Bottum's plea

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I somehow missed this when it was fresh (Joseph Bottum, "Loose Language", The Weekly Standard 10/25/2010:

The plural of syllabus is syllabi. Or is it syllabuses? Focuses and foci, cactuses and cacti, funguses and fungi: English has a good set of these Greek and Latin words—and pseudo-Greek and Latin words—that might take a classical-sounding plural. Or might not. It kind of depends. [...]

It’s common, in this context, to deride the pedants who constrict language with sterile rules of grammar. The problem, of course, is that there aren’t very many of those pedants left. The recent campaign against the word syllabi appears to have begun on the “Language Log” blog, a fairly representative hangout for grammarians and linguistics types, where some of the descriptivists still seem to see themselves as embattled radicals struggling against Victorian hypocrisy. I’d more readily believe it if America had enough unrepentant prescriptivists left to fill a Volkswagen. Reading the Edwardian-style attacks on school-marm grammar, one expects to come across brave calls for free love, women’s suffrage, and sentimental socialism.

Mr. Bottum continues:

What we need is a new prescriptivism, just to balance the books a little. The impulse to lock words down, to make them more consistent, and to use them clearly—isn’t that part of language, too?

The trouble with pure descriptivism is that, in its moral outrage, it refuses to describe half the history of English. Words and usages come flooding in, and then those words and usages get sorted out. We’re deep in one of the inflows, right now, and complaining about restrictions on English is like shouting fire while going over Niagara Falls. [...]

Personally, I’m with the copy editors on this. Give me a prescriptivism—a descriptive prescriptivism, if need be, but a prescriptivism nonetheless. If college professors want syllabi, I’m all for it. If they want syllabuses, instead, they should go ahead. But can’t they make up their minds? It’s their word. All they have to do is decide what it’s to be, and then tell the rest of us.

In between, he discusses (but doesn't link to) a Language Log post on the subject, "What's the plural of syllabus?", 10/4/2010. I'm puzzled by his reaction, since that (rather short) post contains no moral outrage directed at "prescriptivists", and combines a brief sketch of the word's history with some (rather simple) usage advice:

Why should we invent a fake Latin plural to go with the fake Latin singular? My advice is to stick with plain English syllabuses.

What else would his desired "descriptive prescriptivism" do? All that I can think of is that he regrets the lack of moral outrage hurled at the miscreants whose usage differs from mine.

As it happens, the descriptive facts are against me: the Academic section of the COCA corpus has 271 instances of "syllabi", as against 15 instances of "syllabuses".  So the "college professors" (and their copy editors) seem to be voting 18 to 1 for syllabi. My advice was based on personal taste and a brief consideration of the word's history.

The odd thing about all of this is that the Weekly Standard is a conservative magazine, whose default ideological stance is to leave decisions to the wisdom of the marketplace, rather than to put them in the hands of self-appointed expert dirigistes. And the fact of the matter is that the process by which "words and usages get sorted out" is a classic example of a Hayekian "grown order". So why this hunger for central planning? What's next, prescriptivist rules on broccoli consumption?

For more on the curious intersection of linguistic usage and political ideology, see "James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist", 3/28/2008.  And for further thoughts about "descriptive prescriptivism", see "Prescriptivist Science", 5/30/2008, as well as the recent posts about the New Yorker's confused attitude towards such issues: "Rules and 'rules'", 5/11/2012; "A half century of usage denialism", 5/12/2012; "The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist spectre", 5/29/2012.

In fact, linguists' traditional attitude towards questions of usage is well expressed by what Horace said about words in De Arte Poetica:

mortalia facta peribunt,
nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax.
multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

Mortal works must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language. [Translation by C. Smart, 1863]

William Safire referenced this passage punningly in his collection In Love with Norma Loquendi.

