Love of Language

[As the English language is so vast and curious, this essay is constantly being updated to include new ideas and new examples.]

The English language is considered one of the most spectacular in the world. But in many ways, it is not even a language in its own right. English is the greatest hybrid imaginable, borrowing from about a hundred other languages, from those as well known as Latin, Greek, German and French, to secondary languages such as Spanish, Italian, Sanskrit and Arabic, down to the less likely like Chinese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Dutch, and even to the lesser known like Tupi-Guarani, Aztec, Malay or Basque.


Foreigners can have quite some difficulty with the subtleties of English. We are driving along and need to turn left at the intersection. Instead, the driver turns the other way. We must now convince this hapless foreigner that if right is wrong, then left is right. At a birthday party at one’s work, the foreign boss, only just coming to terms with English, has bought you a present on behalf of the company, but you do not particularly appreciate it. After all, you had recently said, even so that all could hear it, “That is the last thing that I wanted.” Being the last (most recent) thing that you wanted, this is what was bought. We must also convince the poor, hapless foreigner that just because someone is a ‘ladykiller’ does not mean that they go around hacking women to death!

When we say, “I do not like her because she is beautiful,” does it mean that because she is beautiful, you do not like her, or that you like her for reasons other than her beauty? In written grammar, the first assumption requires a comma after the ‘her’, but one does not always get to say a comma. Even the simple comment, “No, I do not like him,” does not mean that one actively dislikes him, if it is in response to a strong, affirmative question like “Do you actually like him?” We may be meaning no more than “I do not like him… yet.”

The dreadful positioning of adverbial phrases is cause for some confusion. “John Smith was convicted of murdering Tony Brown in the High Court last month.” Was he convicted last month, or did the murder take place last month? Was he convicted in the High Court or did the murder take place in the High Court? “In the High Court, JS was convicted last month of murdering TB” and other variations would solve the ambiguity. When there are two verbs in play (convict, murder), the adverbial phrase should remain as close as possible to the verb to which it refers.

Similarly, our sloppy use of verbal adjectives (gerundives)! We may talk of the weather “dumping snow and freezing rain”. Does this mean that the weather both dumps snow and freezes the rain or that it dumps both freezing rain and snow? “Work was hindered by falling rocks and trees.” Is this that the trees were also falling? If not, we should say “by falling rocks and by trees” or invert them with “by trees and falling rocks”. The country of Niger was plagued “by lack of food and disease”. Can you spot the problem… and the remedy? To solve this we may also use what is known as ‘the Oxford comma’, which would give us “Work was hindered by falling rocks, and trees,” where the absence of the comma would indeed imply that the trees were also falling. Similarly, “I went to the movies with my children, Donald and Louise.” Or if Donald and Louise were not the names of your children but friends who accompanied you and your children, it should be “my children, Donald, and Louise”.

And let us not forget the ambiguity based simply on lack of thought: “The mother of the Maungatupopo Gorge victim donated her eyes.” How very kind of the mother to go blind for the sake of someone else! It should be “donated her daughter’s eyes”, since the “her” relates to the subject of the verb, the mother.

Other ambiguities exist in the inherent double meaning of a word. For example, ‘less’ is used in English both as an adverb, meaning of a diminished quantity, and as a suffix, meaning without. Thus, when we “stress less”, the stress is diminished but it is not necessarily gone altogether. However, if something is “stressless”, it has no stress at all.

There are some words which create an ambiguity by their sound, as in ‘to raise’ (to lift up) and ‘to raze’ (to cut down). Others are even identical in spelling, as in ‘to cleave’ (to cling and to split) and ‘to let’ (to allow and to hinder, e.g. in tennis). Thus, context becomes of critical importance. Similarly, ‘I have a lot of patience’… or is it ‘patients’? ‘It is a valuable complement’… or is it ‘compliment’?

Sloppy pronunciation also creates ambiguity. The dreadful New Zealand accent pronounces ‘thrown’ as ‘throw in’ (rather than as ‘throne’), ‘blown’ as ‘blow in’ and all the rest. Is it a ‘known situation’ or a ‘no-win situation’ one can not tell. The lack of diction produces ‘prison-van guard’ as ‘prison vanguard’.

Of course, an ambiguity exists over the component of a word or phrase. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in a hamburger. There is neither apple nor pine in a pineapple. A guinea-pig does not come from Guinea and is not a pig. The Jerusalem artichoke does not come from Jerusalem (which we will examine later) and bone china neither comes from China nor is bone. Even a starfish is not a fish, just as a sea-horse is not a horse. And let us not forget that a civil war is very rarely civil.

Presumptuous language

A vast amount of our language is very presumptuous, where the listener or reader is expected to fill in the gaps in logical thought.

We describe someone ill as “having a temperature”, but we presume a ‘high temperature’. We describe something as “legal” or as “illegal”, but we presume ‘legally allowable’. “Argument” presumes a heated argument; “criticism” presumes a negative criticism, just as “to rate” presumes to rate highly; “apology” presumes an apology of regret; “proven” presumes successfully proven; “sale” presumes a cheap sale; “a number” presumes a sizable number; “mental” presumes mentally deranged, while “insane” presumes mentally insane; “pathetic” presumes of pitiful emotion; these days “drugs” presume illicit drugs; “lucky” and “promising” presume of good luck and positively promising; “to try” presumes to try hard.

