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A Musing on Vocabularic Butterflies

We have touched on the topic of this blog post before – that language is not static; it is a living human enterprise, it changes and grows.

I have been struck by this anew during my current visit with my sister in Toronto. Once a renowned Canadian novelist, an intellectual par excellence, she was felled by a massive stroke seventeen years ago. She can no longer speak, she can no longer write; her thoughts are often confused, and she has the use only of her left hand, but she has books. Books are her life. There are countless worlds in the books that surround her and in which she is immersed virtually every waking minute. She reads and reads and reads.

Browsing through one of her countless books yesterday, I began reading aloud to her a passage chosen randomly from a wonderful book called Shakespeare – The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson. The passage was quite striking:

"There was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before – such as "breathing one's last" and "backing a horse," both coined by Shakespeare, were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double negatives and double superlatives – "the most unkindest cut of all" – troubled no one, and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost… Spelling was luxuriantly variable, too… people would be extraordinarily casual even with their own names" (pp. 110-111).

The epiphany (a word borrowed from the name of a Christian religious holiday and popularized to mean 'sudden insight' by Irish novelist James Joyce) that I had while reading this passage was this. I am an incredible language snob, proud, supercilious (from the Latin, superciliosus, which sounds like a bacterial infection; a word that entered the English lexicon sometime in the late 1600's), wedded to the lexicon, the grammar and the spellings that I learned in school. As if the pinnacle of correct English had then been reached and was not now allowed to change!

What if people in the sixteenth century had said, "no siree (which of course they would not have, because this phrase dates from the mid-nineteenth century), we ain't (no again; 'ain't' didn’t show up until the mid-eighteenth century) lettin' those new words in."

In reading from my sister's book I was struck by the phrase "pleasure in language," by which the author meant not only reading and writing within the current accepted rules, but playing, being open, inventing and welcoming lexiconal (I think I just invented that adjective) newcomers. There is simply no call for us to be stuffy (first recorded in 1798), stuck-up (1829) or rigid (15th century) about language.

No. Language lovers encourage creativity (which did not show up as a noun until 1875!), although with some caution. It would be linguistically confusing if we allowed that 'anything goes' (this idiom first appeared in George Meredith's 1879 British novel The Egoist as 'everything goes.' In America this became 'anything goes,' and the idiom became firmly entrenched with Cole Porter's 1934 musical and title song, Anything Goes).

And while we're talking about Shakespeare's contribution to English vocabulary, we must also recognize other well-known word generators (although we can never know for sure if these authors invented words and phrases, or simply became the first to write down words that had already begun circulating). John Milton (lovelorn, fragrance, pandemonium), Geoffrey Chaucer (universe, approach) and John Donne (self-preservation, valediction) were among the most prolific (a word first noted in 1650 to mean fruitful, as it relates to trees. Its first use regarding human productivity is unclear).

And while the more stodgy (first seen in 1854 to mean dense, heavy food; adopted at some later point to refer to people and ideas) among us may frown at upstarts like 'textpectation,' which the Urban Dictionary defines as "the anticipation one feels when waiting for a response to a text message," if we truly claim to take pleasure in language, as my now-silent sister did and does, then we must open our hearts and minds to the multi-colored vocabularic butterflies that fly in from popular culture, from other languages, and from the unfettered (first seen in John Donne's 1601 The Progress of the Soule: "To an unfettered soules quick nimble hast/are falling stars, and hearts thought, but slow paced") creative minds of people.

New words are added to English by adding a prefix ('preschool') or a suffix ('spoonful') to an existing word; by combining two existing words ('sunstroke'); through blending the sounds and meaning of two other words ('portmandeau' words like 'motel' and 'brunch'). Words come from the names of people (Lord Sandwich gave us the name of our lunch) or places (marathon, from the name of the Greek town. Phidippides ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to deliver news about the Battle of Marathon) and of course, from other languages (too numerous to mention). Today popular culture and technology are rapidly adding new words as well. Recently entered in the Oxford Dictionary On-line, among many others, are big data, binge-watch, bling, bromance, DIY, infomania, microaggression, OMG, and unfriend ('friend' as a verb having long ago been added).

Like them are not, these vocabularic butterflies have flitted in. Some will last. Others may, in a hundred years or so, have fallen into disuse, like the 16th century words quafftide (the time for drinking alcohol) and mumpsimus (a stubborn person who refuses to change his or her mind despite being proven wrong).

No mumpsimus I. I was wrong to be a stuffed shirt (first seen in 1904) about the changing English language.

Shakespeare – The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson. Atlas Books, 2007.

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