300 Years of Language Peevery

Chances are there's something about the way people use English that annoys the hell out of you. Join the club!


Self-styled language experts — and let’s face it, that includes all of us — have lamented the decline of English for centuries. From shifting pronunciations to newfangled words to evolving grammar, everyone from Jonathan Swift to John McWhorter has a pet peeve or two. What’s yours?

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JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and yeah, Christmas. A Christmas show, a show about Christmas words, but do you really want that? Think about it: “Here's where the word Christmas comes from, and there it went.” “What's the etymology of tinsel?” Do you really? I don't really, but I know that, well, Christmas did happen and podcasters are supposed to do this and so what I will do is: There are these albums, real albums. Well, not exactly real, but this is the era of the LP. And the Firestone Tire Company used to put out these Christmas Carol LPs to make you buy Firestone tires. This was back in the mid 60s, and my parents had some of the Firestone Tire LPs. They had beautiful covers. They look like, you know, classic Rudolph Christmas presents. And for people of a certain age — and I'll admit that I am at that point — the Firestone Christmas albums somehow often come off as what Christmas, as in tacky American Madison Avenue Christmas, is all about, at least sonically. 

And my favorite cut from the ones of those that I have had forever — this is what I remember my parents playing in the late 60s, early 70s, Charlie Brown Christmas, The Energy Crisis, and Firestone Christmas LPs — was Gordon McRae — yes, Gordon MacRae from the film of Carousel, etc. He's always pulling up his pants to show that he's masculine. Gordon MacRae, who was all over the variety shows back then, he's singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and he's trying to sound what they would have called in 1965, soulful. This cut is both bad for the reasons you'll completely understand, but also good. It's actually kind of a good arrangement, and Gordon is trying his best and I play this in my home every Christmas season. People who know me are familiar with it. This is Go Tell It with Gordon 1965. Here we go. 

[“Go Tell It On the Mountain” sung by Gordon MacRae]

So a little Christmas, okay. But, you know, I don't feel like doing a Christmas show; I just want to do some stuff. And what I've been thinking about lately, just randomly, is how utterly — talk about random — how utterly random people's linguistic pet peeves always seem, about ten minutes, literally, maybe, you know, five generations after they put them forth. You see it throughout history. And I want to share that with you because you really have to see how brilliant people have these notions about what they just don't like and feel like there's some authority behind it, and I can't pretend that I'm not one of those people sometimes. And yet you read these people later and they sound so — well, you know — and so I just want to give you some examples. We're going to go through some history very quickly. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, a wise person. It's 1712, when he writes a piece called A Proposal for Correcting and Proving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. (I'm not sure what that “ascertaining” means, but you know, the meanings of words change, you know, as Justice Scalia liked to show us.) 

So A Proposal for Correcting and Proving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, and Swift had a problem with the way people were beginning to speak English, which seems so deliciously, deliciously quaint today. Here's what he said: “What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable” — in other words, drudged, disturbed, rebuked, fledged. He thought they should be drudg-ed, disturb-ed, rebuk-ed and fledg-ed, like we say bless-ed. So: “Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” That's what he said. So he didn't like that people were leaving out the E sound in the past tense or past participle forms. So not disturbed, but disturb-ed. Not full fledged, but you're supposed to say full fledg-ed. You wonder why you say bless-ed now? It's because that's the way it was pronounced at a certain time. Here is Swift kind of straddling the errors, where you could say disturb-ed or disturbed; he thinks disturbed is slangy. “And a thousand others every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse,” he doesn't like what he's hearing. Can you imagine? Now, of course, very quickly, while he was living, the non-voweled pronunciations were becoming the standard, except in the occasional example of one of the verbs where the old pronunciation stayed when you're being kind of quaint. 

So: “he was blessed with an ability to do math very quickly.” You don't say “he was bless-ed” with the ability,” but “oh, well I am a bless-ed person, etc.” And you're thinking of [hums Amen chord] (that's supposed to be an Amen chord). OK? But generally it's no longer bless-ed and you certainly don't say rebuk-ed. And this is Jonathan Swift, who I think we can agree was quite the brilliant person. He wasn't an idiot. He was one of the smartest people who ever lived. But he didn't like hearing the past tense forms shortened because that was new to him then. 