How are these presumptuous? Anything above zero degrees Kelvin has a temperature; something is legal if it pertains to the law, thus murder is legal while the wearing of buttons is illegal (not pertaining to the law); an argument is simply the proffering of an idea for consideration; a criticism is a judgement or evaluation, regardless of which direction, as is ‘to rate’; an apology is literally words of behalf of an action or comment; ‘to prove’ simply means to test (thus ‘weatherproof’ for weather-tested); a sale is the process of selling; even one is a number; ‘mental’ means of the mind (or from a different word, of the jaw), and ‘(in)sane’ means (un)healthy, physically, mentally or socially (thus Cicero’s line sanus mens in sano corpore, a healthy mind in a healthy body); ‘pathetic’ means of emotion or of the emotions; a drug is any chemical taken to cause an effect and would even include medications and caffeine; ‘lucky’ is literally of luck, whether good or bad, while ‘promising’ means that makes a promise or affords expectation; and by trying, we simply attempt, to any level of intensity.

We often talk of someone being five foot two inches tall. Someone is four years old. You may “have a life”, but so does everyone who is living. We want to know “how good” you are at something, even if you are bad at it. If someone is “unbelievable”, is this good (amazing) or bad (can not be believed)? Some words are presumptuous by misdirection: “ignorant” presumes stupidity, when in fact it means choosing not to know (from the verb ‘to ignore’, implying a conscious decision to look away), and is contrasted with the factual “nescient” (noun, ‘nescience’), simply not knowing. If something is “confidential”, it does not necessarily mean secret; it means inspiring or requiring a faith in each other (con, together, fides, faith). Others are presumptuous by poor education: the word “abomination” generally presumes the sense of sub-human. This comes from the Renaissance spelling abhominacion, which was assumed to be ab (a negative prefix) and homin– (a human). In fact the aitch was added in the sixteenth century to Gallicise the word. It in fact comes from ab (yes, a negative) and omen, ominis, thereby simply meaning ill-omened. (This Gallicisation also occurred in the later adaptation of words like color into colour. So when people tell you that the American spelling of these words is wrong, they are wrong: it is simply not modern correct English.) The verb ‘to realise’ means to make real, but these days most often has taken on the meaning of to be aware of (thus the confusion, ‘I realised my problem’). Other words were presumptuous for judgemental reasons: “childish” and “selfish” only mean of a child and of the self, but are used to mean immature and egotistical, and these incorrect meanings have now taken over.

This presumption also occurs in what I call ‘caterpillar words’. These are words which have a specific meaning, are then elongated to give a secondary meaning, and then contract again, retaining the newer meaning rather than the original. An example is the word ‘bill’, which originally meant simply a ‘sheet of paper’, as in the common sign ‘Post No Bills’. At one point this was expanded to a ‘bill of debt’, meaning a piece of paper with the amount owing written on it. Eventually this was then contracted again, so that the word ‘bill’ on its own now almost exclusively means a statement of debt. We find this also with the word ‘adultery’. This originally meant ‘impurity’ or ‘uncleanness’ (from which we get ‘adulterate’ and ‘unadulterated’); and thus the Seventh Commandment means ‘Thou shalt not commit impurities’. (It seems illogical that the commandment should refer solely to a sexual misdemeanour when ‘coveting thy neighbour’s wife’ is already covered in the Tenth Commandment.) The word ‘adultery’ was then expanded to be more specific under specific circumstances: we would speak of ‘sexual adultery’. But when this became by the far the most talked about issue, it contracted back to just ‘adultery’ with the sexual meaning in tow. In a similar vein, we found that ‘promiscuity’ originally only meant ‘at random’ or ‘mixed up’ (from the Latin pro plus miscere, mixtum, from which ‘mixture’). But we then spoke of the specific ‘sexual promiscuity’, which when it contracted again to just ‘promiscuity’ dragged the sexual connotation along with it. We also note this in the word ‘apology’, which originally meant ‘words spoken on behalf of an action or idea’, and this is still seen in the classical Greek version of ‘apologia’. The explanation was often accompanied by the expression of “I am sorry,” but in time this became the sole inference of the word. So technically, saying “I am sorry” is not yet an apology until such time as we also give an explanation for the misdemeanour. Another residual caterpillar word is ‘bride’. Originally this referred to a spouse of either gender. It was only after the more specific ‘bridegroom’ appeared did the root word lean towards the woman. (And let us face it, the very structure of ‘bridegroom’ [bride-man or man-bride], instead of ‘bridesgroom’, gives away its origins.) Similarly, the original meaning of the word ‘girl’ meant a young child of either gender. Only after the words ‘boy’ and ‘lad’ became popular did ‘girl’ lean towards the female. (See the reference to ‘silly’ below under ‘Strange origins’.)


Every language has its abbreviations. We immediately recognise the capitalised forms, such as U.S.A. or B.B.C. But many ordinary words have become abbreviated merely because of the frequency of their usage. For this reason many of us forget that photo, phone, lunch, petrol (Amer. gas), gym, perm, piano and cello, plane, pub, radio, sperm, rhino and van, along with many others, are all abbreviations (photograph, telephone, luncheon, petroleum, gasoline, gymnasium, permanent, pianoforte, violoncello, aeroplane, public bar, radiogram, spermatozoon [-zoa], rhinoceros, caravan or vanguard), and indeed all should have an apostrophe (photo’, ’phone, lunch’, etc.). Other abbreviations occur in the form of acronyms. Famous acronyms like UNESCO are sounded as actual words; but we tend to forget that flak, radar and laser are also acronyms (for Fliegerabwehrkanone, radio detection and ranging, and light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

The rule for the full stop is one forgotten by many people these days (and by all Americans). It goes that in general no full stop is used if the final letter of the abbreviation is the same as the final letter of the full word, e.g. Sth (South) and Pte (Private). But otherwise we do use a full stop, e.g. Gen. (General) and Sec. (Secretary). We note that Ave (Avenue) has no full stop, since the e is assumed to be the final one. In some cases the difference must be shown between two possibilities: thus St (Saint) and St. (Street), because we assume that the tee in Street is the first one, and Lt (Light) and Lt. (Lieutenant), where the tee might be either, but a distinction must be made. Colonel and column both abbreviate with the full stop because column is so often with a small letter (col.).

