(Continued from here.)
Prescription is in general a farce. Classic prescriptive rules such as “never end a sentence with a preposition” or “never split an infinitive” were notoriously just made up one day by Latinists who wanted to apply Latin rules to English. All language rules, even the ones you’ve internalized so they don’t feel like rules (such as the difference between man bites dog and dog bites man) were made up by people, of course, but there’s something really
unpersuasive about rules you know where just invented one day by some dude. I invented a bunch of holidays yesterday, but no one’s going to be abandoning Thanksgiving and Halloween to celebrate Halmas.
It’s an awkward fact that as soon as prescription got a little laxer, people became less articulate and nuanced. Presumably prescription held language artificially in an unstable equilibrium (I may not be using this term correctly); presumably it simply takes a lot of effort to keep people caring about where apostrophes go. Once you stop pumping that effort into the system its clear theirs going to be a breakdown. Lol. And we can only hope that the level we reach is still one that allows communication. The eloquence of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, not to say Ælfric, encourages me to believe it will be all right, assuming of course that the wolves mentioned in the previous number can be kept at bay.
Prescriptivists and descriptivists alike can be annoyed by the especially galling vice of hypercorrectness—the tendency to speak ultra-formally but incorrectly. “Whom shall I say is calling?” is a classic example. There’s a Curtis strip I never clipped where his teacher says, “All teachers want his or her students to do well.”
The apocryphal plural octopi (now blessed by some dictionaries) is a wrong-headed as, say, ninjae. But I understand that this is perhaps my own prejudice at work.
But leaving ninjae aside, there is still one unambiguous time when prescription is absolutely necessary. I know I link to this post continually, but look at my complaints about misused words here. Leaving aside the first one (which is I, because, honestly, how did we forget when to say I? Come on, people!), the remainder are
- begging the question
- immaculate conception
These are all technical terms, terms to which our hypothetical folk have been laying claim; but this is a squatter’s claim. Trope comes from the field of rhetoric, begging from logic, immaculate from theology, cf. from academic citation; these are words and phrases whose meanings certain people cultivated for very specific purposes. Immaculate conception only applies to one sect of one religion; that’s pretty specific! It’s not clear what the “folk” gain from misunderstanding and appropriating the word trope, but it is clear what the rhetoricians lose. All old works of rhetoric now seem strange or nonsensical; all current works of rhetoric exist in a dream state where a core term is ambiguous in meaning, as in an Abbot and Costello routine.
I don’t mean to assign all sorts of privileges to experts. We all know that certain kind of person, the corrector, who loves to say, in response to the word illegal, for example, “Excuse me, but technically you mean unlawful; an ill eagle is a sick bird.” I’ve heard this quip probably a dozen times in my life, which may indicate the circles I hang out in, but the corrector does not stop there, of course. Sometimes, if you use the word bug to refer to an insect, the corrector will appear, as from out of frame, and say, “Excuse me, but technically only certain insects, such as aphids and cicadas, are bugs. That housefly you’re pointing to is not a bug at all.”
This is pure prescriptivism, and it’s misplaced. The word bug antedates any kind of scientific taxonomy of insects by over a century. Scientists aren’t allowed to come in and hijack a folk word any more than the folk are allowed to hijack trope.
I once complained to a toy manufacturer whose zebras and donkeys were being advertised as “members of the equus family,” because equus, I pointed out, was not a family but a genus. If the sign had promised “members of the horse family” I would have had no leg to stand on, even if it was clear they really meant congeneric species, because horse and family are “pre-theoretic” words, and the fact that taxonomy borrowed family does not imply exclusive usage. But unless you’re a Roman, equus (properly Equus, I guess*) is a technical term, and we owe the field of taxonomy not family, certainly, and perhaps not even in this context kingdom or order, but phylum and genus.
The danger inherent in this gross misuse of technical terms can be seen in the bewildering uses of the word existential (Tom “T-Bone” Stankus gets a pass), or, more recently, irony, climaxing in a jagged songwriting pill (you know the one I mean) that manages to make even the standard lyrical fare of misapplied cliches look, by comparison, like a slightly less fatal trainwreck.
Suggested alternate lyrics:
It’s like Socrateeees when he says that he’s dumb,
Like Oedipuuus when he’s kissing his mum,
When I say you’re coooool, though I think that you’re scum…
In my optimistic moments, I imagine that if we just stop misusing technical terms, we’ll be able to keep some semblance of order in the world. But then I think of cf., an abbreviation obscure enough that no songwriter could butcher it. We, and by we I mean they, the experts, the technicians, the bibliographers who might want to use such a term, let their guard down for a moment, and forgot how to use their own abbreviation. It’s like the left indents on formal verse: They’re printed “incorrectly” so often now that there might just not actually be a standard any more.
How to reconcile this caution in the face of butchering technical terms with my ongoing belief that people should just jump into things, throwing words around and seeing what sticks, experimenting with words they vaguely understand in the hope that use will clarify all—I have no idea.
Case in point: I made up the word co-generite, because I don’t know the real word for different species in the same genus. Please help me out if you know, so I don’t make things worse! Thanks to a heroic commenter, I now know the term in congeneric.
*Most properly Equus, since I’m italicizing a mention of an already italicized word, making it Roman in a second sense. I admit this is somewhat unclear.