A Brief History
On September 18, 2018, apropos to nothing in particular, we take the opportunity to once again discuss the disgusting English language! Previously, we started the discussion on our article dated September 29, 1975, “What is Up With The English Language?” and today we add to the discussion by addressing some troubling particular uses and misuses of words and phrases. As always, please tell us what you disagree with in this article or better yet, your own pet peeves about the use and alleged misuse of English! (BTW, we are well aware of the liberties this author sometimes takes with the English language, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not! These liberties include totally inconsistent use of quotation marks, capitalization, etc. How can anyone keep track of all this stuff?)
For starters, we now have a President that butchers the English language in a totally unprecedented way (covfefe?). Bigly. Although President Trump takes a lot of heat for his misspellings, bad grammar, and totally befuddling blather, he is in the company of many other politicians that also butcher the lingo of America, so maybe the importance of “proper” English is not so important.
To get started, often times the misuse of a word results in the gradual acceptance of that word. There used to be a noun, surveillance. It meant to observe someone or something. People, including many newscasters and politicians used the word as a verb so often that you will now find the infinitive verb, to surveil, in the dictionary. As a former Marine Corps intelligence officer (go ahead, make your jokes) and retired police officer, using “surveil” and “surveilling” drives me nuts, but now it is officially okay because of illiterate dummies. (Note: Illiterate means “can’t read or write” and should not be used to mean “stupid,” like I just did!) The term “all right” was always properly spelled using the 2 separate words, not as one word as in “alright.” Again, the word has been misspelled so often the “alright” version is now accepted. (By the way, “already” is properly one word and has been for a long time.)
Another tortured word so often mispronounced its accepted pronunciation is sure to change is “niche.” The word is NOT pronounced “neesh!” Geesh! It is properly pronounced sounding like “itch” with an “n” on the front. Perhaps people conflate the pronunciation with the word “fiche?” By the way, the Silver State is “Ne va da,” NOT “Ne vah duh.” Although many places, names and words properly use the “ah” sound for the letter “A,” not all of them do so stop trying to sound “correct” by butchering the language! Somehow the country formerly known as Persia has become “Ee Rahn” instead of “Ay Ran.” Even if Iranians (Eerahnians?) say it with the soft ‘a” why should we suddenly change? Heck, we do not call France “Frahnce!” Nor do we call Germany “Deutschland.” So why is it now “Pahk ee stahn” instead of good old “Pack i stan?” If we aim to call countries by the name and pronunciation the people that live there use, we should do it consistently. Otherwise, why the pretentious change? (The change in the way Americans say these countries’ names is fairly recent, probably in the past 20 or 30 years.)
Other times, words get confused with other words that are not synonyms, but people use them that way. Annihilate does not mean merely a sound beating but rather killing everyone on the other side. Decimate does not mean to kill everyone on the other side, but to wipe out one tenth of the opponents. People have so regularly misused “decimate” that it is now accepted to mean more than it once did, which stems from a Roman army practice of killing every tenth man in a disgraced unit. Another irritating conflation of terms is using feasible and credible as if they were synonyms. Feasible means “doable” while credible means “believable.” They are not the same! Imply and infer are often misused by people that mistake one word’s meaning for the other. Someone else “implies” an unspoken message or meaning, while you personally “infer” the meaning of some else’s statement.
How about those words that sound exactly the same but mean something totally different? Write, wright, rite, right? Too, two, to? Weigh, way, whey? (And those are even spelled differently, though they sound alike.) Or are spelled exactly the same and mean different things, maybe even pronounced differently, such as Desert (a dry place) or Desert (running away from service in the army, etc)? Or perhaps Dessert (after meal treat) and Desert (running away from military service). Same thing with Minute (60 seconds) and Minute (tiny). Then you have letter combinations that are pronounced differently in different words, for no apparent reason. Examples, Sow (planting seeds) and Sow (female pig), or Elite where the “ite” is pronounced differently than in Bite or Rite. The we throw you another curve by saying Infinite is pronounced as if the “e” on the end was not even there. (Which reminds us, Their, There and They’re get mixed up a lot, as does Your and You’re.)
