Archive for ‘language’

October 23, 2010

Stephen Fry on pedantry and loving the language

As most of you know, I write a weekly language column for the New Indian Express’ EdEx supplement. I write this column because I love the English language and it seems to me entirely reasonable that I should write public love notes to it on a regular basis – much like accosting strangers with pictures of one’s offspring (“aren’t they beautiful?”). I think I manage not to be a pedant most of the time, though I stand by the occasional argument for clarity, whatever Stephen Fry may say in the video below.
As for said video, I think it’s gorgeous and true and it made me cheer. Watch it immediately.
August 24, 2010

English has failed me

Does the English language have a way of addressing an email or letter to someone whose name, gender or designation you don’t know that isn’t “sir/madam” or “to whom it may concern”? These are situations where you can’t casual, but you don’t want to be stiff.

If English does have a better option , feel free to mock me here for not thinking of it (but tell me what it is as well, please).

If not, it really, really needs one.

August 12, 2010


I’m thinking I should just give my language column to @Grammarhulk.



May 18, 2010

YfL13: Rules and Pudding

I’ve missed out of posting a couple of weeks’ Yell For Language columns. I apologise if anyone was particularly looking forward to them. Here is yesterday’s, anyway.

[An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express' educational supplement yesterday].


To Prove: To establish the truth or validity of by presentation of argument or evidence.

To Prove: To determine the quality of by testing; try out.

I have a peeve. It is not a pet peeve, because I have many peeves and asking me to choose a favourite would be akin to asking a parent to choose a favourite child.

My peeve is this: the rampant abuse of the expression “the exception that proves the rule”. It’s one of those things people will just glibly throw out when something happens that doesn’t fit their current system of understanding, and it’s clear that they have no idea what it actually means.

This expression does not mean what you think it means.

People nowadays tend to think of the word “prove” in terms of evidence; like fingerprints on a murder weapon (the victim in this case apparently being the English language). But think about what this would mean for “the exception that proves the rule”. You’re effectively saying “I have a theory about how the world works. This piece of information, does not fit my theory. Therefore my theory must be accurate”. No one with half a brain would accept this as a rational, logical statement! The only reason people continue to throw the phrase around is because they’re used to throwing language around without thinking about what it means. The continued, thoughtless use of this phrase is just another indication that we live in a world where the vast majority of people haven’t got a clue what they are actually saying. I find this thought depressing.

So what does the phrase actually mean? It’s all in the word “prove”, and it becomes obvious when you think about other situations in which we use the word. “Waterproof” does not mean “substance that proves water exists”; it’s fabric that withstands water. To “proof” a document has to do with checking it for errors. “To Prove” has multiple meanings, and the two I’ve listed at the top of this article are, I think, the major source of confusion.

Ultimately there are two possible ways to read the phrase in question. One is quite close to the usual interpretation (though different enough to matter): If something is to be considered exceptional, it implies (or proves) that there is a normal state (a rule, in the sense that we use “as a rule”) for it to be an exception to.

The other possible reading takes the word in its other sense; “to test”. In this case, “the exception proves the rule” because the existence of an exception causes you to question the rule, and find out if it really is universally applicable. I prefer this version of the phrase, but it is less popular.

It’s precisely because of this sort of linguistic confusion that I’m fond of another phrase, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This one presumably means that one tests the quality of pudding by eating it, but it works both ways – it’s equally true that eating pudding is a great way to discover whether or not pudding exists. Plus, it is a phrase that positively demands that we all eat pudding, which is surely a good and noble task.


April 27, 2010

YfL10: Some flatulence

I’ve been lazy about posting either of my columns here for the last couple of weeks, but here is yesterday’s Yell For Language column. It is about farting.

(An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express educational supplement, EdEx, on Monday)


Petard: A small bell-shaped bomb used to breach a gate or wall.

I have been reading the expression “hoist by his/her own petard” in books for as long as I can remember. In context, it’s a simple enough expression to understand – it merely signifies that someone has become the victim of his own plot; that his plan has backfired upon him. Because it was so easy to make sense of it at first, and in time, I suppose, because I was so used to seeing it, it had never occurred to me to wonder what the word “petard” meant. I assumed (the presence of “hoist” made me think it had something to do with rope) that a petard might be some sort of jungle trap; the kind where you carelessly put your foot into a loop of rope and suddenly find yourself hanging upside down from the branch of a tree.

