Another of The Browser’s FiveBooks interviews, this time with Henry Hitchings; I like what he has to say about “water cooler myths” and “stupid myths about the English language” (e.g., that “this is a uniquely sad moment in the history of English” and that “the Americans are ruining English”), and of course I was interested in his choice of books—and pleased that the first one was Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , which I wrote about here and elsewhere.


  1. Surely all sad moments in the history of English are unique. When was the last time you heard anybody say something like “this sad moment in the history of English is exactly like the one we had in August 1936”?
    I don’t think anything we’ve encountered lately can equal the poignancy of the dropping of the apostrophe from “‘bus”. Those were the days when a sad moment had some real substance to it.

  2. Well, “unique sad moment” is not quite the same as “uniquely sad moment”, is it?

  3. “Sadly unique moment” is melancholic in a different way from “uniquely sad moment”. “Sadly unique moment” would be a description of an enjoyable experience that will never recur.
    Then there’s “momentously sad uniqueness”, which says somewhat the same thing but with the melancholy replaced by flamboyant moping. It’s the kind of expression polished politicians reach for when they wax elegiac.

  4. Why doesn’t anyone say “this is a happy moment in the history of English” or “Americans are improving English”? I’ll tell you why, it’s because not many people really care that much about the English language; if they cared they’d have studied linguistics or English and they’d be more objective in the opinions they offer. People are scared that the values they’ve acquired aren’t correct, and aren’t going to continue for ever and ever, and so they try to shore them up. That’s really what’s going on, and arguing the facts isn’t going to help much unless the argument addresses these fears.

  5. I don’t know about being scared, but I sure do agree with your following remark: “People are scared that the values they’ve acquired aren’t correct, and aren’t going to continue for ever and ever, and so they try to shore them up”. That is true not just as regards the English language, but also “reality”.
    I say: go with the flow, and shorten those hems and haws ! You’re most likely to lose your job (as a style guide, or ontology harvester) when you cling to last year’s Denkstil.

  6. I meant “I don’t know about not caring …”.

  7. Well ok, they care a little tiny bit. Just not as strongly as they think they do.

  8. “…not many people really care that much about the English language; if they cared they’d have studied linguistics or English…”: not so. I enjoyed English enormously as a school subject and considered doing a degree in English. But a bit of reading revealed that the usual English degree was a heap of lit crit, so I read some Leavis; that taught me the wisdom of studying the sciences.

  9. That’s known in the trade as ‘anecdotal evidence’.

  10. Hichens says: But the suggestion that the English language is somehow on the way out or is doomed to become less rich is nonsense, and is fuelled by people who have a political agenda for saying that. Most arguments about any language, and certainly about English, are actually arguments about other things like morality, class and political values. Language is something people find easy to address as a subject because everybody else has experience of it. Also, the “problems” of language are easier to address than the problems of society. So it becomes a way of mounting a flank attack on other serious issues.
    I’d say that is a wild exaggeration. There are people – and I think they would include a majority of commentators here – who argue over language without a political motive, because of a love of this or that aspect of the language per se, and not because of alleged class or societal issues.
    Unless by that it is meant that suggesting students should be able to write and spell conventional (written equivalent of RP) English, and formulate coherent sentences, will greatly help their prospects, is a political statement and not just common sense.

  11. Hitchens or Hitchings? Anyway, I agree. Commentators here are the exception to many rules, Paul.

  12. I agree that it is an exaggeration and that on most individual points most people are sincerely talking about language. But their feelings about language have coevolved with their attitudes towards race and class. And when people condemn a whole way of speaking as 100% ignorant and worthless, or say that the language as a whole is going to the dogs, they usually do have a political motivation. You can’t tell me that the virulent disgust many people experience towards AAVE (or patois and whatever chavs speak in the UK) and the way that the schools try to stamp it out has nothing to do race or class.
    Of course people experience strong emotions towards usage that differs from their own, but whether those emotions tend towards attraction, bafflement, or aversion has a lot to do with preexisting prejudices.

  13. The crazier, more discouraging, and impoverished our culture becomes…the more we need language.
    It’s not only a tool, a weapon: it’s a shelter.

  14. OT, but irresistible:
    My wife is watching the 1949 movie “A Letter to Three Wives”. The Kirk Douglas character is complaining to Ann Sothern’s about various things, including her use of those kind of Xs instead of that kind of Xs.
    She retorts: “There are men who say ‘those kind’ who earn $100,000 a year.”
    “There are men who say ‘Stick ’em up!’ who earn even more.”

