Book Review: John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing

The supposed decline of the English language is often bemoaned by grammarians and prescriptivists. In these pages we have frequently taken to task those who seek to impose arbitrary and pointless grammatical and usage prescriptivism, but is there something more to these complaints. Once you move beyond split infinitives and the difference between peruse and read, the question of whether or not we are losing artful use of our language remains.

John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care seeks to answer the questions of whether or not American society has lost the artful use of language and what impact this will have on our lives. He succeeds brilliantly at the first question, but falls short in answering the second. McWhorter charts a sea change in American use of the language dating to the mid-1960s, when we lost formalism in our public discourse. He then seeks to explain why this loss is consequential; unfortunately he does not quite succeed in describing why we should, like, care.

First, be forewarned about what this book is not. If you are seeking a book that picks apart texts for grammatical “errors” or “sloppy” usage, this is not it. McWhorter does not go in for prescriptivism. He is a linguist by trade, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and knows better than that. He does not bemoan the change in language simply because it is change. Instead, he is concerned with aesthetics in how we use the English language.

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Word of the Month: D-Day

This month is the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. On 6 June 1944, British, Canadian, and American troops landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of France. In military jargon, the day was designated D-Day and the sixth of June has gone by this name ever since. To commemorate this event our word of the month is:

D-Day, n., military jargon for the day an attack or operation is scheduled to begin, specifically and historically 6 June 1944, the day the Allied invasion of Normandy began in WWII. The D stands simply and redundantly for day. H-Hour is a similar formulation. The term D-Day dates to the First World War, first used in 1918.

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A Hoagie By Any Other Name

(This article originally appeared in Verbatim magazine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn 2003, and is reprinted with permission.)

I wanna shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I wanna explore the world. I wanna watch TV in a different time zone. I wanna visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?
—Homer Simpson, “Fear of Flying,” The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox Television, 1994.

One of the amusements offered by my frequent travels to Europe is seeing The Simpsons translated into different languages. Homer speaking French or German is something to behold. But sometimes I wonder if all of the humor translates along with the words. The above-quoted passage is one of the best jokes ever seen on that show, or at least to my inner-linguist it is. But even in Britain, where they don’t bother to dub the original American voices, probably only a few get the joke.

You see a hoagie, a grinder, a sub, and a hero are one and the same thing. They are simply regional names for a sandwich served on a large Italian roll and filled with Italian meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sprinkled with olive oil and spices. Variations on the basic recipe are made by filling the sandwich with other things, such as tuna fish, roast beef, ham and cheese, meatballs, and all manner of other ingredients. Subs can be served either hot or cold. All the exotic things that Homer associates with travel are simply roses by another name.

And Homer is just scratching the surface of lexical diversity of the sandwich. In addition to the names he cites there are: poor boy, torpedo, Italian sandwich, rocket, zeppelin or zep, blimpie, garibaldi, bomber, wedge, muffuletta, Cuban sandwich, and spuckie. Most of these names are associated with a particular region of the United States. The names also fall into several distinct patterns of origin, from the shape (sub, torpedo, rocket, zeppelin, blimpie, and bomber), from the size (hero, hoagie), from ethnic association (Italian sandwich, Cuban sandwich), from the type of bread used (muffuletta, spuckie), or from the fact that the sandwich is a cheap meal (poor boy).

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Word of the Month: McCarthyism

On 2 May 1957, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) died of various illnesses exacerbated by alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. McCarthy had been a key instigator of the anti-communist hysteria that engulfed the United States in the early years of the Cold War and McCarthy was the eponym for the term that came to symbolize this hysteria and the tactics used to uncover communists in American society and government. It is our word of the month:

McCarthyism, n., the practice of identifying alleged communists and removing them from government departments or other positions of responsibility through public but unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks, specifically as pursued by McCarthy in the 1950s. In extended use, any form of persecutory investigation that uses similar tactics. The term was first used on 29 March 1950 in a Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert “Herblock” Lock.

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Book Review: The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has been making something of a career of late writing books about the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1998 he wrote The Professor and the Madman (British title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne) and has now penned The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. This latest is something of an unofficial history of the OED. The book was suggested to Winchester by the editors at Oxford University Press and is based on the research Winchester conducted for his 1998 book.

While the story of the OED is not one of high drama or cracking adventure, The Meaning of Everything is a book of great interest to anyone interested in words and lexicography. The creation of the OED was one of the monumental achievements of the Victorian age. (Although it was not completed until 1928, the OED is essentially a Victorian work.) It is also a story of bureaucratic and academic infighting and about how books get published.

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