Recently though, I was reading an old children’s book (I forget which) in which a child asks what the expression means, and all the adults around her burst out laughing and tell her that it is an expression she should not repeat. This was intriguing, so I resolved to find out what was so shocking about the expression or the word.

“Petard”, it seems, comes from a medieval French word, “peter” (pronounced the French way, not as Spiderman’s real name). “Petards” were explosives used in the sixteenth century to blow up walls or huge gates. To be “hoist” by one’s own petard would, therefore, mean that one had been thrown by the bomb that one had set. This is all very satisfactory and not scandalous at all.

Nowadays, however, the word in French means “firecracker”. It will be noted that the one thing bombs and firecrackers have in common is that you light them and they explode. Does “peter”, then, mean “explode”? Close enough, but not quite – it turns out it means “to break wind”. Flatulence. Farting.

Perhaps this is what the adults in the book I referred to meant when they declared the expression unfit for children’s ears. I can find no other undesirable connotations of the word. But what really delights me about this discovery is that the expression “hoist by his own petard” takes on a new and glorious meaning.

In Roald Dahl’s The BFG (a children’s book whose name I do remember), the big friendly giant of the title shuns regular fizzy drinks for a special variety in which the bubbles move downwards instead of upwards. This saves him the embarrassment of burping, but it does lead to the gas in the drinks being otherwise expelled. As a result he spends a great deal of time flying happily about, propelled by the force of his own flatulence. Clearly Dahl did not think intestinal gas an unfit subject for children’s ears.

I end this with the revelation that the Greek “peter” (Spiderman pronunciation appropriate here) means “stone”, which is presumably the material from which the sixteenth century walls blown up by petards were made. Language is strange.


April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.


[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]


A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”


Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.


March 27, 2010


From this interview with Chabon:

In a more equivocal way (one of his chapters on this is called “Hypocritical Theory”), he finds himself worrying about the exploitation of fart-and-snot humour by profit-minded grown-ups. “Tropes and jokes that adults never would have gone near, and would have disdained to traffic in not that long ago,” he says, “are now actively employed to snare children’s attention, and ultimately their income.” What bothers him isn’t the jokes and tropes themselves but “the co-opting of kids’ consciousness”: naughty playground rhymes should be an adult-free zone.

March 26, 2010

More F words

Earlier today Adam Roberts mentioned on twitter that he was at a primary school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. He said that the school had chosen to change some of the lyrics in the Potiphar song – instead of inviting Joseph to “come and lie with me, love”, Potiphar’s wife now desired him to “come and have some tea, love”.

My own primary school changed the line to “come and BE with me love”, but did this merely by crossing out the word “lie” and substituting “be” on the sheets of lyrics. Amazingly, we caught on, but beyond a few giggles and some puzzlement there was nothing.

However, a year or so later I was in a choir doing Oliver! and whoever was in charge decided to modify the song “I’d do anything“. In the song (skip this bit if you know anything at all about musicals) the Artful Dodger is claiming that he would, in fact, do anything for Nancy, and she is giving him lists of specific tasks to see if this is the case. So at one point, she asks him if he would “Even fight my Bill?” to which he replies “What, fisticuffs?”

Unfortunately, whichever adult it was who decided this sort of thing thought that “fisticuffs” was not a word s/he wanted a bunch of kids to sing. I don’t know whether it was considered to be too difficult a word, whether the implication of violence was the problem (surely not) – but we were condemned to sing that line as “what? … *empty space, filled up by some la la laing*” for no discernable reason.

Result: for many years I thought that “fisticuffs” was a dirty word and have never been quite able to rid myself of the association.

Fisticuffs. Giggle.

March 23, 2010

YfL5: Saussure and Klingon

What do you do when you want to talk about Tolkien and Trekkies? Make a silly, cod-academic reference to Saussure. Obviously.

An edited version was published in Monday’s EdEx, etc.


Klingon: An alien life form from the Star Trek books, television series and movies, origially the enemies of the Federation. Also the Klingon language, tlhIngan Hol, a constructed language invented by Mark Okrand especially for the Star Trek movies of the 1980s and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. (Urban Dictionary)

There is a moment, in one of the Star Trek movies (The Undiscovered Country) where a Klingon is supposedly quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it is written in his own language. He remarks to the (mostly human) crew of the Starship Enterprise that Shakespeare is far better “in the original Klingon”. It is only relatively recently that I learnt that there does exist a Klingon Hamlet. It is delightful – not only did the people behind the series go to the trouble to create a whole new language for this alien race, but other people joined in to translate Shakespeare into this wholly made-up language, all for their own amusement. Knowing Klingon serves no useful purpose, in the sense that language usually does, in helping people to communicate. But it’s the sort of thing that people clearly enjoy knowing.

