MISPLACED PASSION.

My pal Paul has sent me a link to an essay by Lucy Kellaway that struck me with its pure essence of language lunacy. It’s basically your standard purist rant, and is nicely summed up by its first sentence: “For the last few months I’ve been on a mission to rid the world of the phrase ‘going forward’.” You get the picture: I hate this newfangled phrase, I hear it all the time, I can’t make it stop but at least I can vent about it. So far, so tiresome. But the thing is, she knows better. She says so. But she rants anyway. As I wrote to Paul:
She knows on some level she’s being an idiot — “You could say
this orgy of pedantry was not only tedious, but also pointless.
Language changes” — but she continues “Yet protesting feels so good.
Not only does it allow one to wallow in the superiority of one’s
education, but some words are so downright annoying that to complain
brings relief.” Rarely have I seen the pathological nature of
language gripery displayed so openly. She quotes Swift, understands
that he was foolish to object so strongly to “mob,” but then says “By
contrast there is so much more to object to in ‘going forward’.” If
that’s not tongue-in-cheek, it shows a degree of blindness that makes
one despair for the human race.
I understand being annoyed by other people’s usage, and I’ve shared some of my own annoyances in the past (“may have” for “might have,” “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”). What I don’t understand is taking such annoyance seriously. How can you know that language changes, that Swift thought “mob” was ruining the language but he was wrong, and yet think that your own pet peeves are somehow different? On a gut level I dislike the new that use of “disinterested,” but intellectually I know that people will communicate just as well however they use it, just as they communicated perfectly well after they dropped the inflectional endings of Old English (a far more disruptive change than any of our modern peeves). Language changes, we get used to it, we go on as before. Why is this so hard to assimilate?
After her language rant she goes on to rant about what a heading calls “Misplaced passion”; she means by this “the new business insincerity: a phoney upping of the emotional ante,” but it applies equally well to overheated reactions to language change.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    Whoaaaah there! I really miss the dative.

  2. John Emerson says:

    I guess I should have said that in Anglo-Saxon. But I’m a purely aspirational Saxon. I live on with my feeling of bitter wrong, having been forced all my life to speak this ugly Normanized patois.

  3. “On a gut level I dislike the new use of ‘disinterested,’ . . .
    New use? The OED has citations for the simple negative meaning (“not interested”) that predate the “impartial” meaning (though not by much—1612 versus 1659). And strangely enough, the original sense of uninterested is “impartial,” which predates the “not interested” sense by over a century.

  4. Actually, I quite liked her talk. It was full of humour and gently self-deprecating.
    And I don’t think she was being a language purist in a strict sense. There was some of that mixed in, the verbing of nouns, etc. What she was objecting to was the over-the-top use of language in “office-speak”, with its “brainlessly upbeat language”.
    This is more akin to Orwell’s protest at poor English as typified in his “translation” into modern English of the Ecclesiastes verse starting “I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, not the battle to the strong…”

  5. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    after they dropped the inflectional endings of Old English (a far more disruptive change than any of our modern peeves)
    Is there evidence that people grumbled about it?

  6. I still don’t understand why linguists cling to the silly doctrine that one must never attempt to modify public speech – presumably they are largely happy with the successful drive to ban the “igg” word?

  7. New use?
    Quite right, and I actually knew that! But that’s the insidious thing about language peeves; they suppress the part of our brain that knows things and promote the part that secretes bile.
    I still don’t understand why linguists cling to the silly doctrine that one must never attempt to modify public speech
    It’s not a matter of modifying public speech, which is not the purview of linguists anyway, it’s a matter of getting into people’s heads the simple facts that language changes, that those changes are inevitable, and that (this is the crucial part) they don’t harm the language or its speakers. The fact that you personally don’t like a usage does not mean that it’s objectively bad. That doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to grasp.

  8. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    …it’s a matter…hard to grasp.
    I just want to point out that this is the modernist argument that says (rightly, of course) that the person in the street doesn’t know shit. You can use it for almost any arts subject, take architecture:
    it’s a matter of getting into people’s heads the simple facts that buildings change, that those changes are inevitable, and that (this is the crucial part) they don’t harm the environment or its inhabitants. The fact that you personally don’t like a building does not mean that it’s objectively bad. That doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to grasp.

  9. John Emerson says:

    Does anyone know if the Anglo Saxons verbed nouns? Did Chaucer? We’re having a presciptivism controversy over on the Unfogged “Track” thread! Activatist the Hatsignal!

