Fry's English Delight: So Wrong It's Right

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Stephen Fry — British comedian, quiz show host, and public intellectual — has just started a new series of his BBC Radio 4 program on the English language, "Fry's English Delight." In "So Wrong It's Right," Fry "examines how 'wrong' English can become right English." Our old friend the eggcorn makes an appearance about 11 minutes in. Jeremy Butterfield, author of A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, explains eggcorns to Fry (damp squid is an eggcornization of damp squib, in case you didn't know). Butterfield also talks about spelling changes, like the back-formation of pea(s) from pease, and how lexicographers use corpora to track changes in language (with specific reference to the Oxford English Corpus, the main subject of A Damp Squid).

You can hear the whole thing online, at least for the next week.

And for more of Fry's linguistic musings, see my post, "Fry on the pleasure of language."

(Hat tip, Damien Hall.)


  1. dw said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    For non-UK readers, the title of the show is a play on Fry's Turkish Delight, a chocolate bar.

  2. Stan said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Thanks for alerting me to the new series. A very enjoyable program(me), and Fry is genial and enthusiastic, as always. It was my first time hearing the Australian spin on the sentence that ends in many prepositions. "Down under" seems an obvious addition now.

  3. Rob said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    I loved the genius sentence ending in a string of prepositions — but was it just my ear or did he add an extra one in there?

    "What did you bring the book to read of out of about Down Under up for?"

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    It's nice to see he's redeemed himself from what appeared to be a prescriptivist stance – see General ignorance at Polysyllabic, which has almost certainly been mentioned here previously.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Ray: Yep, I talk about Fry's depedanticization in the post linked to above (and the comments thereon).

    Also, regarding Fry's apocryphal story about the machine translation of "Out of sight, out of mind" as "Invisible idiot," see my post, "Tong-maker the Kong-maker, and other translational follies."

  6. Randy Alexander said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    @Rob: I caught that too; there does seem to be an extra "of" (after "read") that makes his sentence ungrammatical.

    I found a variety of other versions on the web, the best (IMHO) of which is:

    "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?

  7. dr pepper said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    A cornucopia of british goodness, both audio and video, is available at I got the previous season of Fry's English Delight there. I also recommend their discussion shows, such as "Something Understood" and "In Our Time", which are made available within days of their original broadcast.

  8. Tom Recht said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    It's nice to see that the Pullum-Huddlestone theory of intransitive prepositions has caught on so widely that no one bats an eyelash these days at calling, say, "up" in that sentence a preposition.

  9. Faldone said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    If I'm going to bat any eyelashes it wouldn't be my own and the bat would be the baseball variety. And it would more likely be at categorizing "Down Under" as prepositions in this example. Not to say that I buy the Pullum-Huddleston intransitive preposition, mind..

  10. Faldone said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    Not that I'd bat anyone else's eyelashes, either.

  11. michael farris said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    Without actually listening to the show I have to say this sounds like an example of false consciousness in that it doesn't seem to challenge the old view that things that most native speakers say can be 'mistakes' (yes that's just the problem with linguists; we're _never_ satisfied).

  12. stormboy said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    @michael farris: I think the piece suggests that 'mistakes', such as malapropisms, are a cause of change in language. It certainly challenges the notion that split infinitive constructions, for example, are ungrammatical, but points out that sentences that don't follow normal syntax are ungrammatical.

  13. Aaron Davies said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    There's also Morris Bishop's

    I lately lost a preposition
    It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
    And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
    Up from out of in under there."
    Correctness is my vade mecum,
    And straggling phrases I abhor,
    And yet I wondered, "What should he come
    Up from out of in under for?"

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    may i note for the record that i hate wordpress with the fire of a thousand suns?

    [(myl) I've made an attempt to restore the line divisions in your previous comment. And I think we can agree that there must be a special circle of hell, a sort of textual sysiphean pit, reserved for whoever wrote the code that processes WordPress comments.]

  15. lucia said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Interesting, the discussion of syntax explains why Yoda sounds funny.

  16. Sally said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    I bet he won't/hasn't touched on the ultra irritating standard BBC pronunciation of words ending in 'cies' (pl. of 'cy) / 'ties' and no doubt other such plurals. For example redundancies now sounds likes redundansiz or even redundances. WHAT has happened to the 'ee' sound that I teach foreign students to pronounce?? Am I now an anachronism?

  17. Lazar said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    @Sally: I'm under the impression that it's the use of the tense [i] or "ee" sound for those unstressed phonemes which is more progressive in BrEng.

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