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Purism and futility

In The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, Henry Hitchings describes the steadily expanding vocabulary of the language. What makes his book different from a simple catalogue of etymologies is his willingness to look into the social and political aspects of “English’s opulently international character.”

For example: “Languages become ‘great’ not because of any inherent qualities they may be deemed to have, but because of the political, military and intellectual force behind them. When colonists arrive in a country, they exchange their language with the native inhabitants, and sometimes force it down their throats. Yet at the same time they adopt indigenous terms. An invader’s vocabulary will expand to reflect the concerns of those he has invaded.”

Borrowings from other languages are not simply utilitarian — new nouns for new things — but also reflect social values: “Throughout the history of English, the decision of a speaker or writer to borrow a word — be it from Latin, Greek, Hindi or Japanese — has been divisive, possibly an act of snobbery or self-importance, and at least a covert statement about his or her education.”

I wrote in a previous post that English is a magpie language, forever picking up shiny things from other languages. This tendency, along with the language’s mongrel Anglo-Saxon/Norman French/Latin pedigree, makes the periodic concern with the “purity “ of the language that surfaces every few generations a little silly.

And thus we come to continual conflict over words and usage, usually misguided: “[P]urism itself carries a whiff of the absurd. Much of what is condemned as wrong was standard in its past, and the very language hat is now held up as ‘pure’ is itself likely to have been imported in its time. What passes for vigilance is often just intolerance in disguise.”

He continues: “There are compelling reasons for punctuating and spelling according to particular conventions, as there are for wanting a large degree of stability in our language. But fighting battles about individual words and tiny increments of semantic change is bootless.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (2)


I used to correct those who said "orientated" before I found out it's the older usage, according to the OED. A realisation dawned on me, you might say...

I suppose it's only battles that can be bootless, and especially not, say, kick-boxing tournaments or grape-stomping parties.

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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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