I've been interested in etymology for as long as I can remember. I was an English major in college and proceeded to study literature and politics in the UK. During the latter experience, I took it upon myself to figure out why George Bernard Shaw (among others) had quipped that the U.S. and the UK are separated by a common language. For a word nerd like me, England was the Land of Linguistic Chills, Thrills and Excitement. In particular, I enjoyed:
1) Vocabulary challenges on BBC Radio 4. Who knew word games could be such a hoot? My all-time favorite was Just a Minute, the panel game where players must talk for sixty seconds on a given subject "without repetition, hesitation or deviation." (Hmmm ... sounds a little like blogging!) In my day, Clement Freud (Sigmund's grandson) was a regular competitor. He kept the other panelists on their toes with his virtuoso command of English coupled with a mercurial wit. For instance, when asked to talk for one minute about tripe, he responded:
I think it is proper to say that taramasalata is the biggest sexual stimulant that we have in the western world. A man in Newport Pagnall ate his own weight of this confection of smoked cod's row, lemon juice, sunflower oil, spices, herbs and...(At this point, he was challenged for hesitation — and for talking tripe!)
Queen's English Society until recently. But the QES has made the list because of the pleasure I took in the UK in meeting the sort of people who might belong to the QES: who care passionately about correct and elegant English usage. I'm only sorry I can't be in the UK now for the QES's latest campaign to "protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation," to be spearheaded by an Academy of English. There are those who find this initiative patronizing and pathetic: patronizing because of the belief that England should be in charge of what is now the global lingua franca; pathetic because of the attempt to use language to restore Britain's declining world status. But I don't agree. Maybe it's my long exposure to Japlish, but I'm glad to see someone holding up the side in an age where emoticons, acronyms, and other irritating examples of textese are creeping in willy nilly. And I've found studies to back up this opinion, such as the one showing that SMS messaging, though faster to write, takes more time to read than normal English. LOL !
3) Saxonists. Likewise, England was the first time I encountered the sort of people who pay attention to the proportion of Anglo-Saxon to Latinate words in their sentences. English (as you probably know, if you've gotten this far in the post) is distinguished for having many words with identical meanings that appear in two forms — one derived from Latin and one derived from Anglo-Saxon:
The incendiary device exterminated twenty citizens."Politics and the English Language," George Orwell pointed out that we English speakers tend to resort to Latinate words whenever we have an urge to obfuscate or gloss over the truth, dress up simple statements, or avoid expressing an opinion:
The bomb killed twenty people.
- - -
I adjourned to the sitting room and perused the morning paper.
I went into the sitting room and read the morning paper.
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones . . .Robert Burchfield once referred to the quest for Saxonisms as "an unrealizable nationalistic dream."
|Minted in Italy @ 49 BC|
Maybe it's because I've become preoccupied with xenophobia of late, but I ask you: where would we be if the Romans hadn't introduced elephantus into the vocabulary? Hmm ... On second thought, that may be a poor choice of example. It turns out Caesar literally introduced the elephantus when he invaded Britain. As one ancient writer recorded:
Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.shooting an elephant, in which the slowly dying elephant serves as an emblem of everything that is wrong with imperialism, suggesting it will ultimately fade and (though it may take a long time) die.
Historical linguists could tell us for sure, but doesn't imperialism linger forever in language? The Romans may have entered British territory with an elephant in tow, but the elephant they left behind — that of the Latin language — has proved far more significant. That particular beast refused to perish, especially after the Normans invaded, bringing in still more Latinate words.
(As a sidebar, I wonder if the early Brits couldn't believe their luck when pompous officials of church and state, not to mention academics, declared their intention to make Latin their special province? As Orwell so clearly demonstrated, the language of Imperial Rome suits the bureaucratic mindset to a T.)
the devil's tongue (this from a Jesuit missionary, who had every incentive to master it!). Until then, I am abandoning the realm of philology post-haste to spend more time with my Kindle ...
Questions: Do you, too, value England as the keeper of the flame for the English language? And am I being paranoid, or does our Mother Tongue sometimes have a xenophobic flavor?