Eponymous words

There are many words which derive from people’s names. The more obscure ones have often retained their capital letter, as in Japhetic (meaning Indo-European) or Julian or Gilbertian (meaning ludicrous or paradoxical) or Luddite or Melba. Some are so common that they have lost their capital letter, as in wellington, mackintosh cardigan, sandwich or leotard: these, we tend to notice, refer to things. Others derive from fictional characters, such as an abigail (from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Scornful Lady and from 1 Sam. 25) or gargantuan (from Rabelais’ giant called Gargantua in the book of the same name) or malapropism (from Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals) or mercurial or plutonic. Others have evolved into anglicised words, such as a spoonerism or bowdlerise or macadamise.

Places similarly have their developed words, like Manchester, hamburger, frankfurter, china, jersey, tulle, Hellenic or Stygian (meaning murky or gloomy). Even denim derives from serge de Nim (Nîmes). We must make sure that we do not assume that ‘german’, as in a ‘brother german’, is such a word, because while distantly related to the name Germany, the Latin germanus just means genuine or directly related.

Strange origins

I was once eating an avocado, which was not as ripe as it should have been. I commented, amongst mixed company, “This avocado is too unripe. A most precocious fruit. It should have been an apricot.” Most people looked baffled and alarmed (as they should have been), but one person got the ‘joke’ and laughed. They too received a bewildered look from the others! The word ‘precocious’ does not mean impertinent, but unripe, before its time. Thus, the truthful comment is that a child is not precocious: what they do is! But the word ‘apricot’ comes from the same word, a– plus praecox, premature, unripe. This is because apricots are supposed to be eaten before they are officially ‘ripe’, because of the level of toxins in the ripe fruit. (A fruit is ripe when it is ready to fall from the tree of its own accord.)

The word ‘cretin’ comes from Swiss French creitin and crestin, meaning Christian. This is because the Albigensian and Manichaean religious sects of Switzerland and Southern France thought that those who called themselves ‘Christians’ in the absolute and catholic sense were all mentally defective, running around with their arms in the air, screaming out Hallelujah all the time!

The word ‘minute’ originally referred to a period of time equal to one tenth of an hour, or six current minutes. The word ‘atom’, meaning indivisible, originally referred to a period of time, in fact 15/94 (or 0.16) of a second. Also, ‘tide’ originally meant a period of time (a related word), still extant in eventide, yuletide, etc. Thus ‘time and tide’ meant the time itself and the passage of time. Many of us know that a mile was a thousand (mille) paces of the average Roman soldier (miles), equivalent to 1,480 metres, as contrasted with today’s value of 1,609 metres. But most do not know that a ‘stadium’ was also a unit of length, equal to one eighth of a Roman mile, or 185 metres.

The word ‘hypochondria’ literally means under the sternum, because that is where the centre of well-being and its absence were supposed to be found. The word ‘wherefore’ does not mean ‘where’ (much to the dismay of students studying Romeo and Juliet), but it is a variety of ‘why’. Since ‘fore’ means front, as in ‘before’ and ‘for(e)ward’, the word really means ‘to what ends’ or ‘for what purpose’, while ‘why’ means ‘what brought this about’. Thus the phrase ‘the whys and the wherefores’ is not simply a repetition of the same word.

And what of the English ‘public school’, which considering the élitism and expense involved, seems somewhat private? True private education was done in the home with a tutor, sometimes brought in daily, sometimes in residence. When the children of the upper classes were schooled together in a classroom, this is what was contrasted with private. Yet even this education was still unavailable to the common masses. For that, ‘state schools’ had to be introduced. Thus, ‘public’ is contrasted with both state and private.

The word ‘album’ comes from the term librum album, a white book. In the days of the old 78 r.p.m. records, symphonies were recorded on five or six discs. These were released in a book form, generally with a white or light grey cover. Thus, The Beatles’ release The White Album is somewhat of a tautology (although its official name is simple The Beatles).

The word ‘cathedral’ originally referred to the seat or position of authority, and only much later came to refer to a building which housed that authority. Thus, we had ‘a cathedral proclamation’. And the word ‘platoon’ originally meant a small ball, and shares the same origin as ‘pellet’. A curious adaptation is the word ‘silly’. It originally comes from a Middle English word sely, meaning ‘happy’ or even ‘lucky’ (since luck and happiness were the same idea back then: sæli). It is one of those above mentioned ‘caterpillar words’, where silly meant happy, then stupidly or irresponsibly happy, then just stupid or irresponsible. But to rub the oddity in, even the word ‘happy’ originally meant ‘accidental’, as in the verb ‘to happen’, in that it referred to someone who just went with what fell their way (the meaning of ‘accident’ – the way that things fall).

The word ‘gay’ has often been condemned as a deviant 20th-century neologism. However, it was introduced from the French (gai) from around 1540. Literally meaning colourful, it was used to mean ‘on the colourful fringes of social morality’, because any true, God-fearing heterosexual was supposed to be normal and austere and dour. Being ‘colourful’ was seen as a social disgrace! By the eighteenth century, it had lost its negative connotations, and was simply deemed to be the ‘modest’ reference to homosexuals. We assume that it is a neologism because by the late nineteenth century, it was not used at all, the Victorian moralists preferring ‘bugger’ or ‘Sodomite’ It has simply been reclaimed.

