My reading life is one of disappointments these days. Having been badly let down by The Greek War of Independence, I’m now grinding my teeth over Simon Winchester‘s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I got for Christmas and had been very much looking forward to reading. Mind you, I’ve only read the first chapter, so I haven’t even begun the story of the OED and can’t report on how well he tells it. But I can tell you the book is very poorly written.

This is particularly annoying because Winchester’s reviews are nearly unanimous in their praise of his style: “fluent, eloquent” (Michael Glover, Financial Times), “Winchester writes with his customary colour and verve” (Anne Wroe, Sunday Telegraph), “Winchester is an extraordinarily graceful writer” (Lev Grossman, Time), &c &c. RALPH (The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities) called this book “impeccably written.” So I expected that even if Winchester’s grasp of the study of language turned out to be lacking (as of course it did), I would be carried along by that fluent, eloquent, graceful style. Reader, I was not.

I am going to get quite detailed, because it’s the only way I can take my revenge for the ground teeth, so anyone with no appetite for dissection of sentences should stop now and wait for the next post.

The prologue begins with several pages about Derby Day of 1928 (“A great horse race on a sunny afternoon… All England, it is probably safe to say, languished that day in the careless blue-skies rapture of early summer, with little but pleasure… If these were rather carefree and prosperous times, for very many they were also cultured and learned times besides…”—you’d never know this was a period of intense class struggle in England, and Stanley Baldwin had crushed the miners’ union just the previous year, but let it go, this isn’t that kind of history) and continues with a rhapsody about the dinner held that evening at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London: “It was a dinner for 150… each one of whom was monumentally distinguished in achievement and standing… a stellar gathering of intellect, rarely either assembled or able to be assembled since”—”either assembled or able to be assembled”? what? let it go—”There were two bishops, three vice-chancellors, a dozen peers of the realm (including the Earls of Birkenhead, Elgin, Harrowby, and Crawford & Balcarres, the Viscount Davenport, the Lords Aldenham, Blanesburgh, Cecil, Percy, Queenborough, Wargrave, and Warrington of Clyffe), 27 knights of the realm…”—my eyes began glazing over, but I thought “OK, this is a British book aimed at Brits, and Brits love aristoporn the way Yanks love movie gossip, let it go”—concluding with a lengthy excerpt from Baldwin’s speech celebrating the completion of the OED (“And all that was most suitably and appositely said by the Prime Minister…”). It all seemed like padding to me, but I reminded myself that people like a little scene-setting, and I turned to the first chapter with undiminished anticipation.

I zoomed through a few pages describing how the future England was settled by Celts, conquered by Romans, and invaded by Teutons, then was brought up short by the following footnote to the Old English word Englisc: “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh.” I read it and reread it, and still could make no sense of it. “The -sc sound was pronounced as -sh“? And what were those hyphens doing there? My brow began to furrow, and I thought that at the very least the book could have used more editing. On the next page, in the course of a brief mention of futhorc runes, he says “with th—known as the thorn—being elided into a single symbol”; again I was puzzled—it’s the symbol that’s known as thorn, not whatever he means by the “th being elided.”

That was only an appetizer; it got worse. In discussing the many new words introduced during the Renaissance, he introduces a list with “sometimes the loveliness of the assemblages are just too beguiling to pass up”; aside from the failure in number accord (“the loveliness… are”), I have no idea what he thinks he means by “assemblages.” In a footnote to the list of borrowings he says “The distance between two caravanserais—a day’s travel, in other words—is known by the Turkish loanword menzil”; for one thing, the preferred spelling is manzil, for another it means not ‘the distance between two caravanserais’ but ‘a halting-place; the distance between two halting-places, a stage,’ and for a third it’s not from Turkish but Arabic—all this according to the OED itself!

I don’t want this to be any longer than it has to, and I respect the intelligence and literacy of my readers, so I will simply quote a series of sentences, putting in bold the bits that reveal bad style or plain idiocy and adding the occasional bracketed remark:

“Among those [Shakespeare] used, but he almost alone, were soilure, tortive, and vastidity, which mean, as one might expect, staining, twisted, and big.” [Those are some vastidity words!]

“A glance at any map will suggest hundreds upon hundreds of constructions and imports that we now know to be more a part of today’s English than they ever were of the native tongues where they were first born. Glasnost and perestroika, for example…”

[Talking about the fact that nobody had written an English dictionary before the seventeenth century:] “Nobody, it turned out, had ever bothered.”