And yes, I know some of you were thinking: that accent that I did badly, that plummy British accent — that didn't exist when he was writing in 1712. That British accent that we think of as so gorgeous, Stewie Griffin wonderful, that only really came in after 1800. Not to mention that Jonathan Swift was originally Irish, but still the way he wrote, it sounds like it was in that accent. That's my favorite example. So he's thinking that we're supposed to say, “Well, I was disturb-ed” and we're thinking, “No, sorry, Jonathan, it changed, and you must accept it.” But that made perfect sense to him at the time. He thought he was speaking from a mountaintop. That was 1712. 

1762, Robert Lowth. He's a bishop. He's an intellectual. He's a leader. He's British. He's about to be appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. He's a very important man. He knows many, many things. He knows his Hebrew. He knows his English because he speaks it and of course, Latin and Greek. And in 1762, he writes what he calls A Short Introduction to English Grammar. This was the first classic grammar of English. There had been some before, but this one really got around and it set what people thought of as the proper English, to an extent, forever. There are things in this that we talk about now that really only started with him. But what's interesting about Robert Lowth and the short introduction to English grammar is that if you actually read it — and you should, because it's short, frankly — you know, this is when people have to write things in blood with a quill, so things don't usually get that long unless somebody really is obsessed with something, like Isaac Newton. And so you can read this in, you know, one third of an afternoon and every now and then you run across something that this person said — and it wasn't really that long ago. We're talking about 250 years ago, that is 10 seconds. I mean, people were already writing about this when it was less than 200 years ago. Here's this person, and he has these notions of how one should express oneself that now sound utterly ridiculous. An example: I spit if I must — never understood why some men feel the need to, you know, kind of go and spit on the ground. I've never felt the need to do that, but apparently — I get the feeling most men in the world need to kind of [makes phlegmy sound] spit. No, you take care of it more gracefully, but let's say that you're going to spit. So how did you do it yesterday? You spat. Now, if you're going to make it into a participle:  I have — and you probably pause a little — but it's spat. “I have spoken.” “I have spat.” No; Lowth thought it was spitten. “I have spitten.” Is that what it is? That's what he thought it was. I don't even need to check it out. There were people saying all sorts of things instead of spitten at the time. But he liked spitten. And so for him, it was, “Well, you know what? I have spitten.” And therefore, I have certain authority or vulgarity or something. 

This is even better; a chick, that's one hen or rooster or something. Chicken is two chicks. And so one chick, two, three or four chicken. And if that sounds stupid, remember: ox and oxen? So there are many oxen. Here's a chick [makes odd clucking sounds] whatever they do sound-wise. And then if there are two or three of them, then look at them chicken. That's what Robert Lowth thought. And remember, this is not some middle English from 4,000 years ago. This is like ten minutes ago. And he thinks that chicken is the plural of chick. That's not the way it is now. 

Now it's easy to get from, you know, chick to chicken being one thing. I once had a friend, a very literate friend who had this little problem. Like, I have problems like that. I do not know the difference between bought and brought. I know intellectually, but I cannot do it in fluent speech. I brought myself a Slim Jim at 7-Eleven yesterday. I bought the chair over. Both of those sound great to me. There's some kind of kink. There's some neuron. This person's version of that was that they were always saying that something was an oxen, an oxen instead of an ox. They didn't have that right. Well, same thing with with chicken, but with Robert Lowth, he still had the idea that there's one chick and then five chicken. And that's the way he thought that thing should go. Do we? I doubt it. And now here we are. 

And so: Christmas show, if we must. Let's do some Steely Dan. A lot of you like that. Let's do some obscure Dan. Let's do early Dan, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” back when they're this sort of post 60s rocky funky group. This is a very warm song. It has that family thing which, TMI, I never really had in the way that I wish, but I recall the approximation of it back in the 70s. And so you've got your family and you know how that goes on this album, which I think about when I talk about albums, an LP. I first had this on LP. I bought it from a Two Guys. That's how far back I go. It's “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” I've never known what that meant, either. This is that weird kind of Burrows-esque poetry of theirs, but it's a lovely, warm song. So let's hear about Christmas and family, although they're not talking about Christmas, but it gives me that feeling. 

[“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” by Steely Dan]

All right, so 1700s. Well, that maybe feels like it's so long ago because you know those are people from the 1700s. Let's get into the 1800s and let's go well into them. There's a person I could stop for around 1825, but let's leave him out. And so let's do 1872. Richard Grant White. You know who that was. You don't need to know anything about that person, but from those three names, you know what Richard Grant White was in 1872, if he was a person with a certain authority. He was a Shakespeare scholar. Big surprise. What else would Richard Grant White be interested in in 1872? And he was a critic. He was a literary critic. I'm not always sure just what that is, but he was a critic, and that meant that he was authoritative and that meant that people listened to him about language. 