Another constructed fictional language that I’m very fond of is Quenya, one of the languages of the Elves in J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Language lies at the heart of Tolkien’s universe; the many languages that the people he created speak were developed alongside the world itself. Tolkien was a language geek, apparently inventing his first language at age thirteen. He seems to have been fascinated by how things fit together, how grammar works; the general structure of language. And Middle-Earth is obviously the richer for it.

Of course, that is not all that language is. The Swiss linguist Saussure in the earlier part of the twentieth century drew a distinction between two concepts in language, “langue” and “parole”. By Langue he referred to the system of rules by which a language is goverened; Parole indicated the relatively flexible ways in which language was used and meaning created within those set boundaries. Of course this demarcation is somewhat reductive, but I think that fictional languages spoken by fictional people will only ever work at the level of Langue. Parole requires that people be present, actively using the language. If every Star Trek fan, or every Tolkien fan in the world were to display the levels of obsession required to learn a technically pointless language (quite a number of fans of both sorts have obviously done this and I think it’s rather wonderful) and to communicate with each other by this means, we might have the beginnings of something pretty fantastic. It’ll never happen.

And that is why, ultimately, I have no interest in learning either language. I’m delighted that both exist, but what really charms me about languages will always be the Parole aspect of things. I require that language be changeable and frequently ungrammatical and full of swearing and obsolete words and slang. The Elves would probably never come up with a rich tradition of Quenya slang, and that is genuinely unfortunate (I suspect the Klingons would manage slang quite well).


I seem to have gotten into the habit of praising profanity every week. I must consider this further.

March 16, 2010

YfL4: Expletive

Can you say the word fuck in a newspaper?

An edited version (with most of the objectionable bits asterisked out) appeared in yesterday’s EdEx.


Expletive: an exclamation or swearword; an oath or a sound expressing an emotional reaction rather than any particular meaning.

Watching a programme about Oscar nominees last week, I was surprised to hear that a Quentin Tarantino film called “Inglourious *silence*” had been nominated for a number of awards. It took me a few moments to work out that the film in question was the director’s Inglourious Basterds (misspellings deliberate).
Lots of people don’t like swearing, in films or on TV. There are plenty of possible reasons for this. Perhaps they simply think swear words are crude and ugly. Perhaps they are afraid that children will hear them and use them or, worse, ask what they mean. In the case of the word fuck, which generally forms a part or the whole of the offending statement, people might even complain that adds to the unfair negative connotations around something as amazing as sex.
Literature and film must deal with the consequences of this disapproval. Films with swearing in them are frequently rated for older audiences (and the DVDs eventually released with the cryptic “contains language” warning on the back, in case the audience expected a silent film or a mime). They will also inevitably have to submit to constantly having words “bleeped” or “blanked” out – the offensive word is replaced either with a beeping noise or with silence. I’m sure Tarantino expected it.
An obvious way to avoid this problem would be to create works of art in which no one ever swears. Which would be fine if you made a film about your grandparents, but perhaps less authentic if you made one about murdering drug smugglers.
So what do you do if you want to depict swearing but don’t want your movie filled with silences and beeps? The answer: substitute other words and make sure your audience knows what you’re substituting them for. Neither I nor anyone I knew in school was ever fooled by a string of teachers who used “sugar” as a substitute for another word beginning with a “sh-” sound.
The internet provides any number of alternative f-words, should you choose to use them. My favourite so far has been “frak”, which originated on Battlestar Galactica when it was first aired in the 1970s. From 2004 to 2009 a revamped version of the original series was aired, and in this the meaning of “frak” became a lot more detailed. “Frell”, a similar word from Farscape, was not nearly as recognizable.
Alternatively, there’s the route that writers like Terry Pratchett and Larry Niven have taken in their books where they embrace the censoring of swear words and throw it right back. In Pratchett’s The Truth, one character’s dialogues are interspersed with the word “- ing”. It looks reasonably normal until other characters begin to ask why this man keeps saying “ing”. Likewise, in Niven’s Known Space stories “bleep” itself has become an insult.
It seems silly to go to all this trouble to mask words when everyone knows what they are intended to signify in any case. But I’m willing to put up with it – contrary to what a number of English teachers in school told me, language is made richer by a good dose of profanity.