Related to the eponymous words mentioned above are those we describe as metonymy and its related form, antonomasia. Metonymy, as described by Oxford, is “the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant.” It gives the examples of referring to ‘the crown’ instead of ‘the monarch’ or ‘the turf’ instead of ‘horse-racing’. ‘The bar’ stands for ‘the court’, ‘the classroom’ stands for ‘school’, ‘the nine to five’ stands for ‘work’. Antonomasia is ‘the substitution of an epithet for a proper name’ or ‘the use of a proper name to express a general idea’. In the first instance we find ‘the Iron Duke’ for the Duke of Wellington or ‘the Virgin Queen’ for Queen Elizabeth I. For the Italians ‘Il Duce’ was Mussolini, and for the Germans ‘Der Führer’ was Hitler. In the second instance we find ‘a Solomon’ meaning a wise man, ‘an Abigail’ meaning a maid, ‘an Einstein’ meaning an intelligent person.

Even the humble word ‘an’ has an origin unlike what we presume. In school we are taught that the indefinite article is ‘a’, but that an en is added before a vowel sound, giving us ‘an’. In fact, the reverse is true. Originally the indefinite article was ān for all words (ān booke, ān tabel). It came from the same word as ‘one’ (Ger. ein, Dut. een [pron. ayn]). So, it is not that we gain the en before a vowel so much as it is that we have lost the en before a consonant.

Of course, one of the silliest origins is the ever-decreasing diminutive. The suffix -ling is an Old Norse diminutive found in many words like ‘duckling’. But in the word ‘starling’ the stær– part already means ‘starling’, so ‘starling’ means ‘little starling’: but even that ‘starling’ also means ‘little starling’, and so on down to a bird of infinitesimal size. Similarly we find that ‘fairy’ comes from fay plus –ery, ‘that which has the nature of being fay’. But fay itself means ‘fairy’ (cf. Morgan la Fey/Fay, Morgana the Fairy); thus it constant reduplicates itself: ‘that which has the nature of that which has the nature of… a fairy’.

Classical echoes

But some words have been formed by a popular misunderstanding of where a letter belongs. The words ‘a newt’, ‘a nickname’ and ‘nonce’ (meaning created for a single occasion) all started out as ‘an ewt’, ‘an eke-name’ and ‘(for) than anes’ (i.e. for the one occasion). The reverse also occurred: ‘an adder’ (the snake), ‘an apron’, ‘an auger’, ‘umbles’ and ‘an umpire’ began life as ‘a naddre’, ‘a naperon’ (from which we get ‘napkin’), ‘a nafogar’, ‘numbles’ and ‘a noumpere’ (a no-equal). Others added letters for no apparent reason, other than perhaps euphony: the bee in ‘number’ does not appear in ‘numeral’ and the first dee in ‘daffodil’ does not appear in ‘asphodel’. Some words like herbergere, ‘message’, ‘passage’, potager, ‘scavager’, and ‘wharfage’ added an -ng- to give us ‘harbinger, messenger, passenger, porringer, scavenger, wharfinger’. Some lose it as easily: the loss of the ell in flebilis gave us feeble, the central i in capitem was kept in ‘capital’ but lost in ‘captain’, and the e at the start of ‘esquire’ and ‘estate’ were dropped in the modern use of ‘squire’ and ‘state’.

There are, of course, some errors which have cemented themselves in out language since classical times. We noted earlier the error that the word abhominacion was given the wrong meaning because of that intrusive aitch. Similarly, we have all heard of Ye Olde Coffee-Shoppe and the like. But the word ‘ye’ in this use is fully the product of error! In Old English, we had two extra letters in the alphabet, the thorn þ and the edh ð (representing, respectively, the th-sounds of ‘thing’ and ‘thus’). The thorn symbol often corrupted to something looking like a y or a Y with curved uppers. Thus, the words ye and yt (with the second letters raised) represented ‘the’ and ‘that’. Ye arrived when the common bumpkins misread them as a y. It was reinforced by the knowledge that the Bible had two classical forms of the word ‘you’, namely ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ (later to become ‘you’) with their object forms ‘thee’ and ‘ye’. It was simply assumed, wrongly, that ‘the’ and ‘ye’ were therefore the same. Another such error cemented in our language is the use of ‘what’, as in ‘Sorry I am late, what with all the mess that I had to clean!’ It is spelt wrongly! Initially it was the older and now somewhat obscure verb ‘to wit’ (in the conjugation form of ‘he wot’, ‘you wot’), which had the meaning of ‘to know’: in other words ‘know that it was with all the mess…’. Similarly the pompous English, “Eh, wot!”

Another example is the humble Jerusalem artichoke. It has nothing to do with the Palestinian city. The Old Italian or Late Latin word gerasole (with its object or accusative form of gerasolem) meant ‘sunflower’, with the soft gee sound as in ‘gem’, not the hard Teutonic ‘get’. But the English simply misheard the gerasolem and assumed it was Italian for Jerusalem. In a similar vein, we have the misunderstanding over the word ‘quick’ as in ‘the quick and the dead’ and in the word ‘quicksilver’ for mercury. It originally meant ‘alive’, and only as a derivative of that meaning ‘lively’ or ‘speedy’. Thus quicksilver referred to ‘living silver’, because it was liquid and very mobile.