[Talking about Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus:] “The tiresome making of this book once exasperated the ‘utterly profligate’ Mrs Cooper so much that she tossed the entire manuscript into the fire—prompting her imperturbable husband simply to sigh wearily and begin compiling his book all over again.” [Vas you dere, Sharlie?]

“But… neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day… had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that went by the name that was invented in 1538, a dictionary.” [Speak for yourself! And aside from that, the word dictionary is first attested in 1526 (“And so Peter Bercharius in his dictionary describeth it”), not 1538, and dictionarius or dictionarium had been used for centuries in Latin, so that the English word hardly needed to be “invented”; again, this information is right there in the OED.]

“He lists for their assistance words like bubulcitate, sacerdotall, archgrammacian, and attemptateall of them extravagances now mercifully gone the way of the doublet, the ruff, and the periwig.” [Sacerdotal is still a perfectly good word. Bubulcitate, by the way, is ‘to do the office of a Bubulcus or Cowheard,’ in case you were wondering.]

“The magisterially famous Dr Johnson…”

“The French have had their Académie Française, a body made up of the much-feared Forty Immortals…”

“On being accused, by a genteel society lady, of failing to include obscenities in [his dictionary, Dr Johnson] replied… ‘Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.” [The lady was not “accusing” him but complimenting him. This is a very famous anecdote.]

[On the success of Noah Webster’s dictionary:] “As a result the word Websterianmeaning ‘invested with lexical authority’—rapidly entered the language…” [OED: Websterian (wEb’stI@rI@n), a.1 Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Webster’s Dictionary (see prec.) or any of its later versions or abridgements.]

“[The Philological Society’s] first paper, which reportedly stimulated animated discussion among the members, was a classic of arcane enthusiasm: ‘The dialects of the Papuan or Negrito race, scattered through the Australian and other Asiatic islands.'” [In other words, it was a paper on what we would now call the Austronesian languages. Those wacky, arcane philologists!]

“In the very early days a most curious parallelism developed between philology and, rather curiously it would seem today, the science of geology…”

“There were papers also on the complexity of some foreign tongues—on ‘The Termination of the Numeral Eleven, Twelve and the equivalent forms in Lithuanian’, for example, and a spirited piece on the Tushi language, which is (or was) apparently well known in the Caucasian hill town of Tzowa, and which might be regarded today as a somewhat tricky tongue for beginners, given that the Tushi for the number 1,000 is the sonorously complex form of words sac tqauziqa icaiqa. In June 1857, while the members were gamely pausing to learn Tushi counting (cha, si, xo, ahew pxi, jetx …)…”

Ahahahaha! Those funny woggy languages with their silly, sonorous words for big numbers! Amazingly enough, we don’t have to wonder idly if “the Tushi language” is still spoken in “Tzowa” (or Tsova as it’s been transliterated for the last hundred years or so), this being the 21st century and not the 19th; the Ethnologue entry informs us that it’s spoken by 2,500 to 3,000 people [3,420 according to the new 15th edition] (and it’s known as Bats these days). And we don’t have to depend on crumbling old Society reports for lists of numbers, either, since Bats is on the Zompist list of “Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 4500 Languages” in the Caucasian section, right under its fellow Nakh languages Chechen and Ingush; it turns out the first six numbers are ch=a, shi, qo, =’iw?, pxi, and jetx. Not that the differences in transliteration are particularly important, but checking the list against a modern reference might have saved him from omitting the comma between ‘four’ and ‘five,’ which makes “ahew pxi” look like a single number.

Picky, you say? Sure. But this is a book published by Oxford University Press about the OED; it celebrates the decades-long labors of some of the most dedicated and detail-oriented scholars ever assembled for one task. If it’s not worth being picky about that, what in heaven’s name is it worth being picky about?


  1. Some well-meaning family members gave me The Professor and the Madman for Christmas the year it came out, and I couldn’t read past page three. Like one eudaemonist, I can’t help but marvel at your endurance. Must be the copyeditor in you. I think Winchester’s as happy with his style as his reviewers, where style equals putting big words just anywhere as nobody knows what they mean anyway.
    Picky isn’t the word. Picky is when you talk about errors in something clearly written, and written in good faith. And Winchester doesn’t. No point getting your panties in a twist about a deception practiced on those who want to be deceived, is the way I see it, and there are a lot of reviewers and readers there who are just counting the inches till the back cover on whatever book you give them.

  2. A curious parallel curiosity is that padded is precisely what I thought about The Professor and the Madman, which I did finish if only because I was still interested in the story, padding be damned.

