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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.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 PM | | Comments (27)


"Quick! Mable, the Flit>" was for mosquitoes, wasn't it?

We can not let the brits standardize English!

Think of the number of "u"s we would have to have to give safe harbour to.

"Henry"? I don't remember "Henry".

But I'll bet We have a "Flit Gun" around here someplace.

Drawn by Dr. Seuss:

And yet, a newspaper has given you the same platform. What does it all mean?

1) The Queen's English stuff is silly, but only an over-agitated imagination could consider it harmful.

2) Why are those who are loudest in their own opinions so often the keenest to silence the opinions of others?

3) I don't know that anyone expects the Americans to write in British English, but it might perhaps not be too much to expect the British to do so.

4) You grow old, you grow old: do you still have turn-ups? The gentleman's clubs and pink-on-the-map stuff stopped being apposite about 40 years ago. These days we are too busy on the frontiers of the American imperial present to spend much time reminiscing about our own imperial past.

Um, exposing and denouncing nonsense is silencing the opinions of others?

Um ... "when newspapers give them a platform" etc etc

Picky: Having an opinion does not carry with it the right to have that opinion go unchallenged. If one's opinion is valid, it ought to be defensible. The QES's opinions, as Mr. McIntyre, Language Log, and others have previously pointed out, are not very defensible. Is pointing out the flaws in someone's argument on a blog tantamount to silencing them? No way.

(By the way, thanks for the mention!)

Well, I'm probably wrong, but the sentence beginning "But when newspapers" sounded very much to me like a disapproval of these twits being given a platform for their views.

The Queen's English Society is one nut away from the Anglish nuts—I can't say which is nuttier. Both decry the decline of the English language, a decadence that has been going on since Adam asked Eve, "You gonna eat that?"

That these people don't read is evident: the decline of the Language has been decried since Gutenberg got busy, and probably before. By their logic we should now be grunting to each other in monosyllable—wait, that's texting.

I think if the Language survived the telegraph, the telegram, the telephone and television, it will outlive texting. The QES may not have noticed—no Who fans they—but the kids are alright. The kids: they invent new words and new usages and challenge the old. Coinages survive; coinages die. New idioms arise. Wicked keen, so to say.

I really don't want to find myself defending the QES, but my understanding is that they are fairly relaxed about text-speak.

You still have a bread drawer?

What is a "turn-up?"

How humbling! Attempted literary joke falls flat. Turn-ups are cuffs.

Not to bring a rival publication into the conversation, but I'm wondering if you've seen this ...

No worries, Picky. We just roll up our trouser bottoms.

Ah - thanks for that , Laura.

Thank you,Picky. And moving on, what is the joy of denouncing nonsense? It is, after all, merely nonsense,and the world is full of nonsense. For which I am often grateful.

I have a bread drawer, although I keep flour, sugar etc in it and use the microwave as an adjunct bread box.

I don't know what a bread drawer is, but I'm quite clear about the joy of denouncing nonsense. That wonderful feeling of intellectual superiority.

Bread drawers, found in older houses (built before the 1960s and therefore likely to be built well, with hardwood floors, attics, etc) are drawers built into cabinets. They usually have a liner of some kind that can be removed. They act as protection against air,damp, etc. One stores bread, rolls, etc in them. I don't know what the British equivalent may be but you likely have or had something similar. We, on the other hand, never had "airing cupboards." Or if we did, I don't know what they were called.

My vocabulary will be rather dated, but I would say we have a bread bin; a freestanding object, not part of a cabinet/closet/cupboard, usually wood but sometimes metal, and often with a roll-top.

P the T--my grandmother had a bread drawer in her nineteen-twenties era house. I don't think I have seen one since then. She also had a deep flour drawer, for baking.

But an airing cupboard--that might be something we could agree on!

The bread drawer - bread box, - often,like the cheese, stands alone. The one here is part of drawers built in next to the stove. It had a metal liner which I removed. It was rather grungy and there is more room in the drawer without it. Picky, what is an airing cupboard and do newer English homes have the? I remember Morse had one in his "bachelor flat." I don't know about Lewis.

airing cupboard is a closet, usually on the (BrE) first floor (AmE) second floor, in which the hot water cylinder sits. However effectively the cylinder is insulated the cupboard warms up, so clothes placed on the (usually slatted) shelves above the cylinder air nicely.

There is usually an airing cupboard in houses built after the introduction of hot water systems to UK homes in, I would guess, the 20s. They've warmed up more since we took to central heating.

Sorry about that messy start: the result of some hours of struggling with that dreadful Captcha thing.

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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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