  10. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Activatist the Hatsignal sounds like nouning verbs, to me

  11. John Emerson says:

    Fie on your prescriptivist nonesense, Kron!

  12. You mean just zero-derivation / conversion, right? Because I suspect the people who get upset do so about productive -ify as well.
    The short answer is that it’s been pretty productive all along and got more so in Middle English.
    A longer answer probably needs to address various ways in which those who object might weasel out.
    Is it okay that Old English is inflected? Can we ignore verb endings? If not, then you have to wait until they are gone, which is one of the reasons it gets more productive later. (Another is that common OE prefixes and affixes fall out of favor.)
    Is it okay that the verb / noun pairs exist in other Germanic languages, too?
    Is it okay when Chaucer borrows a French noun as a verb, if there is already a related French verb, too?
    Is it okay that there are some vowel changes by the time it settles down in English? For instance, bleed / blood; feed / food?
    Is it okay that we don’t have the evidence of it being productive? We don’t know who sat down one day and decided they needed a verb but only had a noun with a similar sense.
    Is it okay when there might be a parallel verb with a different sense? For instance, somebody in the 14th century evidently came up with the verb bed ‘sleep with’. Old English had a beddian (as well as beddigan) for ‘make a bed for’.
    And so on.

  13. parvomagnus says:

    Huh, but…if a building changes, it might fall over and kill people! I guess language change isn’t harmless after all! In my laissez-faire carefreeity, I forgot how destructive and awful change really is!

  14. “on the ground”
    “at the end of the day”
    Five years ago you couldn’t listen to a newscast for ten minutes without being subjected to one of
    these meaningless phrases.
    I also don’t like “problematic” and always suspect it’s being misused by someone who is trying to be pompous.
    I sort of like “this needs fixed” instead of “this needs to be fixed”, but I can’t tell you why.
    Grant-writing buzz words: years ago it had to have the phrase “appropriate technology” (meaning non-petroleum based) in order to get funded. Now I hear it’s “workforce” as in training that improves employability.

  15. I think “this needs fixing” is better.

  16. “it’s a matter of getting into people’s heads the simple facts that language changes, that those changes are inevitable, and that (this is the crucial part) they don’t harm the language or its speakers.”
    I disagree with this. Grammatical change is one thing. People who get on their hobby horses about pedantic points of usage are rightly ridiculed.
    But public use of language is quite another kettle of fish. When people use language in a way that is designed to mislead or manipulate others, when spin doctors substitute new phrases for old in order to obscure reality, people are quite justified in subjecting this to critical scrutiny. When new cliches or buzzwords become widespread in usage in a particularly vacuous sense, people have a right to express their disapproval. Choice of words and language is a creative choice, not a blind act of destiny. If the lady feels repulsed at salesmen calling clients to say they “love” them, she is not being a stuffy linguistic “purist”. She is exercising her right to express an opinion about the way people act and speak. These are not petty grammatical rules that people insist on to be difficult; they are part and parcel of the way that people interact with each other in life. If some salesman calls to tell me that he “loves” me, or if some person in a public situation utters the almost meaningless phrase “go forward”, I think that I should have the right to volunteer an opinion about the way people are expressing themselves.
    The lady who wrote that article was articulate and interesting. While she expressed her views in the form of a “rant”, what she said was far more arresting than had she merely subjected the phenomenon to a more neutral “Aren’t these new usages interesting!” treatment.
    When you come across statements like “We set out to daylight asset value this year” (from a company’s recent financial results), you can take a strictly neutral view of the phraseology (“My how interesting, wonder what it means”) or a more disapproving one (“Here we go again”). In any case, when corporate moguls resort to this kind of language to give a gloss to their money-making activities (which can be quite destructive of both society and the environment), we have the right to subject that language to scrutiny rather than simply wave it away with a breezy “Oh, well, language is always changing”. The forces of change are not a blind historical force and as participants we all have the right to comment on, and possibly even change the course of events.

