Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

I’m not sure where I found this book originally, but it called out to me and my word-loving sensibilities.  Let it stand as a point in favor of libraries: you can have all the fun of impulse book-buying without any issues of budgeting (well, except your time) or storage (aside from the temporary tsundoku by your bed).

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is David Wolman’sWriting the Mother tongue journey through history to figure out just how English spelling became so confusing, whether it’s possible for it to be simplified, and what might become of the language in future.  Wolman himself grew up with siblings whose competence in spelling left his ability far behind – not to mention the frustration that attended his classroom attempts at words like “different,” “restaurant” and “license,” words from various forebears with diverse paradigms.  He heads on a road trip through various parts of England and America to discuss language shifts with a number of experts.

I was, for the most part, already familiar with a lot of his journey: the Wessex dialect of Old English spread on account of Alfred the Great’s influence; monks, clerics, and scribes set about copying manuscripts and Bibles; the Norman conquest brought an influx of French words, used mostly by the higher class.  Then there was a bit of an English resurgence, due in part to the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s printing press and its movable type meant that printing houses chose spellings that worked best for their margins, as opposed to the scribes who would tailor their wordwork for the ease of whoever was buying (and reading) it.

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me.  It noted that self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct,” so as to distinguish the polloi from the more educated, stylish elite.  For example, they included more Greek and Latinate terms, and, occasionally, tweaked certain words to more greatly resemble their fellows: rime became rhyme to match rhythm, delit became delight to match right and might (which had themselves undergone a shift, from pronouncing the “gh” to leaving it silent).

Then follows Samuel Johnson’s codification of English in his Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, To Which Are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.  Spelling was far more settled by this point (1755), and the dictionary cemented it further.

The chapters following that detail some history of American English, including several different parties in the past 200 years who wished to render English spelling a simpler matter.  Even today, the Simplified Spelling Society fights for a more efficient system.  Admittedly, the members of said society aren’t quite sure which system to utilize instead…but they all agree that English has a lot of “booby traps,” spelling-wise, that students have to spend a lot of time learning to navigate.

For my own part, that navigation was easy.  I grew up with the luxuries of educated, involved parents; plenty of reading material that taught me how words looked; and a fairly good memory for reproducing words, especially if I knew their etymology.  Wolman addresses this in a chapter on the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Manning says she sees words differently now that she’s a Bee parent.  She had never thought much about all the other languages that influenced English spelling or the different parts of speech, but as her daughter developed a love of words and started studying for the Bee, Manning found that there was much more to spelling than just remembering what letters go where.  “It’s those clues and weird little histories that you pick up – that’s what makes it interesting.”

…an orthography that is perfectly reflective of pronunciation may not be ideal.  In isolation, words with silent or extra letters may strike people as inefficient, and at times they are.  But in other cases, they help our brains draw dotted lines between words with related meanings, such as sign and signature, condemn and condemnation, dough and doughnut, or bomb and bombard.

After deftly navigating the arguments between prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe, or lay down rules, for ‘proper’ spelling and grammar, and descriptivists, who prefer to record how people are in fact using language from day to day, Wolman goes on to examine how we treat orthography in the 21st century.  Nowadays, everyone’s computer or mobile device is outfitted with an spellchecker, which some suppose renders spelling irrelevant; does it matter if I forget the first “r” if my computer underlines “irelevant” with a red squiggle?  If we all disregarded the red squiggle, would the spelling change?  Wolman spends some time on the history of spellcheck before turning to Google and its suggested spelling function:

The last thing Google people want is to be perceived as setting rules or boundaries around what users do.  A company as big as Google already has enough trouble dispelling fears of Big Brother-esque practices.  “The question, ‘Do you mean?’ is deliberately ambiguous,” said Norvig.  “What we’re not saying is, ‘Here’s how you spell.’”  In this way, Google can be authoritative without being authoritarian, providing a snapshot of what’s out there in cyberspace without presuming to correct your English.

