article for the BBC, on how our messy English spelling is the result of greed, laziness, and snobbery, got me a live interview with an Irish radio talk show this week: the Moncrieff show on Newstalk. It’s on line now, so you can give it a listen. Go to part 2 of the June 10 show and I’m about 1/3 of the way in (there’s a thin red-on-grey progress bar near the top; just click about a third of the way from the left, and drag right or left as necessary). The link, for those who prefer copying and pasting to clicking, is http://www.newstalk.com/listen_back/8/19227/10th_June_2015_-_Moncrieff_Part_2/


“Naïveté is one of the mothers of invention.” Tom Cochrane wrote that, and I think it’s true. As witness, I present the naspritus tree.

In the early 1980s, I listened to a lot of rock music, mostly on CJAY-92 (which, unlike many stations, you could still get as far up the Bow Valley from Calgary as Banff). I listened mainly on car stereos and the monophonic speakers of my bedroom clock radio and similar devices. If something was a hit in southern Alberta at the time, I heard it. Some songs that were big in many places were utterly foreign to me; others that were big hits in my world were little known elsewhere (for example “Love Me Today”). One song that was somewhere in between was “White Hot,” by Red Rider.

“White Hot” had the distinction, along with April Wine’s “Say Hello,” of having had a section of its instrumentals used for a time as theme music for the CTV station CFCN’s 6 pm news show. But that’s a bit of local side fame. The song was actually number 20 on the Canadian charts (and number 48 in the US) in 1980. So I heard it often enough.

But, you know, I heard it on those not-that-great radios, never with headphones, and almost always doing something else at the time. So I just had this sense of the song as being something about some war memories involving random African places, in particular Tripoli and Tanzania. The person singing it was white hot and couldn’t take it anymore and needed rain. And there were trees of various sorts. (“Fuselli, foxy rifles, and the trees, in Tanzania!”)* The one that stuck out for me was the naspritus tree – the words I heard every time it played were these:

I can remember the naspritus tree in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you in my core tree to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then,
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

The word naspritus was pronounced /ˈnæspraɪtəs/, like “nass pry tus.” Oddly for me, I never bothered looking it up, probably because (a) I wasn’t in a position to when I heard the song and (b) to be honest, it wasn’t a song I liked so well I would buy the album, so I wasn’t really going out of my way for it. Look, it took me a couple of decades to look up one odd phrase in a song I did like well – which led me to the made-up word classiomatic. (Who just makes up a word like that?)

I had an imagined idea of this naspritus tree when I listened to the song, of course. It seemed likely to be some kind of fruit tree, tall, leafy, in which a soldier might hide with his gun to protect another soldier. Somehow it had some local importance. Was it eternal like a Joshua tree, folkloric like a baobab tree, just one of those things one encounters locally like a maple tree, or some personal memory like, perhaps, a bergamot tree? Were its fruits like nectarines or tangerines? Its name was obviously a Latin species name – not something well enough known to have a non-technical name, unless it had gotten the name and then became known, like flowers such as acanthus or aspidistra. It seemed to me to be, most likely, a tree that wasn’t really all that special but was one of those convenient sufficiently exotic pegs on which to hang the superiority of a foreign memory.

But all that seeming barely outlasted the duration of the play of the song. Only occasionally would it cross my mind at other times to wonder what a naspritus tree might be, or what in fact Tom Cochrane actually was singing if not that.

A naspritus tree, as it turns out, is a tree on which grow the fruits of naïveté and illumination. When we pick up its fruit as we find it lying, it is naïveté. In naïveté we hear a thing and fill it in as best we can according to sound patterns we’re used to, much as we fill faces and figures into furniture when looking around a dark room. Names need not have obvious sense, after all; as long as it sounds plausible you can assume some reality for it. Why would there not be a Lady Mondegreen, or a car called a classiomatic?

But when we finally look up, the fruit we see is illumination.

Look up into the tree? Look up in our references. Look up the word or words we had heard. We are at last illuminated.

So now, having consulted transcriptions of the lyrics, having listened more closely on a better system, I can tell you that the words I heard are these:

I can remember the nights by the sea in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you and my poetry to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

Does that still not make perfect sense? It will help a little in the context of the song, which by this point you really ought to listen to:

But what will really help is this, Tom Cochrane’s reminiscence of writing the song, from http://www.tomcochrane.info/songstory/whitehot.php:

I guess it proves that naivete is one of the mothers of invention… I wrote most of the lyrics in a dusty corner of Guelph University’s Porter Hall library after reading Henry Miller’s White Heat/Time of The Assassins, an essay on Rimbaud. Kenny came up with the mystical piano intro after I played him the song at his place in north Toronto. I would travel to Somalia during the crisis there some 15 years later with World Vision. This was a country in which Rimbaud had sold guns, and unfortunately that legacy still remains.

