use

In the latest New Yorker Steven Pinker quotes his defense of the dictionary, “it is not just a matter of opinion that there is no such word misunderestimate, that the citizens of modern Greece are Greeks and not Grecians, and that divisive policies Balkanize rather than vulcanize societies.” Given that language is always in flux, on what principled ground can these be judged? Misunderestimate is redundant, but what of it? Language is full of redundancy, and if some underestimations are benign then maybe misunderestimating is not exactly redundant. If Grecians becomes current, then Greeks will be an anachronism; same with vulcanize. Stranger things have happened to English.

So what’s the purpose of a dictionary? Shouldn’t it be a source of scholarly information — about who uses Balkanize, vulcanize, Grecians and misunderestimating and why, and how their use came to be?  When did scholarly information include prescriptions on use? Shouldn’t that be left to the newly informed reader?

Whether you choose to avoid the intensified “same exact” for fear of someone (as another letter-writer in the same exact issue of the New Yorker) thinking that you are unthinking, that’s a choice you make between using language as if it were logical and systematic (which it can and maybe should be at points) rather than expressive (which it can and should be too). Most such complaints against illogical use are little more than gotcha‘s to show ones linguistic or logical accuity, which though admirable for its accuity is at least as deplorable for its smug, nit-pickity derisiveness.

After all, aint has its place for effective use and so has “Have you finished your homework, yet?” (also from that same letter-writer J.A.F.Hopkins — note the many names). I monitor my own use, but I have garnered not a few enemies for it. Not everyone loves a pedant, and some resent them deeply.

I do not embrace loss of linguistic distinctions. I regularly hear “it begs the question” meaning the uninteresting “it leads to another question,” and it’s been years since I’ve heard anyone use “beg the question” in its old sense of “that’s not an answer but a circuitous restatement of the problem” which was always such a clever rebuttal. But before I’d conclude that English is dying, I’d want to understand better exactly why the changes occur. In this case, it is not that speakers are losing the ability to recognize empty circular reasoning. Begging the question was a rare form belonging to philosophical discourse. The change has not been a loss of the expression, but a popularization. People outside of philosophy are using it, and they use it for their purpose. Within the philosophical community, the expression still thrives exactly as it was and no doubt with the same frequency.

Language is an accommodation to communication for the interchange of information and socialization. That’s what’s interesting in language — not that the language is abused, but why, what conditions of the language system that allows for those changes, and what pressures on expression drive those changes. Same exact is the familiar case of hyperbole that gave us terribly good and awesome and the British brilliant for “very useful.” And brilliant is itself a dead metaphor.

A twenty-something friend regularly writes “could of and would of” although he had an expensive education and fancies himself a writer, no less. His excuse is, “language is always changing.” But that’s clearly not relevant: he would never write, “I could certainly of, but ofn’t, and you would definitely not of, and in fact you ofn’t.”  So his language hasn’t changed, he’s just chosen to spell the word in one grammatical position as a different word. One response is: what an idiot — can’t he see that his own usage is inconsistent? But the interesting response is: what is it that hides his inconsistency from him? It’s not that he’s incapable of thinking about the use of “have.” Anyone can do that once it’s pointed out. It’s that this “have” is not really a verb at all. That’s where it gets interesting — asking, not judging.

Now what do people think they mean when they say “I could care less”? — especially since “I couldn’t care less” is so incisive and expressive.

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