Chalk Google up as descriptivist, I guess.  I lean toward the prescriptive side myself, though not as heavily as I did before reading this book.  Reminding myself of the centuries of change English has already undergone makes me a tiny bit less likely to castigate someone’s spelling as wrong! …but see what I do next time something says “there” instead of “their.”

Overall, Righting the Mother Tongue is a fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).  While he examines the weirdness behind certain words – the now-silent “g” in “right,” the “h” in “ghost” or “rhubarb,” the in-and-outs of “aisle” and “isle” – Wolman spends more time on the shaping of the English language as a whole:

“Language is people,” Crystal told me as we stared out at the River Avon.  Words are not the flesh of thought entirely, for we also think in pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings.  But words are an essential part of the flesh of society and cultural intercourse.  They are products of human innovation, folly, power, preference, and change.  For that reason, correct English is nothing more than a phantom.  That doesn’t make English any less expansive and glorious, but the idea that there is clearly a right or a wrong way to go about the business of pronunciation, grammar, or even spelling, flies in the face of language’s true machinations.

English has grown and shifted before, an organism that changes with time and the people who use it.  It is not petrified or ossified, but living: it will continue to grow and shift and, perhaps, look quite different in a generation or two.

Use Your Words: Facebook Without Likes

This is an intriguing post by Ms. Elan Morgan (in brief: she stopped using the “like” button on Facebook and found that it improved her news feed, while rendering her interactions…into actual interactions, with other people, with greater delight). She notes that cessation of liking things is difficult, so I will not necessarily follow her lead. Still, I’m curious to see how pronounced the difference might be between my feed now and my feed after a period of like-avoidance.

Facebook Like buttonThere are, presumably, more and less healthy ways to use Facebook. I took a look at my activity log for the past month: out of my 170 likes, only 2 were for content served up by a business or personality (Conor O’Neill’s Pub and the Inky Fool) rather than an individual I know; most likes were for status updates (72), photos (51), and links (38; this last category is most likely to involve third parties – think-tanks, news organizations, and the like).

Hitting the like button strikes me as a less-creepy way to engage with the acquaintances I don’t really talk to: K in New York making dumplings, V sharing beautiful desserts and Mumford lyrics, a friend-of-a-friend with a nice photo here, a fellow-that-was-always-cooler-than-me sharing an incisive thought there. But perhaps if I did comment, I’d find that it was not unwelcome; whenever I hear from college friends or more distant acquaintances, it tends to be more pleasant than strange.

Curiously, Ms. Morgan does not comment on whether abandoning the “Like” changed her output. Obviously, the experience of hitting “like” has more to do with what we receive or observe on Facebook than what we ourselves write, produce, or share. And yet…when Ms. Morgan used her words to comment on the posts of others, she produced content of her own. Not only did she render herself visible on the platform, but she added something: more focused approbation, old stories, perhaps exposition or criticism of whatever posts she saw.

But there’s also the content that she could supply by herself – her own statuses, pictures, links. Did she avoid sharing clickbait (or, similarly, “likebait”) in favor of something more substantial? Did the effort needed to refrain from hitting “like” extend to more carefully sifting what she herself posted?

I frequently debate with myself before posting things. Two impulses war within me: “Just write something (it doesn’t matter what)” versus “Only add if I can edify.” Where Facebook is concerned, I tend to avoid the weighty – mostly because I don’t want to spend all day getting into fights on the internet – in favor of the silly: informal polls, music of the moment, links I can’t share on my brother’s wall because of his settings, or various delightful happenstances.

The aforementioned brother suggested I ask Ms. Morgan herself if she recognized a shift in that direction. As it is, I think I’ll try a fortnight or two without likes. Perhaps it, too, will expand my love!

Review: Pontypool

On Sunday, I saw an atypical vampire movie. The weekend prior, I saw an atypical zombie movie.*  Next up: atypical werewolf movie! I’ve no idea which one, though, so please comment with your suggestions, and in the meantime, let me tell you about Pontypool.

Were you to say “Hmm, you don’t strike me as a zombie movie watcher,” you would be quite correct. But Pontypool is a zombie movie the way Signs is an alien movie, which is to say that the plague-monsters themselves don’t get a lot of screen time. In an hour and a half of film, there are perhaps twelve minutes of shuffling revenants, and fewer of gore. There is neither a shotgun nor a cricket bat to be seen, and only a few splashes of red against a subdued background of bluish grays.

That said, there’s a lot to hear. The film is set in a radio broadcast studio built in the basement of an abandoned church, and most of the suspense and horror comes from what information can be gleaned from people calling in to the station, sometimes mid-attack, reporting a mob of people converging on the doctor’s office or a car being buried under a “herd” of people. Since none of it is shown, the mind is free to imagine just how awful those attacks might be. The responses and actions of announcer Grant Mazzy, his manager Sydney Briar, and assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond underscore the terror of ignorance and the slowly-dawning horror of understanding.

Even the former shock-jock is creeped out.

Even the former shock-jock is weirded out.

That creeping comprehension makes the movie. From the first two minutes, shown below, each little word is significant. The missing cat and its name; the people speaking French; the BBC broadcaster; the Valentine’s Day cards: all of it matters, and it takes watching and re-watching to understand why.

The pacing, the music (curse you, creepy violins!), the language, and silence all put the viewer in thrall. I had to talk to bring myself out of it a bit, had to eat my popcorn with determination, had to hug the friend sitting next to me whilst watching it. I’m no nail-biter, but it’s full of nail-biting tension anyway. There are those moments when one is left hollering at the screen, Don’t call him! No, hang up your phone! Such is the way of suspenseful movies: they mess with you as they draw you further in.

More thoughts and some spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading

Just Deserts

Can I share with you a thing that makes me profoundly uncomfortable?

I find most every usage of the word “deserve” disagreeable.  It’s one of those words, like freedom or right, that people all too often throw around without any consideration for the word itself, what it means, what using it implies.

"And here's the problem with justice: justice is that which is appropriate. So if you mete out justice, you are giving the appropriate amount of appropriateness, and then you drown in a vortex of tautology."

“And here’s the problem with justice: justice is that which is appropriate. So if you mete out justice, you are giving the appropriate amount of appropriateness, and then you drown in a vortex of tautology.”

There’s the touchy-feely stuff that sounds like it came from Nicholas Sparks or some Top 40 song:
Everyone deserves to be adored
Everyone deserves at least one summer of love
Everyone deserves a break from heartache
Everyone deserves to be called beautiful
Everyone deserves a childhood
Everyone deserves a broken heart
Everyone deserves a happily ever after
You deserve a good man/a guy who does X for you/a real man

There are the ads:
Everyone deserves a break
Everyone deserves a car
You deserve a vacation
You deserve a better vacation
You deserve a donut
You deserve a ferrari and a matching tiara

There are the taglines of advocates for one flavor or other of Social Justice:Everyone Deserves
Everyone deserves a house
Everyone deserves a new beginning
Everyone deserves a fifth birthday
Everyone deserves health care
Everyone deserves the right to have a child
Everyone deserves a clean slate
Everyone deserves clean water
Everyone deserves college education
Everyone deserves healthy teeth
Everyone deserves quality food

There’s the stuff that I’m not inclined to argue with, because it’s too much work to argue against baked goods and beauty:
Everyone deserves art
Everyone deserves a cake
Everyone deserves a coffee
Everyone deserves a cookie

Okay, so...guess not everyone agrees with this

Okay, so…guess not everyone agrees with this

Everyone deserves music
Everyone deserves a teddy bear
You deserve a whole enchilada
I deserve a capella
I deserve Aeneas

There are examples that are just flat-out wrong:
Everyone deserves an award
Everyone deserves a standing ovation
Everyone deserves a perfect world

There are the very few examples that strike me as true:
Everyone deserves life
Everyone deserves a fair trial/due process
Everyone deserves justice
Everyone deserves to know the truth
Everyone deserves rights
I deserve carpal tunnel syndrome


There are the ones that straddle the line between “social activism” and “bad theology”:
Everyone deserves compassion
Everyone deserves forgiveness
Everyone deserves grace
Everyone deserves a good life
Everyone deserves happiness
Everyone deserves kindness
Everyone deserves love
Everyone deserves an opportunity
Everyone deserves redemption
Everyone deserves somebody
Everyone deserves somebody to love

Having grown up with a pretty steady supply of both Law and Gospel, I am convinced that everyone deserves temporal and eternal punishment.  “Justice is getting what you deserve; mercy is not getting what you deserve; grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.”

