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Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on February 1, 2012

How Americans Have Reshaped Language

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on January 22, 2012
Published: January 20, 2012


There has always been disagreement on these American shores as to just what the “best” English is. The status of Parisian French or Tuscan Italian has long been unassailable. Yet in the early 1940s, fusty Chicagoans were writing to The Chicago Tribune declaring Midwestern speech America’s “purest,” while New York radio announcers were speaking in plummy Londonesque, complete with rolled r’s. Down in Charleston, S.C., the elite’s sense of the best English involved peculiar archaisms like “cam” for “calm” and “gyardin” for “garden.”



A History of English in the United States

By Richard W. Bailey

207 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.

In “Speaking American,” a history of American English, Richard W. Bailey argues that geography is largely behind our fluid evaluations of what constitutes “proper” English. Early Americans were often moving westward, and the East Coast, unlike European cities, birthed no dominant urban standard. The story of American English is one of eternal rises and falls in reputation, and Bailey, the author of several books on English, traces our assorted ways of speaking across the country, concentrating on a different area for each 50-year period, starting in Chesapeake Bay and ending in Los Angeles.

We are struck by the oddness of speech in earlier America. A Bostonian visiting Philadelphia in 1818 noted that his burgherly hostess casually pronounced “dictionary” as “disconary” and “again” as “agin.” William Cullen Bryant of Massachusetts, visiting New York City around 1820, wrote not about the “New Yawkese” we would expect, but about locutions, now vanished, like “sich” for “such” and “guv” for “gave.” Even some aspects of older writing might throw us. Perusing The Chicago Tribune of the 1930s, we would surely marvel at spellings like “crum,” “heven” and “iland,” which the paper included in its house style in the ultimately futile hope of streamlining English’s spelling system.

A challenge for a book like Bailey’s, however, is the sparseness of evidence on earlier forms of American English. The human voice was unrecorded before the late 19th century, and until the late 20th recordings of casual speech, especially of ordinary people, were rare. Meanwhile, written evidence of local, as opposed to standard, language has tended to be cursory and of shaky accuracy.

For example, the story of New York speech, despite the rich documentation of the city over all, is frustratingly dim. On the one hand, an 1853 observer identified New York’s English as “purer” than that found in most other places. Yet at the same time chronicles of street life were describing a jolly vernacular that has given us words like “bus,” “tramp” and “whiff.” Perhaps that 1853 observer was referring only to the speech of the better-­off. But then just 16 years later, a novel describes a lad of prosperous upbringing as having a “strong New York accent,” while a book of 1856 warning against “grammatical embarrassment” identifies “voiolent” and “afeard” as pronunciations even upwardly mobile New Yorkers were given to. So what was that about “pure”?

Possibly as a way of compensating for the vagaries and skimpiness of the available evidence, Bailey devotes much of his story to the languages English has shared America with. It is indeed surprising how tolerant early Americans were of linguistic diversity. In 1903 one University of Chicago scholar wrote proudly that his city was host to 125,000 speakers of Polish, 100,000 of Swedish, 90,000 of Czech, 50,000 of Norwegian, 35,000 of Dutch, and 20,000 of Danish.

What earlier Americans considered more dangerous to the social fabric than diversity were perceived abuses within English itself. Prosecutable hate speech in 17th-century Massachusetts included calling people “dogs,” “rogues” and even “queens” (though the last referred to prostitution); magistrates took serious umbrage at being labeled “poopes” (“dolts”). Only later did xenophobic attitudes toward other languages come to prevail, sometimes with startling result. In the early years of the 20th century, California laws against fellatio and cunnilingus were vacated on the grounds that since the words were absent from dictionaries, they were not English and thus violations of the requirement that statutes be written in English.

Ultimately, however, issues like this take up too much space in a book supposedly about the development of English itself. Much of the chapter on Philadelphia is about the city’s use of German in the 18th century. It’s interesting to learn that Benjamin Franklin was as irritated about the prevalence of German as many today are about that of Spanish, but the chapter is concerned less with language than straight history — and the history of a language that, after all, isn’t English. In the Chicago chapter, Bailey mentions the dialect literature of Finley Peter Dunne and George Ade but gives us barely a look at what was in it, despite the fact that these were invaluable glimpses of otherwise rarely recorded speech.

Especially unsatisfying is how little we learn about the development of Southern English and its synergistic relationship with black English. Bailey gives a hint of the lay of the land in an impolite but indicative remark about Southern child rearing, made by a British traveler in 1746: “They suffer them too much to prowl amongst the young Negroes, which insensibly causes them to imbibe their Manners and broken Speech.” In fact, Southern English and the old plantation economy overlap almost perfectly: white and black Southerners taught one another how to talk. There is now a literature on the subject, barely described in the book.

On black English, Bailey is also too uncritical of a 1962 survey that documented black Chicagoans as talking like their white neighbors except for scattered vowel differences (as in “pin” for “pen”). People speak differently for interviewers than they do among themselves, and modern linguists have techniques for eliciting people’s casual language that did not exist in 1962. Surely the rich and distinct — and by no means “broken” — English of today’s black people in Chicago did not arise only in the 1970s.