So the debate has never been about whether there are or should be any rules of usage, or even about whether linguists should help people to figure out what those rules are, relative to a given context or style of speech or writing.  The contested question is what credence to give to the "rules" that self-appointed experts attempt to impose on the rest of us, especially in cases where these "rules" are inconsistent with the practice of elite writers, and are justified by illogical appeals to logic, historically false appeals to history, or unsupported assertions about ambiguity and other aspects of readers' uptake.

Is the "will of custom" sometimes equivocal?  Of course; the mansion of the English language has many rooms.  Is it appropriate to limit this variation by imposing a "house style" on particular publications? Sure, if you want to. Will terrible things happen if your favorite style guide fails to constrain some optional choice, like "syllabuses" vs. "syllabi"? Surely not.



44 Comments

  1. Simon K said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    "What's next, prescriptivist rules on broccoli consumption?"

    I refuse to eat more than one broccolus per week.

  2. Chris Henrich said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    @Simon K:
    Don't forget your case endings.
    "I refuse to eat more than one broccolum per week."

    My browser, Safari, almost corrected that to "broccoli." I wonder if it was indulging in descriptivism or prescriptivism.

    I think "prescriptivism" is a manifestation of whatever mechanism we use to keep our languages from changing too rapidly. It's a beneficial mechanism; because of it, we can understand people we have never met before, and even read books from hundreds of years ago.

    Perhaps "prescriptivism" deserves to be studied, not just to be denounced.

  3. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Whenever I see a discussion of Latin plurals in English I am reminded of Godley's poem, The Motor Bus:

    What is this that roareth thus?
    Can it be a Motor Bus?
    Yes, the smell and hideous hum
    Indicat Motorem Bum!
    Implet in the Corn and High
    Terror me Motoris Bi:
    Bo Motori clamitabo
    Ne Motore caedar a Bo—
    Dative be or Ablative
    So thou only let us live:—
    Whither shall thy victims flee?
    Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
    Thus I sang; and still anigh
    Came in hordes Motores Bi,
    Et complebat omne forum
    Copia Motorum Borum.
    How shall wretches live like us
    Cincti Bis Motoribus?
    Domine, defende nos
    Contra hos Motores Bos!

  4. John Shutt said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    I was in my teens before I realized that in most households, the plural of kleenex is not kleenices.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    Perhaps "prescriptivism" deserves to be studied, not just to be denounced.

    There are relatively few people in the world who have studied prescriptivism more closely than the posters at LL.

  6. Richard Bell said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    @Chris Henrich:
    But there are at least two quite different phenomena (phenomenons?) which we have come to confusingly call "prescriptivism" that we ought to properly give different names to. (Yes, I did that on purpose.) The prescriptivist rules I blithely broke in my first sentence were never really rules; books from hundred of years ago broke them too, so observing those rules do not help us read those books. That kind of prescriptivism should be, must be, denounced. The other kind: trying to maintain distinctions between semantically similar but not identical words whose meanings have come to blur into each other: "podium" and "lectern," "imply" and "infer," "nut" and "bolt"; knowing and wanting others to know the proper (vanishing?) meanings of "enormity" or "niggardly" is a different matter. I can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when I was a boy and learned those words. Some people embrace neologisms and new slang just as they embrace new fashions. I don't. That's worth studying.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    John Shutt's Kleenex example reminds me of the time I was reading a book, and in information related to the human digestive system I was quite surprised to come across the word "appendices". And a little research suggests that my instinct was right, that that plural is incorrect for that meaning. Or, said differently, there's a very strong consensus that the plural for that meaning of appendix is appendixes, with appendices being those things at the end of some books after the main text.

  8. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    Richard Bell" I can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when I was a boy"
    Adds amusement to Dr Johnson's ridiculous saying, that the Beggar's Opera 'made Rich Gay and Gay Rich' though.

  9. Harold said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    The problem with with descriptivism as popularly understood (as for example by writers for the Weekly Standard) is that it is not descriptive enough. When descriptivism takes into account usage in different registers, as in the American Heritage Dictionary and on Language Log, it encompasses rather that opposes prescriptivism. Describing usage adequately also has a tendency to stabilize and reinforce it.

  10. Bloix said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    "the Weekly Standard is a conservative magazine, whose default ideological stance is to leave decisions to the wisdom of the marketplace, rather than to put them in the hands of self-appointed expert dirigistes."

    You are attributing a libertarian ideological stance to the Standard, which is decidedly not a libertarian publication.

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    @Chris Heinrich; I think "prescriptivism" is a manifestation of whatever mechanism we use to keep our languages from changing too rapidly.

    As Richard said, it's far more complex. It can also aim for quite the opposite: to try to kill long-standing usage that goes against the particular prescriptivist's internal standard (whether one based on logic, classism, memes acquired in early life, or arbitrary taste).

  12. Pete said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    @Ellen K: That's a bit like a company I used to work in whose business involved the publication of various indices. The word indices was very well known throughout the company as the plural of index and everyone happily used the alternation several times a day.

    But i worked in the IT department, where we had the concept of a database index, and the plural in that context is indexes. It could get very confusing. This sort of thing must happen all the time whenever IT (which tends to use regularised -es plurals) overlaps with more traditional disciplines.

  13. Howard Oakley said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    But why do we need a new prescriptivism? Surely if someone uses the word 'syllabuses' we know that they mean the plural of 'syllabus'? What benefit to the language or anything other than Mr Bottum's sensitivities is there to try to correct that to 'syllabi'?

    By the way, I wonder what Mr Bottum would consider to be the plural of 'Volkswagen'?

    Howard.

  14. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    @ Richard Bell: "I can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when I was a boy and learned those words." Oh, dear me. A long self-justification for a spot of homophobia at the end, if I'm not mistaken (otherwise, why pick that precise pair to round off the comment?) In any case, anyone can use the words in their 'original' meaning if they choose, so long as they don't mind sounding like a character from a Noel Coward film.

  15. Jonathon said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Once again a popular piece on descriptivism and prescriptivism leaves me scratching my head. Not "enough unrepentant prescriptivists left to fill a Volkswagen"? Descriptivism "refuses to describe half the history of English"? Where do people get these bizarre ideas? And once again descriptivism and prescriptivism are presented as a dichotomy.

    But perhaps the strangest thing is that I can't figure out what Bottum's point is. He equivocally states, "In fact, the copy editors may have it right" (well, which is it? are they right or aren't they?) and then says, "Give me a prescriptivism", but then he leaves it in the hands of language users. What does Bottum actually want?

  16. Sili said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    All that I can think of is that he regrets the lack of moral outrage hurled at the miscreants whose usage differs from mine.

    Exactly. His type loves to think of themselves as a beleaguered minority staving off the attack of the Visigoths.

    If he can't find any real opposition, he's happy to strawman one up.

  17. Sili said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    This sort of thing must happen all the time whenever IT (which tends to use regularised -es plurals) overlaps with more traditional disciplines.

    Mouses?

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

    "one expects to come across brave calls for free love, women’s suffrage, and sentimental socialism."

    Sounds good to me. And to think I have friends who think linguistics is dull.

  19. Mona Williams said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    I remember, on a busy Saturday night in a restaurant where I once cooked, our charming headwaiter popping in on us in the kitchen and singing to us that he felt "pretty and witty and gay," with all the fullness of meaning anyone could ask for. Language can change, but we don't have to lose anything we don't want to lose.

  20. NCSmith said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    @Jeremy Wheeler [July 16, 2012 @ 12:36 pm] in reply to Richard Bell:

    "I can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when I was a boy and learned those words." Oh, dear me. A long self-justification for a spot of homophobia at the end, if I'm not mistaken …"]

    I think that you are mistaken. I don't see any homophobia in that statement, unless perhaps "homophobia" is a word that has a different meaning that I believe it has.

  21. Erin Lazzaro said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

    @Pete: I used to write software for analysis of mortgage-backed securities. The verb "default" caused the most confusion. Also, my manager used index/indexes for arrays, and indices for financial data, with the singular "indice". That's a long e, in-dih-see. I have never heard that anywhere else.

