Quick, the Flit!
It must be fall, because the ants started moving into the house this week, small ones heading for the bread drawer or some other vulnerable target. I slew them by the score with my strong right hand, and they kept coming until I applied the ant-roach spray around the kitchen door.
They remind me, eerily, of the members of the Queen’s English Society: largely brainless but moving relentlessly forward, replenishing their numbers when any are swatted down.
We’ve been here before, and before, and so have Stan Carey and Mark Liberman, exposing the laughable inadequacies of Martin Estinel’s eagerness to establish a Royal Academy of English to regulate the language.
But they keep coming, and now Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar has taken on Bernard Lamb, a geneticist and the president of the Queen’s English Society, who thinks that the English language has gone straight to hell because (a) some of his students don’t spell well and (b) they mix up some homonyms too.
Professor Lamb’s conclusion is irrelevant, Mr. Doyle argues:
First, it contains no reference point, so the fact that his students’ English is currently bad is not evidence that the standards have dropped; it might have been just as bad a century ago. Secondly, it’s anecdotal evidence based on a sample of students in a science class. Perhaps the admission standards of his university are slipping, generating a drop in the competence of his students that is completely independent of any trend in society as a whole. Thirdly, if the worst problem you can think of to prove that English is falling apart is a couple of typos, I’m unimpressed.
Yet this is the level of argument, and evidence, put forward regularly by this crowd. If they were merely sitting by the fire in their clubs, sipping whisky and grumbling, “Not much pink on the map anymore,”* they would be relatively harmless. But when newspapers give them a platform to parade their dim-witted ideas about language, there is a risk that the naive and easily practiced upon might take them seriously.
There are no more ants in my kitchen, but the ill-informed peevers keep marching on.
*For our American readers: British maps conventionally colored Britain and its colonial possessions and dominions in pink. “Not much pink on the map anymore” is a complaint about Britain’s reduced importance in the world, for which attempts to make British English the standard for the rest of the English-speaking world is a pathetic remedy.
For our younger readers, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” is an ad slogan from the 1920s for a brand of insecticide.