Elsewhere, Bailey ventures peculiar conclusions that may be traceable to his having died last year, before he had the chance to polish his text. (The book’s editors say they have elected to leave untouched some cases of “potential ambiguity.”) If, as Bailey notes, only a handful of New Orleans’s expressions reach beyond Arkansas, then exactly how was it that New Orleans was nationally influential as the place “where the great cleansing of American English took place”?

And was 17th-century America really “unlike almost any other community in the world” because it was “a cluster of various ways of speaking”? This judgment would seem to neglect the dozens of colonized regions worldwide at the time, when legions of new languages and dialects had already developed and were continuing to evolve. Of the many ways America has been unique, the sheer existence of roiling linguistic diversity has not been one of them.

The history of American English has been presented in more detailed and precise fashion elsewhere — by J. L. Dillard, and even, for the 19th century, by Bailey himself, in his under­read ­“Nineteenth-Century English.” Still, his handy tour is useful in imprinting a lesson sadly obscure to too many: as Bailey puts it, “Those who seek stability in English seldom find it; those who wish for uniformity become laughingstocks.”


Phoney politeness and muddled messages: a guide to euphemisms

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on December 18, 2011

Making murder respectable


SHORT sharp terms make big points clear. But people often prefer to soften their speech with euphemism: a mixture of abstraction, metaphor, slang and understatement that offers protection against the offensive, harsh or blunt. In 1945, in one of history’s greatest euphemisms, Emperor Hirohito informed his subjects of their country’s unconditional surrender (after two atomic bombs, the loss of 3m people and with invasion looming) with the words, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

Euphemisms range promiscuously, from diplomacy (“the minister is indisposed”, meaning he won’t be coming) to the bedroom (a grande horizontale in France is a notable courtesan). But it is possible to attempt a euphemistic taxonomy. One way to categorise them is ethical. In “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote that obfuscatory political language is designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. Some euphemisms do distort and mislead; but some are motivated by kindness.

Another way to typify them is by theme. A third—and a useful way to begin—is by nationality. A euphemism is a kind of lie, and the lies peoples and countries tell themselves are revealing.

American euphemisms are in a class of their own, principally because they seem to involve words that few would find offensive to start with, replaced by phrases that are meaninglessly ambiguous: bathroom tissue for lavatory paper, dental appliances for false teeth, previously owned rather than used, wellness centres for hospitals, which conduct procedures not operations. As the late George Carlin, an American comedian, noted, people used to get old and die. Now they become first preelderly, then senior citizens and pass away in a terminal episode or (if doctors botch their treatment) after a therapeutic misadventure. These bespeak a national yearning for perfection, bodily and otherwise.

Sensitive China, perfidious Albion

Some Chinese euphemisms also stem from squeamishness. Rather than inquire about a patient’s sex life, doctors may ask if you have much time for fang shi (room business). Online sites sell qingqu yongpin, literally “interesting love products”.

But Chinese circumlocution is often a form of polite opacity. Chinese people don’t like being too direct in turning down invitations or (as many journalists find) requests for interviews. So they will frequently reply that something is bu fangbian (not convenient). This does not mean reapply in a few weeks’ time. It means they don’t want to do it, ever. If they don’t want to tell you what is going on they will say vaguely they are bu qingchu: literally “I’m not clear.”

One feature of Chinese euphemisms comes from the tonal nature of the language. Yanis slang for cigarettes; jiu means alcohol. But, with different tones, the two syllables together can also mean “to research”. So a corrupt official being asked to do something might suggest, “Let’s research (yanjiu) this issue together”, by which he would probably mean, “Give me some cigarettes and some alcohol and I’ll make it happen.”

The British are probably the world champions of euphemism. The best of these are widely understood (at least among natives), creating a pleasant sense of complicity between the euphemist and his audience. British newspaper obituaries are a rich seam: nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, yet many enjoy a hint of the truth about the person who has “passed away”. A drunkard will be described as “convivial” or “cheery”. Unbearably garrulous is “sociable” or the dread “ebullient”; “lively wit” means a penchant for telling cruel and unfunny stories. “Austere” and “reserved” mean joyless and depressed. Someone with a foul temper “did not suffer fools gladly”. The priapic will have “enjoyed female company”; nymphomania is “notable vivacity”. Uncontrollable appetites of all sorts may earn the ultimate accolade: “He lived life to the full.”

Such euphemisms are a pleasant echo of an age when private lives enjoyed a degree of protective discretion that now seems unimaginable in Britain. That left room for “a confirmed bachelor” (a homosexual) or someone “burdened by occasional irregularities in his private life” (leaving the reader guessing whether the problem was indecent exposure, adultery or cross-dressing).

Writing about dead people is a question only of taste, because they can’t sue. Describing the living (especially in libel-happy jurisdictions such as England) requires prudence. “Thirsty” applied to a British public figure usually means heavy drinking; “tired and emotional” (a term that has moved from the pages of Private Eye, a satirical magazine, into general parlance) means visibly drunk. “Hands-on mentoring” of a junior colleague can be code for an affair, hopefully not coupled with a “volatile” personality, which means terrifying eruptions of temper. References to “rumbustious” business practices or “controversial”, “murky” and “questionable” conduct usually mean the journalist believes something illegal is going on, but couldn’t stand it up in court if sued.

