THE BITTEREST PILL.

The latest entry in the annals of Prescriptivist Follies: when the Guardian used the phrase “his bitterest enemies,” a reader wrote in to complain that “the correct English form is ‘most bitter,’” upon which editor Ian Mayes added the following gem of stupidity: “One of the weapons in my arsenal is the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary on line, but it is at a total loss to find any recorded use of ‘bitterest.’” As Ben Zimmer points out in the linked Language Log post: “With only a modicum of know-how in using the online OED’s full-text search feature, Mayes could have quickly found no fewer than 41 citations throughout the dictionary featuring the word bitterest… To these we could add many hundreds of attestations in English poetry, drama, and prose from Chadwyck-Healy’s Literature Online database.” The word averages “about 40 appearances a year” in the Guardian itself. And neither Ben nor I can even figure out how the outraged correspondent came up with this cockamamie ukase, which is supported by none of the usual mavens.

Comments

  1. Surely, the gem of stupidity must be attributed by the columnist rather than the reader?

  2. Doh! Attributed TO, of course.

  3. Geez, why is everyone always picking on Brits? Surely there must be plenty of Americans making the same kind of gaffes, but LL just have it in for the British press.

  4. Is it a cultural inferiority complex, perhaps?

  5. Conrad: No. Unless you’re implying that people should go easy on the Brits when in error.
    Anyway, we doubtless look forward to next week’s Guardian’s corrections column correcting the correction.

  6. Ooooh ukase. Just added to my list of words I didn’t know.

  7. Glyn: I’m not implying anything of the sort. I just wonder why all the examples on LL just “happen” to be British. I doubt very much that we are any wronger than the Americans or anyone else.

  8. Conrad: We don’t pay any special attention to British nonsense about usage. See for example
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000437.html
    and
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001461.html
    for two cases (of many) where we examine things that appeared in American publications, and as far as I know were written by Americans.
    And the most frequent object of LL criticism is that American sacred cow, Strunk & White.
    I’m puzzled, in fact, that you could get the impression that we have some special animus for Brits.

  9. It’s because objectively speaking the Brits suck in a large number of ways, that’s why. Duh.

  10. Mark: fair enough, it was a subjective impression, not a statistical statement. It still seems to me like the Guardian etc. get more flak than Yankee rags, but perhaps it’s an illusion. I am, incidentally, not particularly prejudiced in favour of the British media. I don’t read either.
    Emerson: Yes, we’ve always shown more creative variety than the Americans, who only know how to suck one way. It must get a bit tedious for you…?

  11. Ha! I have to laugh about the comments by Conrad… as if the issue is some anti-British-press sentiment… justified by a “subjective” approach. All this is fine of course. In this case it is quite entertaining, especially when the subjective basis (the qualifications supporting the subjective approach) turns out to be the best chortle: he reads neither Yankee nor British media.
    Maybe the party that seems to “have it in for the British press” is the party doesn’t read/support it. (I don’t read the Gaurdian either by the way. I’m not sensitive to crticisms of it.)
    All of this misses the point entirely: the post SUPPORTS the Gaurdian’s usage. The “reader” is the purveyor of stupidy gems.
    Or have I COMPLETELY misunderstood?

  12. Ha! I have to laugh about the comments by Conrad… as if the issue is some anti-British-press sentiment… justified by a “subjective” approach. All this is fine of course. In this case it is quite entertaining, especially when the subjective basis (the qualifications supporting the subjective approach) turns out to be the best chortle: he reads neither Yankee nor British media.
    Maybe the party that seems to “have it in for the British press” is the party doesn’t read/support it. (I don’t read the Gaurdian either by the way. I’m not sensitive to crticisms of it.)
    All of this misses the point entirely: the post SUPPORTS the Gaurdian’s usage. The “reader” is the purveyor of stupidy gems.
    Or have I COMPLETELY misunderstood?