Tarmac. The word stems from the British “tar macadam” which gives homage to the guy that gave us something similar to asphalt paving. A guy named McAdam invented a road surface technique in 1820 of combining various layers of materials such as sand and gravel and tightly compacting them, often with a binding agent, into a durable and cheap road surface. Using tar as the binding agent gave us the term “tarmac,” which is pretty much similar to what we now call asphalt. Airport runways used to be made of this material, but the enormous planes landing at high speeds made tarmac unsuitable for modern airport runways. The term persisted and even though runways are normally concrete, people still persisted in calling airport surfaces tarmac. For some unknown, stylistic trendy reason, in the past couple decades Americans, mainly newscasters, who never really used the term tarmac, began echoing their British counterparts and perhaps thinking they sounded more sophisticated by doing so started calling airport surfaces tarmac regardless of their construction. This misuse is another case of being so prevalent that it is now acceptable to call any airport taxiway or runway “tarmac” regardless of the material used to built it.
Some of the idiocy we have heard again and again includes the use of “lieu” (which means place, as in “in lieu of” meaning “instead of” or “in the place of”) as if lieu means view, light or vis-à-vis , wrongly used as in “in lieu of the situation” when they mean “in light of the situation” or “vis-à-vis.” I am so tired of hearing “Calvary” (hill on which Christ was crucified) when the speaker means “Cavalry” (army guys on horseback) I might explode! I even hear educated people say this. body parts get regularly butchered (verbally) as well. Think proboscis (pro-bahs-iss) gets turned into “pro-bahs-kiss.” (Yeah, we know the second, stupid pronunciation is accepted as a secondary way of saying it, but we do not like it!) the good old voice box is larynx, pronounced “lair-nix”) and is not “lar-nix.” And who said Brett Favre could pronounce his name as if it were spelled “Farve?” There is apparently too much about English spelling and pronunciation for mortal humans to remember, as evidenced by those that use the word “Prodigy” when they mean “Protégé .” And why do we sometimes use accents and sometimes do not? Makes no damn sense to me! Even our highly educated President (“I went to the best schools and have the best words…) cannot keep counsel and council straight (among most other words). Not surprising when we have Capitol and Capital to confuse us.
As with tarmac, people often try to use a word they think sounds more sophisticated than the word generally used by the hoi polloi in a given situation. You hear people refer to a “communique” coming from their boss or higher headquarters when saying “note,” “message” or “communication” would do just fine. Communique is supposed to be used when the brief message is released by some sort of government or group agency, such as a terrorist organization making a brief demand. Another example is “singular” often used when “single” would do just fine. While singular can mean just one thing or person, it can also mean rare, exceptional, uncanny, eerie or otherwise remarkable.
As far as tortured use of a phrase, “probably maybe” drives me nuts. Perhaps you know someone who probably maybe uses this phrase? (Don’t tell me I am the only one that hears people say this!) Even foreign phrases are not immune to such messed up interpretations. “Mano y Mano” means “Hand and Hand” when you really mean “Mano a Mano,” or “Hand to Hand.” Maybe Spanish speaking people say it the first/apparently wrong way, quien sabe?
Common improper words include “irregardless” (no such word, just use “regardless”), although the word “inflammable” actually does mean the same thing as flammable. Many a time I’ve heard people say, “Wreak havoc and let loose the Dogs of War!” (It is “Cry Havoc…) Have you heard that one? Oddly, I could not care less if people say, “I could care less!”
Went is a word overused in a big way. When you say “have…” follow it with “gone,” not “went.” As in, I should have GONE to a better school. As to trying to make everything gender neutral or inventing new pronouns to please gender police, well, we will let that one go. (No guts. I know.)