In the upper reaches of the British establishment, euphemism is a fine art, one that new arrivals need to master quickly. “Other Whitehall agencies” or “our friends over the river” means the intelligence services (American spooks often say they “work for the government”). A civil servant warning a minister that a decision would be “courageous” is saying that it will be career-cripplingly unpopular. “Adventurous” is even worse: it means mad and unworkable. A “frank discussion” is a row, while a “robust exchange of views” is a full-scale shouting match. (These kind of euphemisms are also common in Japanese, where the reply maemuki ni kento sasete itadakimasu—I will examine it in a forward-looking manner—means something on the lines of “This idea is so stupid that I am cross you are even asking me and will certainly ignore it.”)

Euphemism is so ingrained in British speech that foreigners, even those who speak fluent English, may miss the signals contained in such bland remarks as “incidentally” (which means, “I am now telling you the purpose of this discussion”); and “with the greatest respect” (“You are mistaken and silly”). This sort of code allows the speaker to express anger, contempt or outright disagreement without making the emotional investment needed to do so directly. Some find that cowardly.

Boardroom, bathroom, bedroom

A thematic taxonomy of euphemism should have a category devoted to commerce. Business euphemisms are epitomised by the lexicon of property salesmen. A “bijou” residence is tiny (it may also be “charming”, “cosy” or “compact”). A “vibrant” neighbourhood is deafeningly noisy; if it is “up and coming” it is terrifyingly crime-ridden, whereas a “stone’s throw from” means in reach of a powerful catapult. Conversely, “convenient for” means “unpleasantly close to”. “Characterful” means the previous owner was mad or squalid. “Scope for renovation” means decrepit; “would suit an enthusiast” means a ruin fit only for a madman.

But the richest categories would centre on cross-cultural taboos such as death and bodily functions. The latter seem to embarrass Americans especially: one can ask for the “loo” in a British restaurant without budging an eyebrow; don’t try that in New York. Lavatory and toilet were once euphemisms themselves; they in turn were replaced by water closet (WC) and the absurd “rest room”. British English encourages lively scatological synonyms: foreigners told that someone is “taking a slash” or “on the bog” may be mystified.



Sex outstrips even excretion as a source of euphemism. The Bible is full of them: “foot” for penis, “know” for intercourse, with “other flesh” if transgressive. Masturbation was self-abuse or the sin of Onan to the Victorians; oral sex is “playing the bamboo flute” in Japanese. A prostitute accosting a client on the streets of Cairo will ask Fi hadd bitaghsal hudoumak (Literally, “Do you have someone to wash your clothes?”)

Even the most straight-talking obfuscate that line of work. Swedes, like many others, refer to världens äldsta yrke (the world’s oldest profession). A brothel in Russian is a publichny dom—literally a “public house”, which causes problems when British visitors with rudimentary Russian try to explain the delights of their village hostelry. In China many hair salons, massage parlours and karaoke bars double as brothels. Hence anmo(massage), falang (hair salon) or a zuyu zhongxin (foot-massage parlour) can lead to knowing nods and winks. For obscure reasons, Germans call the same institution aPuff. In Japan, such places are called sopurando, (a corrupted version of “soapland”) or a pin-saro (pink salon).

Euphemisms for the act itself may be prim (carnal knowledge), poetic (make love) or crude (shagging). Over time such expressions lose their suggestive power and may even become off limits themselves. To engage in sexual intercourse in German is bumsen (to thump), along the lines of the English “bonk”. To masturbate is wichsen (to polish). In both cases the slang sexual connotation has overtaken the original one.

Personal ads provide an entire subgenre of euphemism. “Cuddly” means “fat”. “Romantic” means needy and clingy. “Old-fashioned” means inconsiderate sex (if male) or infrequent (for females). “Outgoing and fun-loving” mean annoyingly talkative, promiscuous or both. “Open-minded” means desperate.

Little white lies

Orwell was right: euphemisms can be sneaky and coercive. They cloak a decision’s unpleasant results, as in “let go” for “fire”, or “right-sizing” for “mass sackings”. They make consequences sound less horrid—as, chillingly, in “collateral damage” for “dead civilians”.

Such jargony, polysyllabic euphemisms, often using long Latinate words instead of short Anglo-Saxon ones, can quickly become an argot used by slippery-tongued, well-educated insiders to defend their privileges. With luck, the real word may fall into disuse and the humble outsider will feel intimidated by the floppy, opaque language that masks wrongdoing or shortcoming. How do you begin to complain if you don’t know the lingo?

Politically correct euphemisms are among the most pernicious. Good and bad become “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. A ghastly problem becomes a less alarming “challenging issue”. Spending is investment; cuts are savings. “Affected by material error” (in European Union parlance) means money stolen from the budget.

But euphemisms can also be benign, even necessary. Sometimes the need to prevent hurt feelings justifiably takes precedence over clarity. Saying that dim or disruptive children have “special needs”, or that they exhibit “challenging behaviour”, does not make them easier to teach—but it may prevent them being teased or disheartened. “Frail” (of an old person) is nicer than doddery or senile. Euphemisms may be a species of lie, but some of them are white.

A culture without euphemism would be more honest, but rougher. Here’s a New Year’s resolution: scrub your conversation of euphemism for a day. The results will startle you.


the language police

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on December 17, 2011
Why do they adopt an error-hunting mindset?