  13. In case my post wasn’t clear, an unnamed Guardian reader made the silly assertion about bitterest being wrong, and Ian Mayes, the reader’s editor, seemed to lend support by falsely claiming that bitterest isn’t attested in the OED. So there’s plenty of blame to go around.

  14. That’s what I get for jumping in. Your post was clear. Disregard me entirely. Ha!

  15. It might just be the Guardian. The Guardian’s quality-control has been criticized for several different reasons.

  16. Actually I personally believe that the Guardian’s quality control to be extremely good. I’m very suspicious of any newspaper that doesn’t have a corrections column.

  17. Not that I don’t enjoy seeing prescriptivists brought low, but this post is a great example of what I really really read Languagehat for: the writing. Few people would think to use “cockamamie,” “ukase” and “mavens” in the same sentence, and fewer still could pull it off without sounding pretentious. Thanks, Hat.

  18. Stephen Jones says:

    One reason the Guardian might get more flak is that it is read by the Brits. Pullum is a Brit, and I routinely forward to him or Mark articles in the Guardian, such as Jenkins nonsense, that I come across (the Mayes article no — though I had emailed Mayes when it came out)

  19. AJ: Quite right; I was in too great a hurry to bring the gem to everyone’s attention and didn’t read closely enough. I’ve corrected the error.
    Conrad: Touchy, touchy! Mark is quite right, the Loggers are equal-opportunity scoffers.
    Dave: Why, thank you, sir!

  20. But [The OED] is at a total loss to find any recorded use of ‘bitterest.’
    Since the recorded uses referenced in the OED come from a corpus of texts made up of, among other things, newspaper articles, surely the original Guardian article would constitute one such example.

  21. I believe the use of -est with polysyllabic adjectives is gradually declining. Does anyone still used ‘commonest’?

  22. This “cockamamie ukase” is what I learned in elementary school: that -er and -est are for one-syllable words, and for two-syllable words only under certain conditions. I couldn’t remember the conditions, but I just found a link to some rules that would exclude “bitterest”: the page claims that -est is only for bisyllabic words that end in Y.
    http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/330/grammar/regcom.htm
    (“Bitterest” *does* sound funny to my ear, perhaps from the influence of that rule I was taught, but I wouldn’t call it wrong. It just sounds old fashioned or excessively formal or something.)

  23. Two-syllable words only if they end in “y”? That’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard!

  24. That is just the most sweet irony.

  25. Yes, if you’d asked me yesterday, I would have sworn that “cockamamie”, “mavens” and “ukase” couldn’t even appear in the same sentence! (Unless of course they were spread out over the component subsentences of a compound sentence which is cheating.) Sworn it, I say!
    (What’s that? No, I don’t even know how to SPELL linguaficacion!)

  26. So ‘luckiest’ is ok, but ‘stupidest’ isn’t… hmmm

  27. ‘Bitterest’ doesn’t sound at all bad to me. Nor does ‘severest’, as in ‘my severest critic’. On the other hand, ‘sincerest’, as in ‘my sincerest apologies’ sounds just barely beyond the pale for me, but okay with my ESL-teaching wife (who is otherwise teaches the rule about 2-syllable words ending in -y).
    My cut-off point seems to me a strange place to draw the line. I’m trying to think of more 2-syllable adjectives that have stress on the 2nd syllable, on the hypothesis that initial stress goes better with -est than penultimate–initial stress being Germanicker and all.

  28. It appears that the editor would be right, though, about cockamamiest.

  29. Terry Collman says:

    The choice has,ultimately. to be euphony or prosody – “most costly” sounds much better than “costliest” whatever the claim about words ending in “y”

  30. What do all of you think of Ever-est?
    Seriously, any word, in any language will sound weird, after sufficient amount of attentive repetions.