There are two more things I must mention. First, if you listen to the song, you will hear something that sounds sort of like “summer lie” and, later, in the chorus, something that sounds sort of like “summer lyin’ shore.” These are in fact references to Somalia, as Cochrane says in the quote above. I’m really not sure how he got that odd hyper-Anglic pronunciation; it’s not in Oxford, let alone anywhere else. Perhaps it is one of the ground-lying fruits of the naspritus tree. Second, Arthur Rimbaud was the author of, among other things, the volume of poems Illuminations. I wonder whether Tom Cochrane had the occasion to read it while he was holed up in the library at Guelph… Illumination is, after all, one of the daughters of curiosity.

PS Guelph, pronounced “gwelf,” is a small city about an hour west of Toronto.

* The actual lyrics turn out to be “For selling faulty rifles to the thieves in Tanzania”

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.

English spelling is a mess because people are greedy, lazy snobs

The BBC has commissioned another article from me, and it’s just gone live today. It’s on BBC.com:

How the English language became such a mess

(It’s specifically about spelling, but the headline doesn’t say so.)

I’m told that people in Britain don’t have access to this BBC site because it’s intended for international audiences! But I’ve also been told that if you view it through Google Translate (tell it to translate from, I don’t know, Chinese or Russian or something like that; it will just show you the English as though it’s being quoted by Chinese or Russians), it will let you see it even if you’re in Britain.


Who can bear life adjacent to the jaculiferous? Who would not rather let sleeping fugu lie than suffer the slings and arrows of tetrodotoxin? Who would not reject a brush with a porcupine? And yet it can be so hard to spot them, swimming through social spheres innocuously until someone darts an odd glance or malapert word… and then the spines come out.

Well, there’s the long and the short of it: It can take a sharp eye to spot the danger, to see what will lie and what will dart. In Latin, jacere (really iacere, since Latin did not have separate letters for i and j, and what we now write as j was a consonantal version said like “y”) with a long e before the r (often represented now as jacēre) means ‘lie’ – as in lie there. Something that lies next to something else is adjacent. But jacere (iacere) with a short e (sometimes set down as jacĕre for clarity) means ‘throw’. As in alea jacta est, ‘the die is cast’. Modern words such as reject derive from that root. The Latin word jaculare is derived from it; it is a verb meaning ‘dart’. The noun jacula means the noun ‘dart’.

There are a few words that derive from this. Today’s word is one such. It combines with Latin ferre ‘bear, carry’ (ferre is related to the verb bear way back) to give us jaculiferous, ‘dart-bearing’ (if it were a common word, the puncturing would surely lead to occasional misconstrual as draculiferous, but it’s not). It refers to things that have darts or dart-like spines on them. An example is the genus Diodon, which contains the pufferfish, among which is one kind of fugu, a name for a few different blowfish that bear a deadly tetrodotoxin and just happen to be a famous item in Japanese cuisine. Of course you try to eat the parts without the toxin, or with just enough toxin to give you a slight tingle in the lips without actually, you know, paralyzing your respiratory system and killing you. As happened to the Kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, who rolled the dice (so to speak) and finally lost.

And we thought porcupines were hazardous. Oh, yes, porcupines are jaculiferous too. They don’t puff up like the fish, but they have the dart-like spines (the fact that they don’t throw them does not disqualify them). Both kinds of porcupines count. Say, did you know that New World porcupines are only distantly related to Old World porcupines? Old World porcupines are Hystricidae; New World porcupines are Erethizontidae. Something to think about when you’re pulling out the quills.

Jaculiferous things are best avoided. Jaculiferous people (figuratively speaking, of course) are also usually better treated with circumspection. But, as with the written form of the word, we carry on with life in the midst of them. We are always rolling the dice, never quite sure for whom the darts are borne.


As a rule, I do tastings of English words here, and the occasional loan that is at least partly adopted. Plus a few inventions. But today I saw an entirely non-English word that most Anglophones are unlikely ever to see, and I wanted to toss it in.