Oliver Burkeman Weekend illustration 17 Dec 2011

‘The debate about how far language ought to be allowed to evolve is an old one.’ Illustration: Adam Howling for the Guardian

Think of the word “atrocity”, and certain appalling behaviours spring to mind. Add “barbaric”, and the picture gets worse. How about a barbaric atrocity that’s “detestable” and provokes “horror”? At this point, it’s surely time for a UN intervention. We must act to halt this outrage! Except that all the words just quoted come from discussions of the uses and abuses of English. Simon Heffer, in his recent book Strictly English, thinks the so-called “greengrocer’s apostrophe” is an atrocity, and that academics write barbarically; William Zinsser’s guidebook On Writing Well also condemns some usages as atrocities, and others as detestable. Meanwhile, contributors to a BBC debate on Americanisms earlier this year spoke of their “horror” and “hate” in reaction to phrases that made them “feel the rage rising”. The debate about how far language ought to be allowed to evolve is an old one. But all this fury raises a more specific psychological question: what are people so angry about?

This is the topic of The Phenomenology of Error, a fascinating paper published 30 years ago by the linguist Joseph Williams, recently highlighted on the blog Lingua Franca. It’s true that some of this language-policing is done humorously. But there’s something weirdly disproportionate about it all. Most social annoyances are either invasions of space, as when someone jabs you with an elbow, or invasions of “psychic space”, like chatting about your bowel troubles over dinner. But using a split infinitive, or “can I get” instead of “may I have”, is neither. Yet “the language people use to condemn linguistic errors seems far more intense than the language they use to [condemn]… a hard bump on the arm,” Williams writes. (To incite pub debates, try suggesting there’s nothing wrong with “can I get”. Hilarity will ensue.) Sometimes, an ulterior motive is obvious: the Plain English Campaign, which purports to fight for clarity, is shamefully eager to jump on made-up “PC gone mad” stories like the fuss about the BBC’s use of BC and AD. But it’s often less clear. “Deep psychic forces,” Williams suspects, are at play.

A clue to the answer, he suggests, lies in the curious frequency with which the critics of “bad” English make the very errors they despise. EB White, who co-wrote The Elements Of Style, used “that” and “which” in violation of his own rules. Heffer, among various sins, condemns the passive voice but deploys it freely. (George Orwell did the same.) What this demonstrates, to simplify Williams’s point, is that the “error-hunting” mindset is a way of relating to language that’s utterly different than (from?) the one we normally use. Go looking for mistakes and you’ll find them; don’t look, and many won’t impinge on your consciousness. Heffer et al, it seems, take the latter stance towards their own work. In his final paragraphs, Williams reveals his paper contains numerous deliberate errors. He asks his readers: did you spot them? Exactly.

So why adopt error-hunting mindset? Simply because “it feels more authentic when we condemn error and enforce a rule… what good is learning a rule if all we can do is obey it?” Anger delivers ego-enhancing pleasure; so does strengthening the boundaries of group membership – and carping about language is far more socially acceptable than explicit class snobbery or nationalism (not to mention less bother than confronting actual atrocities). Still, can we get, sorry, “may we have”, a bit of perspective, please?

 – guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 December 2011

 • oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uktwitter.com/oliverburkeman

Disgust: How did the word change so completely?

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on December 4, 2011

Illustration of vandal breaking a window, by Ben Newman

Originally “disgust” was used to express distaste for rotten food or filth. Today it’s deployed against looters, phone hackers and others whose actions many find morally murky. So how did the meaning change so much?

Shakespeare was never disgusted. This was not a word at the Elizabethan playwright’s disposal – it only entered the English language towards the end of his life.

He instead wrote of “gorge rising”. Same emotion. Different phraseology.

Today the word disgust has replaced more visceral descriptions of revulsion and loathing.

It came into English in 1601 from the Old French “desgouster” meaning distaste, loathe or dislike, in the sense of giving a bad taste to one’s mouth, says Gerry Breslin, of Collins Language.

It was also used to mean aversion, but took another 200 years to gain widespread usage.

“Nowadays people and attitudes can disgust us rather than tastes and smells. The verb has lost its currency, but we do use the adjective disgusting to cover all of these usages.”

But what disgusts us most? A new morality test, devised by the BBC’s Lab UK, tests reactions to various scenarios. The scientists behind the test want to find out how our sense of right and wrong holds society together.

This sense of a purely moral disgust evolved to protect communities from those who threaten our ability to work together, says behavioural scientist Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“The word that we use for it has changed, but the emotion has not. Disgust is a system in the brain that helps us avoid disease and contamination, and also human parasites.

“It’s an ancient reaction. We already had an emotion that was good for shunning people with poor hygiene, so we started to use the same emotion to push transgressors out of the group.”

Graph showing frequency of use of word disgusted

It is difficult to chart the shifting meanings of disgust.

Politicians use it, as it’s a powerful means to contaminate people with their words”

Val Curtis

But Google Ngram measures the frequency with which it appears in books and periodicals, and shows a sharp spike in 1800, when the Industrial Revolution picked up steam and urban drift became an urban rush.