So here is an America in which there's an increasingly influential — in certain cities, and of course, what I mean by that is New York — but in certain cities, there is an increasingly influential bourgeoisie. Think about the — I should say play, but you know who does the play? Think about the movie, “Life With Father.” Think about, you know, William Powell and Irene Dunne, and they're living in a brownstone and it's the late 1800s. People like that were very self-conscious about the way they spoke. And so there were people like Richard Grant White who would tell them, this is very Edith Wharton. And if you actually read Richard Grant White, which you shouldn't, then you find all sorts of things that are delightfully non-sensible. Whereas he thought of himself with his walking stick and his —I'm just guessing that he took laudanum. He thought of himself as quite authoritative. 

For example, this is just how he felt about the word “standpoint.” I just love this. We use the word standpoint, we think nothing of it. We have problems with things like using “structure” as a verb, etc. But he didn't like standpoint, and you read him on it and it's just like, what the— now I'm not going to say it. Bt at one point, he says: “Granting for a moment that standpoint may be accepted as meaning standing point, and that when we say from our standpoint, we intend to say from the point at which we stand, what we really mean is from our point of view, and we should say so.” Oh, standpoint, which may be accepted as meaning standing point. Well, I don't know if that's what I thought it meant, but that's what he thought it meant. Maybe because it was newer and you're thinking, well, keep going, Richard Grant White, because you like Shakespeare, you must be smart. And so what else? So he goes on further: “stand-point,” — he has little dash between stand and point — “stand-point, whatever the channel of its coming to use” — in other words, he means people who are not classy. So “stand-point,” even if it's being used by people who aren't in like the House of Mirth, “is of the sort to which the vulgar words washtub, shoehorn, brewhouse, cookstove belong. The first four of which are merely slovenly and uncouth abbreviations of washing tub, shoeing horn, brewing house, and cooking stove.” 

So shoehorn, like if you must use one, is shoeing horn really the proper term? If you've got a washtub, none of us do now, but if we did have it would we feel like we were supposed to call it a washing tub? He thinks that you should call it that because maybe people called it that before. Or maybe he just, because he had three names and was Richard Grant White, thought that that's what it should be. And so you keep reading you — what the hell are you talking about? And so he gets down to cases. This is my favorite Richard Grant White: “Rainbow, bow of rain.” I never thought of it as that, but: “Rainbow, bow of rain. Breadknife, knife for bread. Housetop, top of house.” Now this is a little weird, but this is what he wrote: “Dancing girl, girl for dancing.” Kay. “And standing-point — point for or of standing and so forth — but by no contrivance can we explain stand-point as the point of or to or for stand.” Now to imagine how he talked, we have to do Richard Hayden the character actor, something like [does accent] “Dancing girl, girl for dancing. And standing-point — point for or of standing and so forth — but by no contrivance can we explain stand-point as the point of, or to, or for stand.” No, I don't know what that means. What's wrong with standpoint? And yet, this person was taken very seriously. He was not an idiot. He was just in and amidst his time and didn't like a newish word, just like somebody today saying, “Well, I don't like it when somebody says they're going to structure something because structure is a noun.” Well, OK, good for you. But people keep using it as a verb. Many, many people, and in a hundred years, anybody who sees old internet posts about not liking structure as a verb is going to think “Ooooh how quaint,” except they’re not going to express it that way. 

And so, more music! It's the Columbus Boy Choir. This is on these Firestone albums. Everybody had it; it’s not just me. In middle-class America, back in the 60s, 70s — I'm not even going to say into the 80s; you have to be a 70s person for this — quote unquote “everybody” had this, and I mean it race-neutrally because, you know, everybody had tires. I knew many Black people who had the Firestone albums, and because the covers were good, you would kind of have them in the living room. So it did shape what you thought of as a Christmas carol. And so you've got an-gels instead of angels. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” That's always been one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it's partly because of the way they do it [sings in castrato] with the Columbus Boy Choir in this, where these boys very well trained, very musically directed boys, before things have happened to them down below or up there, and they are singing in their little boy sopranos. And it's, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” To me, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” is this — this is actually from early in the Firestone LP I think most people liked the most, which is the ‘65 one. So here is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” where you actually get what this song means, because it sounds so clear because these boys' voices — just listen. 

