December 31, 2009

Language changes.

The phrase “spitting image,” for example, was a few centuries ago “spirit and image.” In those days, however, “spirit” was pronounced “sprit,” and since “and” is in pronunciation often reduced to the consonant “n,” you had something that sounded like “sprit n image,” which is but a hop, a skip, and a jump from “spitting image.” At some point somebody heard it wrong (this is called misanalysis) and started saying it like that, and other people spoke in his or her, um, tonguesteps (this is called diffusion), until everybody knew what “spitting image” meant even though the expression makes no sense whatsoever. And now if you said that somebody was the spirit and image of Chris Meloni, nobody would have any idea what the fuck you were talking about, not just because Chris Meloni and only Chris Meloni is the spirit and image of Chris Meloni but also because it’s not an English idiom. “Spitting image” has become the correct expression.

I need only look to my own childhood to see modern examples of the phenomenon. When I was ten or so, I wrote a play in which I distinguished one character, who was a Valley Girl, solely by her use of the word “like” a few times every sentence. I did this partially because it allowed me to avoid creating actual character traits but mostly because only those ridiculous Valley Girls said “like” and everybody else thought it was stupid. Now, though, I say “like” a few times every sentence, same as everybody else I know under the age of fifty. “Like” is now a particle common in less formal spoken English, and I embrace it.

Another change that doesn’t bother me is the use of the word “implement” as a verb. When I was on the high school debate team, one year the resolution we had to discuss was, if memory serves, “Resolved: that the United States should implement a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.” I found this deeply offensive, since “implement” was a noun and only a noun, referring usually to the tools with which one accomplished a particular task (silverware, pens and pencils, and so on). You might as well say, “Resolved: that the United Stated should fork a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.” I would use the polluted version of the word when forced to do so in service of winning debate matches, but otherwise nothing was going to be implemented in anything I said or wrote. Now, of course, “implement” passes my lips as a verb with nary a bat of an eyelash.

So I accept and, in my capacity as a descriptivist, embrace such change.

As an arrogant, pretentious snob, however, I can’t fucking stand it.

There are any number of expressions in flux that are driving me crazy. The one I’m thinking about at the moment is “forbid X to Y,” which has in the last few years suddenly become “forbid X from Ying.” “You’re forbidden from seeing him” I remember hearing Bree say to Andrew on an episode of Desperate Housewives last season (my memory is a little vague, and in fact “seeing him” might be an invention of my own whimsy; perhaps it was “forbidden from hosting an orgy in my house” or “forbidden from staying up late to read Thomas Aquinas”). I hear people saying this everywhere. And it makes me want to defenestrate them.

Because it’s WRONG.

Again: I know perfectly well that, in all likelihood, in fifty years “forbid X from Ying” will be proper English, and I am delighted that language has the flexibility to grow and change.

But in my nature reign all frailties that besiege all kinds of blood, and so while delighting I also grit my teeth and wish it would go away and leave me alone.

Happy New Year.

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11 Responses to Language changes

  1. Nate says:

    According to the OED, “implement” has been a verb since the early 19th century. Both usages of “forbid” sound fine to me; I suspect “forbid X from Ying” is by analogy with “keep/prevent X from Ying.”

    The eggcorns that bug me are “in concert” instead of “in consort” (though I’ll grant it kind of makes sense) and “for all intensive purposes.” Oh, and apparently it’s “just deserts” and not “desserts”—I had always thought the use of “dessert” for a final punishment was ironic, but there you are.

  2. Anonymous IV says:

    Yup, it’s “desert” with one s, and has as little to do with the Sahara as it does with tiramisu: it means “what’s deserved”, as “drift” is originally related with “drive” (cf. “snowdrift” with “pure as the driven snow”).

    Happy New Year,

  3. Alastair says:

    “Different than” and “I could care less” cause me the same degree of physical pain. That and, “it’s there in back of you”. Fortunately, all three remain largely absent from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, which is why I shall never move to the New World.

  4. Alastair says:

    Once, whilst visiting Chicago, I also heard, “Oh yeah, it’s totally state of the ark.” [sic]

  5. adam807 says:

    I had no idea that “forbid X from Ying” was incorrect. However “impactful” makes me die inside a little bit every time I hear it.

    I do hope “I could care less” never evolves into correctness, because it can’t ever make sense.

  6. Jeffrey says:

    This gave me a headache.

  7. Robynn says:

    “Burglarize” gives me hives. As if there wasn’t already the perfectly good “burgle”. Just you wait, one of these days we’ll have burglarists too.

  8. Birdie says:

    Wait! What about using these nouns as verbs: fellowship, dialogue, and impact? I know that “impact” has slid into common usage as a verb, and I’ve even caught myself

  9. Jeffrey says:

    If I have to hear about another conversation happening “off line” when the people are already in the same room talking to each other, you will possibly read about the consequences of my actions in the next day’s paper.

  10. TED says:

    You descriptivists will be the first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes.

  11. Hugh says:

    I’m driven to distraction by my colleagues who insist on backforming nouns into verbs..or worse, gerunds. The two most susceptible, strangely (well, not strangely, I guess, since I work in a University) are “parent” and “mentor”. I cringe every time someone refers to “bad parenting” or “a program that provides mentoring”. No, folks, the program provides mentors and the regrettable behavior is the result of having parents who were ineffective. Okay, my spleen’s nice and drained.


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