Once Upon a Word

Coming from a linguistic background, I can’t help but feel my blood boil when people try to say that the English language is under assault. They make claims that certain languages are better than other languages, that certain dialects are a degradation of the superior dialects, that only certain words with certain word forms should be used, and only if they are pronounced in certain ways. This is absurd. Language is a living, breathing, organism… well, maybe not literally so, but pretty darn close! I found on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary a following of facebookers all gnashing at each others’ throats over the fairly recent addition of the word “ginormous” to the official English dictionary. English majors came out of the woodworks, all FURIOUS at this violation on the “King’s English!” (ironically, they all appeared to be Americans who did not speak the King’s English anyways).

One phrase thrown around a lot was that it was evidence of the “dumbing down” of America. I normally don’t entertain this sort of pointless rant, but here I could not resist. Where one of these threaders stated, after mentioning that he had no college education to speak of, that although language DOES evolve, it shouldn’t. This is akin to saying that just because insects adapt to their environment does not mean they should. WHO WOULD SAY THAT?! I quickly pointed out in his thread that his very phrase “dumbing down” is an example of language evolution. “Dumb” was introduced probably around the 12th century, and it was a NOUN, not a verb. Further, it only referred to mutism, a very serious affliction. It was not until perhaps the 16th century that it became a verb (because that’s what words do over time: they change parts of speech when it becomes necessary) but still referred to mutism, perhaps temporally: “Her lover’s death dumbed her for weeks.” Not until much later did it actually refer to stupidity!

Pseudo-intellects and the well-meaning English and Lit majors enjoy following the trend of “preserving” our language, which requires creating arbitrary rules for how language “ought” to be (instead of what language is and can be). When my friends get up on their high-horse (not sure where this saying ever came from) about how the English language will fall to the dogs if WE ALL don’t try to save it, which requires us correcting every other person’s ‘whether-to’s and ‘why-for’s, their who’s and whom’s, they always assume that I should agree with them. As a linguist, I ought to be able to judge correct speech, and edit those who don’t use it. I always like to ask them “do you ever end a sentence with a preposition?” 9 times out of 10 they will reply “I try not to” … HA! You have fallen into my trap… “You mean, ‘I try to not!’” They usually laugh but never know what to make of it. The second sentence is prescriptively correct, but it does not sound grammatical! Winston Churchill commented on this very topic, since it was around his time when this became the fad for pompous grammarians to make arbitrary rules such as this. Churchill remarked: “THIS IS THE SORT OF ENGLISH UP WITH WHICH I WILL NOT PUT!” ‘nough said.

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