Sunday, 16 January 2011

Going Forward

Now, I know that from time to time I like to have a bit of a moan about things, but I don't really enjoy being grouped with the usual suspects, when it comes to being a malcontent. The typical purple ink / letters to the editor / why-oh-why-oh-why type of person is usually either a lunatic or fairly conservative in their outlook, and I like to think I'm neither. Certainly not the latter, anyway.

A good example came up in a recent issue of Oxford Today, a glossy magazine which talks up the achievements and global prominence of some small percentage of graduates of the university, as if anyone needed reminding ("Oh, that Oxford University!"). I think a magazine which emphasised the pretty modest achievements and utter insignificance of the rather larger proportion of its alumni might be more instructive. Anyway, someone had written a piece in a previous issue in which he referred to "data" as a singular noun (as in, "your data is held securely") and several pedants broke loose from their chains. "Data is a plural in Latin, so should be treated as a plural in English", they fulminated.

This is utter nonsense. As another correspondent put it nicely:
[Mr. Pedant] suggests that as 'data' is plural in Latin, it must be so in English. So does he regularly refer to 'these agenda' and 'these spaghetti'? And why is Latin so often singled out for plural pedantry? Does your correspondent know the correct Japanese plural for 'tsunami'? Would he use it if he did?
This attempted U / Non U manoeuvre, which we could describe as "learned ignorance", is very annoying. It ranks with that prissy use of "you and I" where the speaker feels the combo "you and me" must always somehow be vulgar. More nonsense. If someone says to me something like, "I thought he had already given it to you and I?" I usually reply, "Well, 'e certainly didn't give it to Oi", in my best yokel accent. They rarely see the joke. Ha! I suppose anti-pedants can be annoying, too.



Then there was a section in this weekend's Guardian, discussing "neologisms, Americanisms and lazy clich├ęs", in response to a blog piece by Michael Holroyd. Holroyd's article was actually quite balanced but, predictably, it flushed out the sort of person (I think of John Humphrys, presenter on Radio 4's Today programme) who objects to the use of new turns of phrase on the grounds that they are new, as well as redundant, annoying, and -- above all -- used by people they do not like.

Such people miss the point and pleasure of linguistic novelty. It is very rare indeed for a neologism to arise for no reason at all. Yes, there may be older, plainer words that express the same thing, but they will always lack an important mystery ingredient, whether it be exclusivity, a sense of contemporaneity and community, or an otherwise inexpressible change in sensibility.

For example, one of the Guardian contributors wrote, "I'm loving (something) and I'm liking (whatever) are the shibboleths of the 'edgy', phones-aloft-at-Glastonbury, young, urban middle class. It's a development in the language that I'm loathing". Nicely put, but missing the point. This usage has all the social benefits outlined above (exclusivity, community, contemporaneity) but mainly signals a change in sensibility: to say "I'm liking X" is not the same as saying "I like X". It declares an element of contingency, impermanence and openness to change in one's tastes; "I like X today, but realise you may not, and may have changed my own mind by next week". It's a way of introducing a new grammatical mood or tense into the language, to match a new social mood.

Interestingly, the use of the Present Continuous tense in English is fraught with difficulty for non-native speakers. How often have you heard an otherwise faultless speaker of English say something like "I am liking this book very much", or confusing the intention of the questions "What are you reading?" and "What do you read?". Language is subtle stuff, and yet all native speakers effortlessly understand such nuances without ponderous explanations. Amazing, really.

So, when Michael Holroyd writes, "I try to quell my indignation, lower my blood pressure and keep a lookout for developments of language that are precise, witty, useful and have aesthetic value. Have you noticed any lately?" I have to answer, "Yes, I'm noticing them all the time".

21 comments:

Martin H. said...

"I have to answer, "Yes, I'm noticing them all the time". But would you ever describe them as being 'so fun'?

Mike C. said...

Well, I don't say I approve of or use any of these new-fangled things, of course. Though I do enjoy Catherine Bennett's ear for such au courant idioms in the Guardian's "Mrs. Cameron's Diary", so acute, and a genius must-read.

Mike

Huw said...

That photo is made by the writing on the pallet/door (?). Excellent.

Mike C. said...

Yes, without, it would be pretty pointless, wouldn't it?

I normally try to avoid words in pictures, if I can help it, for precisely the reason that you can't help but read them as a "message" embedded in the picture. In this case, it helps raise a smile.

Mike

Wimpy Fella said...

The McDonalds' strap-line is "I'm lovin' it". Even they realise the enjoyment is not likely to last...

Yes, another well seen pic!

Mike C. said...

Ah, yes, Mr. Wimpy, I wondered if anyone might raise that! It's up there with "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" as a slogan.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Hmmm . . . I'm afraid I cannot possibly accept the use of the word "Quadrilogy" that has been used for the re-re-releases of the "Alien" series - or Quartet, even. Now being used by other stories of four. The word "trilogy" is happily accepted so what the hell is wrong with "Tetralogy"? It's a word that has existed for ages - just because some lazy so-and-so at the Company couldn't be bothered (I hate the word "arsed") to look up the existing word, why do we who try to use the existing language have to suffer for their ignorance?

At least Douglas Adams made a joke of "Hitchhiker" being a trilogy in four parts!

Oh and while we're at it - your "nothing sucks" line reminds me of the Capt. Beefheart story:

https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=1339839143636242387&postID=9206825618519236151

Exit belligerent English teacher stage left.

Mike C. said...

Dave,

I think the problem with "tetralogy" is that it derives from Greek rather than Latin, and people are simply more familiar with the numerous "quad" Latin derivations, though above four things do get wobbly i.e. pent- vs. quint-, hex- vs. sex- (that sounds fun), hept- vs. sept-, etc.