[“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” sung by the Columbus Boys Choir]

OK, so the 1800s, well, they didn't have electricity, you know, but what about the 20th century? Let's go in. This is risky here. It's 1946. It's in Columbia where I teach; Jacques Barzun. Jacques Barzun. This is one of my probably top four favorite scholars ever. Talking about critic, he could criticize anything. He knew everything. Historian literature, the book From Dawn to Decadence, where he just writes about basically everything with serene authority. He lived to 100 and either four or six. It might as well have been 138. He knew everything. He walked around on the campus that I walk around on. This man is the shit. I mean, I am in awe of Jacques. I wish that I had, you know, been at Columbia such that I could have had lunch with him at the faculty club or something. He's amazing. Yet, Jacques Barzun had some feelings about language because anybody does. Anybody did. And there's one piece in the Atlantic where he lays out his views. And you know what? Even him, even him, I mean, this shows that it's not about brilliance. It's not about erudition. It's not about whether you're a good person. It's not about cultural sensitivity. This man knew all things. And yet, when he talks about the words that he likes and doesn't like, all of a sudden he's just one of us. He had a piece in the Atlantic, which I write for now. I didn't think about this. He taught at Columbia, and he wrote a piece in the Atlantic. So like, I'm walking around in his shadow and you read about what he likes and doesn't like. He's so smart about all of it, erudite, he's learned, he knows everything. Here are the words he didn't like. Get ready. Evaluate, absenteeism, finalize, directive, to implement, and he didn't like the word cheeseburger. It's not that he didn't like cheeseburgers, just he thought that was a vulgar term.

This is Jacques. This is the person who wrote From Dawn to Decadence. This is the person who wrote 700 other books. And yet the way he felt about language, he was caught up in the same sort of thing that I am where I cannot stand it. It happened even today, where somebody says, “Can I get a coke?” No, you cannot get it. No. “May I have a Coke?” “I'll take a Coke.” Not “can I get it?” It just implies that you already were deserving of it, or it's just a weird use of get? Or frankly, I find it vulgar. I hate to admit it, if I were a Richard Grant White, if I billed myself as John Hamilton McWhorter V, I would say you should not — oh, should do the voice [does the voice] — “You should not say can I get a Slurpee? Can I get a Philadelphia pretzel?” Which is what I actually heard it used for today. “ ‘Can I get’ — it is vulgar.” But no, people say it all the time. It's going to become ever more popular. I have hated “can I get” since I first heard it 25 years ago? I will hate it until I hypothetically — I don't think I'm going to — but hypothetically die. I would never write about it. I would never talk about it on a podcast because I know that it's just me. 

And we can bring this into our time. 1999, Charles Harrington Elster. Yeah, that's the name. This person is actually alive. And he wrote a book delightful in itself called, “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Ultimate Opinionated Guide for the Well-Spoken.” All right, you want to be well-spoken? All right, let's try this. I'm trying to be well-spoken. Here's my attempt. I have created a hypothetical little segment based on some words that he pays special attention to. Here it goes: “The alumni decided over a salad with balsamic vinegar that to eliminate medieval studies will be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” That's how I would say it. And there are people who tell me, “Oh, well, you know, you're articulate, etc.” I don't know about that, but I am not told that I am not good with the words. And I would say, “The alumni decided over a salad with balsamic vinegar to eliminate medieval studies would be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” What's wrong with that? 

Well, apparently, what I should have said was [phonetically] “The alumnee decided over a salad with balsaamic vinegar that to eliminate med-ee-eval studies would be about as worthy of congratchulations — not congratulations — but congratchulations as gymnaast would be in need of a yarrrmulke.” As a gymnaast, this reminds me of Shirley Jones in the movie Oklahoma, saying a month “mudwaasp” instead of a “mud wasp.” But apparently I'm supposed to say a gymnast would be in need of a yarrrmulke, a yarrrmulke. OK, now that's what Charles Harrington Elster, who I don't know, thinks that one should say for reasons that are very charismatic, but I'm sorry, there's a little bit of Richard Grant White about it. 

