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Our wayward English

Still overwrought over the things the Oxford English Dictionary has picked up on the street? Here’s what a character in Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel, The Rebel Angels, has to say about language:

“Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams. Received Standard English has had it; even American English, that once seemed such an impertinent johnny-come-lately in literature, is fusty stuff compared with what you will hear in Africa, which is where the action is, in our day.”

Those inclined to hyperventilate over changes in vocabulary and usage should keep a few basic concepts in mind:

Language goes where it will.

No one, not the Brits or Americans, not the professoriat or the commentariat, owns it.

As the lexicographer Peter Sokolowski compactly put it, “Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don’t follow orders.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:08 AM | | Comments (7)


Simpy because Mr Davies wrote it and may have believed it doesn't mean he liked it. Anyone who used English as he did probably wasn't rooting for the Tom DIck and Harry team.

Prof. McI.,

Thanks for that wonderful, and most relevant-to-today's shifting lexicographic landscape, quote from the Canadian novelist/ playwright/ academic, Robertson Davies....... or more precisely, one of his characters from his1981 novel, "The Rebel Angels".

Although the erudite, almost patrician-like, late, Robertson Davies was (and still is) one of Canada's most revered, as well as most prolific novelists, playwrights, and critical intellectuals/ philosophers, as well as a former working newspaper journalist, owner, and editor, w/ a long stint as professor of literature at the University of Toronto, to boot, (Whew!) ,I must confess I got really bogged down in the early, what I felt, tough slogging in the initial chapters of his popular novel "When Bred in the Bone"------part of a literary trilogy. (Davies was apparently fond of trilogies.) Mind you, This wrestling w/ my first Davies work happened some 25 years ago.

I just couldn't forge on w/ Davies ponderous, 'Bred in the Bone', and never got beyond chapter two. I was unable to even penetrate his, what at the time, i experienced as very dense, plodding prose, w/ for me, an almost stiff, stuffy, affected Victorian air about it.

Perhaps now, from a more 'mature' perspective, I should revisit Davies' 'Bred to the Bone'. Maybe decades ago Davies' 'dense' prose wasn't the real problem, it was just plain old 'dense' me. HA!

Robertston Davies decidedly bookish/ academic demeanor, heavily whiskered visage reminiscent of poet Walt Whitman, or evolutionist Charles Darwin, and his proclivity for always being seen in his 'Sunday best' natty formal attire, always gave him the personal aura of some upper-class, confident, sage, urbane main character out of a typical Dickens' novel.......... a bit of an anachronism for Davies mid-to-late 20th century period of literary productivity.

Perhaps his early academic overseas experiences over the Pond at Oxford, and his precocious interest in stage drama, and particularly the works of Will Shakespeare imbued Davies w/ an Old World, European (U.K.) literary sensibility. interestingly, Davies was one of the founding prime-movers, back in the early '50s, whose spirited efforts were instrumental in getting Stratford Ontario, Canada's now-world-famed Shakespearian Festival off the ground and flourishing. But I digress.

(Picky, speaking of Oxford U., I gather you were pleased w/ their young oarsmen's recent victory against traditional arch-rival, Cambridge. Sorry about the Sri Lankan trouncing of your English boys. Did you know that the late noted British born Sci-Fi novelist, and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke lived (and of course wrote) in his adopted home country of Sri Lanka for most of his creative life, and passed away, and I believe was interred in that exotic island nation, the former Ceylon? If he were still living, would his sporting allegiances have been torn between his Brits, and his local Sri Lanakans?

Just another useless factoid, and idle musing from Ducky" Bone in the Bread" Isaksson............... I rest my case..... of Molson's Golden. HA!

P.S.------Prof. McI, I'm curious how Davies' works resonate w/ you, if you have read much of his oeuvre?

Alex, ducky, I seem to remember reading somewhere that Sir Arthur positively disliked cricket, which must have seemed odd to his Sri Lankan friends - it's an obsession over there, and the star players are national heroes.