  17. michael farris says:

    I have to say (as a hardcore descriptivist) I didn’t really find anything to get annoyed about in said column. She never uses ‘grammar’ or ‘correctness’ as a justification for her personal preferences which are described as just that, her personal preferences.
    And she’s not talking about anything like natural evolution or structural or semantic shifts (the usual prescriptivist hobby horses) but style, which is perfectly okay to gripe about IMO. It might help that I’m not fond of business buzzwords either but she could rail against a style that I like (such as spoken style of This American Life) and it wouldn’t bother me.
    In translation class (not that off topic, really), I’m always saying that a translator as a writer should have some conscious knowledge of what kind of styles they like and dislike in the languages they work with and that that consciousness is more important than the details of their preferences per se. So I’m all in favor of people expounding and venting about issues of style.

  18. In any case, when corporate moguls resort to this kind of language to give a gloss to their money-making activities (which can be quite destructive of both society and the environment), we have the right to subject that language to scrutiny…
    Of course we do — and I would love it someone actually did *scrutinize* corporate language — but all this lady did is whine a lot: “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, going forward, bad language, myself for me, nouning verbs” — then went on to make the same mistake Orwell did in “Politics…” by conflating irritating/evil language with irritating/evil behavior (there isn’t a pedant in the world who would take issue with the phrase “I love you.”)
    The only point she makes, that corporate language and culture is sinisterly upbeat, is so old and obvious that’s it’s boring unless she deploys some real analytical chops to support it. Complaining about prepositions and one innocuous phrase doesn’t qualify.

  19. Yes, the thing I complain about is not examining corporate language (in the way that, for instance, Victor Klemperer did the language of the Third Reich, not that I’m comparing corporations to Nazis) but falling into the lazy trap of equating corporate language and behavior with use of a few expressions one happens not to like. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with “going forward,” and to make that a linchpin of one’s criticism of corporations is just stupid.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    it shows a degree of blindness that makes one despair for the human race.

    Never discussed with a creationist, eh?

    Whoaaaah there! I really miss the dative.

    I likes me some dative, too.

    I live on with my feeling of bitter wrong, having been forced all my life to speak this ugly Normanized patois.

    Pas du tout, quoi. The Vikings butchered the inflection of English, killed gender, and so on; there’s a great paper in a recent issue of Diachronica on that.

    Old English had a beddian (as well as beddigan) for ‘make a bed for’.

    Same as German betten to the noun Bett.

  21. John Emerson says:

    In the big picture, of course, the Vikings were Normans.

  22. “In the big picture, of course, the Vikings were Normans”
    Or even the other way round, no? The Normans were Vikings, with suitable emphasis on were, n’est-ce pas? And if they bastardised the language, maybe that’s why they called him William the Bastard. :)
    (Starting a sentence with “and” seemed apt for a discussion on pet peeves.)

  23. Whoa there, let’s straighten out the centuries a little bit. Viking Rollo, who I am apparently descended from, sacked Paris in 886 or so. One of his descendants, also a distant ancestor of mine, accompanied William, ahem, the Conquerer, also a descendant of Rollo the Duke of Normandy, some 180 years later.
    Were they still Vikings after all that time? I doubt it. There is record of the vikings at Normandy complaining about how the youth had forgotten the native language, and they sent off to the old country Norway I think, to fetch tutors so they would have proper instruction their own language.
    I am reminded of similar situation in my neighborhood where the Hispanics can speak Spanish, having learned it at home, but not write it. Likewise the local mosque from time to time offers introductory Arabic classes. Unfortunately they all speak the language perfectly, so I am lost in the verbal byplay while the other students struggle with the Arabic characters.
    The Normandy Vikings were probably pretty much outnumbered by the locals, and as usual learned to blend in. If you really want to get into the proof for it, someone has probably scoured Normandy and done a study of place names. Even if they lost the language, apparently they didn’t lose the restlessness since the ones who went on the Norman invasion were the descendents of the same ones who had just immigrated. The rest of the story is undoubtedly lost in the mists of time.

  24. @jamessal
    There’s more than just “one innocuous phrase”; there are enough phrases to fill up a bingo card.
    http://camelsnose.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/what-is-this-business-meeting-bingo-of-which-you-speak/

  25. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    when corporate moguls resort to this kind of language to give a gloss…
    It seems threatening to us. Just forget that, it doesn’t matter. Remember that when you read the Victorian equivalent of businessmen’s language, in Dickens say, or John Galswothy, it is a delightful experience.

  26. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    … and I don’t mean delightful compared to today, I mean a delightful insight into their society.