  3. Excuse the twisted panties, but I’ve just looked at a couple of interviews online (1, 2), and it looks like he’s just as much of a twat in real life, if you pardon the expression. He wrote for National Geographic as well, so now I have a face to put to my dislike of that magazine. Though I see (by interview 2) he’s been to Skovorodino, which is a plus for me, and loves Dersu Uzala. But still manages to be a prick.

  4. Might we agree to take O.U.P. off the list of publishers of whom we say things like:
    “But this is a book published by…..”?
    I’ve been repeatedly disappointed. Cambridge, too. California, too. California edits with a spellchecker — it catches the non-words, but not the wrong words. (Frame’s Rabelais has multiple errors, most of which are no real problem but just ugly, because they make no saense at all).
    I blame Margaret Thatcher, but I don’t know why she was in California.

  5. aldiboronti says

    Hugely enjoyable piece, lh. A merciless (and richly-deserved) dissection. It’s always a joy to see bad writing get its come-uppance, and Mr Winchester is a ‘magisterially’ bad writer!

  6. Yes, well: Mel Gibson owns the movie rights to The Professor and the Madman.
    (I kinda like “assemblages,” though. But “magisterially famous” made me snort.)

  7. He seems to have a touch of Monty Python about him. I feel your pain.

  8. Be assured that you have provided the kind of “Thank god it’s not just me” comfort that a writer of negative critiques hopes to provide.

  9. And here I was wondering if anyone would read all that! Thank you all for providing solace and companionship in my pain. (Alas, it’s very hard for me to put a book down once I’ve started it.)

  10. I was looking at “The Meaning of Everything” on my bookshelf last night (honest) wondering when I’d get back to reading it. I gave up after about the third chapter. I have Winchester’s “Professor and Madman” as well, but I got through that one. Forget the errors about this new book. They’re unavoidable in a breezy popular book, but the style of this book is so annoying that he gives sesquipedalianism a bad name.
    Here’s another problem: the title. It smacks of British triumphalism, which is common enough when it comes to discussions of English. (I once wrote a letter to “English Today” complaining about the use of the term “archaism” to describe the word “fall” meaning “autumn.” I wouldn’t have complained about “fall” being called an archaism in a certain dialect, but I complained about calling “fall” an archaism in general when–by my estimate–it is used by about two thirds of all native speakers of English.)
    Back to the issue: The title implies that all meaning is contained in English, and that all this meaning is then ensconced in the OED. First, the OED has serious gaps in its coverage of English itself. Try looking up any number of terms in rhetoric, for example, which the OED intentionally leaves out. Take the uncommon “praecisio” for a start. Second, there are plenty of words in other languages that have no equivalent in English. What about that meaning? Third, it ignores the idea that language is most meaningful when words are concatenated rather than left to live their lives alone and isolated in a dictionary.
    And I collect dictionaries. I own and have read scores of monographs on lexicography, lexicographers, and lexicology. I have an interest in this field. But Winchester’s book annoyed me page by page.
    In compassionate support,

  11. I haven’t taken an opportunity to read this book which is loathed by so many at this site. Dare I ask any one’s opinion on K.M.Elisabeth Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary? (1979, Oxford University Press)

  12. In answer to the above, “Caught in the Web of Words” is lugubrious at best. I had to go back to it after a year’s respite before I could finish it. Turgid prose, but eventually the story itself carries the day. There are better works about the making of particular dictionaries.

  13. While reading this apparently well-deserved éreintement, I was wondering if you knew Etiemble. He passed away three (?) years ago, but this was exactly his kind of critique: altogether passionate and rational (les pieds sur terre). Of course, people detested him for that (having been compared to Homais, the positivist pharmacist in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, he took the insult as an honor), but kept, and still keep plagiarizing him (among other achievements, Etiemble has revolutionned comparative literature in France by opening it to non-Western, sometimes non-written, cultures).
    The funniest bit for a French reader (or, say, living in France, which is my case when I am in Europe), is the sentence about “the much-feared Forty Immortals” of the Académie Française. Remember Leiris? “”.

  14. Sorry, I pressed “Post” instead of “Preview”. I meant:
    Remember Leiris? “Macadam pour les mites” (in Glossaire, j’y serre mes gloses).

  15. ‘but I reminded myself that people like a little scene-setting’
    Name one. Excluding the nincompoops who teach journalism, or wherever it is people pick up bad style. Without any facts at all to back me up but my own prejudices, I’m going to guess most people are like me with scene-setting: screaming ‘Shut up! Who cares?’ at the book (or _New Scientist_ article, worst offender of all).
    I’m sure the list of lords is in there for the American market: no-one in Britain is impressed by that stuff.