  22. Steve Morrison said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    @Erin Lazzaro:
    I had a math teacher in high school who used "parenthese" as the singular of "parenthesis".

  23. Mark F. said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    Prescriptivism scratches an itch that is very real and natural and understandable. I suspect that the desire to speak correctly is innate, where "correctly" means "according to the speech of one's community". When there is no consensus it can be frustrating — it is perfectly natural to want a definitive answer on the "syllabuses or syllabi" question, even if usage doesn't provide one.

    I've never been a big fan of the AHD poll. The varying degrees of acceptability support the notion that there is such a single dimension. I'd rather see guidance on what register is a good fit for a given term.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    @Erin Lazzaro: I knew grad students in physics, one in particular, who said "indicee". Many of my math students, especially at lower levels, say "parenthesee".

  25. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

    What Mark F. said. What these people are yearning for is some sense of a Standard — not in the normal linguistics sense as used in "Standard Written English", but in the formal sense of "a specification that explicitly delineates correct and incorrect behavior". Why they should want such a thing is a matter for their therapists; I don't think it's part of the subject matter for linguistics /per se/. (Of course, real standards often have, in the words of Douglas Adams, "rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty".) Hearing such views from "conservative" writers surprises me little, because these people often claim to want strict adherence to other standards as well.

  26. Jeff Carney said,

    July 16, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

    I don't think It's a matter for therapists. It's, ah, normal to want to behave in a normal fashion. Can this desire become obsessive, practically a fetish? Sure. But so can any other. And no, that doesn't mean we have to like it. But I think a desire for *some sort of normalcy* is natural.

    There will always be some tension between what we call normal and what we call *fuck, I'll go for it* queer. It seems a natural consequence of being human. It shows up here, there, everywhere. OK. Fight it. This is also a natural consequence. Or don't fight it. Likewise.

    Me, I'm on the queer side. Even if I'm not queer per se.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 1:12 am

    I got used to hearing singular vertice ("ver-ti-see") from teaching assistants in the early '80s. Ngram suggests, though, that it's been on the downslide since 1825. Meanwhile, "vertex" was headed for an all-time peak around 1990. I wonder if that had something to do with video gaming. Its earlier resurgences, over the last century, seem to coincide with wartime.

    "Polygon", whose frequency tracked "vertex" pretty closely up until 1960, has fallen far behind. Have vertices achieved independence from polygons? Not by taking up with triangles. Triangles collapsed about the same time, and only began to recover c. 1990.

    It appears "vertex" surges in any war, but "polygon" and "triangle" only when the U.S. is winning.

  28. John Walden said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 1:22 am

    When I was a lad, punks were street-corner hoodlums. But to wish they still were, which I don't, is not entirely prescriptive; it's merely wanting to freeze descriptivism in time at my version of it. Otherwise punks would still be teenage girl prostitutes.

    Zombie rules that refer to a linguistic dreamtime that never was are another matter.

    I like Horace Greeley's take; it's not entirely apposite but as a general rule about radicalism versus reaction, it shows which usually wins out in the end:

    "But the world does move, and its motive power under God is the fearless thought and speech of those who dare to be in advance of their time – who are sneered at and shunned through their days of struggle as lunatics, dreamers, impracticables and visionaries; men of crotchets, vagaries and isms. They are the masts and sails of the ship to which conservatism answers as ballast. The ballast is important – at times indispensable – but it would be of no account if the ship were not bound to go ahead"

  29. ShadowFox said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 2:42 am

    Interesting that, with a large number of comments, only one addresses this line:

    "The odd thing about all of this is that the Weekly Standard is a conservative magazine, whose default ideological stance is to leave decisions to the wisdom of the marketplace, rather than to put them in the hands of self-appointed expert dirigistes."

