Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman
I, for obvious reasons, have a great affection for the English Language. It’s a rich and exciting tongue, with a history as tangled and strange as they come. Over the last millennium or so, the language has gone through so many shifts and changes that people spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out. Once they do, more often than not, they find that what once was true about their beloved mother tongue just doesn’t hold up today.
So there’s a choice to be made by lovers of language: deal with the ever-fluctuating nature of English, adapt yourself to its changes and go on with your life, or do your damnedest to hold back the tide of error that is slowly overtaking your beloved tongue.
For reasons that should be obvious, the former type of person is far less likely to write books like this. Their laid back, laissez faire attitude towards the world is less inclined to make them mad enough to sit down at a computer and pound out thousands of words on the state of the language today. The latter type of person – and I do occasionally count myself among them – are far more likely to sit up late at night and write scathing tracts about the utter and complete degeneration of today’s language – about split infinitives and buzzwords and the ungodly Frenchification of English. If you listen to the sticklers, you might be forgiven for thinking that the very fabric of the English Language is in a state of decay, rotten and putrescent, and ready to fall apart any moment.Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman are here to give you some perspective, something in which language sticklers are usually lacking, and perhaps lessen the incandescent rage that overtakes you when you hear people use “infer” to mean “imply,” or “unique” to mean “special,” or say, “I could care less,” even though you know it’s supposed to be “I couldn’t care less,” because I mean my GOD, even a CHILD, even a half-trained, concussed MONKEY could see how that phrase works, what’s so hard about a simple word, you MORONS, you gibbering pack of….
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This book is about errors in English, and not only the legitimate ones. It’s also about how some of those errors aren’t really errors, or how they used to be, but now they aren’t. O’Connor and Kellerman are looking to give us a historical sense of how the language has evolved and changed over the centuries, and let us know that the rules of language can’t be set by prim and stuffy grammarians from two hundred years ago.
Those Grammarians, for example, are often called The Latinists, and a great many of them come from the 18th century. In those days, Latin was held up as being some kind of “perfect tongue,” and there was a certain fetish for making English play under Latin rules. The authors wryly note that this would make “about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers.” For those of you who are rusty on your linguistic history, Latin split off into what are called the Romance Languages, which includes Spanish, French and Italian. English, on the other hand, has its roots in the Germanic side of the great language tree, and so is more similar to German, Dutch and Frisian. The vast number of Latin-based words we have are, technically, imports, as English is merely a cousin to Latin, not its descendant.But no, there were Those who wanted us to be more Latin-like, and so they imposed rules on English that made no sense whatsoever. Such as the Split Infinitive Rule (i.e. not putting a word between to and a verb – to boldly go would be considered an utter abomination to these people.) In Latin (and Spanish, and French, and Italian), the infinitive form of a verb is a single word – it is literally impossible to split. English, however, has two-word infinitives, and plenty of room to joyfully put in modifiers.
Another good example is using the word “none” as a plural – “None of the ninjas are dead.” The old grammarians would insist that the sentence be, “None of the ninjas is dead,” because “none” is a compressed form of “not one.” Even the venerable Stephen Fry can be caught pushing this one, in a rather hilarious outtake video from his wonderful quiz show QI. Fact is, people have been using “none” as a plural for centuries, and it was accepted language back then. The current fracas about it rose up in 1795 when a guy named Lindley Murray suggested that while “none” can be used as either a singular or plural, it is really best used as a singular. Which English sticklers all took as, “It really must be used as a singular.” A hundred years later, and it’s become an ironclad “RULE,” with no more foundation than one grammarian’s half-hearted opinion.There’s also a great section on bad etymology – these are the stories about word origins that everybody knows, but which are most certainly wrong. For example, the origin of the word “Jeep” is usually attributed to a reading-aloud of “G.P.,” meaning “general purpose,” an appellation allegedly applied to these indestructible vehicles. Nope, sorry – it comes from Popeye comics. Or think about the Xmas season – whoops! I mean, Christmas season. Use “Xmas” today and you’ll get lambasted for taking the Christ out of Christmas. The abbreviated word is now looked upon as a Secular Humanist Plot to ruin Christmas for all the good god-fearing folks. Nope – the letter X has been representing Christ for more than a thousand years, and comes from the Greek letter X (chi), which is the first letter of Χριστός, which means, yes – Christ. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary can trace “Xmas” as far back as 1551, in fact.
One part of the book that really got my attention (other than Chapter 5 – the one on swearing) was the chapter on words that have fallen out of favor due to hyper-sensitive political correctness. Remember when Some People (they know who they are) started spelling the word for a female human as “womyn,” so as to remove it from the male-dominating “man”? Well, as it turns out, back in the good old Anglo-Saxon days, “man” referred to a person, regardless of their sex. Over time, distinctions began to emerge, giving us waepman for males (lit. “weapon-person”) and wifman for a married female. Change happens over time, and wifman became woman. Guys lost half their word and just ended up with “man.” Poor us.
The authors also touch on more charged language as well. For example, they recount the tale of a white city official who used the word “niggardly,” meaning “stingy” or “tight with money” in a conversation about expenses.This caused a massive media storm because the word “niggardly” sounds really close to “nigger,” a word that white people have to be really, really careful about using. For good reason, of course, but the fact is that “niggardly” and “nigger” are completely unrelated. The former goes back to old Scandinavian and the word “nygge,” which meant a miser. The latter is a corruption of the Latin niger, meaning “black,” which is turn gave us the Spanish and Portuguese “negro.” Long story short (too late), that city official used the right word in the right context, but it wasn’t a word that we let people use anymore. It’s a a Fallen Word, joining other words and phrases such as “Call a spade a spade,” “Rule of thumb,” and “shyster.” All of them have innocent origins, but have been inextricably linked with some of our worse human prejudices and practices.
I could go on. The point is that this book is a great pleasure to read, and will give you a fresh new perspective on the English language. It’s non-academic, so you have nothing to worry about there, well-organized and just plain entertaining. More importantly, while it may not be able to prevent you grinding your teeth when you see “Ten Items or Less” at the local supermarket, you may be less inclined to try and strangle the manager.
“The truth is that English is all about change. It’s as absorbent as a sponge, as flexible as a rubber band, and it simply won’t stand still – no matter where it’s spoken.”
– Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious