The Trouble with Pedants.

Sue Butler, who edited the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English for almost 40 years, writes for the Guardian about the misuses that matter to her and those that don’t; there’s nothing especially new here, but I agree with most of it and it’s always good to remind people of these things:

As the long-term editor of an English dictionary, I have arrived at the trouble with pedants: they cry foul too often. I have a sneaking suspicion that the desire to be right is more important to them than the desire to defend the language from degradation, which is what they claim to do. In many instances the transgression that they lament is simply an instance of language change (“agreeance” v “agreement”, for instance), or a variation that is accepted in the community but not their personal choice (the pronunciation of “schedule”), or an innovation that, conservative as they are by nature, they do not like (the use of “agenda” as a verb).

In the comments under a YouTube about gardening, a woman who describes herself as a purist – which is definitely claiming the high moral ground – calls out a gardening expert who was demonstrating how to repot clivias. He referred to the plant as a “klai-vee-uh” at the beginning of the show but then called it a “kli-vee-uh” later on. Both pronunciations are current, although the purist claimed that “klai-vee-uh” was the correct one since it was named after Lady Charlotte Clive, granddaughter of Clive of India. The only rule the presenter broke was the rule of consistency. If you are going to prefer one pronunciation over another where both pronunciations are current and valid, then you should stick to your choice. Otherwise you risk losing your audience while they fight over the different pronunciations, rather than attend to the intricacies of disentangling the roots of overgrown clivias. […]

So when to care and when not to care? I do care when one word is being confused with another, especially when it is part of a phrase where the meaning of the individual word has become less important than the meaning of the whole phrase. For example, we find that increasingly we are handing over the “reigns” to someone else (as opposed to the “reins”), possibly because we are no longer familiar with driving a horse and carriage, or even riding horses, so that phrases like “the reins of power”, and “keeping a tight rein on expenses”, or “giving someone free rein”, all involving a sense of control, seem to be acquiring “reign” rather than “rein’.

Straight-out errors are always worth calling out. I cannot abide the way that “infamous” is used instead of “famous”. We used to have two words. A person was famous for very laudable reasons, and infamous because they had done something reprehensible. Famous – known for the right reasons. Infamous – known for all the wrong reasons. But now we talk about a great hero being infamous. This is simply wrong.

Some errors, however, become so entrenched that the community ceases to see them as mistakes. “Regardless” of how many times we are scolded for using “irregardless” instead, it seems that it makes no difference. The community has accepted “irregardless” for whatever reason. Maybe it sounds better. Maybe the extra syllable gives it more weight. Maybe a language community that is always looking for patterns, lines “irregardless” up with “irrespective” and finds that convincing. This is not actually a change that matters. There is no misunderstanding, no ambiguity, no break in the flow of communication.

Of course, her “straight-out errors” are another person’s language change; I don’t like that use of “infamous” either, but if people keep using it, it’s not wrong, it’s just English. There’s no harm in arguing against it, though, and in general I like the cut of her jib. Thanks, Lars!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    My go-to examples of this sort of thing are “ingenuity” (used as if it meant “ingeniousness” rather than the correct “ingenuousness”) and “obnoxious” (which as all Hatters know, means “fawning”, but has been completely confused with “noxious” by the Young People of Today.) Such barbarous perversions are the inevitable result of the false economy of not employing Latin-speaking nannies.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Infamous

    And, of course, there is always the evergreen

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8mD2hsxrhQ

  3. January First-of-May says:

    used as if it meant “ingeniousness” rather than the correct “ingenuousness”

    …TIL that “ingenious” and “ingenuous” are supposed to be two completely different words. I thought they were just different spellings of the same word (which I interpreted as meaning “smart, inventive”, so presumably the former, but somehow I thought that the latter was the correct spelling).

  4. infamous

    I got into a protracted debate at a dinner party that ‘infamous’ means the opposite of ‘famous’ [well kinda] — that is, obscure/unknown.

    There was the appeal to logic, as so often with peevers. There was denial that dictionaries are reliable. There was the quoting of examples of people that were not known to the peever (who seemed to have been living in a closet), but were described as ‘infamous’ by others.

    I don’t know if it was relevant that the peever’s mother tongue was as much Welsh as English.

  5. What people with surnames like Jones could know about English?

  6. inflammable

    That reminds me of something I’ve been wondering about for a while now: the second vowel in “inflammable” [ɪnflæməbəl] and “inflame” [ɪnfleɪm] are different now, but were they both pronounced the same at one point?

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    “ingenuity” (used as if it meant “ingeniousness” rather than the correct “ingenuousness”) and “obnoxious” (which as all Hatters know, means “fawning” …)

    Old but gold, as the OED reassures me. Who knew, apart from wonks and monks ?

  8. David Marjanović says:

    For example, we find that increasingly we are handing over the “reigns” to someone else (as opposed to the “reins”), possibly because we are no longer familiar with driving a horse and carriage, or even riding horses, so that phrases like “the reins of power”, and “keeping a tight rein on expenses”, or “giving someone free rein”, all involving a sense of control, seem to be acquiring “reign” rather than “rein’.

    Likewise, supersede is being replaced by supercede, and usage is changing accordingly to imply metaphorical movement.

    …TIL that “ingenious” and “ingenuous” are supposed to be two completely different words.