    Bloix suggests that WS is not a libertarian publication, which is correct. But the confusion of libertarianism and conservatism has nothing to do with the Weekly Standard. Politically conservative libertarians outnumber Politically liberal libertarians by a wide margin. But even among socially-liberal libertarians, many are Republican (one just needs to recount the bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy to this in practice). What Mark described as "conservative ideology" is indeed libertarian, in principle, but is often taken up by conservatives. But the mistake is not in attributing it to the Weekly Standard–it is in attributing it to views on language. Conservative position on language issues has always been generally prescriptivist. Conservative like fixed rules, particularly when it comes to grammar–and those who violate the prescribed rules of grammar must be godless liberals. In fact, it is rather common for conservatives, as a rule, to believe that language either does not evolve at all, or evolves negligibly–and even when it does evolve, it is not because of changing practices by the speakers, but rather because of the changing social needs for new words. These views are decidedly unempirical, yet they are held by a large number of conservatives and even conservative intellectuals. For Bottum to come out even with a mild acceptance of descriptivism is a heretical position.

  30. etv13 said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 3:20 am

    Surely we all still know what is meant by "queer' in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," or "gay" in "The Gay Divorcee," even if both words also mean something (relatively) new now.

  31. Douglas said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 6:15 am

    Pete says:

    "This sort of thing must happen all the time whenever IT (which tends to use regularised -es plurals) overlaps with more traditional disciplines."

    On the other hand IT has boxen, vaxen, unixen, and emacsen.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    I think the excerpted paragraphs were sorta dumb (if anything the linguistic equivalent of early 20th century free-love/vegetarian/socialists were probably more at risk of being enthusiasts for George Bernard Shaw's proposed orthographic reforms and suchlike prescriptivist Jacobinism), but I thought Bottum's piece as a whole was more good than bad. He seems to understand and accept that "rules" and 'right answers' are conventions arrived at historically via often arbitrary and/or contingent paths, and is more interested in there being a settled answer than in justifying that answer as derivable from Logic Itself or the Prestige of Latin or some other prescriptivist source of authority. He's just impatient that Norma Loquendi hasn't yet sorted out the plural-of-syllabus question, but doesn't seem to have a strong personal view as to which way it should be settled – he wants some relevant subset of the speech community (i.e. people who have occasion to use the word a lot) to come to some consensus, any consensus, to which he will then be happy to defer in an essentially descriptivist way. On balance I think that's pretty good.

    Now there's an interesting separate question about what sorts of words may tend to have style-manual-challenging ambiguities of this sort (whether multiple acceptable spellings, multiple acceptable plurals, or even multiple acceptable past tenses, like dived/dove) and to what extent that multiplicity is stable over time versus being an intermediate stage before one option drives the other out. But that's perhaps for the next chapter of Descriptivism-for-Dummies.

  33. Steve F said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    Richard Bell's comment that ' I can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when I was a boy and learned those words' is said so often (especially by people who are homophobic, whether or not it is judged to be homophobic in this instance) that it really should not be allowed to pass – at least not on Language Log of all places.

    I don't know how old Richard Bell is – I'm not even certain what he thinks the words 'queer' and 'gay' meant when he was a boy – but, assuming that he thinks they meant exclusively 'strange' and 'happy' in the days of his innocent boyhood, then he is mistaken. 'Gay' acquired its current meaning of 'homosexual' in the 1930s or earlier (Billy Srayhorn's song 'Lush Life', written between 1932 and 1938, and the 1938 film 'Bringing up Baby' both contain – admittedly disputed – examples, and according to Wikipedia 'Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr & Miss Skeene (1922) is possibly the first traceable published use of the word to refer to a homosexual relationship'.) Perhaps Mr Bell is old enough to have learnt the word before then, but even so, 'gay' had a sexualised meaning well before that. In Victorian slang it referred to a female prostitute (see the Victorian underground classic 'My Secret Life' for numerous examples, or this 1857 Punch cartoon
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Punch_1857.jpg )