Then there is this blast from the past, the genitive. In classical European languages, nouns had ‘cases’. The nominative was the subject (‘he reads a book’), the accusative was the direct object (‘my father saw him’). The dative was the indirect object (‘I gave the book to him’), and the ablative denoted ‘by, with, from’. The genitive was the case of possession (‘the man’s hat’ or ‘the hat of the man’). In English, the genitive has reduced to the apostrophe-ess (‘the book’s title’ for ‘the bookes titel’, i.e. the title of the book). So when teachers tell us that an apostrophe is used for two purposes, one for possession and the other for an abbreviation (e.g. ‘don’t’), they are in fact one and the same: the possessive is an abbreviation, the removal of the letter e. The genitive of possession exists in English only in this form, although the spelling sometimes takes the similar form of -ce, as in once, twice, thrice. But there is also the genitive of distribution, noted by French speakers who use the de word for possession and for distribution. We have often thought that ‘whereabouts’ is a plural, as in “His whereabouts are unknown.” But this is wrong! It is a genitive of distribution, meaning ‘from the general whereabout’. Thus we should say, “His whereabouts is unknown.” Similarly, the classical ‘betimes’ is a genitive, meaning from the general time of. We find this genitive ess in many words like ‘backwards, forwards, northwards, besides, indoors, unawares’. It also exists in the form of -st, to differentiate between ‘again, amid, among, while, known, two’ and the more generalised ‘against, amidst, amongst, whilst, unbeknownst, betwixt’. Thus, we will find a dictionary among my books on the second shelf, but we wander amongst the crowd, because the crowd is more distributed than a fixed collection. I do a crossword while waiting at the doctor’s, but I got a tan whilst on holiday. The genitive lives!

We may not hate, but we certainly do misunderstand the subjunctive. The subjunctive has all but disappeared in English to the extent that most English-speakers do not even know what it is. While the indicative mood is the form which, as the name suggests, indicates what is or will be, etc. (I eat, I will eat, I ate, I have eaten, etc.), and the imperative mood orders or suggests (‘eat your dinner’, ‘let us eat cake’, etc.), the subjunctive identifies what is not so certain. It is found in compound forms using ‘may’ and ‘might’ and the future subjunctive (or conditional) ‘would’: ‘I may eat some cake for dessert.’ As a true subjunctive, it only really remains in the form of ‘were’ and ‘had’ and other words that look like they are past tense. (It also appears in present-looking forms like ‘no one need worry’ instead of ‘needs’.) In Old English they had like us the word ‘were’, as in ‘We were going to the market.’ But the subjunctive was very similar: ‘If we wære going to the market.’ Similarly, ‘I hatte [had] two shoes’ had its subjunctive, ‘If I hætte [hadde] two shoes’. The pronunciation of the two forms was so similar that when the common folk began to write, they wrote them as the same. Thus, ‘if I were you’, ‘if I had your looks’, ‘if I liked him’ all have the appearance of a past tense, when they are not, as it were (as it may be). Words like ‘would’, ‘should’, ‘could’ and ‘ought’ were both past tense and subjunctive of ‘will’, ‘shall’, ‘can’ and ‘owe’. (Only die-hard linguists think of ‘might’ as being the subjunctive of ‘may’ in the sense of having permission.) Of course, were this to be the Middle Ages, we would have no trouble using these forms. Would it were so! Sloppy modern speakers are often heard to say, ‘If he was captain’ or ‘If I like chocolate.’ Terrible!

In today’s world we have real problems keeping these subjunctives (or even indicative tenses) in order. For example, ‘That sounds like a good movie: I might go and see it’ should be ‘I would go and see it’, the subjunctive of ‘will’. As an indicative, ‘might’ is the past tense of ‘may’; therefore we should say ‘I hope he may’ and ‘I hoped he might’. We even have trouble with the very words ‘will’ and ‘shall’ to begin with. ‘Shall’ is the word used for pure futurity: ‘Tomorrow shall be Tuesday.’ ‘I shall be finished in ten minutes.’ The verb ‘to will’ is the same as ‘to wish’, and we see it in a noun form (‘thy will be done’) or a verbal form (‘do what you will’). Therefore ‘I will go to the party’ has a different meaning from ‘I shall go to the party’, in that the former implies that the event shall happen as the result of desire or of design, while the latter is a mere matter of fact. For this reason, we tend to use ‘I’ with ‘will’ and ‘it’ with ‘shall’, since objects do not have a will. Similarly we find a distinction between ‘should’ and ‘ought’. We would say ‘I should be finished in ten minutes’ if the ten minutes is not so certain. But since ‘ought’ is the past or the subjunctive of ‘to owe’, it implies an obligation: thus we would never say ‘I ought to be finished in ten minutes’ unless we do imply that obligation. Note the difference: ‘I should do my homework (because it is getting to that time)’ and ‘I ought to do my homework (because I do not wish to get into trouble).’


Any student of French or German is aware of the use of accents, or what linguists call ‘diacritical marks’. These also exist in English, but the unsophisticated and under-educated masses have more often dropped these. Their sole purpose is to change the sound of the attached letter, making it stressed or elevated or separated or sometimes a different sound altogether.

The most commonly recognised accent is the ‘acute’, the rising dash, usually above the letter e. We know it in such common words as café, cliché, entrée and rosé [kafay, kleeshay, ontray, rozay], which without them should be pronounced kayf, kleesh, entree and of course roze. Even today, though, we sometimes find café without the accent. Frequently we also find it missing on appliqué, attaché, blasé, communiqué, consommé, coupé, cuvée, débâcle, débris, début(ante), divorcé(e), éclair, élite, épée, exposé, fiancé(e), lamé, macramé, mêlée, ménage, née, negligé, pâté, roué, sauté and soufflé. Some of these really ought to have the accent to distinguish them from other real words, e.g. coupe, expose, lame, pate and rose. Many others exist when they have been brought into English directly from the French, and these usually retain their italicised forms: coup d’état, decoupage, détente, flambé(e), intimé(e), manqué, medlée, outré, papier mâché, passé, puisné (the legal spelling of ‘puny’), résistance, risqué and séance, even though some of these are losing their italicisation.

