Tag Archives: good English

The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on BBC.com. This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up

 

The lord, the bishop, and the harlot: an etymological fallacy

This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/blog/2014/08/quest-post-the-lord-the-bishop-and-the-harlot-an-etymological-fallacy/

“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”

There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”

Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.

Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”

But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:

Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.

“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”

“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”

As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”

The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.

At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.

Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.

get

It was just after Montgomery’s and Elisa’s discussion of get-go and gecko that things almost came to blows.

Not between Elisa and Montgomery, to be sure; rather, the issue was with a prospective member who had joined us at the restaurant, a rather self-important specimen named Will Knott. He caught the end of the discussion on get-go and commented, to no one in particular, “I had thought that this was a society for people who valued the English language and knew how to use it well.”

“It is for people who love the language and wish to handle its words as fine ingredients in excellent dishes,” Montgomery said.

“So how did this one become a member?” he said, jerking his thumb at Elisa. “That’s not very good English. Get-go.” Elisa looked hurt and focused her attention on her wine glass and its emptying and refilling.

“You need to be sensitive to context,” I said, my hair starting to stand up on the back of my neck. “I’m not quite sure you got it. It was a colloquial recounting.”

He waved me off with his hand before I was done speaking and turned to Montgomery. “I suppose everyone enjoys a bit of slumming now and then, but I certainly wouldn’t allow such common – almost vulgar – words in my workplace. I handle important documents.”

Montgomery’s left eyebrow was arching ever so slightly higher and higher. “Vulgar?”

Get. Got. That’s not good English.”

Get is not good English?!” I exclaimed, almost disbelieving (I say “almost” because I have once or twice heard of others having the same view).

Will Knott sighed slightly and looked upwards for a moment. Then he continued speaking to Montgomery. “It’s a bit discouraging that you have members who are surprised to hear this.”

“Perhaps,” Montgomery said, “it’s that they wonder at your placing yourself above Shakespeare, Pope, Dickens, Thackeray, Emerson…”

“Shakespeare had terrible grammar,” Will Knott said. “Everyone knows that. Many supposedly great authors were sloppy with their usage.”

“You don’t like ‘Get thee to a nunnery’?”

“He was just trying to fit his meter. He could have said ‘Take thou holy orders’ or ‘Enter the novitiate’ or any of several better options. It doesn’t even make sense as it is. Get means ‘receive’. Receive thee to a nunnery?”

Get has a rather broader range of use than that,” Montgomery said.

“I’m talking about the proper definition,” Will said.

“I thought you said it wasn’t a proper word,” I said. Will made an eye roll worthy of a fourteen-year-old girl and returned to ignoring me.

“The Germanic root it comes from,” Montgomery said, “is one referring to seizing, taking hold of, grasping, obtaining, and such like. The word get has, of course, been in the English language as long as there has been an English language to be in.”

“A weak defence,” Will said. “There are always better words, just as with many other old Anglo-Saxon words. I hope you grasp my meaning. Not get, grasp.”

“I don’t know that you can always get away with such substitutions,” Montgomery said.

“Would you use that sentence in a government report?” said Will. “It would be better as ‘Such substitutions may not always be allowed.’ Or, to avoid the passive, ‘You may not always succeed in making such substitutions.’”

“They don’t mean the same thing,” I said.

“Could you be quiet?” Will said. “The adults are speaking.”

“Get over yourself,” I said.

He gave me a condescending look over the tops of his glasses. “Be less impressed with yourself.”

“You might want to try to get along with others,” Montgomery said.

Agree is a better word than get along with,” Will replied.

Elisa broke her silence. “Even I know that those don’t mean the same thing.”

“You do not know all the meanings of the word agree,” Will said.

You don’t know all the meanings of the word get,” I said. “And you get your back up too readily.”

“I am too readily irritated, you mean,” he said. “However, it seems to me that you are the one with a temper here.”

Montgomery gestured towards me and Elisa. “It is from members such as these that you must get permission to get into the Order of Logogustation.”

“Obtain permission,” Will said. “Obtain is a much better word. And join or enter, not get into.”

“You truly feel that this is the way to get ahead?”

“To advance, I believe you mean?”

Montgomery paused and glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s getting on.”

“The hour is advancing,” Will corrected him.

“Let’s get this over with,” Montgomery said, glancing at me.

“Draw it to a conclusion,” Will said.

“Get up,” Montgomery said.

“Arise,” Will said.

“And get out,” Montgomery said.

“Leave, exit, depart,” Will said.

“I mean you,” Montgomery said. “Do you get it now?”

“Understand it, you mean,” Will said.

“We mean get out,” I said, positioning myself behind him with two of the waiters, whom I had signalled to come over. “You will never get in. You need to get a clue.”

“The door is this way, sir,” said one of the waiters. “Don’t make us exert ourselves.”

Will Knott looked at us distastefully and drew himself up to standing. He looked for moment more and made a bee-line for the door, muttering “Disappointing!” loudly enough for all to hear.

“You ignorant git,” I said after him as he left, exited, departed.