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Ain't it the truth

You and your beloved are dining for the first time with your beloved’s parents, at the most formal restaurant in town. Midway through dinner, you belch thunderously. People at nearby tables turn around to look. You blush. You have committed a solecism, a breach of etiquette.

That word solecism derives from the Greek soloikismos, which means the ungrammatical use of words. (The residents of Soloi spoke a dialect of Greek that speakers of Attic Greek found contemptible.) The double nature of that word, equating grammar and manners, reminds us that questions of grammar and usage are often also questions of class.

Or of even greater matter. Our word shibboleth comes from a passage in the Book of Judges in which the Israelites use pronunciation of the word as a test to identify Ephraimites, who said sibboleth because they “could not frame to pronounce it right” and were accordingly slaughtered. In English, a shibboleth is an otherwise meaningless standard by which we identify those who are not like us and therefore — well, you know.

Nancy Mitford’s famous essay of 1956 on “U and non-U” English — upper class and no — established class lines by speech. Paul Fussell’s book Class, published in 1983, set up a tripartite scheme: “Proles say tux, middles tuxedo, but both are considered low by uppers, who say dinner jacket or (higher) black tie.” Our language is full of markers and shibboleths.

In all the years I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I don’t recall using a double negative, and I don’t believe that I uttered the word ain’t until I was in college. There was a strong taboo within the family meant to preserve our precarious hold on gentility. (Brought up to be a proper prig, I have since loosened up a little.)

We will see in further investigations at this site that much of the carrying-on about the purported decay of the language involves submerged superstitions, shibboleths and class assumptions. As George Bernard Shaw said in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Not just the British.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:12 PM | | Comments (2)


As a 24 year old British male, I am sadly unusually pedantic regarding grammar.

Having moved from Oxfordshire to Liverpool I have seen that background (read: class, income etc) has a great influence on the language used and manners shown.

People who spit randomly in the street are certainly more likely to use the horrendous phrase 'off of' which seems to have spread, more likely to wantonly swear.

I think it must boil down to respect, or lack thereof, for other people and for language.

"Shibboleth" was not a class problem, but an ethnic, or better yet, a purely linguistic problem... the "sh" sound didn't exist in their dialect. Akin to asking suspected Canadian spies to say "How about them Knicks?!"

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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