Is the English language being massacred by the young, the linguistically untidy and anyone who uses the Internet? Absolutely.
Is that anything new? Hardly.
Many words and expressions in common parlance today would have raised the hackles of language scolds in the not-so-distant past. For evidence, let’s look at some examples from recent newspaper articles.
Take this sentence from a Toronto Star piece about preparing dinner for a magician. “He tells me about a bogus seance he used to host in his Cabbagetown home.”
That sentence would have appalled Alfred Ayres, author of the 1894 book The Verbalist. He considered the word “bogus” to be “incompatible with dignified diction.”
Ayres would also have disapproved of an article in the New York Daily News about policing on Staten Island, in which one resident was described as believing “the police were overly aggressive.” In Ayres’ view, “overly” was a word “used only by the unschooled.”
American journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce, author of the opinionated 1909 tome Write It Right, would have quibbled with a New York Times book review last week that called Dan Chiasson’s poetry “genially brainy.” Bierce dismissed the word “brainy” as “pure slang, and singularly disagreeable.”
A writer from the Saturday edition of the Canadian paper the Globe and Mail would have been harshly judged by Emily Post for writing about an area in Detroit that was “lined with mansions belonging to former auto executives.” The writer’s sins? In 1945 Post wrote that one should never say “mansion” (big house was preferred) or “auto” (automobile or motor were considered correct).
There was no shortage of examples of this next transgression, so I chose one from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, which ran a story stating that “A store window sustained $500 in damage.” The 1909 book “Etiquette for Americans” insists that using “the word ‘store' for ‘shop' is grossly incorrect.”
As a further example of how easily words can slip from shunned to accepted, see if you can spot the problems with each of the following three sentences:
• “Howland … said her three-year wait for a garden was ‘absolutely' worthwhile – for reasons in addition to the peace and joy she experiences from its beauty each day.” (From the Boston Globe)
• “Designed by Soutra Gilmour, this Richard III takes place entirely in the confines of a dilapidated, linoleum-floored office, suggesting a Whitehall run to seed.” (From the New York Times)
Stumped? The first example would have run afoul of Henry Fowler, who in his much beloved and hugely influential Dictionary of Modern English Usage (first published in 1926) wrote that the word gender was “a grammatical term only,” and that using it to refer to a person’s sex was erroneous, unless the author was being jocular.
For a critique of the second example, we turn to Henry Alford, author of the 1864 language guide The Queen’s English. Alford felt that “in the best English, experience is a substantive” — meaning a noun — rather than a verb, which comes as a surprise to all of us who have been experiencing it as a verb all these years.
And in the last instance, our curmudgeonly old friend Ambrose Bierce would have been put out by the use of “dilapidated” to refer to any structure that was not made of stone, since the word contains the Latin root lapis, meaning stone.
Yet all these once-reviled usages have now entered the upper registers of the English language, as evidenced by their recent appearances in respected newspapers that employ editors and copy editors to avoid mistakes.
We should take heart that the changes have come without Western civilization coming to a screeching halt. And I’d go a step further and assert that the flexibility of our language is a sign of health, rather than degeneration.
The fact that we are creating new words, and adding meanings to existing ones, indicates that English is flourishing. Think of that the next time you bristle at the word “friend” being used as a verb or “selfie” used to mean a self-portrait taken with a phone.
English is a fairly young language, as languages go — a teenager, if you will. And it is behaving as most teenagers do: trying out new things, doing its best to annoy anyone over the age of 30, and putting things in its mouth that most people would consider ill-advised.
Ammon Shea is the author of “Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation.”
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