  16. l337 dissection, teh hat.

  17. Winchester’s ‘Krakatoa’ was like a few 10 page sections randomly repeated multiple times and bound into a book.

  18. Thomas Dent says

    National Geographic is the epitome of bad, but highly-praised and laboriously-achieved, style.
    I remember someone somewhere having a really brilliant parody of it. Michael Frayn, maybe.
    A few sentences from the Nat Geo “Atlas of World History” indicate what’s involved:
    “By A.D. 100, when the Roman Empire was in full swing, some Maya cities were already in decline.”
    “Great empires butted heads and power changed hands, but these episodes fed a…kinship with a wider community.”
    “Vikings were not just ruthless killers; they traded as often as they raided, and their wives knew rights that other medieval women could scarcely imagine.”

  19. aldiboronti says

    Now we can see where Winchester developed his style!

  20. It would be interesting to trace the history of brainless orotundity back through the centuries to Hellenistic Alexandria and beyond (are there examples of this sort of thing on baked clay tablets?)… but it would probably drive the investigator to the madhouse.

  21. The book definitely sounds pretty bad but I did enjoy the dissection. I can hardly wait for Chapter 2.
    “‘The dialects of the Papuan or Negrito race, scattered through the Australian and other Asiatic islands.'” [In other words, it was a paper on what we would now call the Austronesian languages. Those wacky, arcane philologists!]
    Not wanting to be picky… 😉 but Austronesian scattered through the Australian islands? Fair enough they’re spoken on the Papuan coast but surely not natively in Australia or on any of its islands.

  22. Fair cop, guv’nor.

  23. This note reminds me of an anecdote about Robert Benchley, who went to review the opening night of a new play. After the first act, he went to the cloakroom to get his overcoat. An acquaintance asked about the review, and Benchley said he knew what the review would say. To the other’s comment that he had only seen the first act, Benchley answered that he was sure the author of the first act had also written the second and third acts.

  24. I read Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World a while ago, and thought it was painfully bad: poorly written and bad history both. I had been thinking about taking a look at The Meaning of Everything because the subject looks interesting and the reviews have been good… but now I will not. Thanks for the warning, especially as it was so much fun to read!

  25. I have not blogged in vain if I have kept even one innocent victim from being subjected to the oleaginous prose and invincible ignorance of Simon Winchester!

  26. Not only the prophylactic service rendered to the innocent, Mr. Hat, but the confirmation sorely needed by those already harmed by this egregious profanity; confirmation rare and sorely needed in these trying times.

    I will read almost anything, though I prioritize and catalog what’s available before settling in for the night. If there’s nothing else I’ll read a People magazine; cover to cover if I’ve had too much stimulant.
    Winchester’s first “book” was actually recommended and given to me. So I tried.
    I love the OED. The most painful separation of my life was made far worse by an uncompromising struggle over custody of a full set of the early 20th century edition.
    So of course an anecdotal history…oh boy!
    Masochist that I can be it was at least a third of the way through before I threw it across the room, and like a smoker or a next-morning drunk, vowed never again to subject myself to the damage contact with such a disturbed mentality can cause.
    But I repress things that scar me deeply, as most people do.
    I forgot.
    There on the limited shelves of the bookmobile, this January, while I was searching for some nice non-fict. for my aged mother, who still reads two or three books a week I saw, well yes.
    The Demeaning of The OED.
    But the “Winchester” resonated as that guy from MASH, David Ogden Stiers, for some reason.
    Then that night just as I opened it up, the size and cover graphic brought back the horror full-force.
    Oh God what have I done?
    One page and I was incensed. One page.
    Another paragraph and it was over.
    I didn’t throw it though, not this time, the room’s too small and filled with valuable things. I put it underneath some dirty socks.

    Something evil in that facile emptiness.
    That a work so revered by so many could be so profaned so publicly…
    What dark-motived creature would be allowed…
    But no, it’s probably only due to simple greed and self-blinding arrogance, like so much else that’s wrong.

    This post has done much to heal the aesthetic wound Winchester’s scurrilous grasping caused. And I’m most grateful.

  27. You know, I understand his writing the book: he can’t do any better, and they offered him a contract, after all. I even understand (though with severe pain) the book’s being published in its present form: we all know what’s happened to the publishing industry, and even OUP doesn’t bother with editing and factchecking any more. What I CANNOT UNDERSTAND is all the reviewers rolling over for this tripe. Can’t any of them READ?
    (Excuse the shouting. Sometimes it gets to me.)

  28. Page 1:

    “A great horse race on a sunny afternoon tends always to bring out the best in people, and it is probably fair to say that the concern of most in England that summer’s day was not so much with historical enterprises, however great or small they might have been, but rather more prosaically…”

  29. But… but… but…
    I liked “The Professor and the Madman”! I mean, the story! What an amazing story!
    I knew nothing about how the OED was created, or even that dictionaries did not come into being until so recently, so the entire thing astounded me.
    The book was completely new information to me–both the history of the madman and the history of the OED. How could I not forgive its blemishes and faults as it told me things not only fascinating but true?
    I admit that I have a very low standard for non-fiction–if it’s better written than my high school textbooks, I’ll read it–but then how else am I supposed to learn these things?
    If no one else is telling these tales, then what alternative have I but to read books, no matter how badly written, to learn the stories?

  30. So what did vastidity mean?

  31. Michelle: Sure, if you want to learn about something, you’ll put up with a poorly written book to do so. I’m not forbidding anyone to read Winchester (or anything else), just expressing my exasperation at the failings of his much-praised style. (And he’s counting on the fascination of the tale to cover up his sloppy telling.)
    bryan: Vastidity is a noun, not an adjective; if you’re going to say “…soilure, tortive, and vastidity, which mean, as one might expect, staining, twisted, and…” you have to finish with a grammatically parallel form, in this case “bigness” or the like.

  32. Oh. Well.
    Then why isn’t someone why *can* write telling these stories?

  33. Hat, I think that Michelle challenged your manhood. You WILL go out and write a History of Dictionaries.
    Here’s a good dictionary translation (not history:
    “‘The King’s Dictionary: The Rasulid Hexaglot’ was finally published by Brill in June…..The dictionary contains approximately 7,300 words in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol, the main languages of the vibrant Asian and Middle Eastern states of the Middle Ages.”
    (Note that Frankish is no longer a factor; the dictionary was compiled at the end of the fourteenth century.)
    CHEAP! at $180.00:

  34. Damn. How can I pass up a book called “The Rasulid Hexaglot”?

  35. (embarassed look)
    I wasn’t doing any challenging! It was an honest question!
    (And it was supposed to be someone who not someone why. Sorry.)

  36. Michelle-
    I’m no linguist, but I know words when I see ’em. Your question’s legit. And gains my sympathy.
    So do kids who think Pooh is a Disney-created teletubby mutant with a glucose addiction, as opposed to the valorous bear he’ll always be to those of us who know.
    My sympathy for you and those kids becomes ire when focused on the perps in question, that’s all.
    You’re cool, Winchester’s a scammy twit.
    My imagined scenario viz. “The Demeaning of Everything” is that the inexpressibly dear, and eminently forgivable, British eccentrics who have formal charge of the OED and its archives are so removed from the hury-burly of popularization they think of someone of Winchester’s ilk as a necessary translator, or middleman, between the Magister Ludi of Castalia and the public avenues.
    Plus Winchester maybe had piles of money going in or something; it was obviously not a labor of love, unless you count self-love and avarice.

  37. Just to follow up on a minor point made early in the thread: college reference librarians stopped regarding OUP as a serious, “must-order” press years ago. Large university libraries such as the one my father used to work for (Penn State) tend to have blanket orders for the output of major academic presses, but OUP is not among them. They still publish some good stuff, of course, but they also put out a lot of crap.

  38. Man, that’s depressing.

  39. Isn’t the title a play on words? When I see “the meaning of everything” I think of an “answer to life, the universe and everything”; that the phrase was used with a different sense seemed slightly clever. But perhaps that’s just me.
    Oh well. I’ll probably still read the thing; I doubt I’m quite as sensitive to poor style as you are, and it remains an interesting subject. (Besides, I don’t want to plunge my “to read” list into a constitutional crisis over whether an entry can be removed.)

  40. No, I’m afraid it’s nothing so hip. It’s from his excited peroration (p. 41) on the inadequacies of previous dictionaries:
    “No, nothing that had so far been made was good enough. What was needed was a brand new dictionary. A dictionary of the English language in its totality… No, from a fresh start, from a tabula rasa, there should be constructed now a wholly new dictionary that would give, in essence and in fact, the meaning of everything.”
    (In other words, it would ignore neither obscure words nor words that had been considered too simple and obvious to define by earlier lexicographers.)
    By all means, go ahead and read it; it’s fascinating subject matter, and you’ve already got the damn thing, right? Forewarned is forearmed.