  27. crown, A. J.P. says:

    Wiki:
    The question of Rollo’s Danish or Norwegian origins was a matter of heated dispute between Norwegian and Danish historians of the 19th and early 20th century … historians … now agree that a certain conclusion can never be reached.
    Both the Norwegian and Danish royal families can, via Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Queen Maud and others, trace their way back to Rollo the Viking. I’ve never seen this put forward as a royal connection with the vikings. I don’t see why not, though.

  28. someone has probably scoured Normandy and done a study of place names.
    Indeed: Brichot.

  29. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Brichot
    That’s a very interesting post, Language. I don’t think there was a good answer to your question, and I think that’s because there aren’t any French responses. I suppose you can make up places just as much as you can invent families for the purposes of a novel. Barsetshire rings true for me, where all is familiar and I think of Salisbury and Wiltshire, but I don’t think I would ever get the same feeling of recognition from a made-up French place. A French person might, though, I think.

  30. Both the Norwegian and Danish royal families can, via Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Queen Maud and others, trace their way back to Rollo the Viking.
    The vikings were never too eager to claim Rollo, who was called Gange Hrolf in the sagas. He shows up in the Orkneys which is under rule of a viking duke, and they kick him out, saying he is too violent even for a viking, and point him towards the coast of Francia. Two previous settlements had been unsuccessful (Dorestand in 840 and the Loire river until 882) but Hrolf established a Viking presence at Rouen on the Seine in 911 with a royal charter from King Charles the Simple. New settlers continued through the 830′s. After that, Viking activity was directed at England. (Maybe they recognized Hrolf’s franchise?)
    Although Hrolf was probably Norwegian, his army was Danish. Analysis of the known names says the settlers were principally men and Danish with a few from Ireland and the northeast of England. The Normans had two sets of names, one Norman and one French. Rollo was Robert, his daughter Gerloc was Adele, Thurstein was Richard, etc. (illustrating early assimilation).
    According to F.Donald Logan, The Vikings in History, “Duke William’s son Richard [grandson of Rollo], in order to be brought up a Viking, had to be sent to Bayeux from Rouen for the Viking capital was by then a French-speaking city, a transformation that had taken less than twenty-five years.” “…the Norse language died quickly–first in Upper Normandy and later in Lower Normandy and there is no sign of its use after 940. It has few traces in the French language except for nautical words (for example, babord,[with that upside down carrot thingy over the a] tribord, quille, havre) and place-names (for example those ending -bec, -bu, -dique, -tot).”

  31. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    I was quite convinced by the Proust/Brichot Norwegian brygge, pier or quay, or as French place name, from bridge.

  32. oops, Dorstad, the Frisian slave trade center (not “Dorstand”)

  33. Very interesting, Nijma—thanks! It’s amazing that a language can effectively disappear that quickly.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    someone has probably scoured Normandy and done a study of place names. – Indeed: Brichot.
    Brichot has not left much for us to consult. A better source is Jean Adigard des Gautries (see the French Wikipedia), who was a professor at the university of Caen and had a property not far from where I grew up (the reported date of his death is grossly inadequate – my father met him several times in the 1970′s and maybe even later).

  35. John Emerson says:

    From Russell Baker in the Brichot comments: Few deeds can be more heroic than an attempt to read “Remembrance of Things Past” from beginning to end.
    Mr. and Mrs. Hat deserve a Broadway ticker tape parade, according to Baker. Mrs. Hat (“Tenzing” in Baker) less so, because of her request for skipping.

  36. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    I think you should ask marie-lucie to comment on your Brichot post, Language…

  37. What I don’t understand is taking such annoyance seriously.
    Well for that matter, why take someone else’s expression of annoyance so seriously?
    My suspicion is that the stereotypical descriptivist and the stereotypical prescriptivist are very much alike at heart — that’s why they drive each other so crazy :-)

  38. Well for that matter, why take someone else’s expression of annoyance so seriously?
    Such expressions of annoyance add to the already serious public misunderstanding of language and how it works, and they distract from a real analysis of the problems of society. But then, perhaps you don’t think there’s any such thing as a science of language, in which case you might as well be saying “My suspicion is that the stereotypical creationist and the stereotypical biologist are very much alike at heart — that’s why they drive each other so crazy.” It’s all fun and games as long as you don’t believe there’s any reality involved.

  39. No, I think there is such a thing as a science of language — as well as several expressive arts involving language, but yeah.
    I just think that the reality involved in someone disliking, or liking, a particular usage, is that they like or dislike it. That language changes is the science part — that people have to like it is not.

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