The ‘grave’ accent [pron. grahv], is the descending dash, also usually above the letter e.    Its purpose is to stress or to clarify a vowel which might otherwise be downplayed. We find it in such words and phrases as à la (in the fashion of), brassière, compère, crème, derrière, ménage à trois, pièce (de résistance) and première. Again, the under-educated are often dropping these. But the grave is also used in some English words which even if they arrived from the French, did not arrive with the accent: they are there for English stress, especially in cases where the absence of the accent would produce another word, albeit usually of the same origin. Examples are allegèd, belovèd, supposèd, even ashamèd. We notice that in all of these cases the final -ed is pronounced in its adjectival form. We notice also that the words wicked, wretched and naked all naturally have a deep (grave) -ed sound on the end, but if we really do have to differentiate these words from wik’d and rech’d (but not nayk’d), then we are allowed to place a grave over the final e. Whether it is belovèd or wickèd, sometimes modern spellers will use a small dot instead of the grave: the grave is preferable. As English is being ever more influenced by Italian and Spanish words, we are finding other words creeping in, e.g. caffè, città.

The circumflex is the upside-down vee placed over certain vowels. It occurs in words or phrases like bête noire, château, coup de grâce, croûton, drôle (now almost always ‘droll’), fête, gâteau, maître and rôle, and the above-mentioned débâcle, mêlée, papier mâché and pâté. In almost all cases they represent a missing letter ess from the Old French, e.g. beste (beast), chastel (castle), feste (feast), pasté (paste).

The diaeresis is two dots placed over a vowel, and it serves one of two purposes. In words which come directly from German (where it is called the Umlaut), it has modified the vowel with an additional e-sound. Thus Führer may also be spelt Fuehrer, Händel as Haendel, Übermensch as Uebermensch. We shape the lips as if about to say the u- or the a-sound but pronounce an e instead, thus pronouncing an er- or a flat e-sound. The second purpose, which is the real meaning of the diaeresis (in French the tréma), is to separate vowels. If we look at the personal name Noel, it is pronounced as ‘knoll’ (nole), but if we are referring to Christmas, we say know-ell: the diaeresis separates the vowels… Noël. Similarly zoetrope. This can be used on other words where we might not expect it, e.g. coöperation or zoölogy, so that we do not say koop-eration or zoo-logy.

And let us not forget the occasional and rare tilde (uniquely Spanish or Portuguese) or cedilla (uniquely French). The tilde is the wiggly line above the en or the vowel which give a nasalised y-sound, e.g. señor or mañana. Without the tilde the words would be pronounced s’nor and m’nahnah (like ‘banana’). The cedilla (literally a ‘little zed’) is a little hook under the letter cee which keeps it soft when followed by a ‘hard’ vowel (a, o or u), e.g. ça va [sah vah] or prononciation reçue [r’soo]. Without the cedilla the words would be kah vah and r’koo.

Creating language

Oxford considers that English is a “living language”, that new words are constantly formed according to requirement. It does, however, hope that these words are also formed according to certain rules and guidelines. There is, for example, the hope that we do not create hybrid or ‘bastard’ words, in which we use one part from one language and one from another. Already in our language we have ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, where the homo and hetero parts are Greek and the sexualitas part is Latin. But this was because the correct ‘homoerotic’ and ‘heteroerotic’ already existed with their own distinct meanings. And the words ‘homophylia’ (same gender) and ‘heterophylia’ are too similar to ‘homophilia’ (loving the same) and ‘heterophilia’. Yet we also have ‘hypersensitive’ (hyper from Greek, sensitive from Latin), which should have been ‘supersensitive’ or ‘hyperaesthetic’, and ‘pseudo-scientific’, which should be either ‘quasi-scientific’ or ‘pseudepistemic’. Similarly, ‘paranormal’ should be ‘extranormal’ or ‘paracanonic’. Neologisms like ‘discography’, ‘gemmology’, ‘neonatology’, ‘numerology’, ‘Scientology’, ‘serology’, ‘sexology, ‘venereology’ and ‘vulcanology’ are all hybrids. Curiously, I once came across à la Volkssprache (according to the way people speak), half French, half German: yet it could be argued that this is not hybrid because in English the term à la is complete in itself and the phrase therefore contains two distinct and discrete units.

These neologism are most easily created by analogy to existing words. For example, there is a rarely used Latin case ending –atim, which is the accusative of distribution, implying one item at a time. We already have ‘verbatim’ (one word at a time, word by word), literatim (one letter at a time) and the chemist’s term guttatim (drop by drop). From these we might now also create casatim (case by case) and notatim (note by note) and many others… as long as we use the Latin stem.

Similarly, we may notice the paradigm which gives us receive, reception and receipt along with deceive, deception and deceit; also conceive, conception and conceit. Since we have the word ‘susceptible’ in our language, it can easily be argued that we might also create the verb ‘to susceive’, which would have the meaning of ‘to be vulnerable to influence’.

Other forms we hate… and love

In modern English we have come to hate the word ‘that’. Instead of saying, ‘I know that you are going out this evening,’ we drop the word and simply state, ‘I know you are going out…’. This is especially so when we get to double the ‘that’, as in ‘I know that that is the way to do it.’ But a problem of equal ubiquity is the lack of knowledge over whether to use ‘that’ or ‘which’. Compare: ‘Give me the answer that will solve the problem’ and ‘Give me the answer which will solve the problem.’ In the first sentence, the ‘that’ refers to the whole ‘give me the answer’: it is the process of giving that solves it. In the second sentence, there is the assumption that some other answers may be available, but these others will not solve the problem: the ‘which’ implies ‘out of a selection’. We want the one which will solve it. You can indicate that it is the giving of the answer that does it, by placing a comma after the ‘answer’: ‘Give me the answer, which…’. The difference between whether it is the giving or the answer which solves the problem is clarified when we talk of ‘an answer’: ‘Give me an answer that will solve the problem.’ You are saying, ‘Give me something.’ What? An answer! What type of answer? An answer that will solve the problem. We can not say, ‘an answer will solve the problem,’ because it may not, so it is not ‘an answer which’ will do anything.

