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Which side are you on, boys?

Robert Lane Greene does me the double honor of quoting me on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, and mentioning me in the same breath as Kingsley Amis.

In “Berks and wankers,* prescriptivists and descriptivists,” he quotes from Sir Kingsley’s The King’s English:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

It is not easy to keep a reasonable middle ground between the prescriptivists—by whom I mean the informed prescriptivists, like Bryan Garner, whom I admire and with whom I seldom disagree, rather than the propogators of zombie rules—and the descriptivists, whose indulgence for ripe, rich colloquialisms has much appeal. It is particularly tricky because social and class issues lurk beneath nearly all questions of usage, and Sir Kingsley compactly indicates.

The ground can be treacherous. Watch where you put your feet. But try to enjoy the walk, too.


*A little more strait-laced (not, thank you, straight-laced) in America than in Britain, we don’t casually use berk (dolt, fool, idiot), which has a link through Cockney rhyming slang, (“Berkeley hunt”) to a much more objectionable word, or wanker (masturbator, jerk). Apologies to anyone whose sensibilities are offended. But if your vocabulary is now enriched, you’re welcome.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:07 PM | | Comments (9)


This is the socio-linguistic equivalent of a George Carlin observation about traffic: "Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac."

Using a period instead of a comma in the middle of a headline is a usage with which I am not familiar.

(There's gotta be something wrong with this sentence. I was trying.)

Gratitude to those of you who kindly pointed out the several errors in this post.

Out of etymological interest, I should say that berk comes from either Berkeley or Berkshire hunt.

I think it must be Berkeley, because "berk" is pronounced "berk" and even we Cockneys pronounce Berkshire "barkshire".

All "er"s in English at one time or another became "ar"s, but much of the change has been reversed, except for the oldest words where the spelling was also changed, as in farm, star from Middle English ferme, sterre. We no longer say sarvice, sarmon, sartain as they did in the 18th century, but we still do say sergeant as "sargent", clerk as "clark" (except in North America, where it is "clurk") and the name of the letter R as "ar".

English names mostly kept the "ar" pronounciation, and sometimes changed spelling. The surnames Clark and Darby are derived from clerk and derby using the "ar" pronounciation, which is not used in the ordinary words in North America (the Kentucky Derby is "derb"). The town of Hertford ("hart") in Hertfordshire ("hart") keeps its old spelling, whereas Hartford ("hart") in Cheshire and Connecticut use the new. Berkeley, California ("berk") is named after Bishop George Berkeley ("bark"), the Anglo-Irish philosopher, who in turn took his name from Berkeley ("bark"), Gloucestershire. As for the hunt, until the mid-18th century the hunt was held in Middlesex, where the Earl of Berkeley ("bark") held lands, and it was very popular with middle-class Londoners, which probably accounts for the adoption of the term in rhyming slang.

That's right, of course, and what I should have said is that although we Londoners pronounce Berkshire "correctly" we are quite likely to pronounce Lord Berkeley "incorrectly".

Re the first post, one of the reasons George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians was his observations on language. One of my favorites: Why do they bother saying "raw sewage?" Do some people actually cook that stuff?

Strangely enough, one of my grandfathers was a Derbyshire man, born and bred and hardly left the county his whole life, and he pronounced the city's name Durby, as Americans would.

Jim Sweeney: It's raw as opposed to treated sewage.

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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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