Friday, November 4, 2011

words’ worth

Words [of any language or dialect] are one of mankind’s greatest inventions. The strengths of English, and its position as lingua franca is due, ‘they’ say, to its adaptability and its incorporation of useful words from other languages.

This has led to – amongst other things – the useless abomination known as International English: A type of jargon in which each word or sentence makes total sense but which, in total, leads to paragraphs and speeches which are ultimately meaningless.
An example lifted from Wikipedia goes something like this:

“In order to solve the stress that international students have, some scholars gave some suggestions, including deal with the problems with a positive attitude and educate international students to use various ways to help them solve their problems…”

[If you need further examples of correct but meaningless English, please see any scuzei bog.]

Whether the need for an international language or simply an increase in levels of mass communication is to blame, the English language is being bastardised by unnecessary changes in otherwise adequate words and expressions, so that ‘sign’ has become ‘signage’ and to increase the value of an asset is now ‘to grow an asset’ – as if all we need do is add water.

One source of fascination for me is the way speakers of English as a second language might misinterpret an English word and rework it so that it makes more sense today than the original English.
For example [before built-in-robes became standard in new houses] a friend increased her English vocabulary with the word “walldrobe”.
This improvement now lacks a reference to the origin of the original word – ‘keeper of the robe’ – but I’m not sure it matters.

Many speakers of English as a first language have completely lost the plot, believing, for example, that the person who hires and fires in a company is the ‘Personal” manager. No doubt if the mistake were pointed out to them, many might reply “I could of got that editing job if only I’d of known’.

In the 1960s a series of books written by Alastair Morrison were published, the first volume of which was Let’s Talk Strine. The pen name adopted by the author provides a clue to the idea behind the books– Afferbeck Lauder [for Alphabetical Order] – that idea being to help English speakers understand what Australians are really saying.
One favourite piece of Strine [Australian] which many my age still tend to use and understand is ‘Emma?’, from ‘Emma Chisit – an inquiry about the price of something’.

Portmanteau words were first explained by Lewis Carroll in 1871, in Alice Through the Looking Glass, where he uses the word ‘slithy’ to mean ‘lithe and slimy’.
Modern portmanteau words include ‘globish’ [global English] and ‘Brangelina’.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to English was the book by Douglas Addams and John Lloyd, The Meaning of Liff. Using nothing but genuine place names, they came up with words to describe those situations and things for which no word yet existed, e.g.:

Cromarty (n.): The brittle sludge which clings to the top of ketchup bottles and plastic tomatoes in nasty cafés.

Dalmilling (ptcl. vb.): Continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book.

Which brings me to what prompted this pompous post: When trying to explain the steps involved in using a computer program, unbearable frustration makes you want to just take over and do it yourself. For this, a workmate invented the word ‘mouseturbation’.


  1. I feel the need to address this post as I kind of care about words, even if I at times get them wrong.

    The Wiki piece is a classic. I had to read it three times, but it doesn't say much.

    Sign, signage. My hated one, and even my mother has picked it up and uses it, orientated, rather than oriented.

    Let's Talk Strine? Surely that was the seventies? Oh, a quick count on fingers, maybe it was sixties.

    I love cromarty and dalmilling. Very useful. But they won't catch on.

    Frustration when you are showing something on a computer and they can't see the bloody obvious in front of their eyes is underated by mouseturbation. It is pure rage, where you want to shake them to sense.

  2. Hi Andrew, I feel your rage, and must apologise for being speechless with laughter [born of guilt].

  3. HAhaha! LOVE mouseturbation ... if only I had a job where I could use it!! No, hang on - I'd MUCH rather be bringing you bakery-laden travel blog posts, what am I thinking??!!

    I blame the Word spellchecker (and blind acceptance of its asinine suggestions) for gems like 'Personal' manager! When my office was first 'blessed' with Word, the customer service section immediately went from being the 'Enquiries' team to the 'Enquires' team - a small, but subtle difference!

  4. Hi Red, hope the word did not make you choke on that streudel with pure whipped cream. Having said this, spellcheck suggested an alternative spelling for streudel. What popped up on Google has put me off my alfalfa and wheatgerm. Where was I?
    Oh yes, it is a clever word and I wish I could take credit for it. I have worked with some smart people over the years.
    Yes, I have had occasion to use the word but have always felt the need to censor myself - not for fear of offending but fear of having to explain it.