Tag Archives: language change

Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.


Who is at the frontline of language change?

Sorry, should that be front line? I think it should. If you are at the foremost front, you are at the forefront, not the fore front, but the line that forms the front of a battle – or, more figuratively, any other advance (especially in conflict situations) – is the front line, according to, well, every dictionary you look in.

But a lot of those dictionaries have frontline too. Not as a noun, though: as an adjective. Staff who are dealing directly with customers are front-line staff or frontline staff. If they were written as front line staff, there could be confusion over whether they were line staff at the front rather than staff at the front line. So we hyphenate. And, over time, as with this adjective, we may merge.

Or we may not. Mergers happen sometimes and not other times. You can be a healthcare professional working in health care – or working in healthcare, because that noun has a closed-up version now too. And you’re reading this on a website – or, to be old-fashioned, a web site. But you can have an ice cream float or an ice-cream float, but if you had an icecream float you risk having some pedant with a marker draw a couple of lines to indicate that there should be a space there, implying that you need grammatical trainingwheels.

The front lines, in language change as in war, are very uneven, meandering up and down and in and out, and the main thing that keeps them from moving is just if they get really entrenched (yes, when you think about it, front line and entrenched both call to mind the ghastly battles of World War I – both predate it by centuries, but both have military origins).

So… could frontline become the noun form too? Some people want it to be – a colleague mentioned to me that one of the people he works with is pushing for that change in their published text. Mind you, his coworker isn’t saying “I know that front line is standard, but I think we are making a good move forward to close up this compound. We may be in the, erm, vanguard, but we can take the fire.” No, his coworker is saying “I looked in the dictionary and it has frontline as a form so I’m going to use it everywhere.” His coworker is heedless of the noun-adjective distinction.

Which is how language change so often happens: reanalysis, or what members of preceding generations tend to call mistake. The English language isn’t really an ongoing battle – if there is an enemy, they are us. It’s more like a complex game that gets passed on from one family to another, and it doesn’t have a rulebook, and each new group of players pick up a few things from the previous players but mostly figure things out for themselves, resulting in some shift of the rules over time. We hear our parents talk, and we work things out for ourselves, and they don’t correct all of our reconstruals.

So, yeah, you could say that the front line in language change is the battle between the older generation, wanting to preserve what it knows, and the younger generation, wanting to do what suits them best. But from another perspective, the battle is as much like explorers having to put up with previous people – who didn’t get as far – shouting at them “No, you fools! You’ll fall off the edge of the planet!”

Fine, fine. The question remains: is frontline taking over from front line as a noun? Is it heading the way of healthcare and forefront? Will we soon see not only the frontline but the frontlines just as we see the headlines? Or is it like icecream and trainingwheels? Let’s have a look at a Google Ngram:

frontline_NOUN is way below front line_NOUN and both adjective forms, and not gaining very much

Hmm. Nope. Anyone who uses frontline as a noun is going to be awfully far in front of everyone else, exposed and prone to being shot at… from behind. And the general usage may not ever come close to catching up. It looks pretty well entrenched.

Addendum: I neglected to consider one important vector for change in this. Google ngrams are case-sensitive, and I only surveyed lower-case. But take a look at this:


So Frontline is increasing in usage much more than frontline. Why is that? I’ll tell you one reason. Since 1983, PBS has had a documentary series called Frontline. TV shows are important vectors for language change.

But that doesn’t mean the branding of the show is spreading the one-word noun throughout the language rapidly. A brand is a brand and may stay as such. Let’s put this in perspective:


After all, it’s on PBS, not NBC, ABC, or CBS. Public broadcasting is at the front line of knowledge, but most people don’t actually like to get too close to the front line. At least not intentionally.

Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time



No matter how you try to hold things, sometimes they get out of hand. This is especially true with language. To some extent, we are all ketchepillars.

What is a ketchepillar? Is it a caterpillar covered in ketchup (or some other red fluid)? Or a caterpillar you can’t catch? Or a pillar covered in ketchup, or on a ketch? Or a pillar you can’t catch? Or… wait, pillars don’t move. Unless you’re so intoxicated that they do. Or so dizzied by change.

No, a ketchepillar is…

…actually, let’s play our way to what it is. Let’s get on the ball. Let’s get a grip on the ball. Let’s get the ball in hand. Let’s play handball. Or, perhaps, play jeu de paume, ‘game of palm’, a game that was played starting in the 1200s and 1300s in long indoor courts with a gallery on one side. (Some of these courts still exist. One is an art gallery now. Another is a theatre.) The ball was hit with the palm. That was kind of brutal and bruising, and people sometimes need their hands for other things, so they started using gloves. And then they used vaguely palm-shaped paddles on sticks. These eventually became things we would call racquets.

Once racquets came in, it wasn’t really the game of the palm, was it? It’s still called jeu de paume in some places, but another name caught on, tenez, which is French for ‘hold’, ‘receive’, or ‘take’ (second person plural, imperative in this case). That got adapted into English as tennis.

But tennis isn’t played in walled-in courts, is it? No, it moved out onto the lawn on the 1800s and got a new set of rules. Now lawn tennis is just called tennis and the original indoor tennis is called real tennis by its players, because language sometimes moves about as fast as tennis balls.

And is subject to reconstruals, too. Take the term for ‘zero’ in tennis: love. You may have heard that it comes from French l’œuf, ‘the egg’. It’s an appealing story, but it lacks historical attestation. The evidence more supports the idea that the term came from the joke that if you weren’t scoring, you were just playing for the love of the game (or of your opponent, perhaps). In which case the reconstrual is not from l’œuf to love but from love to l’œuf!

But this doesn’t take us any closer to our ketchepillar. For that, we have to go Dutch, and then go Scottish. I am not making some oblique reference to economies, either. The Flemish name for the game, way back when, was caetse-speel, where speel means ‘game’ and caetse comes from Dutch kaats ‘place where the ball falls’ – taken from a northern French word cache, it seems, which meant ‘chase’. This got dragged into English as cachespule, cachespell, caichpule, catchpule, catchpole, cachepole, cache-puyll, cachespale, cachepill, kaichspell, and just who knows what-all else!

Who knows? The Scots know. Well, they did back in the 1500s, when they called it something more like ketchepill. And from that they gave us – and the Oxford English Dictionary – the word ketchepillar, meaning ‘tennis player’. (All of the above historical info is obligingly yielded up by the OED.) In this game of lexical tennis, you don’t just hit the ball back, you change it every time you try to get a grip on it.

Of course anyone who speaks English is playing a game – an ever-changing game with shifting rules and equipment, and you can’t win unless you, too, can shift as needed, crawling like a caterpillar across a tennis court. But, then, who needs to win if you’re playing it for love?

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.

Singlish damn shiok lah, can speak or not?

My latest article for the BBC is on Singlish, which is the local multilayered vernacular of Singapore. I’m not a Singlish speaker myself, but I happened to have a couple of good sources and a fair bit of useful research. It’s an interesting study in emergent language change – and social and governmental attitudes towards it. And the article is worth it just for the Singlish-overdubbed video I found of a scene from Frozen!

The language the government tried to suppress


Wherein I talk to Australians about accent shift

I was interviewed a while ago by Anthony Funnell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for his show Future Tense. I was talking about the subject of an article I wrote for The Week: How accents are shifting, and how young women are the best people to look to if you want to know how we will sound in the future. This isn’t ground-breaking research, but it’s something most non-linguists don’t know about. The show that was recorded for has just been broadcast, so you can listen to it now. My segment is at the 10-minute mark, but all three segments are worth a listen: