English Time Machine

This video isn’t terrible, but it’s really too simplistic to be useful:

It’s got some problems. It conflates poetic language and everyday speech. It’s focused on the London dialect, as if all English speakers spoke the same way. Some of the “unknown” words are hardly unknown today (abbess, anyone?) The discussion of the Great Vowel Shift is wrong in the timeline; it was pretty much over well before Shakespeare’s day. They don’t attempt to replicate pronunciation until they hit Chaucer; I’m pretty sure that Defoe didn’t sound like the actor who is reading from Robinson Crusoe.

And, while this really isn’t a mistake, you don’t have to go back in time to find hard-to-understand English. There’s a wealth of diversity in English spoken around the world today.

It’s a shame really. The video is very well produced, so why didn’t they take the time to get the subtleties right? It wouldn’t have been difficult.

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Origin Unknown: Profile of Anatoly Liberman

Lapham’s Quarterly has a nice profile of etymologist Anatoly Liberman.

I don’t have much to say about the piece, except to highlight a couple of quotes. On why he pursues etymologies:

“Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”

And on the utility of Google:

“Can you do any searching with computers?” Liberman repeats the question in a resigned tone. “That’s what everybody asks. And, unfortunately, this answer is no. If you want to know the origin of a word, you will open the computer and Google the world heifer. Google will give you the titles of twenty etymological dictionaries, which is a waste to me. I have them all on my shelf. I know much more than a Google search, because I have every edition of every dictionary. I don’t need that. Sometimes Google Books will highlight a page, including Notes and Queries, that will show me something I may not know. But this is not even for dessert. These are crumbs.”

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ADS Word of the Year for 2015

Meeting in Austin, Texas this week, the American Dialect Society gave the nod to the singular they as its Word of the Year for 2015. The group, which has its members those who study how English is used in North America, also dubbed the singular they as the Most Useful word for the past year.

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English Composition 101

This isn’t strictly on the topic of word and phrase origins, but it’s a topic I have recently gained considerable experience in. John Warner has penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc...) Papers,” and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more.

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Why I dislike Bryan Garner

I don’t dislike the man. I’ve never met him. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, and given a chance, we’d probably get along just fine. But I don’t like Garner’s Modern American Usage, an Orwellian usage guide published by Oxford University Press.

Why don’t I like it? It’s not simply because it’s “prescriptivist.” I have no problem with giving advice on how to write well. As a teacher of composition, I tell my students how to write all the time, and hopefully I’m teaching them to write well. And it’s not because consistently following Garner’s advice will result in stodgy, unimaginative prose. There is a place for stodgy, unimaginative prose. For example, I tell my students that Garner’s is a good guide if you’re composing a cover letter for a résumé, where you want language that no one could possibly object to. What I object to is Garner’s attitude toward language and the methodology—if you can dignify his arbitrary and subjective process with that label—he uses to formulate his pronouncements.

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