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Racing around the web in a frantic but doomed attempt to escape writing a very large and very significant paper that has held me in its grasp for the better part of a year, I happened upon Rachael Cayley’s discussion of a review of the re-release of the original Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Why does the re-release matter? Well, Fowler’s Dictionary has had three editions, the second revised by Ernest Gowers* and the third by Robert Burchfield. The revisions, especially Burchfield’s, have drifted afield from Fowler’s original prescriptivist viewpoint to a descriptivist viewpoint — much, I think, to the betterment of the work.

But, of course, my opinion is mine alone. Many grammarians rue Burchfield’s involvement as the ruination of a classic. One of these mourners is Barton Swaim, who wrote a review in The New Criterion that Cayley summarized with:

“Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists.”

I can’t convey over text the specific face I was making in response to this summary, but it involves eye rolling, a sarcastic smile, a little head nod, and a few muscles moving to places I didn’t know they moved. Ha ha, yeah, sure, that’s a real argument there. We should totally accept a philosophical position about language because it’s what people want to do and it’s fun. Yeah, that’s an opinion worth publishing.

Gimme some more of that prescriptivist fun! (from Abstruse Goose)

But the joke’s on me, because it turns out that is what Swaim’s arguing. I thought that it was the role of the educated expert to see through pomp and circumstance and to analyze claims on their merit. But Swaim is enamoured of the idea that experts are there only to give the people what they want.

And what the people want, according to Swaim, is dictations about usage, like those Fowler gave out. Whereas those idiot descriptivists, here’s what they want:

“The job of somebody compiling a dictionary of English usage, in their [descriptivists’] view, is to tell us what most people say, not to exercise a fictional authority over the language by inventing reasons why this or that usage is ‘pedantic’ or ‘monstrous.'”

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t apologize for holding this position. Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules? I stopped playing Simon Says when I was in grade school, thanks.

But you see, Swaim worries that in the course of doing away with that fictional authority, the descriptivists are missing out on important information about English usage, like Fowler’s opinion that orotund is a “monstrosity”. Swaim writes:

“Surely, though, it would be useful to know that even in the late twentieth century there was something faintly ridiculous about the word orotund. But that’s the sort of usefulness descriptivists have no use for.”

I stopped and checked, and not one of the other usage guides I have on my shelf mention orotund. Apparently, it’s the sort of usefulness prescriptivists have no use for either. And I don’t blame them. The word orotund, according to Google N-grams, is now used slightly less often than the word apiary. I do not need to know that a dead guy disapproved of it 85 years ago.

Enough of this. I’m going to skip ahead through Swaim’s distaste for David Crystal’s introduction to the reprint, past Swaim’s claim that prescriptivism is “an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society,” and is not an “ism” at all. I want to address one final part that really got my goat. I hate it when someone tries to ascribe underlying motivations to me, to psychoanalyze me from a distance with no idea why I do what I do. So I’m more than a little cheesed at Swaim’s armchair analysis of what makes us descriptivists tick:

“To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they [descriptivists] argue further, is to engage in class prejudice. And here, I think, is the real reason for the intense dislike descriptivists feel for the older attitudes. The idea of “correctness” is linked in their minds with snobbery.”

No. If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.

And even if we descriptivists were all a bunch of communist Levellers who were motivated entirely by a desire to bring down the edifice of class structure and create a new egalitarian society, it wouldn’t change the fact that Swaim’s arguing that we should enforce rules with absolutely no basis in the language they supposedly protect!

Swaim’s society is a bunch of stressed imbeciles who are so scared of making a writing mistake that they need to have someone tell them exactly what to do in every situation. Nuance? Analysis? Facts? DAMMIT I AM A BUSY MAN, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE!

Maybe Swaim is right, and society is like that. But that doesn’t mean that this is something we should be encouraging by writing what society wants. Maybe it means instead that we’ve collectively done a poor job understanding language. Maybe we’ve done a poor job teaching people that language doesn’t work like that. Maybe it’s something we should work on changing rather than writing about how much we miss having someone enforce their opinions of language upon us.

And that’s the point that Swaim totally misses. Cayley calls him out for it:

“[…] a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.”

To conclude, let me put it this way. Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.


*: whose great-grandson later taught me my first undergraduate mathematics course and is awesome.

It’s been a while between posts for me, so let me make up for it with one big one. Tucker Carlson (who Wikipedia tells me no longer wears a bowtie) got onto Sean Hannity’s show recently and declared that Michael Vick ought to have been executed for running a dogfighting ring.

(The backstory for the non-football-obsessed reader: Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until the dogfighting ring came to light. He served 21 months in prison and filed bankruptcy as a result, and lost three years in the prime of his career. He’s since revived his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and President Obama called the Eagles’ owner to commend him on giving Vick a chance to prove he was rehabilitated. It was this call that riled up Carlson.)