  15. @AJP Crown: You made a sweeping statement that if someone “really care[d] that much about the English language”, then “they’d have studied linguistics or English”. I should think it would take only one anecdote to knock that down!

  16. I think I’ll ask to have my official title changed from “Senior Content Architect” to “Ontology Harvester”. Although what I am actually doing is harvesting models to create ontologies.

  17. Ran, you’re quite right. I didn’t intend my remarks to sound overbearing (nor for the sweeping statement to be taken too seriously).

  18. Now I have some idea of what you are currently working on. Cool. I ran across “ontologies” in the internet via Barry Smith about two years ago: a training course entitled “Introduction to Biomedical Ontologies”. After watching the first three sections, however, I was moved to post a sarky piece called Clouds of Ontology.
    Actually, I found the research work he described to be extremely interesting, and obviously important. It’s just that Smith finally got on my nerves by insisting with the fervor of a Jehovah’s Witness that certain epistemological cognobabblings he had dreamed up must be believed in literally. A mixed bag, that Mr. Smith. But aren’t we all 😉

  19. When I lived in the US, the American Institute of Architects vigilantly ‘protected’ the use of the word architect. It anyone who wasn’t licensed called themselves for example ‘interior architect’, they would get jolly cross and call the police. I wonder if their attitude has had to change now that computer folk call themselves architects. (Once again, I don’t have strong feelings in either direction about this. Though I rather resent the Europeans who call themselves ‘interior architect’, when they wouldn’t know a volute from a plenum-return ceiling, on the other hand it’s absurd to let words be divvied out by some awful trade organisation.)

  20. the Europeans who call themselves ‘interior architect’, when they wouldn’t know a volute from a plenum-return ceiling
    I would have guessed that “interior architect” was just a fancy synonym for “interior decorator” – the people who want you to buy Louis Quinze ormolu sideboards, and can find a color scheme that brings out the best in both your poodle and your husband. Is a volute some kind of peacock feather ?

  21. I don’t know what “ormolu” is either, I just like the word. To me it suggests a disciplined extravagance.

  22. Crown: At a minimum, in order to style yourself “architect” you should to be required to learn the clean vigorous block-print handwriting that is used on blueprints.

  23. I would have guessed that “interior architect” was just a fancy synonym for “interior decorator”
    The fellow who designed and prepared the plans for my apartment is a licensed architect in Israel, a graduate of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The building was about 25 years old when I commissioned him, and the work entailed completely gutting the interior except for one wall. He specified all details, including even the gauge of the aluminum in the new windows. The only aspect of his work that could be considered interior decorating was his specifying paint colors.
    There is a huge call here for this type of work as 80 percent or more of the population lives in multi-unit condominium buildings, many of which date back 60 years or even more.

  24. Isn’t Ormolu a dialect of Bashqort?

  25. For my purposes, an ontology is indeed tied to philosophical ontology rather than epistemology: it is a classification of “what there is”. It differs from a mere taxonomy by generalizing superordinate and subordinate terms to superclasses and subclasses, and providing about properties defined in the ontology which serve the function of classes. So not only does the ontology record that Horse is a subclass of Animal, but also that it is a subclass of the nameless class “has as part a maximum of 4 Legs”, where “has as part” is the name of a property. Leg, in turn, is a subclass of both BodyPart and “is part of exactly 1 Animal”, where “is part of” is the inverse property of “has as part”.

  26. I’ve got nothing against giving a knowledgeable decorator a little licence – setting a nice pair of ormolu volutes on top of a mismatched Greek column shaft, something like that. There are only a very few decorators who are any good, but it’s the same with antique dealers or teachers or architects. For some reason there’s a much higher proportion of good airline pilots, shopkeepers, bartenders and bakers .

  27. Ø, beware of that block lettering on working drawings! It looks reassuring, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the design is any good.

  28. Odd thing: ormolu is the English designation for what the French apparently call dorure de mercure or bronze doré. But the French or moulu means “ground gold”, which was formerly used in manufacturing ormolu.

  29. I’m thinking of buying Empires of the Word on Kindle, for 2 reasons (1) it’s slightly cheaper and (2) it has the words “Don’t Panic!” inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. Seriously, the 2nd reason is to get it now, rather than having to wait for shipping from faraway climes. BUT, I’m very interested in knowing how all the maps and graphics come out in it. Does anyone have the Kindle edition, and an opinion on how the book looks thereon? Thanks.

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