  41. Actually, I was fortunate enough not to receive a copy for my birthday; I’ll borrow it from the library. It’s possible, of course, that Winchester could have chosen a semi-punning title without drawing attention to it, but given your description of his style this doesn’t seem very likely.
    Hat, I think that Michelle challenged your manhood. You WILL go out and write a History of Dictionaries.
    I’m going off-topic here, but this reminded me of a question I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you (LH, or anyone) know of a good general history of linguistics? Something covering the major figures and movements in the development of the discipline, e.g. origins, neogrammarians, Saussure, structuralism, the Prague school, Sapir, Whorf, Chomsky, Lakoff, generativism, functionalism, cognitivism. (This list probably strikes the informed reader as incomplete, out of order and overly heterogeneous, but that’s what I want the book for – to develop a proper perspective.) Or, if a single volume doesn’t exist, perhaps a series of books from which the same narrative could be cobbled together?

  42. The difficulty with writing a history of linguistics since 1960 or so is that it would be a history of faction fights, and it’s hard for anyone to do that without inside knowledge — which entails belonging to one of the factions. Several such attempts have been made, but they are always denounced for bias.

    As a teenager, I was interested in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, because it was mentioned in David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, a book I loved then and now. And so when I found in a second-hand bookstore a book entitled The Battle of Leyte Gulf, I pounced on it. It was the most boring thing I had ever read short of a textbook, and taught me the lesson that an interesting subject matter doesn’t always make for an interesting book. That said, The Professor and the Madman didn’t bother me, perhaps because I’ve been reading National Geographic since childhood, who knows? I didn’t bother with The Meaning of Everything, though.

  43. marie-lucie says

    I read The Professor and the Madman several years ago and enjoyed it, as the information in it was quite new to me, and the characters were so interesting. Sure, the wrriting was somewhat florid, but so is a lot of 19th century style, so Manchester’s style seemed to go with the topic and the era. I was not attracted by his later books, and the few reviews of them I read were not encouraging.

    JC: an interesting subject matter doesn’t always make for an interesting book

    Unfortunately no: the writer has a crucial role to play. This reminds me of a speech I heard at a graduation ceremony at the university where I used to work. Among other honorary degree recipients was a woman who had just retired as a chemistry professor. As she recounted her life, it turned out that as a graduate student she had had a minor role assisting the team that discovered the structure of DNA. You would think that she might have remembered the major personalities and the intellectual excitement in that lab, and talking about her time there could have been the highlight of her speech. Instead she delivered the most monotonously boring speech of all the ones I have heard on such occasions. She might as well have handed out copies of her resume.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    sometimes the loveliness of the assemblages are just too beguiling to pass up

    So true. Also, all your base are belong to us, so enjoy the loveliness of your assemblages while you can.

  45. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    ”There were two bishops, three vice-chancellors, a dozen peers of the realm (including the Earls of Birkenhead, Elgin, Harrowby, and Crawford & Balcarres, the Viscount Davenport, the Lords Aldenham, Blanesburgh, Cecil, Percy, Queenborough, Wargrave, and Warrington of Clyffe), 27 knights of the realm…”—my eyes began glazing over, but I thought “OK, this is a British book aimed at Brits, and Brits love aristoporn the way Yanks love movie gossip, let it go”

    Not this Brit. I agree with what NW said:

    I’m sure the list of lords is in there for the American market: no-one in Britain is impressed by that stuff.

  46. it turned out that as a graduate student she had had a minor role assisting the team that discovered the structure of DNA.

    Hmm I see that kind of line all the time in resumés. It can mean merely: I was in the same place at the same time. Was it “assisting” merely in the sense of cleaning out the fume cupboard? Did she know they were discovering the structure of DNA? Or did she only later figure out what that meant, and recognised the names?

  47. Am now re-reading the Winchester book, having avoided doing so for many years because of a lingering suspicion that I had once been highly irritated by its poor use of language – this in a work on such a topic as the OED, which you might fairly expect to have been written by someone with more than average linguistic skill.

    And I now find myself irritated – once again! – by precisely the things that irritated Languagehat all those years ago. Who is this Simon Winchester to pontificate on the supposed virtues of the English language? For a start, English is just one of the world’s many languages, and the socipollitical fact that it has been raised to a position of dominance by its successive status as the tongue of Britain and then the United States says little about its linguistic “value” compared with other languages. And Winchester demonstrates again and again that his command of the language is mediocre. As a professional English translator of 45 years’ standing, I believe I know what I’m talking about here. In my time I’ve had to adjudicate applications for translation jobs – and Winchester would have failed.