“Letters to the editor, and the journalists themselves, have used disgust, disgusting or disgusted to describe their reactions to things they don’t like right back into the 18th Century,” says Bob Clarke, the author of From Grub Street to Fleet Street: an Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899.

Examples plucked from his collection of letters to the editor include:

  • “SIR – I was much disgusted, with many more peaceable people, at the afternoon demonstration held in our town, on Wednesday last, by the colliers of the district” – Wrexham Advertiser, 5 February 1870
  • “Lord Bute has triumphed over all to the disgust of an incensed people” – letter to the editor, Middlesex Journal, 19 November 1774

“The use of the word disgusted was so common that it was sometimes used in error,” says Mr Clarke.

This necessitated corrections and clarifications such as this from the Blackburn Standard in March 1850: “In our summary of Friday, Lord J Russell is made to say that ‘the country was still disgusted with recent legislation’. It was a misprint; the word should have been ‘disquieted’.”

The origins of the pen name Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells are not clear. Wikipedia cites historian and former newspaper editor Frank Chapman attributing it to staff at the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser. The story goes that letters were made up to fill space and one member of staff signed off theirs with “Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells”.

Another story goes that it came from a letter-writer to The Times or Daily Telegraph.

It is thought that the phrase does date from the mid-20th Century. But similarly named correspondents have been composing slightly humorous letters of complaint since the mid-19th Century.

The Oxford English Dictionary carries this definition: “Disgusted n. Brit. (usually humorous or depreciative). Originally as a self-designation: a member of the public who writes anonymously to a newspaper expressing outrage about a particular issue. Hence more widely: a person who is vocal and indignant in his or her opposition to something.”

The first recorded usage dates from 26 September 1868, when “Yours, &c., Disgusted” wrote to the Musical Standard about the position of an organ in a Kennington chapel.

“The humour lies in applying a word which conveys strong emotion to a relatively minor or trivial matter,” says Denny Hilton, the OED’s senior assistant editor. “This sort of weakening of meaning is a natural feature of language development – we abominate things, or adore them, or describe them as disasters, or nightmares, in much the same way.”

Words commonly paired with disgust

Young woman pulling a disgusted face
  • behaviour, habit, attitude
  • crime
  • story
  • revelation
  • insult
  • greed
  • Also goo, concoction, mess

Source: Collins Corpus of 4.5 bn words

By 1978, this nom de plume for an outraged letter-writer was so well-worn that Radio 4 called its new listener feedback programme Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells. (It has since been renamed the rather more prosaic Feedback.)

But disgust and its variations are also popular with politicians and commentators, and not for comic effect, says Dr Curtis.

“It’s a word that sticks to people and is used to label them. So politicians often use it, as it’s a powerful means to contaminate people with their words. Immigrants and homosexuals have both been on the receiving end of this over time.”

Then there is the way it rolls off the tongue when one wants to sound truly outraged, says Breslin.

“The s sounds and the harsh g and final t help to make it a very sonorous and impactful word.”

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

Graham StewartNewspaper historian

The Times digital archive covers every issue of the paper between 1785 and 1985.

The phrase “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” was only used twice during that 200-year period, the first in 1980 and then in 1983 – in both cases deployed as an already well-worn phrase.

As for “Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells”, the earliest reference in our archive is in a leading article entitled “What Matters in a Democracy” from 3 January 1964 which contains the line – “[T]he present Conservative government is more socialistic than [Ramsay] MacDonald’s cared to be little more than 30 years ago – an observation frequently echoed by that other political commentator, ‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’.”

From which we can deduce that by 1964 the term was already a well-worn cliche – though not one that had previously appeared in The Times.


By Megan LaneBBC News Magazine


Académie Française challenged to update language with fresh bon mots

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 27, 2011

Could attachiant, eurogner or bête seller win approval from the French-language watchdog and make it into the dictionary?

Jeanne Moreau in the film JULES ET JIM

Attachiante: a woman you can’t live with but can’t live without, as personified by Jeanne Moreau’s character Catherine in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive

The French may be notoriously touchy about their language, but it seems even the watchdogs of the august Académie Française – whose members, known as “immortals”, have had the last word in matters of Gallic linguistics since 1635 – are not averse to accepting new entries to their celebrated dictionary.

Whether the offerings of the 2011 XYZ festival of new words will pass scrutiny, however, is another matter. Celebrating its 10th year of promoting neologisms, the festival, held in the western French port of Le Havre this weekend, announced its word of the year at the weekend.

The winner was attachiant(e) – a combination of attachant (captivating, endearing) and the slang word chiant (bloody nuisance) to denote someone you cannot live with but cannot live without.

It was followed closely by aigriculteur suggesting a farmer unhappy with his lot in life – as many are – by mixing the French word for farmer withaigri (embittered) and with just a hint of aïe! (French for ouch!).

A particular favourite that made this year’s shortlist was bête seller, describing a particularly awful literary work that becomes an instant hit, and the timely eurogner – euro plus rogner (to cut down) – to suggest making savings in the euro zone.

Someone had also come up with the verb textoter (to write SMS messages on a mobile telephone), presumably something last year’s winner, a phonard – a pejorative term for someone who is glued to their mobile phone – does all the time.

