Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED, has just come out with a new book about words — words like "dilapidated," "balding" and "lunch." Shea says those words were once frowned upon, as were more than 200 other words he has compiled.
His new book, Bad English, documents how the language has grown, embracing words and usages that various self-appointed linguistic police have declared contraband. Shea tells NPR's Robert Siegel about a few words' troublemaking reputations.
On what some people have against "dilapidated," "balding" and "lunch"
"Dilapidated" was frowned upon by some because it comes from a Latin root, "lapis," meaning stone, so it was thought that you should only refer to a dilapidated building if it was actually made out of stone, and it was somehow improper to talk about a dilapidated wooden structure.
"Balding" was considered improper because it appears to be a participle formed from "bald," and everybody knows that "bald" is not a verb — at least they thought it wasn't a verb. Some of the commentators suggested words like "baldish," which somehow failed to catch on. ...
Many people have frowned, throughout the ages, on shortenings of words, and "lunch" is essentially a back-formation where you take an existing word and cut a bit of it off. And it was considered that "luncheon" was the proper noun and that "lunch" was really only to be used as a verb.
On being linguistically permissive
I'm not an absolute nihilist as far as language is concerned, and I don't think that we should throw out all the rules. I operate from a position that I think many of the rules that we hold on to are capricious and arbitrary and do more to stunt the language than to kind of foster change and innovation.
On superlative adjectives like "perfect" and "square"
You could easily say that something is either perfect or it is not perfect, yet in the Constitution of the United States, in the first line, we talk about creating "a more perfect union." And somehow ... the writing, language of Western civilization did not destroy itself after that misuse of the word.
This kind of thing — what people refer to as an absolute adjective ... an adjective that has no degrees — [is] kind of saying, more or less, that the word is either pregnant or it isn't. People have done this with many, many words. For instance: dry, wet, straight, equal, clear, correct, quiet, empty, full, extreme, square. All of those are words which have been thought, at one point in the past, to be absolute. ... You're either square or you're not square. Yet somehow those words can function in several different ways, and we understand, when somebody uses those words, what they mean generally.
On whether there's value in language rules
Absolutely I think there is. I don't think anybody in their right mind is arguing doing away with the rules. However, one of the things that I think is frequently overlooked is that we can more or less refer to it as code-switch: You know, we can speak in a number of different registers. When we're talking with friends, we speak one way, and that is markedly different than when we're writing a term paper. And most people have the ability to switch back and forth between these internal dialects, so to speak. And it is useful to know these rules. However, I do not think it is so useful to be bound by them, and I certainly don't think it is at all useful to scold people who don't adhere to your particular version of them.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Ammon Shea, who wrote a book about reading the Oxford English Dictionary - reading the OED, has written a new book about words, words like dilapidated, balding and lunch. What Ammon Shea tells us about those words is that they were all once frowned upon, as were more than 200 other words that he's compiled. Shea's new book, "Bad English" documents how the language has grown, embracing words and usages that various self-appointed linguistic police have declared contraband. And he joins us from our studio in New York City. Welcome to the program.
AMMON SHEA: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: First, those three words I mentioned - dilapidated, balding and lunch - tell us about what their perceived problems were with those words.
SHEA: The quick and dirty rundown on each of the problems with these words - dilapidated was frowned upon by some because it comes from a Latin root, lapis, meaning stone. So it was thought that you should only refer to a dilapidated building if it was actually made out of stone. It was somehow improper to talk about a dilapidated wooden structure. Balding was considered improper because it appears to be a participle formed from bald and everybody knew that bald is not a verb. At least, they thought it wasn't a verb. Some of the commentators suggested words like bald-ish.
SIEGEL: Bald-ish, yes.
SHEA: (Laughing) Would somehow fail to catch on.
SIEGEL: And then comes lunch. What was the matter with lunch?
SHEA: Well, lunch - many people have frowned throughout the ages on shortenings of words. And lunch is essentially a back formation, where you take an existing word and cut a bit of it off. It was considered that luncheon was the proper noun. And that lunch was really only to be used as a verb.
SIEGEL: As someone who writes about words, you on a scale from the linguistic scolds to the most permissive writers of language, you're pretty much on the permissive side.
SHEA: Yeah, some might even put me on the negative part of that scale.
SIEGEL: That you actually favor words that other people say are bad and we shouldn't use.
SHEA: Well, I'm not an absolute nihilist as far as, you know, language is concerned and I don't think that we should throw out all the rules. I operate from a position that I think many of the rules that we hold onto are capricious and arbitrary and do more to stunt the language than to, kind of, foster change and innovation.