    I’m not sure I’m going to make it all the way through the book this time – it’s simply too hard going!


  48. Even after all these years, it’s a great pleasure to find someone else sharing my disgust!

  49. Thanks, LH, likewise!

    In my previous post “sociopollitical” should have course have read “sociopolitical” without the double “l” in the middle – but I didn’t then notice that I could do anything about it. And in a series of posts on linguistic precision I’m of course sensitive to potential criticism on such matters!


  50. Don’t worry, nobody criticizes typos around here. If the editing time has run out, you can always ask me to fix it with my godlike powers if you’re really bothered by a typo, but we all mistype things all the time. (I myself routinely type “it’s” for “its” and then have to fix it, muttering curses under my breath.) Everybody knows it has nothing to do with intelligence or language ability.

  51. I myself routinely type “it’s” for “its” and then have to fix it

    So do I, so do I. And yet never the converse — I wonder why not.

  52. And of course there’s another typo in my correction “have course have read” rather than “of course have read”. Perhaps you should now use your “godlike” powers to correct the original “sociopollitical” typo and remove your and my subsequent editorial comments, which are simply a distraction from the main issue!

  53. Hi John Cowan,

    It’s the old bugbear “hypercorrection” – we all had it hammered into us at school that “its” should sometimes be “it’s”, so we wrote “it’s” everywhere to be on the safe side. The same with “I” rather than “me” – now we see “for you and I” rather than the correct “for you and me” all over the place (no-one would ever write “for I” rather than “for me”).

    How did English ever get to be the world’s lingua franca? And I, mind you, am a native speaker of it.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    I go for hypocorrection myself. Saves energy.

    The thing about the spelling its is that it’s particularly irrational given the fact that genitive s is preceded by an apostrophe everywhere except after personal pronouns; the more so as the form itself is a Horrid Neologism for the One True Form his, anyway.

    Come to that, hers, yours and theirs are also horrid neologisms, and should more sensibly be spelt with apostrophes. This only leaves his, the existence which seems a pretty weak pretext for complicating the whole system so pointlessly.

  55. Well, LH, we seem to have got a new thread going…. Hypocorrection – hopefully less harmful than hypoglycemia.

    Maybe this is somehow related to the original topic after all….


  56. David Eddyshaw says

    (Come to that, the apostrophe before genitive s is based on a mistaken analysis anyway. Lets call the whole thing off …)

  57. Yes, we should really ditch the apostrophe altogether. You can’t hear it, so why should you have to see it?

  58. A. Sasportas says

    Two more hypercorrections:

    “Whom shall I say is calling?”


  59. Stu Clayton says

    In an ancient New Yorker cartoon, a woman customer in what appears to be a classy antique store has pulled out her checkbook to pay for something. She says, with equal classiness:

    # Who shall I make this check out toom ? #

    They used to call it adaequatio intellectus ad rem. I doubt she would have said that in a Seven-Eleven.

  60. It’s the old bugbear “hypercorrection” – we all had it hammered into us at school that “its” should sometimes be “it’s”, so we wrote “it’s” everywhere to be on the safe side.

    I certainly didn’t; indeed, I had no problem with its for my first 40 years (I taught myself to read and write); only more recently have I been screwing it up.

    The same with “I” rather than “me” – now we see “for you and I” rather than the correct “for you and me” all over the place

    Nope. It is neither recent nor frequent nor ungrammatical nor a hypercorrection (Shakespeare used between you and I before there was any notion of “English grammar”).

    Anyhow, welcome to Languagehat, where we all educate one another about language, literature, esoterica of all sorts, and sometimes even hats.

  61. David Marjanović says

    I do wonder where Shakespeare or his sources got the idea, though. How old is the use of object pronouns for emphasis in English? If it’s from French as I suspect, it’s probably a few hundred years older than Shakespeare.

    And yet never the converse — I wonder why not.

    Because it’s is much more common than its, and because the lack of an apostrophe in its is anomalous as described above.

  62. @David Marjanović: It probably does come from French. However, I don’t think it’s really right to say that it is an emphasis phenomenon. It’s just that the default case (for pronouns, which are the only things that still have case in English) is the objective, not the subjective; and even in compound subjects, the objective forms are often more natural. So native speakers consistently have to be taught that a sentence such as, “Me and Eric are going to the park,” is supposedly “incorrect.” (For whatever it’s worth, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Teran, made no effort to keep us from using something like “Me and Eric” as the subject of a sentence. She even let us start sentences that she would write on the board for the entire class to copy that way; she just had a rule that only one sentence volunteered by a member for the class for such an assignment could start with “I” or “Me.”)