Previous festivals have thrown up gems including ordinosore (ordinateurplus dinosaur, an out-of-date computer), bonjoir (bonjour plus bonsoir, a greeting to be said around midday), and photophoner (to take a photo with a mobile phone).

Éric Donfu, a sociologist and expert in changes in contemporary society, who is the festival’s founder and organiser, said the idea of the event is to breathe new life into the French language. “This festival defends the idea, as expounded by Victor Hugo, that language is a living thing and dies if we don’t invent new words,” he said.

Members of the public are invited to submit their ideas for neologisms atfestival-motnouveau@gmail.com. A shortlist is drawn up and presented to festival guests in Paris and Le Havre in the third week of November.

It remains to be seen whether the Académie Française, which in recent years has concentrated on eliminating nasty Anglo-Saxon interlopers from the French language, will consider any of the new words when it draws up the latest volume of its dictionary.

The three published volumes of the ninth edition – on which work began in 1986 – contains more than 35,000 words, including 15,000 deemed new, and their correct usage. In its eternal quest for linguistic purity and definition, a fourth volume is in progress.

On its website it says: “The Académie never refuses modernness. It only refuses that which threatens the continuity of the language.”

It also states that the Académie’s principle role is to “work with all possible care and diligence to give our language definite rules and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with art and science”.

And what could be clearer, when dealing with the art and science of love, than describing someone as attachiant(e)?


 in Paris – guardian.co.uk, Sunday 27 November 2011


Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 24, 2011

Story Image

 Labour leader Ed Miliband is credited with coining the phrase

TO some people, the term “squeezed middle” will be associated with eating too many mince pies over Christmas.

 But today academics at Oxford University Press will name it as the global Word of the Year for expressing a very different meaning.

It’s official definition is: “The section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those people on low or middle incomes.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband is credited with coining the phrase when he said his aim in politics was to stand up for the “squeezed middle”.

Language experts in both the UK and the US have been impressed with how quickly the expression has taken hold and become commonplace. Oxford Dictionaries spokeswoman Susie Dent said: “The speed with which ‘squeezed middle’ has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance, made it a good candidate for Word of the Year.”

Other contenders were Arab Spring (political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East), hacktivism (gaining unauthorised access to computer files), Occupy (an international movement protesting against perceived economic injustice), phone hacking (the action or practice of gaining access to data stored in another person’s phone), and sodcasting (playing music through the loudspeaker of a mobile phone while in a public place).

Ms Dent added: “It is not a jolly set. If there was no obvious winner, there was a very clear prevailing mood.

“Financial hardship and protest on an almost unprecedented scale have scored our language deeply, and frivolous word-play was hard to find.” However, the panel did consider bunga bunga, to describe former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous parties, and fracking, the forcing open of fissures in rocks with liquid at high pressure to extract oil or gas.

Wednesday November 23,2011 – By Nathan Rao


The cool twists of language

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 24, 2011

Guardian letter writers have been enjoying dissecting the word ‘cool’ – it may have had a surprising path to its modern meaning. 

s – guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 November 2011 

Anton Chekov

Translating Chekhov can draw out the subtlety of language. Photograph: Unknown/ Bettmann/Corbis

The Oxford philosopher JL Austin once observed in a lecture that in English a double negative implied a positive meaning, whereas no language had been found in which a double positive implied a negative meaning. Another philosopher who was in the audience that day made a very simple counterclaim just by saying “yeah, yeah”.

Over time words and expressions change in sound, in spelling and in use, sometimes at a snail’s pace and sometimes almost overnight – ascontributors to the Guardian’s letters page have recently reminded us with reference to “cool”. A change in meaning may follow a comprehensible if always tortuous path (from the coarse cloth, or bure, on the tables of medieval clerks to the modern bureaucrat, for example), or it may switch at a stroke into its opposite. Rien, the French word for “nothing”, for example, is derived from the Latin rem, which means “something” (in the accusative case). By what path can a word get from meaning “something” to meaning “nothing”? It’s like asking how anything can be “hot” and “cool” at the same time. Obviously, they can be – especially if you don’t even know whether the jazz throbbing through the speakers is hot, cool, or just loud.

In Chekhov’s short story Agafya, two rather disreputable fellows offer a girl a glass of vodka. She replies with a colloquial expression –Выдумал! – that means something like “Where did you get the idea [that I drink vodka]?” or “What put that idea into your head?” or “Don’t insult me!” A thoughtful professional American translator of Chekhov expresses the force of the girl’s response by “Oh! Please!” To my British ear, however, “Oh! Please!” is not a negative but an extremely positive expression. I can hear the young woman clapping her hands and springing to her feet to say in a squeaky treble, ooopleeeez! But for my American colleague, “oh please” is pronounced with an intercalated aspirated schwa between the first two consonants – p-h-er-leez – and for her it is a put-down, a wrist-slap, a no-no. The English word “please” means “yes” – and it means “no”.

It’s not enough to say that’s just a difference between British and American English. Speakers of British English know that “Oh please” if said with the extra half-syllable between the p and l is a negative expression, just as Americans know that “Oh please” said with a rising intonation is a positive. When written down, the words oh please mean anything you want them to mean in the imaginary linguistic context your mind supplies. Same in French, as a matter of fact: merci means “thank you” and it also means “no thank you”, depending on how you say it, in what circumstances, and to whom.

