Tag Archives: language change

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:


Because language

First published on BoldFace, the official blog of EAC’s Toronto branch. Copyedited by Valerie Borden.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.


Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because.

Take a sentence. Any sentence. Even something that is used as a sentence but has no verb. Hey! There were some right there! Yes, we can and do use expressions such as “No” and “Hey, free candy!” and “The higher, the fewer” and “CAR!” in place of complete sentences. Since we can normally turn a complete sentence into a subordinate or coordinate clause, we should be able to use those other expressions the same way, right? Well, let’s just stick them in and see what happens: “I thought I could do it, but no.” “I’m dieting today, except hey, free candy!” “I climbed and discovered that the higher, the fewer.” “We scampered off the street because CAR!”

Do some of those seem more jarring than others? They well may. But for that very reason, they are more humorously effective. Consider this bit from a 1987 Saturday Night Live episode: “If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.” That appears to have been one of the seeds of the because [expression] trend that is increasingly popular because jarringly humorous: “I was wired last night because mmm sugar.” “They want to bomb it to the Stone Age because FREEDOM!”

This is not the same as the literary usage seen in “increasingly popular because jarring”—that’s an established predicative usage with an implied “it is”—but that may have had a slight influence. Rather, the current use seems to take the whole expression and plop it in as a substitute for a structured clause, and to do so as a deliberate syntactic mirroring of the leap of logic that it presents. It does not actually turn because into a preposition; the noun is what is converted. We see similar structures with other conjunctions—“We are hungry, therefore PIZZA!” and a favourite of mine from more than a decade ago, “You make good points but have failed to consider that bite me.”

What does turn because into a preposition is the reanalysis of this construction by newer, naïve users. This is, in fact, how syntactic change tends to happen: for fun or convenience, speakers of a language modify a structure or turn of phrase; then a subsequent generation reinterprets that usage as a different, easier-to-assimilate structure. You will probably agree that because as a preposition is easier to assimilate into a standard grammar of English than a noun as a complete subordinate clause. So now we can see children using because where their parents would have used because of: “I liked it because the ponies.” And this usage does not seem to draw on the substitute-for-reasoning effect.

You may not like this new usage; it’s not what you’re used to. But it’s language change, and you’re seeing it in action. It will be a while before it is accepted in formal usage, though. Expect sticklers to be routinely purple in the face about it by, say, AD 2050.

There’s much more to be said and read on this topic. I direct your attention to the following fine articles:

More radio interviews

My article on what American English will sound like in 2050, which led to my being on a radio show in Los Angeles, has since gotten me interviewed on two more radio shows – like the first one, on National Public Radio, which seems to be the only kind of radio station that cares about this kind of thing. You can listen to the interviews:

New Hampshire Public Radio, May 11 (11 minutes)

Georgia Public Broadcasting, June 4 (5½ minutes)