If forgiveness or compassion or grace are deserved, then I wonder at them being called forgiveness, compassion, and grace.  Etc.  The beauty of these things is receiving them despite one’s utter lack of claim.  Who, besides God, can claim anyone’s love because it was deserved?  And who besides Him would be satisfied to receive it for that reason?



Also uncomfortable: people saying “just desserts” without making some kind of pudding-centric pun.  This is not about appropriate puddings!

A Word for Breaking Things

On Friday evening, I joined some friends to go see Star Trek: Into Darkness.  On Saturday evening, I set out to see Iron Man Three.  On Sunday, I did not watch any films, but found myself still searching for a word.

If you’ve seen either of these movies, or the trailers for them, or any of a hundred films similar to them, I think you will recognize the phenomenon: some explorers with tremendous firepower – or masked/unmasked heroes, or freedom fighters determined to mess things up – get in some kind of chase or brawl, and every object around is subject to be collateral damage.  These fictitious cities always have a heck of a cleanup job, and we rarely, if ever, see any of it.

Their souls were drifting as the sea,
and all good towns and lands
they only saw with heavy eyes,
and broke with heavy hands

I need a word for the distressed wince that accompanies the destruction of something fair to see, whether it be a bank, a home, a car, a spaceship, a monument.

Portmanteaus are getting me nowhere (pulcringitude? fairecoil?); attempts to find an already-existent term lost me in the wilds of TvTropes for an hour.  Rereading of Eldred’s sorrow for the things that had been fair helps with quiet meditation but not with neologizing.

Like Thalia, I open the floor.  What would you call it?

Other than "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things"

Other than “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

Literary Liturgical Litany

Having been inspired by Thalia’s Blog Birthday post, I put together this litany for writers.  Its format follows the Great Litany of the Episcopal Church.  No disrespect is intended; rather, I hope that we all might seek the aid of the Author of Life as we set out to write.

O God the Father, whose name precedes all discussion of existence; who spoke all things that are into being; who orders the cosmos with a word,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us; the author and perfecter of our faith; whose words will never pass away,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, who spoke by the prophets; who sunders speech and melds it anew into coherence; who intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,
Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God, who has given the scriptures by inspiration for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness,
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ, our first drafts, nor our long-disposed outlines; neither reward us according to our wordcraft.  Spare us, good Lord, spare thy creatures, for whom thou hast poured out the treasure of thy precious blood: the Word become flesh, the myth become fact, the sinless become sin for our sake.  By thy mercy preserve us, for ever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From tepidity of convictions and weakness of thought, reason, and diction,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From vacuity of substance and fatuous compositions,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From misuse of our time and distractions in our research; from antipathy for labor and the soul-weight of sloth,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From needless verbiage which obscures truth and sense,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From incorrect data, false testimony, skewed perspectives, incomplete citations, and misleading rhetoric,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From disorganized ideas; from overused tropes and clichéd plots; from plot holes and inconsistencies,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From paper-destroying fire and flood; from battery failure, power outages, viruses, frozen screens, unsaved documents, and all other complications,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From writer’s cramp and carpal tunnel syndrome; from smudged ink; from an illegible hand,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From poor grammar and careless editing; from conflation of similar terms and confusion of homophones; from the run-on sentence and typo,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From the evils of comma abuse, apostrophe neglect, and subject-verb disagreement,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From confusion of tense, voice, and mood,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all kinds of aphasia and dullness of expression,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From unconstructive, vicious reviews; from careless readership,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From fear of honest writing and the perils of self-doubt,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all instances of writer’s block; in all time of springing words; in the hour of editing, and in the day of publishing,
Good Lord, deliver us.

