Annals of word rage

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In previous postings on word rage, we've noted (mock) threats of punching, slicing, bludgeoning, shooting, hanging, and lightning strikes.  Commenting on Ron Charles, "1 Millions Words! But Who's Counting?", Washington Post, 4/29/2009, someone identifying himself as andrewsalomon added judicially-sanctioned electrocution:

I don't know anything about the million-word business, but is there any chance of getting Benjamin Zimmer or, I don't know, Congress, to enact a statute that would allow for the zapping of 1,000 volts of electricity through anyone who uses "impact" as a verb?


The commenters on Caroline Gail's "The words in the mental cupboard", BBC News, 4/28/2009, were mostly pretentious rather than aggressive. Thus Berenice Mortimer, from Westlock, Canada, wrote that "Unfortunately, one is considered elitist if one uses words which other people cannot understand. So, in a sense, one keeps one's knowledge well under wraps,"  and Kate Jones, from Lancaster UK, wrote "I remember my horror as a trainee teacher covering the legend of Beowulf with a year 7 class, at being told by one little boy that Beowulf ‘had a bling-bling shield’.

But one of the commenters at spEak You're bRanes  ("Very Clever People", 5/1/2009), using the pseudonym Head of English, cleverly mocked the rage beneath the surface, while adding premeditated vehicular assault to our growing list of retributional modes:

No! The awful little fucker, how dare an 11 year old not appreciate that they didn’t say ‘bling bling’ in the Middle Ages. Or in your parent’s house.  God the kids today!

In my GCSE class, one smelly urban toe-rag said Juliet was “pro’bly well fit, an’ that”. I was simply appalled. I waited for him after school and ran him over. And I reversed over him a couple of times too, to make sure that everyone clearly understood the guardianship of the English language is the exclusive preserve of the middle class.

I remain puzzled about why this camped-up rage over lexical and orthographic deficiencies seems to be a purely anglophone thing.  It's easy to find concerns over the vocabulary and literacy of Kids Today among (say) the French,  and these concerns may be linguistically ill-informed and full of class  prejudice. But I have yet to find a forum where people propose to defend la langue française with threats of assault, even in jest.



49 Comments

  1. Rob P. said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    France has an academy for that, so it's not left up to the pure of heart to defend the language like it is in the anglophone world.

  2. Fred said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Would "andrewsalomon" advocate zapping his dentist for referring to "impacted wisdom teeth"?

    OED traces the verb back to 1601, so perhaps it's a little late to start complaining.

  3. Simon Fodden said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    You could probably find a number of threats of violence in Quebec forums against those who use franglais.

  4. Dierk said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    You find the same in Germany. Only funnier. Since usually the ones being harshest against youth use are the ones with most obvious grammar [incl. punctuation] and spelling mistakes.

    [(myl) Can you give a specific instance? I looked through the Zwiebelfisch section of Der Spiegel, for example, and likewise the Leo forum — as did several German-speaking readers — without being able to find any examples. We therefore concluded that if genuine word rage ever happens among German speakers, it's much rarer than in English. So far, the only example of non-anglophone word rage that I've ever seen was a Dutch cartoon — and that one was about spelling reform, so it hardly counts.

    As for "the ones being harshest against youth use are the ones with most obvious grammar [incl. punctuation] and spelling mistakes", I believe that this correlation is a peeveological universal. Certainly it's true of the English-language genre (see "Why are so many linguistic corrections incorrect?"]

  5. mgh said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    Am I missing the joke about "impact"? It's listed as a verb in this dictionary
    (I guess online dictionaries already have 1,000 volts going through them)

  6. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    "Impact" is just part of the zeitgeist of especially popular word pet peeves. Don't worry, in ten years it'll have been replaced.

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    MWDEU (1994) has a substantial article on impact, which begins: "This word comes in for adverse criticism both as a noun and as a verb in figurative use. The criticism is relatively recent, beginning evidently in the 1960s …"

    The entry notes that the verb is older than the noun and argues that the figurative uses of the verb are not verbings of the noun.

    It also observes that "the newer citations [for figurative uses of the verb] come from quotations from politicians, from business and financial sources, and from other reportage." So it might be that the current antipathy arises in part from these uses becoming associated with jargony contexts; if so, the antipathy is unlikely to go away.

  8. Rachel said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    I'm not a teacher but know a few, and I suspect any one of them would be thrilled to have a kid report that Beowulf's shield was 'bling-bling'. He a) listened, b) understood and c) related it to the modern world. Give that kid an 'A'. It would be tragic if language peeves discouraged that kind of comment.

  9. Sili said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    I'm heartened by the commenters on EYR(?). They seem to get it.

  10. Randy Alexander said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I remain puzzled about why this camped-up rage over lexical and orthographic deficiencies seems to be a purely anglophone thing.

    I'm glad you put that forward, as I've wondered that myself. In Chinese, people are impressed if you throw in a lot of "pretty language", but I've never come across a Chinese grammar nazi. Pronunciation is also like that. There seems to be less than the normal amount of snickers (as what I'm used to in English) at people's pronunciation deficiencies (like topolect-related shibboleths, or mixing up retroflex and non-retroflex consonants).

  11. Karen said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    I am a teacher; and Rachel? Yes, an A it would indeed be.

  12. Faldone said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    No! The awful little fucker, how dare an 11 year old not appreciate that they didn’t say ‘bling bling’ in the Middle Ages. Or in your parent’s house. God the kids today!

    One wonders if the trainee teacher required her students to discuss Beowulf in Anglian or West Saxon.

  13. Philip said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    I don't know about other places, but in the university of California system and in the state university system, programs like business with high enrollments and little room for new students are called impacted majors.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    The main thing that I learned from all this was the term toe-rag, which the OED defines as "A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person" (apparently by metonymy from "A rag wrapped round the foot and worn inside a shoe, in place of a sock", used by convicts and tramps). The OED's entry features this interesting citation:

    1912 D. H. LAWRENCE Let. (1962) I. 154 Remember, whatever toe-rag I may be personally, I am the person she livanted with. So you be careful.

    from which I also learned the verb livant, which is a variant spelling of levant, and means "To steal away, ‘bolt’. Now esp. of a betting man or gamester: To abscond". It doesn't derive, as you might think, from levant "countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean", but rather from Sp. levant-ar to lift (levantar la casa to break up housekeeping, levantar el campo to break up the camp.

  15. a.s. said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    I interpreted toe-rag as a respelling of Touareg (the people or the Volkswagen SUV). I was far off-target.

    I'm now more interested to know if levant shares some etymological genes with gallivant, which the OED suggests could be "Perhaps a humorous perversion of GALLANT v."

    Wait a second… "GALLANT, v."?! Now that would give our peevologists a serious bout of dyspepsia.

  16. David said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    When Googling for "dödsstraff på särskrivning" (Swedish: "capital punishment for writing the elements of compounds separately", writing eg "person dator" instead of the correct "persondator", ie 'personal computer') I did find a number of people recommending precisely that. Of course, Sweden doesn't have the death penalty, meaning that there is always a slightly humourous tone whenever someone recommends it. On Flashback [see Wikipedia: "Flashback Media Group"], however, a forum known for its everything-goes attitude to which subjects that can be discussed, there is a long thread with the title "Using violence against people who write compounds separately" [www.flashback.info/archive/index.php/t-715476.html] where the tone isn't very humourous.

    Writing compounds separately tends to be one of the errors in Swedish which people get most upset about. As one commenter threatened: "May Horace pursue you till the end of time for that 'första maj tåget'" ('May Day march', should be "första majtåget"). (Horace, one of only three people in Sweden with that name, is universally understood to be Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.) On the other hand, you often see many examples where otherwise fairly competent Swedish users of English don't write the elements of English compounds separately.

  17. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Thanks for explaining the actual origin of "to levant," Mark. In Eric Ambler's novel "The Levanter" the word is used in the double sense of "absconder" and "one from the Levant," and I had always accepted Ambler's account of the word's derivation.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    I used to picture an army of grim screen-lit drones typing "LOL!" to each agreeable sentiment that scrolled onto their screens. Then I encountered, on the EYR page linked, the challenge to begin a poem with "Beowulf has a bling bling shield", and the response, "Beowulf had a bling bling shield / It’s fleece was white as snow" [sic], and it happened to me, accompanied by a spontaneous hand-clap. How can I ever be cynical again?

    On a peripherally related note, I wonder at the prospects of a return of the letter "ð", at least as a default ligature. How many of us would need to start using it pervasively before it began to seem unremarkable? Compounds like "hathair" and "potholder" would be violated in short order, but that seems a small price to pay.

  19. Mark Liberman said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Plus there's

    “Hark, eorlingas, to the tale of B-dog and his well bling bling shield. Innit. Random”.