Most philosophers do not like expressions that mean one thing and its opposite. Aristotle came up with the law of excluded middle to get rid of them: “For any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is.” Yet ordinary language users are addicted to using and inventing expressions that mean one thing or its opposite depending on who’s listening. Taboo words are almost always capable of reversing their meaning – they can be used for purposes that are diametrically opposed. Shit! may express strong disapproval in many circumstances, but among the right crowd it may equally well be used by the same speaker to express delight and surprise.

“Cool” probably didn’t come to mean stylish, swish, glamorous or desirable by the same kind of forking path that makes please and shit into bipolar expressions. As an antonym of “hot” it probably had the power to mean “not angry”, “not hurried” and all sorts of more desirable attributes than those that are normally associated with heat. It may well be that the first “cool” was nonchaloir, an Old French expression meaning “non-heat” (from the obsolete verb chaloir, “to be hot”). Given the muddled history of words moving from French to English and back again, “cool” – as in a “cool customer”, “as cool as a cucumber” – might have started out as a translation of nonchalant into the local lingo. As we British do admire restraint in outward behaviour, it’s no surprise that a nonchalant gentilhomme – a real cool gent – was one to be imitated and admired, and that coolness became associated with stylish and fashionable things.

Of course this is all speculation, as are most forms of word history. But just as languages constantly change and switch things around, so too are they surprisingly conservative, and what often seems most modern and trendy turns out to be a reminiscence or a revival of some forgotten form in the language of yore. It’s possible that the present vast spread of “cool” in our own language (and far beyond, not just back into Frenchbaba-cool, but into Chinese 酷  as well) wouldn’t have arisen without cool jazz; but it’s just as likely that had jazz never been invented the idea that there’s something stylish about not being hot (bothered, angry, puce…) would have given “cool” many of the meanings it now has.

In Tallinn and Tartu, however, what’s really kool is school. No wonder Estonians are so high up the league tables.


Grappling Grammarians

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 24, 2011

It was probably John Dryden who started the ban on ending sentences with prepositions; Jonathan Swift couldn’t stand contractions.

Who decides whether it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition or to use the word “infer” as a synonym for “imply”? Who decides whether the phrase “free gift” is redundant and therefore incorrect, and whether it’s proper to speak of a “mutual friend” since “mutual” refers to a relationship between two, not three? Most literate people still want these questions decided for them by some authority, whether H.W. Fowler, the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary or the guy in the next cubicle who knows a lot about grammar. This urge for clarity remains despite the best efforts of academic linguists and other “descriptivist” grammarians who dismiss the notion of grammatical “correctness” and insist that “rules” are wholly determined by usage.

The trouble with descriptivism—the idea that the grammarian’s job is to describe the language, not to issue judgments about propriety—isn’t that it’s theoretically unsound. Rules really are just conventions. The trouble with descriptivism is that it’s inhuman. People will always want to know the right way to say a thing. The secretary writing a letter or the corporate communications drone writing a press release doesn’t care whether “impact” as a verb is “generally accepted,” as modern usage manuals put it; he wants to know if using “impact” as a verb will make him sound stupid.

Henry Hitchings, in “The Language Wars,” seems to appreciate the fact that propriety is part of human life, even if it’s given no room in the lifeless principles of linguistics. He has plenty of criticisms for those “inveterate fusspots” who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors, but he isn’t so naïve as to think we can be rid of “rules” in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

The story begins in the 17th century. The distinction between “will” and “shall” was first proposed in 1653 by John Wallis in a book—oddly, written in Latin—called “Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae.” In 1660 the newly formed Royal Society established a “committee for improving the English language,” and in 1667 the society’s historian Thomas Sprat was inveighing against excessive ornament and “fineness” in English prose. It was probably John Dryden, we learn, who originated the prejudice against ending sentences with prepositions. Early in the next century Jonathan Swift thundered against contractions, and Daniel Defoe suggested that the interdiction against coining new money ought to apply equally to words.

By the 19th century, with the use of English reaching higher and higher levels of sophistication and complexity, English-speakers became much more receptive to rule-making. Noah Webster taught America to spell “labor” without a “u” and “public” without a “k”; the Rhode Islander Goold Brown invented the rule (still followed by some) that “between” applies to a relationship of two, and “among” to three or more; and in 1897 an anonymous writer in a British magazine named the “split infinitive” as something to be avoided.

Mr. Hitchings finds that some of the most stringent 18th- and 19th-century grammarians were far more thoughtful about language than their modern descriptivist critics have supposed. Bishop Lowth, whose “Short Introduction to English Grammar” (1762) conceived the rule against double negatives and established many other prejudices, was in fact remarkably nuanced in his judgments. Samuel Johnson, the greatest of all prescriptivists, had no faith in etymology and regarded as sheer folly the idea that an “academy” should be established to “protect the language.” There is evidence, too, that some of the old-school grammarians didn’t take themselves nearly so seriously as might be thought: John Ash’s “Grammatical Institutes” (1763), for example, contains this marvelous explanation: “A Parenthesis (to be avoided as much as possible) is used to include some Sentence in another.”

