The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.

 

April 26, 2012

The Subtle Shadings of Spellings and Synonyms

To those of us who are almost synesthetic about words, two different words with one dictionary meaning (denotation), or one word with two different spellings, become completely different animals.  If denotation is a word’s DNA, then connotation, the waft of resonances and associations around it, is its epigenetics.  Two such words are like identical twins who have grown into very different individuals.

Two examples I’ve recently come in contact with:

1. grey vs. gray. The only difference is that the first is the British and the second the American spelling.  But how different their tone colors are.  Grey is grim, yellow, and sallow. It speaks of London industrial grime and gaslight, maybe even gaol (there’s a hollow spelling for you!) and gallows. Gray is blue-gray—softer, more open (the vowel isn’t pinched), less hopeless, a color you might feel drawn to touch, like some clouds or feathers. (Interestingly, neither spelling, to me, seems right for gray hair, which is more metallic—steely, pewtery, silvery, until it goes snowy.)

2. persistent versus persevering. Do these words mean exactly the same thing you?  To me, “persistent” has a more active and interpersonal connotation than “persevering.” “Persistent” could be a kid pestering its parent for an ice cream cone (the alliteration between “persistent” and “pestering” is probably one of the keys to my reaction), or Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out the Watchtower, or Martin Luther nailing the theses to the cathedral door—sort of repeated attempts to get the world’s attention. “Persevering” means not quitting, just keeping on going. One is head up, one head down; one insistent (another sound clue), one stoical. A dog jumping over and over at a closed door versus a tortoise plodding doggedly (!) along.

Is it just me?

August 2, 2009

Tow the Line. [UPDATED]

What are people thinking when they say this, I wonder?  What are they picturing?  A tug of war with two teams and a heavy hemp cable?  No one has towed a barge on a canal by a rope while trudging along a towpath for over a century, as far as I know.  At least, not in the United States.

It’s toe the line.  Toe.  As in step up and stand exactly where you’re supposed to.

These malapropisms are artifacts of an oral, aural culture where people hear language — through their iPods, through YouTube videos — far more than they read it.

“She poured over the document” is another one that really bothers me.  I worry about the ink running.  Think of it as examining something so closely you can see its pores, and you will be spelling it correctly.

You know, we used to have the opposite problem.  We read so much that we’d seen words we’d never heard, so we invented our own ways of pronouncing them, which could be way off base and could persist for years or even decades.  For the longest time I thought “succumb” was pronounced “suc-kewm” and, best of all, that “misled” was “my-zeld”:  chiseled, swindled, and misled!

UPDATE: George Orwell noted this misuse in 1946!

July 1, 2009

Spelling as Archaeology

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language evolving,spelling — amba12 @ 5:20 pm

You people are getting me going.

Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule.  If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?

I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling.  (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958.  So there.)  You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression.  Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices.  If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.

But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling.  Love it.  It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language.  You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon.  There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.”  If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.”  There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too:  you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.”  I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.

It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds.  But it is beautiful.

Blog at WordPress.com.