    Of course 'gay' also meant 'happy, joyful and carefree' back then, but – as others have commented – it still does today. Words can have more than one meaning, after all, and I have no more trouble distinguishing between the different meanings of 'gay' than I do between the different meanings of, say, 'aggravate' or 'disinterested' – two more words that upset some people.
    As for 'queer', that has meant 'homosexual' since at least the 1890s (when it was used by the Marquis of Queensbury in a letter to his son Alfred Douglas) and whatever the period of Richard Bell's boyhood, its primary use would have been as a derogatory and offensive adjective and noun meaning 'homosexual'. Before that it had other meanings – which again it still has today – that include 'peculiar' ('nowt as queer as folk'), in financial difficulty ('Queer Street'), and poor health ('feeling a little queer'). The only change in its meaning that has occurred in Richard Bell's lifetime is that it has ceased to be an acceptable term to use in civilised discourse as a synonym for 'homosexual' (surely that isn't what he means by saying it no longer means what it meant when he was a boy – that he can't use it to mean 'homosexual' any more? I hope not), and it has taken on a new – if controversial – academic sense in the terms 'Queer Studies', 'Queer Cinema' etc.

  34. un malpaso said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

    "The trouble with pure descriptivism is that, in its moral outrage…"

    Moral outrage?
    Descriptivism?
    Um.. surely he didn't mean…
    Do you think he got his prefixes mixed up?
    Of course, as a descriptivist, I am not outraged by this… it just confuses me. And amuses me.

  35. Chris Henrich said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

    To "indicee", "parenthesee", and "verticee" add "processee".
    The place was a company doing maintenance of software and hardware systems for the Army. At least one of our managers was sold on the idea that if we defined standard ways of doing things (such as fixing a bug, or deploying a new version of something) it would make everything better. She gave us an enthusiastic (but somehow vague) talk about the specification, not of processes but of "processes." At least once the singular "process" crept in.

  36. Troy S. said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    No, no, no guys. Broccoli entered English through Italian, not Latin. The singular is therefore broccolo.

  37. Skullturf said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

    I agree with some earlier commenters: It's understandable to wish for *some* sort of consensus on syllabuses vs syllabi, even if the person doing the wishing doesn't have a strong preference for one or the other.

    If somebody is just wishing for uniformity, that seems to me like one of the less extreme or outlandish desires that prescriptivists have sometimes expressed.

    Around the time I was finishing my PhD thesis, I noticed that there are two different conventions for writing the names of people known by their first two initials, such as C.S. Lewis and E.G. Marshall. You can either put a space (C. S. Lewis) or not (C.S. Lewis).

    I had made it to adulthood without that distinction ever occurring to me. And I found it very difficult to develop any strong emotional feelings for or against either C. S. or C.S. I don't know the history of the two forms (and I don't know if the history is relevant) and I certainly don't think either is indicative of lax morals or laziness.

    But I still thought it almost went without saying that in my bibliography, I should pick one of the two conventions and apply it uniformly.

  38. leoboiko said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    > It can also aim for quite the opposite: to try to kill long-standing usage that goes against the particular prescriptivist's internal standard (whether one based on logic, classism, memes acquired in early life, or arbitrary taste).

    I think of it as a simple matter of pattern-matching. Brains are pattern-matching machines. When a pattern almost matches what one expects but some detail is amiss, the sensation can be quite jarring. (Of course class, taste etc. play a part.)

