Trubble With Wordz
With so many other more pressing things to worry about in the world, shouldn’t we not be more flexible about our language? After all, it wasn’t so very long ago that people had alternative spellings of their own names. It’s not written in stone, is it?
Well it is, kind of, in the 42 volume Oxford English Dictionary – which, I might add, I once owned, laser-printed into one vast and affordable coffee table-sized volume readable only with a magnifying glass – I spent days lost in that thing. If the OED is the world’s standard for English (and I think it must be, compared to the relative paucity of Webster’s) we have the equivalent of the commandments right there.
Then why do I get so wound up about this sentence from today’s Guardian?
‘Making your own also avoids bought salad cream’s biggest problem – those grizzly bits of congealed sauce around the mouth of the bottle.’
Sorry, did the sauce suddenly turn into a North American bear? Or seeing as we could be talking about texture here, perhaps the writer (let’s name and shame – Katy Salter, who should know better) meant ‘gristly’? No, misusing ‘grisly’ is one of the commonest mistakes but one that pokes you in the eye with its obviousness.
I’m prepared to roll with a lot of substitutions and changes to language. I accepted ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’ and ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’. I like many online word usages, especially the use of ‘fail’ as a noun. I can see why writers don’t understand the difference between colons and semi-colons (few people do), and as a child I could never spell ‘receive’, but I can’t countenance the substitution of ‘your’ for ‘you’re’.
The joke behind Geoffrey Willans’ famous Nigel Molesworth books was that most postwar children had so much grammar drummed into them that the misspellings were instantly funny and obviously wrong, yet in cadence they caught the way in which children communicated. I wonder why no-one has produced a new version with modern kidspeak. I’d love to see that!
With how much frequency did I have rules hammered into me by English teachers? ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘appropriate capitalisation of proper names’ filled my head. This was decades before the likes of Shirley Williams and Michael Gove decimated centuries of traditional rote-learning with experimentation. One of the worst experiments I can recall was a push to allow children to develop their own phonetic spelling in the late 1970s, a gesture tantamount to throwing in the towel.
Meanwhile, late last night I had a conversation with a Polish friend of mine (not online; we were in the Barcelona Yacht Club drinking gin cocktails and being consumed by mosquitos) and she expressed her embarrassment about only just having discovered that the plural of ‘octopus’ was ‘octopi’. Actually, according to the OED the standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses, but the word comes from Greek and the plural form octopodes can be used. The plural form octopi, constructed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect. Like many of my friends who have English as a second language she speaks superlatively, yet still worries about such oddities.
Unfortunately, Kindle doesn’t default to the OED and fails to find many of the words I check, so I default to grammarist.com. On the website dictionary.com there’s a very useful gauge which pops up to tell you how likely it is that English speakers will know the word you’re looking up. It’s a very sensible tool that makes me want to find a way of breaking it with an overload of obscure adjectives.