We writers do beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God; and that it may please thee to govern our hearts to glorify you in our writing,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to illumine our minds as we put words to the page,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to breathe into our spirits your life-giving word, and sustain us when fainting,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to grant that, in the fellowship of Francis de Sales and all the saints, we may attain to thy heavenly kingdom,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.
Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Grant us thy peace.

O Christ, hear us.
O Christ, hear us.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Let us pray.

We humbly beseech thee, O Father, mercifully to look upon our infirmities; and, for the glory of your Name, turn from us all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and confidence in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness and pureness of living, to thy honor and glory; through our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore.

Thalia and Terpsichore’s Dictionary: Take Two

Decadigit: Ten Fingered.

Lep: The bound of a leprechaun.

Fellowhip: 1) An elite fraternity of whips, all formerly belonging to Indiana Jones  2) The repartee that stings between friends. 3) You’ve got a hip on the right and its fellowhip on the left.

Forknowledge: An expert in cutlery, manners and the ways of life of the best families has a great deal of Forknowledge. He always places them correctly and there are never too many or too few.

Clough: When you laugh with a cold and cough at the same time as laugh.

Whelmed: Up to the nose, but not drowning. Just pleasantly up to the nose…

Lollopy: Characterized by a lack of fiber, moral and physical, combined with a general flabbiness of joint, muscle and mind.

Prerequistites: Pokey rocks in caves that have to take classes

Indentify: To punch a servant while under contract and leave a mark.

Doguheax: pronounced “Dose”. The singular of Dice. For real. As of now.

Josephatty – Someone who eats pączki out of season.

Real Life Word Twisting

I work at a law firm with a rather long name.  Once upon a time, the name was shorter, and a sign on the wall behind my desk told any literate who came in what place they’d entered.  But since certain partners left that position, and other associates stepped up to fill it, the sign behind my desk became defunct.

At first, we simply removed it from the wall – not without trepidation, for we feared that it was affixed with something sterner than four screws hidden behind elaborate caps – and stuck it in the Room of Many Filing Cabinets.  But eventually someone wondered whether it were necessary for any of that precious space to be occupied by an obsolete sign, and on pulling it out, wondered whether the silver letters might be detached.  Our court runner, on finding a hammer, discovered the answer to be “yes,” which is how I came to have in my possession 25 assorted letters, a comma (or apostrophe!), and (to my delight) an ampersand.

Were you to ask why I found it necessary to collect these letters and marks of punctuation, I would have but the poor answer that I might at some point have need of labeling something in a very bold and grandiose fashion.  The sad fact, however, is that the 25 letters in my keeping are proving difficult to work with.  I have a large A, large L, and large Z, and the smaller letters A A C E E E E E  I K L L L M N N P R S X.  Most unfortunate is the utter lack of T’s, O’s, and U’s – and atop that I have but one I, one R, and one S.

Anyone familiar with my less-savory habits will know how much of my time is ill-spent on WordTwist, and how looking at a collection of letters immediately sets the neurons to work.  Spread out on my desk right now are lack, peck, peal, leap, peel, pee, lee, eel, ell, cell, all, pale, call, calk, clam, clad, calm, alms, aim, aims, reel, leerl ear, era, are, earl, real, ran, ranee…I shall stop now before the fever overtakes me completely, as my desk has no timer on it like the game does.

What words can I form that are worth fashioning?  If it weren’t for the one R, I’d stick “MISERERE” on my wall, a constant prayer (and the only one I can think of without any O’s).

So close, and far.

This is rather like playing with those poetry magnets found on so many mini-fridges in college, which are always one state-of-being verb short of making sense:  Men kneel.  …Men need ale.  Isle capelle (wherever or whatever that might be).  Cake.  Caked in sleep.  Axle & Rese (which I can only say is Rose before some significant vowel shift).  Meaner slink.  Keepin’ Max & Elle all scared.  Make space!  Zeal!

Have you suggestions?  Make all, pal!