  20. Dan T. said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    I, myself, favor the death penalty for crimes against proper e-mail format such as top-posting and fullquoting.

  21. JimG said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    I haven't got "wisdom teeth" that create problems, but if I did and a dentist spoke to me of an "impacted" wisdom tooth, I'd insist, on pain of a punch in his mouth, on an understandable explanation. As long as we're exercising our peeves, this usage is one of my pets.

    [(myl) Do you have a similar concern about impacted humours in general, which the OED defines as "Pressed closely in, firmly fixed ... Applied spec. to fæces lodged in the intestine"? Anyhow, if your dentist had a subscription to the OED (as all dentists should), she could quote you the dentally-relevant sub-sense, "Applied to a tooth which, owing to obstruction by another tooth or by bone, fails to erupt properly and remains partly or wholly within the jaw-bone", and perhaps the dental citations from 1876 forwards. Would that help, or should she still keep a can of pepper spray handy?]

    I've got a little list, and they'd none of them be missed. (Thank you, Koko and Mr. Gilbert.)

  22. mollymooly said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    I suspect "toe-rag" has been revived in Britain by its use in "The Bill", an early-evening police TV series. Since it's on before 9pm, there's no proper swearing allowed, and creative Bowdlerisation is called for. So the tough cop says "Shut it, toe-rag!" to the nasty criminal.

    Another piece of cross-linguistic evidence for the arbitariness of language peeves: Fowler condemns "elegant variation", whereas my Advanced French textbooks prescribe it as commendably idiomatic.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    they'd none of them be missed

    Yet another example of plural "none". Or is this sentence considered not standard enough?

  24. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

    @mollymooly:

    "Toe-rag" was a notable part of the vocabulary of a Cockney medical colleague of mine many years before the arrival of this "The Bill" of which you speak..

    I remember the following dialog snippet as if it were yesterday:

    Frightening Ward Sister: "Ah, Dr -, I told you the patient had a fractured neck of femur!"
    Dr -: "Nah yer didn't, yer lying toerag!"

    Men were men in those days.

  25. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 12:10 am

    It's impressive how selective these peeves are. How come it's verboten to use "impact" as a verb, but A-1 to speak of volts being zapped through someone? Is the distinction between electric current (amps through) and electric potential (volts across) less important than whatever distinction andrewsalomon thinks he's defending?

  26. dr pepper said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 12:55 am

    I do have a peeve about "impact" as a verb: namely that it seems to have been worn down until it is completely synonymous with "affect", whereas at one point it meant "to affect in a significant and lasting way".

    As for Beowulf, i guess i'll have to reread it because i don't remember any bling, except for the barrow treasure near the end.

    [(myl) Around line 214-215 there's

    .... secgas bæron
    214 on bearm nacan beorhte frætwe
    215 guðsearo geatolic

    And around 230 there's

    230 se þe holmclifu healdan scolde
    231 beran ofer bolcan beorhte randas,
    232 fyrdsearu fuslicu

    Glosses from Hall's A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary--
    beorht: "bright, shining, brilliant, light, clear, ... , excellent, distinguished, remarkable, beautiful, magnificent, ..."
    frætwa: "treasures, ornaments, trapping, armour"
    rand: "border, edge, boss of shield, rim of shield, ..., shield, buckler,..."

    I think that beorhte frætwe and beorhte randas pretty much validate "bling bling shield", don't you? ]

  27. Dierk said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    Mark, sorry about my rather general comment based upon naive empirics. The trouble with the two sources you chose to check is that – though Bastian Sick tends to cuteness – both have an audience already more accustomed to descriptive linguistics. They are also more liberally inclined, partially because of what they do [LEO Forum harbours mainly translators], partially because of the affiliation of the publication [Spiegel being a liberal magazine].

    If you look through the much less civil comment sections of perceived conservative publications like Welt you will find more violent comments on language use. Admittedly I rarely do read Welt's style column – but it happens all over the place.

    [(myl) You may well be right, but a couple of specific quotations would be nice, and a couple of hyperlinks would be even better. ]

  28. Kai said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    Actually, in my experience word rage seems to be rather rare among German speakers. Most of the hate gets drawn out by misused apostrophes and wrongly inserted spaces in compounds; after that, I guess, most of those able and willing to bother lack the breath to do much more than the "ah, behold the decline of the German language, we who know how to use it the proper way are dying out, oh shame"-routine.

    If word rage does manifest, it is often of a type I deem to be typical German: people go legal. "This should be verboten!" or "everybody who does x ought to be locked up".

