Some of you may remember a post from last year in which I marveled at the Fry and Laurie sketch Language Conversation; I am happy to report that Stephen Fry, in his new blog, has a post called “Don’t Mind Your Language…” in which he deals seriously (well, as serious as Fry ever gets, which is serious wrapped in a delicious coating of good humor and brilliant wit) with the same topic. It is a long post and I urge you to consume every morsel of it; here I will excerpt a passage that, for reasons obvious to anyone who has spent any time here, gave me particular delight:
Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. …
There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.
The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind.
“It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it”: exactly. That’s a fine summary of everything I’ve tried to say about language prejudice in this blog.
I do have a minor quibble about his example of semantic change that not even the most barnacle-encrusted pedant could object to: “I don’t mind either that the word ‘meld’ is now being used as a kind of fusion of melt and weld, instead of in its original sense of ‘announce’. Meld has changed … that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong in language, any more than there’s right or wrong in nature.” The sentiment is unimpeachable, but meld has not changed in meaning; rather, there is a very old verb meld “To make known (by speech), reveal, declare” (related to German melden ‘to report’), which went out of use 600 years ago, and a very new verb meld “To merge, blend; to combine or incorporate”—probably, as Fry says, a fusion of melt and weld—that first appears in 1936 (D. T. Lutes, Country Kitchen xi. 234 “Apple, currant, and raisin all melded into one sweetly tart aroma”). I like to use bead for this purpose, with its dramatic transition in sense from ‘prayer’ to ‘little round thing.’
But never mind that; I enthusiastically second his eloquent peroration: “If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.”
Thanks for the link, Paul!