Another thing that we hate is the hyphen. This device is used to unite words into a singular concept. Clearly one can not have a ‘blue green jacket’, because if it were green, it could not be blue. We are talking of a colour which is a combination of the two, called ‘blue-green’. Similarly, we talk of an ‘interest-free loan’, because without the hyphen it says that it is only a free loan, without being more specific. It was a ‘run-of-the-mill event on a half-scalding afternoon’. If we talk about a ‘nuclear-waste solution’, it may indeed be a waste solution, but the ‘waste’ has been made more specific: two concepts have been drawn together to modify the singular word. A ‘front-of-house presentation’ tells us that ‘front-of-house’ is a single idea. A German-Dutch alliance is different from a German Dutch alliance, which means a Dutch alliance which is German: its meaning is obscure. But we note that these forms take place when the adjectival phrase is attributive, that is when it is directly attached to (i.e. before) the noun. When used predicatively (after the noun and a verb) they are usually kept apart. Thus, ‘the matter-of-fact event was very matter of fact.’

Another hatred is the correct use of the gerund, the verb used as a noun. This gerund is always found in nouns ending in -ing. ‘I hate him smoking in the lift’ literally means ‘I hate him.’ When? When he smokes in the lift. But do you really hate him or the smoking (and we note by the use of the word ‘the’ that ‘smoking’ is a noun)? We ought to say, ‘I hate his smoking in the lift.’ ‘I appreciate your writing to your mother.’ ‘He is impressed by my being so honest.’

But we do like to split the infinitive. The infinitive is, of course, the verb in its unmodified form: to read, to eat, to think, to walk. The rule against splitting the infinitive stems from the fact that most European languages consider the infinitive to be a single word: French donner, to give; German geben, to give; Italian prestare, to loan; Spanish hablar, to speak; Portuguese pensar, to think; Latin amare, to love; Greek phaino, to show; Russian nesti, to carry. To proper speakers it seemed almost counterintuitive to break apart a term whose very meaning implied that there was nothing to break apart: no time/tense (past, present, future), no person/number (I, we, they, etc.), no mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative), no voice (active, passive). Our problem is only partly that we split the infinitive when we should not; the real problem is that we feel that we now must do it wrong! If we have a choice between splitting the infinitive (the wrong course) and not splitting it (the right course), we feel that we are somehow being incredibly pretentiously arrogant by doing it right! It is in fact a ‘counter-arrogance’, to deride people for speaking correctly and to insist that the wrong course of speech must be adhered to!

And another hate… Americanisation!

Americans are bullies in a lot of areas: political interference, economic pressure, their adamant refusal to adopt the metric system. Their insistence that we should adopt their language is another. We need not concern ourselves with the dialect differences of pronunciation, in which they pronounce vase [vayz for vahz], gala [gaylah for gahlah], herbal [erbil for herbil], basil [bayzil for bazil], human [yoomin for hyoomin], trauma [trahmah for trormah], wrath [rath for roth], because dialect is universal and varies greatly even within their own culture, although their ‘either’ [ee-dher instead of aye-dher] and their ‘schedule’ [skedyool for shedyool] always sounds crass and illiterate to any vaguely educated English ear. Their letter Z is said as zee to rhyme with bee, cee, dee, etc., while we with our zed simply retain its origins (from the Greek zeta). We note that they pronounce ‘route’ as rowt rather than as root (the English is rowt only in its military application). Nor do we need to concern ourselves with the major spelling variations, such as color for colour, privatize for privatise, or even program for programme. The -or and -er endings (color, center) were in fact legitimate English at one time, deriving directly from Latin, and only modified to make them look more Gallic in the late eighteenth century. Similarly the -ize form of the activating or inceptive suffix derives directly from the Greek -izo, while the -ise arrived via the French -iser: both are therefore correct and are only a matter of national preference. Likewise, ‘programme’ may have arrived from the French in that form, but even in English we are more than willing to refer to a ‘gram’ or ‘kilogram’ without the -me on the end. The one that really puzzles us is that the American abbreviation ‘math’ is in the singular, instead of ‘maths’, since the full form, mathematics, is plural. But what bugs us is the unnecessary American abbreviations due to their hatred of ae and oe: eon (aeon), esthetic (aesthetic), egrotat (aegrotat), fetus (foetus), ameba (amoeba).

For many people, the real beef with the Americans is the adoption of words which were simply unnecessary, and then the pressure to use only those words. Words like ‘dove’ or ‘snuck’ are illiterate colonialisms for ‘dived’ and ‘sneaked’ (just as the English themselves will often say ‘proven’ for ‘proved’: ‘proven’ is only adjectival, as in ‘a proven fact’, or in Scottish law or extremely upper-class English, pronounced proh-vin). The invention of ‘nickel’, ‘dime’ and ‘quarter’ is completely understandable, since at the time of the creation of the American currency, no parallel currency existed in the English sterling system, although it is odd that they often call their cent a ‘penny’. But why did they need to adopt ‘fall’ or ‘faucet’ instead of ‘autumn’ or ‘tap’? The variations are many: airplane (aeroplane), aluminum (aluminium), candy (sweets, lollies), cookie (biscuit), crisps (potato chips), diaper (nappy), fender (bumper), fries (chips), freeway (motorway), frosting (icing), gas/oline (petrol/eum), hood (bonnet), sidewalk (footpath), takeout (takeaways), tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses), trunk (boot). We note the sometimes confusion that our college is their high school, and our university is their college. Similarly, a billion used to be a million million, but for the Americans it is a thousand million, and a trillion to us was a billion billion, but to the Americans a trillion was one of our billions. In this, they have indeed succeeded in taking over! And who really buys drugs in a drugstore (dairy)? For us, a drugstore is a chemist’s shop. And why do they call a ‘soft drink’ a ‘soda’ when there is no sodium in it, let alone sodium carbonate: the fizzy factor is carbonic acid. (Perhaps it was because it may have alleviated a headache: Latin soda, headache.)