    I tend to vigilante fantasies, imagining myself stalking the night and erasing ill-begotten apostrophes from billboards and shop signs, wearing a mask and cape.

  29. Rubrick said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 6:48 am

    "Beowulf had a bling bling shield / It’s fleece was white as snow"

    Not bad, but I really think it cries out for:

    …and Blingo was its name-o!

  30. Jack Collins said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    Honestly, in terms of both content and culture, I can think of few analogies to illustrate Germanic epic poetry _better_ than Gangsta Rap. You've got boasting of prowess, glorification of violence, pursuit and conspicuous display of wealth, and a love of music and poetic ingenuity. Is "bling-bling" a kenning?

  31. Dierk said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    @ Kai
    True, I took 'rage' a little wider than probably intended.

  32. Dan T. said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    @ Kai

    What would be a good superhero name for a masked avenger who goes around fixing improper language?

    Back in the '70s, the kids' show The Electric Company had a hero "Letterman" (which, I believe, predates the late-night host David) who did tricks with language, though I don't think it involved correcting improper usages of it; rather, he solved other ills of society by altering words (like ending "hate" by taking away the silent "e" so it turned into a hat).

    [(myl) See "WordGirl", and also the "grammar vigilantes" of the Typo Eradication League. ]

  33. StuartB said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    I suspect the horror of “impact” and the assumption that its use as a verb is the modern innovation may come from its wide use in the domain of business-speak (“This will impact our sales…”). From purely personal experience, managers are often (negatively) judged on their competence by the subordinate employees according to extent of their use of business-speak, which abounds in verbalized nouns (though stopping short of physical violence, I will admit to having ground my teeth and died a little inside every time I was “incentivized”). “Impact” in this situation may have been (inaccurately) assumed to be another example of such a process.

    In general, word rage in the domain of the office presents an interesting counterpoint to the usually-attested scenario (as above) of holders of high social status sneering at those using innovatory or vernacular terms: the rage here is directed from the lower-status individuals towards those who are seen to be deliberately using ill-informed and obfuscatory terminology to mask their incompetence.

    [(myl) There are some striking examples of upwardly-directed word rage here. And for a discussion of the interaction of social annoyance and public griping, whether directed up, down, or out, see "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming". Given that general dynamic, the common situation of liberal-arts graduates working under the direction of business-course graduates has an outcome just as predictable as the response of upward-strivers to those a couple of socio-economic levels lower.]

    Of course, another well-known high-status individual who fits this pattern was a certain ex-president of the USA. Does anyone know of any suggestions of violent retribution towards him on the grounds of his speech? (As opposed to grounds of ::list truncated::.)

    [(myl) It's perhaps worth noting that there are some cultures where higher status is marked by decreased fluency and a lower concern for the details of standard-language norms. I've written about this in the case of the Wolof (here and here), but it seems to me that there are some aspects of this in recent American and British culture as well. ]

  34. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    Rather than further complicating this already-large comments section, I've commented on JimG's ravings about "impacted wisdom tooth" on my own blog, here.

  35. Gregory Dyke said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    The académie française does seem to be at the root of French not having quite such "rage". It means that rules can actually exist, be quoted and there you go, end of argument. Many of the rules that I have been quoted can only be either non-existant or wrong (I haven't looked to see to what extent they describe usage and to what extent they prescribe it).

    One such example is the non-standard "ça pleut" (instead of "il pleut") which is used by pretty much everybody in Auvergne (and possibly other regions – maybe in relation to where occitan is/was spoken). For the school teachers I have spoken with, "ça pleut" is flat out wrong. And people using it is not a problem of an "attack against French", but of "lack of education".

    I expect there are many such examples – and not just in connection to regional dialect.

  36. Nik Berry said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    @MYL:

    'toe-rag' has a special place in the history of the OED. James Murray's children came upon it while sorting slips, and from then on went around calling each other toe-rags.

    [(myl) Interesting. I had never heard of toe-rags before, but I knew of something called "foot rags" (apparently a calque from Finnish, and not in the OED) because of a friend's stories from his time in the Finnish army. There's a discussion of the Russian ("portianki") and Finnish versions of these here, with pictures.]

  37. bianca steele said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    Might this correlate with a national preference for slapstick, or correlate negatively with an appreciation of Jerry Lewis? Seriously, a study of cinematic face slaps might be informative.