Eventually, word got back to Carlson that his position sounded a bit unwise, and he re-appeared on Hannity’s show to clarify that he does not actually believe what he had said. His clarification:

This is what happens when you get too emotional. I’m a dog lover, I love them and — I know a lot about what Michael Vick did — I overspoke. I’m uncomfortable with the death penalty in any circumstance. Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.”

Now, there’s a reasonable question to be asked here: should a man who claimed that Vick should never be forgiven, never even be given a chance to earn our forgiveness, be forgiven if he says that his hard-line stance was the result of saying something more than he mean to? Personally, I’m fine with forgiving Carlson, if for no other reason than that his Vick comments weren’t nearly the most offensively foolish things I’ve heard him say. (This willingness to forgive is part of why Carlson and I disagree politically.) I also have to give him credit for actually taking some blame; he didn’t claim he was taken out of context or that his opponents were trying to vilify him. He admitted that he said something that is not an accurate indication of his feelings. I have to offer my begrudging respect for that.

But not everyone is in a forgiving mood, and I’m sorry to say that they don’t all have a good argument for their intransigence. Specifically, Sherry Coven at Everything Language and Grammar has written a post complaining about Carlson’s use of overspoke, which she considers an incomprehensible coinage. She writes:

“Overspoke? I’m not sure what overspoke means.”

Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that we are back in third grade. If your education was anything like mine, the watchwords of reading class back then were context clues. When you encountered a word you didn’t know, you were supposed to look at the rest of the sentence, or the rest of the paragraph, and try to figure out what the word meant. So let’s try this with Carlson’s paragraph. First he says “I overspoke”, and then he says “Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.” That suggests to me that I overspoke means “I said something that was much stronger than my true position.”

And, as it turns out, Coven guesses that this is the definition that Carlson intends, writing “The most logical assumption is that he meant that he’d said too much.” Good job! But then, like a child who you’ve assigned an undesired chore will impishly stare at the necessary tools in affected ignorance, as though they couldn’t possibly figure out how this rake could be used to move leaves into a pile, she too feigns ignorance. I can picture her exaggeratedly throwing up her hands, showing how impossible it is to understand this new word, as she writes, “But in that sense, what was too much? Did he think that he’d used too many words?”

C’mon, Coven, stop playing dumb. If you’re really having trouble with this one, you have absolutely no business writing about the English language, and especially not doing so on a blog called “Everything Language and Grammar”. But let’s say you’re really, honestly trying and just can’t crack the case. In that case, our third-grade reading classteacher could offer a second plan of attack: if context clues don’t help, look the word up in a dictionary. Alas, that didn’t help Coven:

“This is yet another example of the disconnect that can occur between speaker and listener when the speaker makes up a word instead of using perfectly good veteran words that are part of the English language. Even dictionary.com, which has never met a non-word it hasn’t liked, doesn’t embrace overspoke (yet).”

Yeah, I checked on dictionary.com. It’s true that searching for overspoke doesn’t return anything. Instead, it asks if maybe you meant to search for overspeak. And when I told it that I did in fact mean to search for that, here’s what it told me:

O`ver*speak”\, v. t. & i. [AS. ofersprecan.] To exceed in speaking; to speak too much; to use too many words.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

If you’ll pardon another analogy, at this point I have to liken Coven to the fumblefingers in infomercials (pictured below).

Coven’s use of the dictionary seems akin to these fumblefingers’ use of eggs, ironing boards, and other everyday objects. She looks up an inflected form of a rare irregular verb — when any reasonable dictionary user looks up the infinitive form — and then gives up because she’d have to click on a link saying “Did you mean Overspeak?” in order to get to the definition.

But if she powered through these hurdles, she’d have seen that the word isn’t new; the copyright information dates it back to at least 1998. And a little bit more research (this time on Google Books) shows that it goes back much further. Here it is in a story from 1957. Here it is in a racist joke from 1910-1911. Here it is in a German-English dictionary from 1883.

And that still doesn’t bring us back to the inception of overspeak. The OED attests it back to the 17th century, with the definitions “to overstate or exaggerate, to make exaggerated claims for, to speak too strongly, to speak too much”. Hell, the OED even notes Carlson’s exact type of usage in a 2001 example:

“The three e-mails I received‥agreed that Falwell overspoke himself in the worst way.”

Coven closes with this thought:

“Carlson seemed to be making up a word in order to avoid taking responsibility for a radical opinion. Instead of saying I overspoke, he should have said what he meant—–whatever that was.”

The operative word here is seemed. It seemed to Coven that Carlson made up a word, even though a quick cursory search of Google Books or the Oxford English Dictionary (which, for crying out loud, is even having a free trial for the month) could have told her that Carlson was using a rare word in one of its standard meanings. But Coven’s too busy reprimanding Carlson to bother to see if he’s right. Mark Liberman, by comparison, initially guessed the same — that Carlson has invented a word in overspeak — but before writing a post about it, actually checked to see if his impression was correct. It wasn’t, and he ended up writing an informative post about the history of overspeak and its relationship to AAVE and Southern American English.

The lesson: never trust your instincts when you’re writing about someone’s speech. You’ll surely overspeak if you do.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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