Or Anonymous, as I am sometimes known.

On the other hand, I have it on good authority (a Sri Lankan exchange student whose mother used to play with him) that Sir Arthur was an avid table tennis player, and that he was known to occasionally tweak the rules in his favor.

@Picky, I have an (unsubstantiated) theory why Sir Arthur (C. Clarke) may have had a strong dislike for cricket, and for that matter all manner of sports----team, or otherwise.

Critically ranked as perhaps one of the top three greatest sci-fi tale-spinners of his day, along w/ the acclaimed Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, I imagine Clarke's fertile mind, and imagination was mainly off contemplating distant planetary systems, and possible otherworldly dimensions of space and time beyond our own pedestrian, now almost frontierless earthly one, and thoughts of sports were mere fleeting 'floaters' in his line of vision.

Matters as mundane as sports, (for many, largely trivial pastimes), would likely be the furthest thing from his waking consciousness. (I may be totally off-base here, w/ my broad assumption, as I would think Clarke might have needed SOME kind of active, physical diversion, or respite from the intensity, and inherent inertia of writing fiction for a living.*Hmm...... perhaps lawn bowling, or croquet may have tickled his fancy?

Picky, you've likely seen the odd photo of Sir Arthur, comfortably ensconced in his Sri Lankan home study? Frankly, for me, he comes off as a bit of an odd duck, as odd ducks go (I should talk.....Ducky, indeed. HA!). He does project a bit of a nerdy, unathletic persona, w/ his thick-lensed 'specs', and apparent fondness for sporting floral-patterned Hawaiian-style shirts, open sandals and shorts. For me, he comes off as a casual tourist, merely passing thru. HA! But then again, he was living in tropical, warmish climes, and I guess, dressed appropriately.

Thankfully, as far as we know, Clarke didn't appear to have an urge to stalk and kill exotic big-game for his trophy room like the rough-and-ready novelist Ernest Hemingway. Although, in my view, big-game hunting merely for the vicarious thrill, and emotional rush of it, is hardly a true sport, in my perhaps narrower interpretation of the word "sport". (There are many sports purists who don't consider "golf" a true sport. Oh well.)

For that matter, the sport (?) of bullfighting, for which "Papa" Hemingway had an enduring passion and lifelong fascination, is another, clearly more institutionalized, traditional ritual (compared to the big-game pursuit), where the animal has a distinct disadvantage, and whose fate is essentially sealed long before 'el toro' even enters the ring. Hardly a sport, in my mind, and one in which, to my knowledge, Sir Arthur had no abiding interest. But I digress.

Picky, enjoy the coming week, as April Fool's Day looms large. Watch for salt, disguised as sugar, old lad.

*Ol' Scrapiron-------Thanks for that little table-tennis, Clarke-related factoid. Hmm........ I'm just pondering how he may have "tweaked the rules"? Perhaps his opponent would have to assume the robotic mien of say HAL, the computer, from his "A Space Odyssey: 2001", and play w/ the reckless abandon of a true automaton. HA! That's my "Big Bang Theory" for today. HA! (Ol' Scrapiron, you're not saying Sir Arthur cheated? HA!)

------Picky, The Big Bang Theory" is a popular, currently running, American TV network sitcom centered on the trials, tribulations, and goof-ups of four 20-something, naturally very nerdy, advanced physics/ astronomy professors (grads from Cal Tech, or MIT). One of the main characters is this tall and skinny hyper-anal-retentive, very cerebral, control freak around whom most of the hilarious episodes revolve. Hopefully, at some point, you folks in the U.K. will get to see this very cleverly written, well-acted, and fun show. (Actually, you may be able to pick up some earlier episodes, on line.)

Ducky "Not-a-Slave-to-Fashion" Isaksson................... surf's up!

But I think Ol' Scrapiron is right about the table tennis, Alex.

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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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