  38. Amy said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    Whenever I complain about people using impact as a verb, I clarify the misuse thusly: The only thing you can impact is a retina. Otherwise, you have an impact ON it.
    And business-speak is the main offender here, which uses "impact" as a synonym for "affect" or even "influence". What's even worse is the evolution from "impact" as a verb to "impactful" as an adjective– meaning, "having an extreme, significant, or material affect upon".

    Having paid my dues in corporate America, I've noticed most companies have their own idiosyncratic, popularly-reinforced grammatical tics and neologisms, mostly seen in email and powerpoint. My current corporate language culture is guilty of rampant apostrophe abuse (for plurals), impact (v.) and impactful, and "call-out" as a noun to mean "a point or argument, as in debate".

    Thus: "Our main call-out is the impactful nature of the learning's from this session." Ugh.

  39. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    Whenever I complain about people using impact as a verb, I clarify the misuse thusly: The only thing you can impact is a retina. Otherwise, you have an impact ON it.

    Amy, did you miss the point made above by Fred?

    OED traces the verb back to 1601, so perhaps it's a little late to start complaining.

    The use as a verb even predates the use a noun, so what basis do you have for claiming this is "misuse"? Whatever problems you have with the culture of linguistic usage in your workplace, you might want to maybe examine your rationale for deciding something is "misuse" and maybe have some, or any, support for your claims. You might at least have the decency to followed the conversation all the way through before voicing your personal, unfounded opinions. And for that matter, why is it somehow suddenly no longer "misuse" to simply make a simplistic change from verb to noun? What exactly is made better by doing this?

  40. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    On Amy's comment on impact as a verb: Once again, I've pulled out a response to part of a comment as a separate posting on my blog.

  41. N said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

    I read "word rage" and the first thing I thought of was how the meaning of 'grow' has expanded to cover expand, like "they want to grow their business using our marketing." I'm no prescriptivist, but it just hurts my ears.

  42. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    On the subject of toe-rag, it's one of those words which is almost always accompanied by other specific words, in this case: "snivelling little…".

  43. Amy said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    You seem somewhat miffed, Bryan LaFollette. Perhaps you, too, "impact business processes by highlighting significant call-out's" and don't like to see such modern language tics complained about here… but seeing and sharing funny turns of phrase is my favorite part of reading Language Log, so I can't apologize for the comment that so rubbed you the wrong way.

  44. Amy said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Hi, Arnold–
    In addition to a retina, you can also impact your meniscus, your bowel, and your wisdom tooth. The medical term means to "to press together, to pack or wedge in tightly." The rods and cones on your retina can be injured by a blow to the eyeball that compresses them. There are probably lots more parts of the body that can be impacted too, but these are the ones I know of.
    And no, by "complaining" good-naturedly about language usage that I find somewhat ugly, I do not in any way presume to be queen.

  45. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    To Amy's most recent comment: what you said was, "The only thing you can impact is a retina." Impacted bowels and teeth were in fact mentioned in other comments, so I didn't see the point in mentioning other uses that continue the historically original sense. In any case, my main target in my response to you was the way in which you stated your objection: people can't [that is, must not or may not] use the verb impact in any situation except these specific ones; this says not to use the verb anywhere else.

    That's not just a good-natured expression of your opinions about usage (in fact, it doesn't sound good-natured to me). It's a directive to people in general not to use usages that you don't like. You're entitled to your opinions, and you're entitled to voice them, but you're not entitled to impose your opinions on everyone else. Where do you get this right to tell other people what they can and cannot say?

    On the retina thing: if you look at the relevant webpages about retinas, you'll see that hardly any of them (if any) are about damage to the rods and cones from blows. They're about how the visual system works in processing light waves; the relevant sense of impact here is (as I said on my blog) 'impinge on', and it's light waves that do the impinging.

  46. Blake Stacey said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Using impact as a verb in connection with asteroids seems fairly common in scientific discourse.

  47. Etl World News | TSUNDERE. said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    [...] from Lucky Star explains it quite well," and it's one of the best examples of word rage I've seen—at about the 1:20 mark, after discussing the change in meaning, he loses it: [...]

  48. Etl World News | TSUNDERE. said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    [...] from Lucky Star explains it quite well," and it's one of the best examples of word rage I've seen—at about the 1:20 mark, after discussing the change in meaning, he loses it: [...]

  49. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    My sense of word rage is mostly lexicographic rather than auditory. Number three on my list of "ten ways I am most likely to wind up in jail" involves riding around on a motorcycle some night, blowing away misspelled signs with a shotgun and laughing maniacally.

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