I am subscribed to word-of-the-day emails for several languages. It’s my idea of fun. I am variously incipiently able in the languages: Mandarin (been studying it for years off and on, but forget almost as much as I learn), Dutch (I got by in Amsterdam, but they all speak English), Portuguese (helped me on my recent vacation), Swedish (a useful interest, as I actually have relatives on my wife’s side in Sweden), Danish (added because we visited Copenhagen last year, but I don’t enjoy the language as I thought I would), Japanese (I know I will never get too far in it; if I plan a trip there I’ll add some elbow grease), and Finnish (because why not). Guess which one this word is from.

Did you guess Finnish? If so, you got it. Some clues include the length of the word, the number of double letters, and the unrecognizability of practically all of it.

Practically? Well, there is that moottori. Bear in mind that in Finnish a double letter is said like the single letter held for longer, so moottori sounds like motori said by someone trying to be creepy. Take off the i – which is there to make it more like a Finnish word following Finnish rules – and you have motor. Which, in fact, is what it is.

OK, so fine. What is the rest of this train wreck?

Train wreck? I don’t know if that’s actually quite the best word for it. To me it looks more like the skid marks left on a highway by a motorcycle that has slid on its side at highway speeds. Or perhaps like a Muybridge-style filmstrip of someone getting into a great difficulty at high speed. But if you’re Finnish you’ll spot the pieces and know how it’s put together. You’ll see moottori, then pyörä, then onnettomuus – which is in turn formed from onnetton plus uus, and onnetton in its turn is from onni pus ton.

So. Let’s pick up the pieces and reconstruct what’s happened here. Start with onni: it means ‘happiness’ or ‘luck’. Next ton, a suffix that’s like English –less, so onnetton means ‘happiness-less’ or ‘luckless’ or, more to the point, ‘unhappy’ or ‘unlucky’. The uus is a nominalizing suffix, like English –ness. So onnettomuus (note the shift from n to m; Finnish has little alternations like that just to keep agglutination interesting) could be translated as ‘unhappiness’ or ‘unluckiness’. Except it’s not.

Not? No. The direct English equivalent is accident. An accident may once have been just a “thing that happened,” but now it’s a bad thing that came about. An unhappy, unlucky incident.

Oh, and pyörä? It means ‘wheel’ or ‘cycle’. So: moottoripyöräonnettomuus means motorcycleaccident. Doesn’t it look fitting? I think it does.

Does it sound like one? I don’t think so, not so much, but here’s how to say it. Let’s start with the fact that all words in Finnish have stress on the first syllable. It’s separate from vowel and consonant length. This can take a lot of getting used to. Anyway, compound words have intermediate stress at the start of each of their compound parts: moottori pyöonnettomuus.

Finnish spelling is entirely phonetic. The sound of Finnish has been mistaken for Italian (by those who know neither language); the vowels are “pure.” But Finnish, unlike, say, Italian, also has front-back “vowel harmony”: all vowels in a given word (or part of a compound) are either front or back (neutral vowels can be in either). But this is a language-internal perspective: i and e are “neutral”; a, o, and u are the “back” vowels, and each has its “front” pair – a as in father pairs with ä as in hat (the sounds are closer together than the English pair for many dialects of English, though); o as in Italian solo pairs with ö as in German schön; u as in English chute pairs with y, which is like ü in German Führer or u in French lune.

And there are a few diphthongs; in this word, we see just one, probably the hardest one for Anglophones to nail: , which is like saying the English letter names “E-A” with your lips rounded tight. (You’ll need to learn it early; by itself is the Finnish word for ‘night’. ‘Goodnight’ is Hyvää yötä.)

So. From that, and remembering that double letters are like single letters but held longer, you have all the information you need to say moottoripyöräonnettomuus.

Which is like saying that if you’ve read about motorcycles and ridden a bicycle, you have all the information you need to drive a motorcycle: in reality you may lay it down sideways when you try. So you may need to practice a few times. If you feel that a bit of International Phonetic Alphabet would help, here you go: [ˈmoːtːoriˌpyøræˌonːɛtːomuːs].

Oh, sorry. Did that look like an even worse accident? Well, Finnish is one of those languages where the IPA won’t really make your life any easier.

And why did they choose this word, of all the words they could have chosen, for word of the day? Actually, they didn’t. The word of the day was moottoripyörä; there were several phrases using it included as illustration. This word came from the illustrations. But I must say that some of those WOTD emails have some pretty messed-up choices for illustrative sentences.