  39. Richard Bell said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    @Steve F.
    I don't think Steve intended to compliment me in his comment about my comment, but he does prove my point. I did not know my comment was commonly spoken by homophobes, but then, my acquaintance with homophobic people may not be as extensive as his. And certainly his knowledge of the history of the words in question is greater than mine. I was a boy in the 1930s and 40s and I admit that I had not read Gertrude Stein or any Victorian pornography or the letters of Queensbury then. Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that a discomfort with language change is not the same thing as an adherence to zombie rules. So, I wanted examples of words whose connotative meanings had changed, that carried some emotional freight as well as simple denotative change. I thought to example words that were unspeakable in mixed company in my youth that are used rather freely today. (Yes we talked about "mixed company" in those days.) I thought of "suck" and "crap" but I did not because I am still a little queasy about those words; typing them here has made me a little uneasy. My unease with the changes in such words was precisely the point I was trying to make. So my next thought was to use the opposite phenomenon: words that seemed perfectly innocent to me once that I had to learn to make an effort to avoid. I thought "queer" and "gay" were good examples: "gay" especially because I can recall being reprimanded for using it when I did not know it was a pejorative term. And now of course it it has come to be the word of choice in the gay community.
    A better example has just occurred to me. I am, among other things, a lighting designer in the theatre. I regularly use I tool that all my life I called "a pair of dykes." Not long ago I learned that I should not use that term; I should say "diagonal cutters." To that demand I say "screw it," cause nowadays I can.

  40. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    @Skullturf: Then there's a convention much used in Britain: CS Lewis, EG Marshall. It goes without saying that two of those conventions indicate lax morals, laziness, and far worse. By "without saying" I mean I'm not going to say here which two they are.

  41. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    Richard Bell, you say: "I did not know my comment ["queer" or "gay"] was commonly spoken by homophobes." Really? Then why, do you think that you "…can no longer use "queer" or "gay" to mean what they meant when [you were] a boy and learned those words." ?

    As you claim that you "..thought "queer" and "gay" were good examples: "gay" especially because [you] can recall being reprimanded for using it when [you] did not know it was a pejorative term," presumably you now do know that such words might be thought pejorative. Who did you think might use them in a pejorative way, if not homophobes?

    Whatever you claim your intention to be, it seems odd to me that in defending yourself you should choose yet another example based on sexual orientation ("I regularly use I tool that all my life I called "a pair of dykes." Not long ago I learned that I should not use that term…")

    Perhaps you could have saved a lot of time by just saying what you really mean: Political correctness prevents me from saying words that used to be ok, and I don't like it.

    At least you make it clear that you don't hold with all that PC stuff. ("To that demand I say "screw it," cause nowadays I can.")

  42. Steve F said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    @ Richard Bell
    Just to clarify – I tried to express agnosticism about whether your comment was homophobic or not, and intended neither compliment nor rebuke. I merely wanted to remind people of the history of the words (though I'm sure Language Log must have touched on two such tendentious words before – if not, and if anyone is interested, the Wikipedia articles on the two words are a good place to start.)

    Thank you for the clarification that no homophobia was intended, and my apologies if my tone sounded at all accusatory. It wasn't my intention.

  43. Jo Walton said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    Free love, women's suffrage and sentimental socialism for ever!

  44. Jason Eisner said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

    @Skullturf and @leoboiko agree that Bottum's desire for consistency in naming is reasonable. It might slightly speed up both our comprehension and our production of language.

    In the course of writing a computer program, one creates a good many variables, each of which requires a name. One can name a variable whatever one wants — n, N, num, number, mynum, numTrucks, numberOfTrucks, number_of_trucks, trucks, truck_count, etc.

    Programmers have to devote some mental effort to choosing good variable names. A good name will suggest the proper usage of the variable, both to the original programmer and to others who edit or use the program. It should also be easy to remember.

    An influential paper by Charles Simonyi suggested standard conventions for choosing variable names, in order to reduce both writing and reading effort:

    Naming for "Writability". A good yardstick for choosing a name is to try to imagine that there is an extraordinary reward for two programmers if they can independently come up with the same program text for the same problem.

    I have often used Simonyi's "Hungarian Notation," and have found it to be a great help. (It is widely used within Microsoft.)

    There is less need for such conventions in ordinary language, where names are already mostly standardized and where inconsistencies are more tolerable. Still, I can understand the sentiment: "I'm wasting too much time choosing between 'syllabuses' vs. 'syllabi', and noticing whether others made the same choice that I did. Can someone please just make a rule to remove this distraction, and let us get on with the conversation?"

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