Mr. Hitchings writes with exceptional efficiency and clarity, and he appears to realize that the conventions of English—we used to call them rules—are precisely what allow the versatility, subtlety and grace of the best writing. Yet he defers obediently to the verities of modern linguistics, and when he tries to defend the older conventions he ends up tying himself in knots. Take his discussion of the rampant use of “they,” “them” and “their” to refer to singular antecedents, as in: “When someone shouts ‘Fire!’ in a theater, they’re not exercising their right to free speech.” Mr. Hitchings treats this and other questions the way some people treat abortion: personally he’s opposed to it, but he won’t call it wrong. Saying “he” is widely considered sexist, he notes, and saying “he or she” can be cumbersome if done too often. He makes a fair point that “everyone” should be considered plural in order to avoid ambiguity: the sentence “Christine met everyone at the camp site before John arrived with his tent” sounds ridiculous if “his” refers to “everyone” rather than John. But ambiguity arises just as easily when the antecedent is singular. For instance: “If a visitor arrives with flowers, take them to the sitting room.” Take the visitor to the sitting room, or just the flowers?

Indeed, Mr. Hitchings is of two minds about proper English. He complains about the “imperious” attitudes of Fowler and Strunk and White, but concedes that modern descriptivist grammars don’t supply “decisive, straightforward answers” to problems that “feel uncomfortably real.” He knows that the meanings of words change over time, and rightly deplores the conceit of those “fusspots” who berate people for incorrect usages, but “I wince,” he admits, “when ‘hysterical’ is used as a synonym for ‘hilarious.’ ”

Ambivalence is an excellent quality in a historian, however, and for all Mr. Hitchings’s hand-wringing, even the fusspots will relish his latest book.

The Language Wars

By Henry Hitchings
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 408 pages, $28)

Mr. Swaim is the author of “Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-34.”


Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher – review

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 13, 2011

An exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity, about the curious interactions between language and perception

Prime Minister William Gladstone

William Gladstone speculated that the ancient Greeks were unable to see in colour. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

In April 2002, the great journal Lloyd’s List gave shipping a sex change, switching the nautical pronoun to “it”. According to Guy Deutscher, “‘she’ fell by the quayside.” There, in half a sentence, you have the delight of this book: pertinent anecdote, relaxed wit and an uneasy sense that the author is always one jump ahead.

As a reporter who once covered the waterfront, I loved Lloyd’s List. Its closely printed pages recorded so much of the world’s shipping traffic and its tragedies (in its berths and deaths columns, so to speak). But editorial fiat couldn’t change the thinking of a generation that metaphorically pushed the boat out, or waited for their ship to come in; that caught the tide or sailed against the wind; that grew up with Captain Marryat, C S Forester and Joseph Conrad. To such people, English ships display feminine grace, not because a bulk carrier, barge or battleship is innately female, but because some linguistic convention ensured that for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, the English language retained “she” for shipping even as it neutered almost every other inanimate thing, including trees.

Put like that, the logic is obvious: of course a language that confers masculinity on a pine tree but femininity on a palm would be able to play with imagery that might make no sense in translation to a language that did not. Deutscher’s book begins with a promise to demolish the intellectual clichés, and subvert glib anecdotal demonstrations of the way our mother tongue defines or limits our thought, and then confirms that in very limited instances, it almost certainly does shape the way we see the world. The book is a joyous and unexpected intellectual journey through the strange interaction between language and the world that language attempts to describe.

At its heart is an old conundrum. Why was Homer’s sea “wine-dark”? Did the Greeks have no word for blue? William Ewart Gladstone, already an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer but not yet a prime minister, published in 1849 a 1,700-page, three-volume work on the poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and ended it with a chapter on Homer’s perception and use of colour.

According to Deutscher, this profoundly affected “the development of at least three academic disciplines” and triggered a war over the linguistic link between culture and nature that, 150 years on, is still being fought. For Gladstone was inclined to think that because the Greek language offered such a limited visual palette, then perhaps colour perception had not evolved: perhaps ancient Greeks saw the world more in black and white than in Technicolour.

This hypothesis could – up to a point – be tested: perhaps other “primitive” cultures maintained the same handicap? Imperialist Europe and expansionist America were not short of subjects for research.

The question was: does not having a word for blue (or green) mean that people don’t see that colour? Tests showed quickly enough that colour-blindness is not common, and is evenly distributed everywhere. So could there be something about the language that dictated a particular group’s perception of or attention to colour? Or something about the demands of the local environment that necessarily shaped the tribal language?

The journey to a not-quite-cut-and-dried conclusion draws on history, ethnography and psychology as well as a little physiology, and delivers from the mix an exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity. Great names flit across the pages; great stories, too, about the astonishing variety of human speech and the riches of even the most supposedly primitive, vanishing languages. The speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, for example, would never advise a motorist to take the second left: all their conversation is in exquisitely precise geographic coordinates. They even, says Deutscher, dream in cardinal directions.

This is a book written in blissful English, by someone whose mother tongue is Hebrew, who is an expert in near-Eastern languages and who can no doubt talk his way confidently around Europe and far beyond: a living rebuke to the obdurate Anglo-Saxon monoglot.

 – guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 November 2011

Tim Radford‘s geographical reflection, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things is published by Fourth Estate

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books: The shortlist

Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample
The Rough Guide to the Future by Jon Turney