The takeover by Americanisation is really based on their control of the entertainment media, of films and music, although with the recent reclamation by more independent British and colonial nations, Americans are slowly starting to accept that theirs is not the language of choice for the vast majority of the English-speaking world.


We were introduced earlier to the dialectic travesty by which words like ‘known, thrown, blown, strewn’ and others are pronounced as ‘no-win, throw in, blow in, strew in’. Every dialect has its crass foibles! Here in New Zealand we have adopted that dreadful American pronunciation of ‘either’ as ‘ee-ther’, rather than correctly as ‘aye-ther’ (Cf. eider, Einstein, feisty, heist.) Likewise, we have the dreadful pronunciation of ‘auction’ and ‘auxiliary’ with a flat O, as ‘ok-shin’ and ‘oksilary’ (even dropping the second -i-), instead of ‘ork-shin’. (Cf. august, austere, augment, auspices, author.) We saw also the lack of diction which produced ‘prison-van guard’ as ‘prison vanguard’, because of the lack of caesura (a momentary break in the effective place). We must differentiate between ‘a political’ and ‘apolitical’.

But the real problem with the English language is its inconsistency. The double-o (oo) in ‘look, poor, tooth, blood, zoology’ are all different. The word ‘over’ is repeated in ‘clover but changes its sound once when it becomes ‘cover’ or ‘lover’ and again when it becomes ‘hover’. The letter combination -ough has no less than ten different sounds: cough (off), rough (uff), bough (ow), bought (or), trough (orf), through (oo), hough (ok), lough (oχ = loch), borough (u) and the original spelling of hiccough (up). An eleventh exists in the surname Coughlan (og). In reverse, we find nine ways of spelling the sh-sound: sh (shall), sch (the English schedule), ti (motion, spatial), ssi (mission), ce (ocean), ci (special), ch (chagrin, cliché), su (sugar) and se (nauseous), and a tenth if we include si in the personal name Siobhan (where the bh is also a vee). And what of the two pronunciations of ‘live, read, bow, row, minute and entrance’? We are taught that the vowel-consonant-e structure elongates the first vowel (as in pin to pine), but this fails us with ‘adze, axe, cleanse, give, the short form of live, practice, heroine, promise, gone, deluxe’ and hundreds of others. Indeed, the elongation often takes place when there is no secondary vowel, as in ‘wreath, bind, ninth, most, gross, truth’ and many others. Try explaining to a foreigner how (or indeed why) to pronounce ‘awe [or], beau [bow], busy [bizee], colonel [kernil], ewe [you], eye [I], knight [nite], naught [nort] or yacht [yot]’.

We are. of course, shocking for our use of haplology, the ‘saying once that which should be said twice’. Thus, we say ‘Febry, secetry, reguly, tempory and contempory’. We have the above-mentioned ‘auxilary’ without the second -i-, as we do with ‘retalatory’ and ‘parlament’. We are sloppy because we are lazy, with no pride in our diction, and this is because we believe that being a classless society means that we must be a society without any class. Doing it right, we think, makes us into a snob. If we have a choice between sounding like a university professor and sounding like a Waimaumuku dung-farmer, we will pick the dung-farmer any day!

Being too clever

Certainly, there is the opportunity to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the pedant. I once saw a cartoon in a Punch magazine, set at the Help Desk of the section of a library called ;Pedantry’. This lanky, bespectacled, pimply-faced nerd behind the desk says to the client, “I am he through whom enquiry may be made!”  However, what is worse than a pedant is a pedant who gets it wrong. Often we will hear the toffy-nosed pedant showing off with “That is the region from whence it came.” This is simply wrong! The word ‘whence’ already means ‘from where’, and so ‘from whence’ really means ‘from where from’. It is either ‘from where’ or ‘whence’, but not both. Likewise with whither (to where), hence (from here), hither (to here), thence (to there) and thither (to there).

There is a famous put-down allegedly given by Winston Churchill, that great master of the English language, to Lady Nancy Astor, after the latter rebuked him for a supposed gaff. “Madam, that is the kind of pedantry up with which I hate to put!” Churchill’s colleagues chuckled in ridicule at Lady Astor. But Churchill was still wrong… twice! A ‘kind’ is a group containing similar elements, as in mankind, womankind, humankind. There is no ‘kind’ of pedantry: it is a sort or a type. But in the phrase ‘to put up with’, only the ‘with’ is a preposition: the ‘up’ is an adverb, because it modifies the simple verb ‘to put’ (to place) into ‘to put up’ (to accommodate). Churchill should have said, “Madam, that is the sort of pedantry with which I hate to put up!” This same problem occurs with other combined phrasal verbs like ‘to go out with’, or even with single problem words, as in ‘to look up a friend’, in which the verb ‘to look’ (to observe) is definitely modified into ‘to look up’ (to hunt out). The only people who look up a friend are a proctologist or a gynaecologist.

Of course, we have the great question of balance. As a poet, I love the language; as an academic, I love the language. But as it is with any ‘living’ thing, too much love can smother it. At the same time, we do a disservice to the things about which we care if we simply abandon them to the forces of the ill-educated and the crass. Language does not have to be in terms of the Lowest Common Denominator, and like any art-form, it can be spectacular in the hands of the gifted and the dedicated! And rather than spending our time ridiculing foreigners for their sometimes clumsy attempts at speaking our belovèd language, we ought to be congratulating them on trying to speak what it sometimes a clumsy language in itself!

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