Entry from October 27, 2010

Writing in The Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum notes that

It’s common. . . to deride the pedants who constrict language with sterile rules of grammar. The problem, of course, is that there aren’t very many of those pedants left. The recent campaign against the word syllabi appears to have begun on the “Language Log” blog, a fairly representative hangout for grammarians and linguistics types, where some of the descriptivists still seem to see themselves as embattled radicals struggling against Victorian hypocrisy. I’d more readily believe it if America had enough unrepentant prescriptivists left to fill a Volkswagen. Reading the Edwardian-style attacks on school-marm grammar, one expects to come across brave calls for free love, women’s suffrage, and sentimental socialism. In fact, the copy editors may have it right. What we need is a new prescriptivism, just to balance the books a little. The impulse to lock words down, to make them more consistent, and to use them clearly — isn’t that part of language, too?

Speaking as one of those unrepentant “prescriptivists” — and while we’re at it, let’s proscribe “prescriptivist” as a vulgar barbarism — in the Volkswagen, I want to shout Hooray! Kudos — assuming your Greek (not a plural) is up to it — to J. Bottum! But then I read a bit further on and discover that this “new prescriptivism” is a pretty anemic sort, sickly and unlike to live — in fact “a descriptive prescriptivism.” See how the barbarisms multiply? It appears to amount to little more than a plea for consistency. “If college professors want syllabi, I’m all for it,” he writes. “If they want syllabuses, instead, they should go ahead. But can’t they make up their minds? It’s their word. All they have to do is decide what it’s to be, and then tell the rest of us.”

Sigh. Even in the conservative Weekly Standard, it seems, one must not treat the etymology and therefore the history of the language — which, as Mr Bottum himself shows, requires syllabi — as a relevant consideration in determining correctness. I think this is because the idea of correctness itself, at least as it applies to language, is in bad odor with the dominant liberal consensus. We are ashamed because to them correct language, like correct anything else, smacks of rules, dogmatism and discipline — which are seen as stages on the way to fascism. The idea is absurd, of course. Rules, dogmatism and discipline are also like correctness in long antedating the first historical glimmerings of fascism in the 19th century, as do many other things — uniforms, for instance — which were later to be associated with fascism but can’t reasonably be marked forever with its stigmata.

There, for instance, is a word that Mr Bottum is prepared to give up on. “Who still hears stigmata as the plural of stigma?” he writes. As a Roman Catholic himself, he should know that the answer is quite a lot of people. But even if they don’t, the preservation of the plural stigmata allows us to make use of a range of nuance and resonance in our writing from the whole history of the language and its Greek and ecclesiastical heritage which is unavailable to those who are limited, whether in writing or reading, to the orphaned neologism stigmas. In the same way, without the survival of such Greek and Latin plurals there would be no joke to the comic effect that he describes as his favorite, which is Jim Butcher’s description of pictures of Elvis Presley painted on black velvet as Elvii. Not that it is much of a joke as it is.

Another too-timorous language person is Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe who writes to commemorate what she first claims is the 50th anniversary of the first appearance in print of the expression “I could care less” to mean that one doesn’t care — though she subsequently says that there was another appearance of it five years earlier. This is a favorite bete noir of us pedantic prescriptivists, but Ms Freeman is quite untroubled by it.

In its contentious half-century, “could care less” has probably generated as much usage comment as aggravate has in 150 years. And the volume isn’t slacking off: Last month in Reader’s Digest, this month in the Simmons College Voice, all over the Web, sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that “I could care less” really must mean “I care to some extent.” But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.

Actually, it does, though she is right to say that it is used idiomatically to mean the opposite in English, which makes it a jocularism like what can I do ya fer? or tee many martoonies. Those who would use it as such ought at least to know what they are doing, so that the inescapable incoherence of the expression’s rhetorical train-wreck — as irony plows into litotes broadside on — is at least a calculated truancy from meaningful English and not an advertisement for their own mental confusion.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts