I’ve been accumulating books I want to write about, and I might as well start with two that helped me with this curses-and-insults book I’ve been working on.
The first is In Other Words, by Christopher J. Moore. I was unfairly disparaging to the book in a post a couple of years ago making fun of the non-word “razbliuto” (which Moore had taken from another source and which, as he pointed out in the comment thread, had been removed in the next edition of his book); being now in the position of working on a similar book, I fully realize how impossible it is, given less than infinite time, to verify every entry, and having actually used Moore’s book I find it immensely enjoyable. One can quibble about particular definitions, and there’s too much emphasis on “untranslatability,” but it’s a nice selection of foreign terms; alongside the more obvious Arabic baksheesh and hajj, for example, is hilm il-utaat kullu firaan ‘the dream of cats is all about mice,’ meaning “to have a one-track mind.” And in the introduction to the Eastern European section Moore gave me great pleasure by quoting the final section of this essay about Budapest by the Serbian writer Dragan Velikić, with its riff on the name of Pillangó utca:
I translated that name to myself as Pillangó Street, in other words, I did not translate it at all, convinced that it was a name, a street bearing somebody’s name. I walked through Budapest as if I had just arrived in Babylon where, by the grace of a god who had yet to become angry or disappointed, everything had a personal name, untranslatable, and thus immediately understandable… Nothing about that feeling changed even when my friend explained to me smilingly that pillangó means — butterfly. You are talking about the Street of Butterflies, she said, about Butterfly Street. But the word pillangó was ever after engraved in my mind as the name of a butterfly. There was a “Pillangó butterfly” and it lived in Budapest.
The second book is Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge. The authors are academics (at Monash University), which means the book has a fair amount of jargon (of course, in Chapter 3 they insist that “although some [jargon] is vacuous pretentiousness, and therefore dysphemistic, its proper use is both necessary and unobjectionable”), but they are also linguists, which means the discussion of “bad language” is well informed and should enlighten readers who turn to the book to understand what linguistic taboo is all about. For the curse/insult book I naturally leaned on the chapter on “Jargon, slang, swearing and insult,” but directly relevant to a prime mission of Languagehat is Chapter 5, “Linguistic purism and verbal hygiene,” which in its opening paragraph says “We focus not on formal acts of censorship… but on the attitudes and activities of ordinary people, in letters to newspapers or comments on talkback radio. In these contexts, ordinary language users act as self-appointed censors and take it upon themselves to condemn language that they feel does not measure up to the standards they perceive should hold sway.” The authors discuss Australian resentment of “ugly Americanisms,” how standard languages come about (noting that “prescriptive grammarians seeking to establish the Standard often failed to conform to their own prescriptions”), the attempts of the “self-appointed protectors” of English to hold back language change, and Mary Douglas’s theory of pollution and taboo in relation to language. They conclude the chapter by saying:
Standard language is an ideal that speakers have, and which everyday usage never quite matches up to — not even in the performances of ‘good’ speakers and writers… For as long as records go back, people have complained about the degeneration of the language used in their own time. Feelings about what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘dirty’ in language are universal, and humankind would have to change beyond all recognition before these urges to control and clean up the language disappeared. An integral part of the language behaviour of every human group is the desire to constrain and manage language, and to purge it of unwanted elements: bad grammar, sloppy pronunciation, newfangled words, vulgar colloquialisms, unwanted jargon and, of course, foreign items. Next to the shamans are the self-appointed arbiters of linguistic goodness: ordinary language users who follow the ritual, and taboo those words and constructions they see as ‘unorderly’ and outside the boundaries of what is good and proper.
A thoughtful and sensible analysis; I hope the book is widely read.