SIEGEL: Here, though, is one usage that sticks in my craw. You point out that while unique is a superlative, which should rule out things that are very unique or most unique, people have in fact been using those phrases for centuries - modifying the superlative.
SIEGEL: And therefore you seem a bit soft on the very unique usage.
SHEA: Well, I'm okay with it.
SIEGEL: But here's where I can't be OK with it. If unique loses its absolute meaning, then no claim to uniqueness - whether it's a unique new invention or unique policy or unique style can ever actually be tested since the word has no meaning - it just means a kind of very unusual thing.
SHEA: Well, that's true in one sense. However, I like to take the position that words are - they're flexible things and that there are plenty of words, as I like to say, that can walk and chew gum at the same time. And unique is one of those words and I think generally people will understand what you mean through the context in which you use the word. There are many words that people have made this argument against - for instance, perfect.
You could easily say that something is either perfect or it is not perfect yet the Constitution of United States - the first line we talk about creating a more perfect union. And somehow Western civilization did not destroy itself after that misuse of the word. This kind of thing, what people refer to as an absolute adjective, is an adjective that has no degrees - it's kind of saying, more or less, that the word is either pregnant or it isn't. People have done this with many, many words - for instance dry, wet, straight, equal, clear, correct, quiet, empty, full, extreme, square - all of those are words which have been thought at one point in the past to be absolute.
SIEGEL: You mean you are either dry or wet.
SHEA: Right. You are either square or you are not square. Yet, somehow those words can function several different ways. And we understand when somebody uses those words what they mean, generally.
SIEGEL: You write about George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." And you observed that Orwell violates all of his own rules in the essay, except the last rule which is break all the rules rather than write something really terrible.
SIEGEL: You take a very forgiving attitude, though, towards say ain't - but when you write this book you don't start by saying this book ain't concerned with telling us something about language. This book is not concerned with telling us something about language.
SHEA: Right. Well, that's true but I have used ain't and I'm fairly willing to bet that you yourself have used ain't as have most of your listeners. And one of my favorite things that I found was that people who complain about ain't - and this really came up in the United States after Merriam-Webster's third international dictionary was published in 1961.
A lot of people saw them as kind of giving their seal of approval to ain't, which they really weren't. And several people really took them to task - particularly Dwight Macdonald, prominent New York intellectual. Except if you read through all of Dwight Macdonald's writing, you will find that he uses the word ain't. And he's using it in a jocular sense. But, he is in fact using the word ain't. And we all use the word ain't. There is nothing that says that jocular language use is not - doesn't count. It counts, it's just we're using it in a particular social register.
SIEGEL: Would you actually prefer for me to say that you authored the book "Bad English" as opposed to you wrote the book?
SHEA: I am somewhat agnostic as to whether I would prefer you say one or the other. However, I am not at all agnostic on defending your right to say that without fear of reprisal.
SIEGEL: (Laughing) I thought the verb to offer works if you hired a ghost writer to actually write the book for you, but you are listed as the author.
SHEA: It can be used in that kind of narrow, specific sense. I don't think it's lovely English, however, if you go down and you start removing other words simply because you don't like the way they were formed or because they stick in your craw, you will remove a lot of chaff from the language - say like author or impact. But you're also going to remove a lot of lovely words as well.
SIEGEL: The question is, then, is the kind of English that high school English teachers instruct their students to write - is there some value to that rule-governed version of the language? Other than simply to have rules which show that you are smart enough to know what the rules are?
SHEA: Oh, absolutely. I don't think anybody in their right mind is arguing doing away with all the rules. However, I do not think it is so useful to be bound by them. And I certainly don't think it is at all useful to scold people who don't adhere to your particular version of them.
SIEGEL: Ammon Shea thanks for talking with us about your new book.
SHEA: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: The book is called "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation.
SIEGEL: Yesterday, promoting the interview that you just heard I promised a very unique conversation about things we're not supposed to say but really do. Ammon Shea, I said, is who we'll talk to. With only a few seconds, I could manage to break just three rules of English and while I did so intentionally, a few of you have called me out for it. Since both rules of English and violations of those rules annoy us so much, we'd like to hear from you about a rule of English you'd like to see permanently repealed or one that you'd like to see more rigorously enforced. Go to npr.org and look way down at the bottom for the small, gray letters that spell contact. Send us your suggestion, put Bad English in the subject line - and by the way using contact as a verb used to be considered wrong too. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.