I admit I like new coinages, especially when they fill gaps nobody noticed were there in a snappy, self-evident way -- in this context, what about "prequel", "biopic", "outro", etc.?

What drives me crazy is unobservant sloppiness like "loose" for "lose", "could of" for "could have", "forward" for "foreword", etc.

Mike

Tony_C said...

I also find the I/me solecism irritating because I understand the "correct" usage, but isn't it also pedantic to insist on case distinctions in a language which has almost entirely cast them off?

Do you like the coinage "sucroctic" which I hereby define to mean "having a tendency to categorise all entities as either that which 'sucks' or that which 'rocks'"? Far out and groovy, eh? No? Woteva!

P.S. Re Dave Leeke's quadrology hangup, E.M.Forster's Alexandria Quartet was so named some time ago, though interestingly Wikipedia explains that it is a tetralogy.

Dave Leeke said...

I must admit, Tony, that I am okay with the term "Quartet" that, at least has an elegance to it. It's the ugliness of "Quadrilogy" that gets me. And I take your point Mike about Latin.

I'm just a grumpy old English teacher. And the verification is "rantsag" which probably sums it all up!

Mike C. said...

Dave,

Hmm, yes -- must start that blog dedicated to the capture and study of verification words. Hard to escape the feeling they're trying to tell us something (though that is clearly "tin foil hat" territory).

Tony_C,

"sucroctic"? Somehow, I don't think it will catch on. Too hard to say, for one, and not the sort of word likely to be used either by those who suffer from the syndrome or those who object to it.

Actually, Dave, the interesting thing is the way people are reluctant to use English as the source for new coinages -- why not "fourlogy" or "five-set"? Someone (can't remember the name) once tried to de-Latinise English, by inventing "Anglo-Saxon" equivalents. Such attempts are usually motivated by fascistic "race purity" ideas at root...

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

As a last comment - Martyn Cornell told me the other day that the word verification for my blog was "tesco" - yes, they are taking over!

Tony_C said...

[Check Word: belay(?!)­]

Oh, Mike, you made me literally "lol" at the image of the Oxford scholar struggling to get his tongue round "sucroctic". What's so difficult, mate? If you can say "secrete" (use a schwa on the first syllable) and "apoplectic" you're nearly there. Just apply the stress/timing of "pedant". Practise!*

An old friend once said to me, "There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have children, and those who don't", and our respective membership is illustrated by your reaction to my spawning "sucroctic": I was just fucking for fun, but you gave immediate thought for its survival potential (though you went on to condemn it as a "difficult child" before the cord was cut!). Anyway, the womb in which it was conceived was your blogspot and in the end it's the mother's prerogative either to strangle or nurture the child, isn't it?

PS Wasn't GBShaw one of those "cranks" who wanted to rid English of the Latin?

PPS Pedant: 1. An overlearned person who parades his knowledge. 2. One who attaches too much importance to merely formal matters in scholarship (Chambers English dictionary, 7th Ed.)

*Recitation of the following may bring out its intrinsic euphony:

These mean sucroctic devils passing judgement on my spawn
(Devoid of thinking skills whose use might usher in the Dawn
Of our new Age of Reason, where an image's true worth
Would be revealed to legions spreading out across the Earth)
As far as I'm concerned, my friend, should never have been born.

Mike C. said...

Tony_C,

Ah, I think the penny has just dropped, and I realise who you probably are. You're very welcome to comment, just like anybody else, Tony, but this is *almost* offensive. Please remember this is a public space where people are looking for a harmless exchange of opinions -- unfortunately I can't edit comments, only delete them.

As I say, you're very welcome to comment, and I'll be very interested to hear what you have to say, just try to keep it within sensible bounds... It's been a long time -- 30 years? We are pushing 60, dammit -- so please don't jump in with both feet like this without testing the water.

Obviously, if I *don't* know who you are, the same still applies -- I will simply delete any comments that descend into abuse or personal attacks on other commenters.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

By the way, in case anyone thinks me remiss, the "Alexandria Quartet" was written by Lawrence Durrell - not E M Forster.

Testing times, eh?

Tony_C said...

Oh, yes, Dave, thanks for correcting my mistake - I think I might have had in mind "Pharos and Pharillion" when mentioning E.M.Forster. Thanks for putting me (and the blog)straight. Tony

Martyn Cornell said...

as if anyone needed reminding ("Oh, that Oxford University!")

I think Jeffrey "Lord" Archer needs reminding from time to time …

On the subject of "hyper-pedantry", I still can't bring myself to say "the hoi polloi", even though commentators I respect point out, correctly, that yes, "hoi" means "the" in ancient Greek, but "the hoi polloi" is a long-established English phrase, and if you want to treat it as ancient Greek you'd have to decline it like an ancient Greek ("ton pollon" in the genitive, for example) - ach, bah.

Mike C. said...

That's a good example, Martyn -- will remember that.

N.B. that's quite a rumpus that's kicked off over on Zythophile... Bundle! Though, to be honest, I don't even know what an "imperial stout" is... I like the bit where you patiently point out your opponent's weak argument, accuse him of "ad hominem" comments, then call him a wanker. Not sure whether there's a Greek rhetorical term for that manouevre...

Mike

Ed said...

Is this the application of a Lesbian rule? I haven't read Zythophile, but your endorsement of commentator-abuse doesn't sit well with your remarks to Tony_C above. Or is it one rule for the blogger and another for the rest?

I think the Greek word is "hypocrisy". Ed

Mike C. said...

Fair comment, Ed, though I think the word I'd prefer is "irony". I assume that Martyn's comment was meant to be ironic, too. Go and have a look, and judge for yourself.

Mike

Ed said...

Sorry MIke, haven't got time to read that lot Glad Martyn thinks there are more important things than beer, though Ed