Book Review: Power of Babel
John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkeley, has authored The Power of Babel, an overview of linguistic change. The book is aimed at the layperson and attempts to convey linguistic “truths” and smash popular myths about the nature of language and how it changes.
McWhorter does a superb job of taking what should be an impossibly broad topic, the history of language—all language—and distilling it down into a small number of discrete principles of change. Humans have been speaking languages for 150,000 years. There have been tens of thousands of languages throughout the millennia. Yet they all share common features and they change in patterned, if unpredictable, ways.
Word of the Month: Fandom
The word of the month for July is fandom, n., a base of enthusiasts for a particularly activity, book, movie, or television series; originally from baseball; from fan + [king]dom; (1903).
Fandom is quite a sub-cultural phenomenon. The word dates to the turn of the 20th century and was originally used to refer to baseball fans. But it achieves it greatest linguistic heights in the realm of science fiction. Science fiction fans have their own lingo in referring to themselves and to their activities.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: Quotation Marks
It seems like a silly question, but when is it proper to use quotation marks? And how should they be used? Quotation marks are one of the basic forms of punctuation, but they are among the most often misused. And the situation is complicated because American and British styles differ on the point. (And on the name. They’re inverted commas in Britain.)
As to the first question, when should quotation marks be used, there are six different situations when they are appropriate.
Words On The Web: Alt.Usage.English FAQ
If you’re not familiar with Usenet, you’re missing out on a rich part of the Internet experience. Usenet (short for “Unix User Network") is a hierarchy of discussion groups on all manner of subjects. It got its start back in 1979 when the Internet was still known as Arpanet. The discussion groups range from 3dfx.game.discussion to z-netz.wissenschaft.technik. Every subject under the sun has its own discussion group. The one we’re interested in is alt.usage.english (or AUE).
As you might guess, AUE is all about English grammar and style. The group discusses the English language (and also occasionally other languages); how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; their origin; where in the English-speaking world they’re prevalent; and how they should be used.
Book Review: Language and the Internet
David Crystal, author of numerous books on language and linguistics, has written the first book-length study on the effects the Internet is having on language. In Language And The Internet Crystal provides an overview of the different forms of Internet communication and how language is used and modified in and by those media. Crystal’s conclusions are broad and tentative, as one might expect of such a large topic and such a new technology, but they are well-reasoned, supported by data, and often quite surprising, bucking the conventional wisdom.
Pundits have often opined that the Internet will be the death of grammar and spelling, that it will destroy thoughtful writing by encouraging sloppiness that is covered by the band-aid of a smiley or emoticon. Or that it will kill other languages, leaving only English as the sole survivor. Crystal carefully takes each of these conclusions apart, showing how people are adapting the tool of language to fit the new technology and enriching language and communication as a result.
Word of the Month: Watergate
Thirty years ago this month, five men were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. Among those arrested was James W. McCord, Jr., the security director for Republican President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. The investigation into the break-in would expose ever larger circles of corruption and abuses of power in the Nixon White House and would eventually, in August 1974, lead to the resignation of the president.
Watergate, as the collection of scandals came to be known, was the biggest American political scandal of the 20th century. It left an indelible mark on US history, politics, and on the American political lexicon. So, in honor of this 30th anniversary, our word of the month is:
Watergate, n., a hotel-apartment-office complex along the Potomac River in Washington, DC. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee had its offices in the complex and on 17 June of that year burglars working for the White House broke into the offices to plant listening devices. Watergate became the name of the associated scandal. Subsequent Washington scandals were commonly dubbed with the -gate suffix, such as Koreagate, Irangate, and Monicagate.
Lloyd’s List, “She” No More
Some things never change and some things just seem like they never do. One of those things was using the feminine pronoun when referring to a ship.
But Lloyd’s List, the daily newspaper of the shipping industry, announced on 22 March that it is abandoning the practice. From now on the publication will refer to ships as it.
Lloyd’s List tried to make the change four years ago, but reversed itself in the face of the overwhelming ire of naval traditionalists.
Ships have been referred to as she in English since at least 1375, and Lloyd’s List has been doing it since its founding in 1734.
But traditionalists need not abandon all hope. The Royal Navy still plans to call its ships she.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: Gender-Neutral Personal Pronouns
English is replete with sexually general words, such as anyone, everyone, person, and oneself. But it has no sexually general personal pronouns. There is it, but that pronoun is generally considered unacceptable to use with people.
The traditional answer to this situation was to use the masculine he, him, his in situations calling for sexual ambiguity. Many see this as sexist—and in some cases as silly, as a famous 1984 example from the New York State Assembly: “everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.”
So what to do about this conundrum?
Words and Politics: Homicide Bomber
On 12 April, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used the term homicide bomber to describe what had previously been called suicide bombers. “The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing. […] These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who kill just themselves,” Fleischer said. “These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life. These are murderers.”
Fleischer is not the first to use the term. Various conservative political groups have been using it since at least March.
Political opinions aside, the linguistic question is how successful the White House will be in redefining the lingo of terrorism, and whether or not their choice is a sensible one.
Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson coined the term suicide bomber in October 1983 in reference to the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The term is apt because it describes the salient difference between a traditional and a suicide bombing. Terrorists traditionally favor bombs because they can be planted and the bomber can be long gone when the bomb explodes. With suicide bombings, this is not the case. The bomber has no intention of escaping.
Further, the choice of homicide is not one that suits the White House’s political purpose. Homicide is a morally neutral term. It simply describes an act that results in the death of another person. Homicides can be justifiable, and a state commits homicide when it executes a criminal. The words that express moral outrage at homicide are murder and manslaughter. The term that Fleischer was looking for is murderous bomber.
But the larger question is whether Fleischer, or anyone else, should attempt to deliberately alter the linguistic landscape. For the most part, such attempts are doomed to failure. Neologisms are successfully coined when the term fills a linguistic void. Suicide bomber was one such term. There was a need to distinguish a bomber who deliberately takes his or her own life from the traditional, anonymous kind.
There isn’t any such need for homicide bomber. While it’s not strictly redundant, bombings are all too often homicidal in nature. And the term bomber on its own carries opprobrium. Bucking the linguistic trend of the English language is rather futile.
It is highly unlikely that the term homicide bomber will enter the general vocabulary and have life beyond last month’s Sunday morning talk shows.
Book Review: The Etymological Bookshelf: Starter Set
This month we’re doing something a little different with the book review. Instead of reviewing a single book, we’re going to cover the basic books that should be on the serious amateur English-language etymologist’s shelf. These are the fundamental research tools.
There are many great etymological books out there that are not listed here. Simply because a book is not covered here doesn’t mean it’s not a good source or that it isn’t useful. The books covered this month are the basic ones—the “go to” books that are the first off the shelf when an etymological question arises.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton