It is a blooming miracle that the English language has lasted as long as it has, if you consider the number of axe-wielders who had been out to change it over the centuries. Nowadays we have a special class of
individuals, radio and television commentators, dedicated to that special task, murdering English.
Deceased comedian George Carlin took these people to task during his lifetime for their butchering of the common tongue. Most persons consider Carlin only a sassy, social-critic comedian who used a lot of dirty words in his act. But he was also something of a language scholar. In his book Braindroppings Carlin gave the broadcast industry a bite on the ear for its many linguistic atrocities. Among their other mistakes he assured them that:
- A light-year is a measure of distance not time.
- An acronym is not just any set of initials. It applies only to those that are pronounced as words. MADD, DARE, NATO, and UNICEF are acronyms. FBI, CIA, and KGB are not.
- Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.” If a diabetic on his way to buy insulin is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.
- And speaking of sex, celibate does not mean not having sex. It means not being married. No wedding. The practice of refraining from sex is call chastity or sexual abstinence.
- Proverbial is now being used to describe things that don’t appear in proverbs. For instance, “the proverbial drop in the bucket” is incorrect because “a drop in the bucket” is not a proverb; it’s a metaphor. A biblical proverb sounds something like this: “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.”
Carlin could have saved himself the trouble. No one was listening. Nibbling the English language to death is not only not murder, it is not even a crime. Rejoice in our verbal freedom the next time your favorite blow-dried TV commentator announces that a sports team has wrought a “very unique” victory. When something is unique it stands alone; it is unparalleled and incomparable; it is one of a kind. There is no such thing as “almost unique” or ” really unique.”
But one cannot be sure how long this singular word will retain its “uniqueness.” Some dictionaries are already including “very unique” as the definition of something unusual. They are responding to repeated misuse of the word in both broadcast and print mediums
.. Most persons think that dictionaries are like laws, absolute rules governing words and their spellings. Actually these helpful guides are merely notices of how words are spelled, pronounced and defined by most of the literate population at the time the dictionary was printed. Dictionaries are almost useless when defending language against assaults of linguistic barbarians. If enough citizens misspell or misuse a word long enough your fearless dictionary publisher will surrender faster than an Obama promise.
Consider those innocent little pronouns “he,” and “his.” From centuries past they have been used to identify both sexes in sentences such as, “Everyone must hang up his towel after showering.” And, “He who hangs up his towel showers best.” Simple, huh? Well, that was before the Language Nazis arrived on the scene and bellowed that using only masculine pronouns is naughty and sexist. That second sentence should read, “He/she who hangs up his/her towel showers best.” But writing sentences with so many slashes soon got tedious even for “progressive” authors, and soon we had: “He or she who hangs up their towel showers best.” So now we have compounded a linguistic felony with bad grammar.
I have styled these people as Language Nazis because they operate from political motives using techniques similar to those of Third Reich propagandists. They have no interest in improving the language or making life easier for writers and speakers. Making a politically correct point at any cost is their main aim in an effort to ensure everyone writes and speaks as they do. The underlying philosophy seems to be that speech and writing mirror thought, and changing the written and spoken language will alter attitudes.
Another class of language-barbarians is the Do-Gooders who set out to improve the tongue yet manage to muddle it beyond belief. I have in mind is certain newspaper chain which made a brief and catastrophic attempt to simplify English spelling. Lord knows, we could use simplification, especially with words ending in “ght” as in “knight,” “night,” “right,” “bright,” “sight,” “light,” “fight,” “height,” and “might.” The chain’s editors begin spelling them as knite, nite, rite, brite, site, lite, fite, hite, and mite in news stories which brought an instant uproar from readers with consequent dropping of the whole idea.
Language Nazis have transferred their efforts these days to politicians in Washington where an “idiotic idea” magically becomes a “well-intentioned but non-functional program.”
In the 1940s Do-Gooders undertook a special project to make English more euphonic, more like French. Our cacophony seared their tender ears, so they started correcting us one word at a time. One of the words they picked was “dwarf,” whose plural, dwarfs, took effort to pronounce. “Dwarves” was much better they ruled, and for time it held sway among the erudite. I noticed recently among the dictionary tribe “dwarfs” is back in fashion as preferred spelling, proving perhaps ordinary folks can spot a dumb written concoction when they see it.
One atrocity which irks me particularly is hijacking of the word “parameter.” In mathematics it describes a constant or variable term in a function that determines the specific form of the function but not its general nature. It also serves as a useful variable in statistics and computer programming. Back during the 1960s space race our blow-dried TV broadcasters heard rocket scientists tossing the word around and misunderstood it to mean “boundaries” or “limits.” They transferred their ignorance to the public, who snapped it up because it sounded so elegant and scientific. And now we are assailed by such nonsense as the parameters of our foreign policy.
It’s a pity. There are sufficient words in English to describe boundaries and limits without kidnapping “parameter” and mutilating it. “Frontiers” leaps to mind along with “extent.”
Do-Gooders are still hard at work and will no doubt soon bestow something equally brilliant on us. That leaves us with the great mass of language-manglers in television, movies, and written press, including the products of journalism schools where publishing and broadcasting mechanics take precedence over learning anything useful. They operate from simple ignorance and will be with us always to the end of the world.