Which brings us to euphemisms. People try to replace a word they think is objectionable with another, nicer sounding word. In the case of so called “cuss” or “swear” words we really do not get it. How can a word that means exactly what another word means be a “bad” word? (Think “poop.” The so called swear words meaning “poop” mean the same thing, so how can they be “bad” words?) We used to have unfortunate people that were called “cripples.” Somehow, that word evolved into a “bad” word, and these folks became “handicapped.” When “handicapped” became a cliché, we went to “physically challenged.” As if that was not descriptive enough, some folks call handicapped people “otherwise enabled.” Wow! It just gets worse and worse. How in the HECK did Hell ever become a swear word? If you believe in such things, it is a place where bad people go to be tortured for eternity, so why do people cringe if a child utters the term, even though he/she is supposed to know about it? All this naming and renaming things sounds pretty arbitrary to us!
Along the lines of the winding path to the goal of saying “handicapped” without hurting feelings is the description of people that are in the United States without proper documentation and official permission. Woe to the person that calls these people here illegally “illegals!” Illegal alien has been replaced by “undocumented person” which apparently is meant to sound acceptable. (Note: We are not implying any bias in the war of immigration, legal or otherwise, just laughing at the way people pervert the language to meet some other agenda.) People with cognitive deficiencies from birth used to be referred to as “mentally retarded.” Then we started calling them “Special,” and even that has been upgraded to “Exceptional.” What? So someone with an IQ of 50 should be allowed to go to Harvard because they are “exceptional?” (Maybe just a good state school…)
Guns, or firearms if you will, are another category of greatly misdescribed objects. Just the other day I heard a full-automatic weapon (machine gun, one pull o the trigger launches many bullets until trigger pressure is stopped) referred to as “semi-automatic.” Our police department had a spokesman that referred to an officer using his “Service Revolver” when in fact we carried semi-automatic (Beretta Model 92) sidearms. The term “assault weapon” is also greatly misunderstood. An assault weapon is a rifle caliber rifle or carbine that is capable of semi-automatic or full-automatic fire. Weapons that fire pistol caliber cartridges are NOT assault weapons, and semi-automatic versions that externally look like a military rifle or carbine are NOT assault weapons. A hilarious video wherein a politician is asked what is a “barrel shroud” and why was that item on a list of weapon features that needed to be banned had no idea what a barrel shroud was or what it does is available on the internet. (Hint, it does not make a weapon more deadly in any way.) Using emotionally stirring labels such as “cop killer bullets” that never killed a cop are a perversion of our language to misrepresent something. Sadly, guns are not the only things subject to such false representation by phony labels.
The much discussed practice of texting does not only endanger the lives of people on the road, but also our very language! I first saw “text speak” (my made up term) when a citizen filed a complaint against an officer and used “u r” instead of writing “you are.” OMG! Worse than words becoming abbreviated letters thrown together is the fact that people have become fond of actually speaking as if they are writing a text! Have you hear someone say “LOL” instead of just laughing or saying “that’s funny?” All these acronyms and text talk belong somewhere else, NIMBY! (LOL!) You can occasionally find a WTF in an otherwise swear word free arena such as broadcast television, even though it means something that is clearly unacceptable to the FCC if spoken aloud. IMHO I’ve had it with text talk. How about u?
Question for students (and subscribers): How have history books changed in referring to people or things to make them more politically correct? What are your favorite texting abbreviations? Should our language evolve to incorporate texting style wording and spelling? (Why or Why Not?) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. Arcade Publishing, 2011.
Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015.
Farlex International. Complete English Grammar Rules: Examples, Exceptions, Exercises, and Everything You Need to Master Proper Grammar (The Farlex Grammar Book) (Volume 1). Farlex International, 2016.
The featured image in this article shows the opening to the Old English epic poem Beowulf, handwritten in half-uncial script: Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon…“Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings…” This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website, catalogue entry: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, ff 94r–209v. This image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. This image is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: cropped. Modifications made by Earthsound.