    Me too.

    were they both pronounced the same at one point?

    That’s only possible if they were both borrowed improbably early – like, before the Orrmulum.

  9. Ingenuous is perilously close to obsolescence except as the base for disingenuous, which is hale and hearty as a way to avoid the L-word.

  10. Although “ingenious” sound like the opposite of “genius”, actually it means “evil genius”.

    Why are there so many more ingénues than ingénus? Kidding, I know why.

  11. @Fancua: The OED etymology says: “perhaps immediately < French inflammable (Cotgrave 1611). The 17–18th cent. inflamable, inflameable, was apparently an English formation on the verb: compare blam(e)able.” The attestations indicate that both spelling types (and so, presumably, both pronunciations) existed side by side for some time.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    Why are there so many more ingénues than ingénus?

    Male wishful thinking.

    Have some Madeira, m’ dear …

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPk0xgHqQ4M

    I cite this purely for its linguistic interest, as an example of zeugma.

  13. She also wrote The Aitch Factor: Adventures in Australian English

    “Only dead languages don’t change; living ones change all the time.

    “From aitch to amazeballs, from mondegreens to man boobs, there is no topic too controversial or complex for Australia’s most influential editor, Susan Butler. Sue, long-time editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, takes you on an insightful, often hilarious exploration of the words you think you know and a few you’ve never heard. She looks at why we keep changing our pronunciation of Beijing, when to use a hyphen, why we really should just take a stand and ban the apostrophe, and why saying ‘Haitch’ once meant social death in certain circles.”

  14. On the “correct” pronunciation of plant names, I wonder what the purist line is on “fuchsia”? No prizes for guessing why the “incorrect” version (as if it were spelled “fuschia”) has long taken precedence in gardening circles.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    What people with surnames like Jones could know about English?

    What people with surnames like Cornish-Bowden could know about Cornish?

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    a way to avoid the L-word

    Reading that drove me to an irrelevance, as I was just thinking about L- and D-lactate when I read it. Some animals, like insects, have L-, some, like spiders, have D-, and a few, including our good selves, have both. It sounds trivial, as evolution could surely switch from one to the other: right? Wrong! The enzymes that make them are completely different, with no perceptible similarity. I knew someone once who argued (seriously!) that insects must be more closely related to plants than to spiders.

  17. Too much ingeniety for me.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    No prizes for guessing why the “incorrect” version (as if it were spelled “fuschia”) has long taken precedence in gardening circles.

    The downside of the FOOT-STRUT split.

    I’ve seen that spelling pretty often, BTW.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Fuschia Chang, whose name is misspelled in two languages (scroll to the right). Only today did I learn that ‘Chang’ is the name of a variety of fuchsia. The plants are named after Leonhar{d,t} Fuchs.

  20. Was there ever a time when the German name Fuchs was pronounced in English like, you know? Or has it always been fewks?

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Was there ever a time when the German name Fuchs was pronounced in English like, you know? Or has it always been fewks?

    My aunt used to know Klaus Fuchs during the War, and they went on bicycle rides together. That was, of course, before he went to Los Alamos, and before he started his spying activities. I think she rhymed it with “books”.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    To me, as a confirmed non-gardener, Fuchsia immediately suggests Gormenghast.

    Only a Steerpike would pronounce her name as anything other than [fju:∫ə].

  23. Lars Mathiesen says:

    And here I thought it would be an Ach-laut in German, but it does sound like a velar stop on forvo. The things they didn’t teach me in school. (I’m not saying I think /xs/ is an easy syllable-final sequence, but I’ve seen worse).

  24. PlasticPaddy says:

    @lars
    The /xs/ can be heard in Swiss-German.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hGHGeF4JMwo

  25. Alemannic German: Alternative forms fugs, fuks, fuksch, fòcks, vucks. Impressive! But none of them imply /xs/.

  26. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat
    I added a video😊

  27. /xs/ or /χs/ is usual on the Swiss Plateau (where most people live), /ks/ in Alpine areas and Basel (and possibly a few other areas along the Rhine – I’m not sure from memory).

  28. I added a video

    Thanks, it’s very apparent there. And thanks for the clarification, Ben!

  29. There’s a nice map here.

  30. /xs/ is an easy syllable-final sequence

    The velars and alternating palatals are distributed as follows:
    […]
    After a vowel, before [s t]: only [x].

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_phonology#Dorsal_consonants_(velar,_palatal,_glottal)

  31. David Marjanović says:

    rhymed it with “books”

    As in the original, with the mentioned Swiss exceptions.

    (Yes, children sometimes go through a phase where they avoid counting to sechs.)

  32. I thought of this post when reading the new xkcd this morning:
    https://xkcd.com/2390/

  33. Heh.

  34. I had no idea what a fuchsia was when I first read Gormenghast, so I did indeed mentally pronounce it Fucksia. The name must not have seemed too out of place among all the Abiathas, Prunesquallors and so on.

  35. “She was gauche in movement and in a sense ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful.”

  36. The attestations indicate that both spelling types (and so, presumably, both pronunciations) existed side by side for some time.

    That makes sense. I always thought the meaning of “inflammable” would be much clearer if it were pronounced “in-flame-able”, so I wondered if that were ever the case.

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