I am unabashedly in love with “Origins of the Specious”. It’s got a clever title, alluding to that controversially correct tome of Darwin’s, an homage to a field of study with even more ill-informed cranks than grammar. More importantly, it’s a wonderful book, one that I would despise for its attempt to render me superfluous, were it not for its friendly approachable style, and how very spot-on it is.
The book is written by Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, who argue the same sorts of points as I do, but who came to their opinions through a much different path. They are not the rebellious sort — a point that they establish right in the book’s introduction — but unlike most popular grammarians, who upon seeing a singular they or other such “mistake” shove their fingers into their ears like a petulant child and scream “NA NA NA! I can’t understand you! You’re stupid!”, O’Conner and Kellerman are sensible. If choosing a grammarian were like selecting a president, they’d win — hands down — because they’re the ones you could sit down and have a meal with. They’re reasonable, and more importantly, they’re right. They are proponents of a simple principle, that language usage is a democracy:
“People often ask me who decides what’s right. The answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. […] You may kick and scream too, when you find out that many of your most cherished beliefs about English are as phony as a three-dollar bill. Hey, I know the feeling! […] Keep an open mind and expect the unexpected. Feel free to grumble too. Democracy can be exasperating when you’re on the losing side. But English is a work in progress, and always will be […]” (pg. xvii)
“Origins” is a list of lexical, grammatical, and etymological myths, expertly debunked. It’s a massacre of the misinformed beliefs of most prescriptivists: common edicts against none are (p. 26), drive friendly (p.29), and data is (p. 177), among others, all fall under their sword. The best part is that these sword-wielders are not young Turks, who prescriptivists would readily write off, but rather the trusted old guard. O’Conner and Kellerman aren’t writing because they believe that what they write is the way language should be, but rather because what they write is what language is. Tired of the knowing winks and hardy slaps on the back that misinformed prescriptivists give them, they fight back, showing everyone where they’re wrong. In the introduction, they even note that they occasionally regret their findings, yet they present them nevertheless. This is science, done right, and it alone would justify the book.
“Origins” is split up into chapters, each covering a separate area of the language. The first considers the claim that Americans are destroying the proper English of the Brits. I hope it’s not giving away too much to reveal that O’Conner and Kellerman conclude that we aren’t. In fact, on many points American English is more conservative than British English. The next chapter does what I do, debunking spurious grammar edicts, and this was the part of the book that appealed most to me. It was top-notch. Others might prefer the chapters on mangled words and idioms, or on the etymology of popular words and phrases, or on fractured French borrowings (the gallingly non-Gallic pronunciation of lingerie, for instance). There’s something for everyone who likes words and is interested in their real backstories.
But best of all, the book is well-written, easy to read, and unremittingly pleasant (unlike many grammar books). I read it in a week, despite the deadlines I had looming. Those days I longed for the bus ride, when I’d set aside time to set aside my other work and devote myself to the book. I took the long way home on occasion to squeeze a few more pages in. I read in bed with the lights off, a small desk lamp illuminating the pages so everyone would think I was asleep and not bother me.
All in all, it’s a great book, assuming you’re into this kind of thing — which, if you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly are.