Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Getting Beyond the Language Question Re-runs

Anatoly Liberman makes an excellent point in this week’s “Oxford Etymologist” column:

Another post suggested that I temper my enthusiasm, because people are allegedly interested not in etymology, but in “words and slang; they ask about posh or the whole nine yards. They’d see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, [and] wine,” unless those “could be illustrated with lantern slides of Life in Roman times.” I’ve been taught never to assume anything and not to generalize in a hurry. This advice I’ll pass on to anyone who will take it. Queries reflect the sophistication of the questioners. The more people know, the less trivial their questions become. If they realized how interesting the etymology of water, wind, wool, and the rest is, they would have asked about it.

Anatoly is resisting the same trends that I’ve seen in my work online and off. Readers and listeners tend to repeatedly ask the same questions. Over and over and over and over.

And those folks who write and talk popularly about language tend also to discuss the same topics. Ad nauseum. Until it makes you want to tear out your hair.

There certainly should be places for those same-old questions to be asked and answered. There’s always a new audience. This week, for example, in his weekly language column Nathan Bierma deals with five very common questions. Any person who takes language-related questions from the public has been asked these times beyond count, but Nathan’s done a great job properly and succintly explaining the answers without letting on that they’re old hat.

For those people who have gone beyond a cursory interest in popular language topics, Anatoly’s efforts are like finding an interesting ore that can be made into new metals. It’s full of possibilities. Alas, his effort is not common.

Many language books deal with only the tropes and clichés of popular language. These books retread the same worn pathways. The worst set the framework for popular language discussion in a manner which clouds the subject—they bring opacity not clarity. Especially offensive are the throw-away “word history” books that more or less just rewrite dubious scholarship from 30 years ago, ignoring any new research that has been or could have been done since. Even worse, many of them, starting about ten years ago, began simply lifting questionable or provably false material from the Internet, making no effort to substantiate it. Still others do use valid research, but without attribution (and they often mangle it, anyway, in their attempts to rewrite it so that it qualifies as original and not plagiarized).

Newspapers and other media are cyclical and repetitive in their language coverage. Erin go bragh and shamrock at St. Patrick’s Day. Samhain and Halloween at the end of October. Solstice twice a year. These and other seasonal topics are about as complicated as most language news coverage gets. Another type of not-so-good coverage are the articles equivalent to folk dictionaries, which say, basically, “Hey! We all talk funny! We’re unique! Call the Chamber of Commerce! We have a local identity!” These are usually about as on-target as a bull elephant mating with a mosquito.

There are a number of language columnists in the US, but in my opinion, they are insufficient—not enough column inches, not enough circulation. American television, outside of the occasional PBS series, has no regular language coverage as far as I know. Radio is better, particularly with podcasts and other programs, but among the most popular language-related podcasts are John Ciardi’s three-minute word histories on NPR—and he’s been dead since 1986. One problem with his stuff is that there are so many opportunities for new research—something he covered in 1985 is bound to be altered by all-new digging. Geoff Nunberg does do language commentaries on NPR, but they are irregular.

Certainly the Internet has a number of great examples of people breaking into new language topics, but they don’t seem to have changed popular language discourse much.

So part of the reason people ask the same language questions repeatedly is that they hear and read the same language subjects discussed repeatedly. I think there are other reasons, too:

People know there is debate on the issue but they can’t remember what expert consensus is. If you cover a topic on a radio show, for example, the next day listeners will send you letters asking the very same question you just covered. Martha Barnette tells me this is because people are washing their cars, cleaning house, making breakfast, driving to church, or handling other chores while listening, so they get only part of the discussion.

They already know the answer or at least believe they know the answer. They write or call in order to be reassured, or to feel smart or validated.

They’re playing “stump the lexicographer.” They want to test my knowledge. It’s an always-on game. Everyone considers it their duty to judge my fitness for my work. There’s no starting whistle, no final buzzer, no half-time, everyone’s a player and the challenges come from all quarters and in all venues. Happily, since people tend to ask the same questions as everyone else—because those are the only language tidbits they know—it’s pretty easy to recite answers I’ve given dozens of times before. Of course, most often the challenger is in possession of patently wrong information (such as the various false origins of the “Big Apple” or “full nine yards”) and can’t be convinced otherwise. (Sometimes “stump the lexicographer” comes in the form of challenges to a Scrabble match. I have adopted Erin McKean’s response: Scrabble is won by people who are good at math; I am not. I also play cool little words worth seven points instead of boring 72-point bingos. I also specialize in slang, so many of the words I know from my work are not in the official Scrabble dictionary. We could of course, play by Erin’s “any dictionary in the house” rule, but in a house with hundreds of dictionaries, that tends to end matches before they start. People get intimidated.)

They just want to participate. They want to be a part of the action, so they ask a language question they just read about in the newspaper. They’re perfectly happy to play dumb so the columnist, blogger, or radio host can reel off an answer polished by over-use. They just want to be a part of the show, or the web site, or the newspaper column, or the book. They want to interact and relate.

This is all connected to the irritating predictability of people, but I’ll save that for another post.

author avatar
Grant Barrett