Sunday, November 09, 2008

the power of language

Making fun of other people's colloquialisms is mean. Does anyone ever intend cliché, malaprop, or useless filler-word? Our conversation is rarely reasoned discourse. We give, we take, rapidly, with little forethought, making our contributions to the collective task of conversation.

Writers risk offending potential readers when they call attention to verbal gaffes. Some stigmatize, making fun at the expense of supposed transgressors; think of those who denigrate Palin's "nucular." Other, better ones know about the unselfconscious tuning of expression to occasion (as Steven Pinker with nucular).

A book called Damp Squid receives attention for its top ten most annoying phrases. It's compiled from an Oxford database on language use and thus quite possibly an example of the empty elitist ironic wit that seems to be a chronic disability of highly educated English skeptics. But the database is the scholarly tool used by the Oxford dictionary folks, so the book is unlikely to be snide and maybe not even unconsciously contemptuous. Still, as the title lets on, it's quite British. The top ten list itself, which is being picked up by news sites and blogs, contains few personal irritants. I'd like to see a list that contains the indeed habit of some British academics or all those upside-down posh adverbs, now blessedly fallen from favor: frightfully foremost among them. (The phrase "a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one" appeared only once in an early printing of an Agatha Christie novel of 1932, excised in later editions.)

So maybe Damp Squid is worth a read.

I can more definitely recommend a brief exploration of explanations contrived to support mangled clichés that came up when I searched damp squid. A couple of years ago a Times (UK) columnist told readers ‘For years I really believed there was such a thing as a “damp squid” ’ and went on to celebrate some creative etymologies. Some excerpts:
THE OTHER DAY MY ELDERLY country neighbour asked for a bit of help to get his new washing machine into the kitchen. That generation never use “it”, always, “he” or “she”, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.

“The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly . . . where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’.”

I am thrilled with this and from now on there will be no more ghosts, only goats. I began to think of other examples of fake etymology, all with their entirely persuasive explanations, a tribute to the exuberance and flexibility of language.

An Italian friend of mine, who learnt her English in America, calls her mobile her “self-phone”. Presumably she has heard it called a cell phone, but never seen the words written down — and it is a phone you use yourself . . .

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a “damp squid”, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?

My father was in Ypres (pronounced Wipers) during the First World War, and like many of his generation, came back with bits of French. Ça ne fait rien turned into San Fairy Ann, meaning Stuff You, and then a new character emerged in Lancashire-speak, known as Fairy Ann; a got-up creature, no better than she should be, who couldn’t give a damn. “San Fairy Ann to you” morphed into: “Who does she think she is? Fairy Ann?”
In closing the brief piece the author invited readers to send in examples of other ways in which "English has been good at borrowings and refits, and ways of making sense; even of its mistakes."

The gave some of the response in a follow-up: ‘Communicating with the dead is risky, especially on constipated ground’ which says:
Communicating with the dead is obviously a risky business, especially as they might be buried in constipated ground or, as the Countess of Harewood kindly suggested, have too hastily signed over their Power of Eternity.

One husband told me that his wife likes to say: “'If my mother were alive now, she’d turn in her grave.” I know that’s not quite a fake etymology, but I include it, along with “my words fell on stony ears”. This must be close to bear-faced cheek, which might be a relative of the moveable beast, as in “Easter is a moveable beast — it all depends on when the hens start laying”.

I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels “out on a limbo”. I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who “has a milestone round her neck”.

Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm, by Theodore Dalyrmple, contains this insight:
The internet is both wonderful and terrible. For instance, it enables patients to learn a lot about their own diseases, and if they are discriminating, sometimes even to save their own lives. But medical information, or opinion, on the internet has probably already killed far more people than it has saved: the fact that Thabo Mbeki, the recently deposed President of South Africa, found a site on the internet while browsing that convinced him that AIDS was not caused by a virus, and that therefore treatment of HIV with drugs was harmful, resulted in untold premature loss of life that it will take many years for the internet to balance by lives it has saved.

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