  31. Surely it’s simple? “Bitterer” sounds awful, so someone with a cloth ear assumes that “bitterest” is bad too.

  32. This “cockamamie ukase” is what I learned in elementary school
    ‘Tis funny how often the argument “I learned this in elementary school” is used in such debates. Considering the very large number of things I learned in elementary school which later turned out to be total bull (like, say, “The Soviet Union is our best friend”), I tend to be skeptical towards such arguments.

  33. bulbul: I guess I came off sounding condescending; I don’t meant to say the rule is true because I learned it in elementary school; I only suppose the misinformation must be fairly common if it was taught in my elementary school.
    (Lots of things I learned in elementary school I no longer believe, but this is not the lie about which I am bitterest.)

  34. marie-lucie says:

    About the kind of adjectives that sound OK with -er and -est suffixes, one of the quotes in the original Language Log post (Nov. 20) gives several endings which are especially prone to that, but none of them is -y, perhaps because -y words like happy, etc do not often cause soul-searching about how to proceed (“this is the happiest day of my life”, not “the most happy day”).
    As a 2nd language learner of English I was taught that these suffixes apply primarily to one-syllable adjectives, as in colder/coldest, and to those in -y like “happy” but also to two-syllable ones which end in a “sonorant” sound such as -n, -l and -r (like “common”, “little” and “bitter”); but it seems to be true that -est is much more common than -er with those (ex “The Littlest Hobo” is OK but “the littler one” would sound strange to me). However, adjectives of Germanic origin (= from the ancestor of English) seem more likely to do this than those of Latin or French origin (although “common” is one of these; but those ending in -al, like “real”, do not usually use the suffixes ).
    About “severe” vs. “sincere”, aren’t both these words stressed on the 2nd syllable? “severest” is not pronounced with the same stress pattern as “cleverest” – at least I have never heard it that way – and the verb “sever” (stressed like “clever”) has nothing to do with the adjective “severe” – unless some people are influenced by the similar spelling to stress them the same way. (Severe and sincere are from Latin, clever and sever from Germanic).

  35. I can’t for the life of me understand what people find wrong with ‘sincerest’. “Please accept my sincerest apologies” — why it’s almost written in stone!

  36. Am I alone in initially mistaking “I don’t read either” for “I don’t read, either”? This would a very severe disqualification for the poster indeed, given his desire to comment on the media of two countries.

  37. My “elementary school” learning on the matter of comparatives and superlatives was that there was a fairly large class of adjectives that could be inflected or intensified as one preferred. So I let euphony be my guide. Because “more bitter” is so consonant with “more better,” I avoid it. And having committed to a comparative, I would think it a little disloyal to switch on the superlative.

  38. Stephen Mulraney says:

    I seem to be alone in finding none of the -est forms quoted before my comment to be the least bit odd-sounding. Well, except for cockamamiest – which just goes to show that there are limits on what I’ll accept…

  39. The strangest -est form I ever heard was “élitest,” clearly meant as a good thing, but — due to homophony with “élitist” — not quite taken as one.

  40. The letter-to-the-editor over some perceived slight against English language and grammar seems to be an almost entirely British neurosis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen its like in American, Canadian or Australian papers.
    I’m willing to bet too that it represents a particular demographic of British society: a person who was brought up in the days when schools taught “proper English.”
    That means the letter-writer is likely a genteel, retired type in their sixties or older.
    It will be interesting to see if the volume of these letters starts to plummet as actuarial tables kick in on the group writing them…

  41. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t often read British papers but the genre does exist in English Canada, at least here in Nova Scotia.

  42. “I don’t often read British papers but the genre does exist in English Canada, at least here in Nova Scotia.”
    Interesting comment. Any guess as to the demographic?
    JJM
    (Canadian living in London, UK)

  43. marie-lucie says:

    JJM,
    I have not looked at this systematically but I think most commenters must be as you say. On the other hand, I am often surprised by how young some of them seem to be. I have even read a similar letter by a high school student!

  44. I’m surprised Mayes had never heard of the Jam’s 1982 hit single “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow).”

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