  63. She was a smart teacher.

  64. David Marjanović says

    “Me and Eric are going to the park”

    Interesting, but in examples like these there’s plenty of emphasis on “me”. (Doesn’t even depend on word order: Eric and me, we’re going to the park still has emphasis on me.)

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    No: this is in fact the default unmarked way of putting it for native speakers yet to be corrupted by prescriptivism. It doesn’t have contrastive stress on “me” (unless you decide to put it there; in which case I would probably actually say: “Eric and me, we’re going to the park.”)

    You’d actually have to do something a bit similar in Kusaal: subject-I is m, but this is a bound form that can neither follow nor precede “with/and.” So

    M na keŋ lɔmbɔ’ɔgin la. “I’m going to the orchard.” (Can’t think of a real equivalent to “park.”)


    Man nɛ Arʋk na keŋ lɔmbɔ’ɔgin la. “I and Aruku are going to the orchard.”
    Arʋk nɛ man na keŋ lɔmbɔ’ɔgin la. “Aruku and I are going to the orchard.”

    In a context where m actually could have been used, but only there, the choice of the free form man is contrastive:

    Mani na na keŋ lɔmbɔ’ɔgin la.I‘m going to the orchard.” (Not you or Eric.)

  66. Yup, what DE said.

  67. David Marjanović says

    Sorry, I didn’t mean contrastive stress; I mean that the utterance-initial position in me and Eric is exposed enough that it can’t be destressed much. It’s on the slippery slope to the French situation, where moi started out as oblique, then became the stressed form, and is now the 1sg pronoun while je is basically just a verb prefix anymore.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    One too many na’s in the last example

  69. I mean that the utterance-initial position in me and Eric is exposed enough that it can’t be destressed much.

    I still disagree; the phrase “me and Eric” sounds like /mi-n-ˈɛrɪk/ with n syllabicized ad libitum. There’s no stress on “me.”

  70. David Marjanović says

    How did English ever get to be the world’s lingua franca?

    WWII, basically. After it, little more than the US was still standing.

  71. “Him and me” and “me and him” are equally acceptable. Not sure there’s any stressing involved.

    On a slippery slope to the French situation… maybe. But I suspect that the use of obliques for conjoined subjects has been around for a very long time. If your only exposure is to written English it might strike you as very strange. If you are exposed to spoken English you will realise just how ubiquitous it is.

  72. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s just occurred to me that the very title of this post is an egregious solecism. Should be “Worse Writing.” Obvs.

  73. Pronouns are weird. The most natural way to say in Russian “Me and Eric are going to the park” is “Мы с Эриком идем в парк” literally “we with Eric…”. This “we” refers to any group which includes the speaker including a group consisting of only the speaker.

  74. A. Sasportas says

    @DE,” the very title of this post is an egregious solecism. Should be “Worse Writing.”

    Reading the title, I took it to mean ‘additional bad writing’, in which case it is grammatical.

  75. Маша целуется с Петей.
    Петя целуется с Машей.
    Маша целует Петю
    Петя целует Машу.
    Маша и Петя целуются.

    (они с Петей целуются is also fine.)

  76. If your only exposure is to written English it might strike you as very strange.

    I of course was curious why English speakers use “me” and “I”, but it was a very early stage in my English and my guess was informal-formal.

    I thought that “me” is a newer form, though (Russian does not have this “written-spoken” thing). And I was tempted to use it:) It systematically appeared in emotionally meaningful lines in dialogues.

    SImilarly, many learners – but mostly not Russians – pick “wanna” early. Russians notice it too, of course: songs are full of wannas.

  77. David Eddyshaw says

    @A Sasportas:

    Of course. I should have said “More Worserer Writing.”
    I was thinking in Brythonic. We have more degrees of comparison than the pitiful English. It is not known how many, exactly.

  78. Reading the title, I took it to mean ‘additional bad writing’, in which case it is grammatical.

    It does. DE was having his little joke, as he does. It’s a Welsh thing. Or perhaps a Calvinist thing.

  79. Thanks to you all for your very perspicacious comments on what began as my response to Languagehat’s negative review of Simon Winchester’s book on the OED, all those years ago. I stand by that response, but you have between you drawn my attention to inconsistencies in my own attitudes to English usage – and as a professional translator I will take this on board. Good to know there are still so many language sleuths out there.

    This seems to be a pretty good site!

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