So, for example, I'm a highly Jewish-adjacent person, have been my entire life. It started with my Montessori and Quaker schools, where in Philadelphia, at least in the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of Jewish kids at them. And as far as what you put on your head, I've said yarmulke [“yah-makah”] all my life and nobody has ever corrected me. “Yarrrmulke”. No, I learned that's how it was written. But everybody said “yah-makah.” Oh, by the way, what I'm saying in this paragraph is “to eliminate medieval studies would be about as worthy of congratulations as a gymnast would be in need of a yarmulke.” And what I mean is that a gymnast would not need of all things, a yarmulke. But are there Orthodox Jewish gymnasts who keep their kippah on while they're performing? I don't know. But you take my point. Most gymnasts would not say that I have to have a kippah on my head. I actually got to say that sentence once in my life. Orthodox Jewish gymnasts who keep their kippah—? Anyway, Charles Harrington Elster is a very interesting writer, but I'm sorry there's a little bit of Jonathan Swift there. There's a little bit of Jonathan McWhorter, although that's not my name, not liking “can I get.”

So yes, the thing about Porsche, the car, he thinks it should be “Porsch.” OK, but why? Because I don't want to call it a “Porsch.” I call it a Porsche. There was somebody in my neighborhood when I was a kid who had a Porsche, and I remember that all the kids, including me, would run after it and say, Oh, cool car, cool car, cool car, I was six. So 1971, I had been calling it a Porsche for 50 years. Here's why I'm wrong. This is Harrington Elster, who's a very good writer: “In my experience, how you pronounce this word/name depends largely on whether you own the automobile in question. Porsche does not appear in any of my references, so I must rely solely on the evidence of my ears, which tells me that those who own a Porsche or wish they did tend to prefer the disyllabic Porsche, while those who don't and could not care less tend to prefer the monosyllabic Porsche. Because the great majority of us don't own or aspire to own a Porsche, I recommend the monosyllabic pronunciation as less ostentatious.” No, no! I want to call it Porsche, partly because that's what it looks like to me on the page, because I have a relatively comfy relationship with the German tongue, I don't know. And so look at your Porsch, and yet I want to call it a Porsche, but I will likely never have one. Partly because I've never liked the way they look. Porsche. Now this business of Porsch is what you call it if you don't have one, and therefore that should be the more widely used pronunciation? I get it, Charles Haddington Elster. I get what you mean, but that's — that’s not legal. That's not absolute. We're going to call that thing what we want to call it because his ideas, as beautifully put as they are, let's face it, they're a little arbitrary. 

Ah, you linguists are so permissive. You know where I get a lot of it? From Steven Pinker, who I have always learned so much from. I don't want to call him a mentor, but I should. And talk about his book The Language Instinct, which one should, 1994. He wrote about prescriptivism: the idea that we should trim language, that there are ways that we should speak and ways that we shouldn't that have nothing to do with clarity, but just picayune issues of logic, things that people with three names prefer. Pinker is the one who taught me to resist that kind of reasoning. And in The Language Instinct, at one point, he says: “One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.” 

So here we are back at the Atlantic. Back in the 90s, Mark Halperin wrote in a really neat article in the Atlantic that really got around. He wrote against Pinker's anti-prescriptivism. Halpern wrote, “Cat fancier clearly have no grounds for telling mammalian biologists” — I bet people say mammalian — “cat fanciers clearly have no grounds for telling mammalian biologists how to go about their business. Have the biologists any more grounds for telling the fanciers that this shorthair is too cobby, that Siameses’ points are too dark and the whole show should be canceled anyway?” Good line, Mark Halperin, but you know what? Frankly, if you compare what Pinker said, and Halpern's retort — I went to a cat show once, and I didn't like it. It was in Red Hook, New Jersey, and I could tell the kind of cat I like, like my cats over the years, would never win the show. There were all these little fluffy fuckers. I'm sorry to put it that way, but these fluffy cats that they look like, they know that they would win at a cat show. I like a sleekish, like no-nonsense looking cat, that looks like it could write books and maybe, maybe it even thinks that it does. Not these fluffy little fuckers. And so this issue of the cat show having any kind of authority? Let's say that the person who is the scientist has questionable authority. But no, the cat show analogy doesn't work for me because I don't like what kind of cats win at the cat show, and you can't tell me that I'm wrong, just because I like patting a cat that doesn't make me sneeze because a bunch of fur comes up in my nose. 

In any case, here's a little more of Gordon MacRae singing “Go Tell it on The Mountain.” We're going to see out this cut because I have listened to it complete for almost 25 years every Christmas. And, you know, my parents played this straight. This was Christmas music. This is, you know, people drinking their high balls in 1965. This was it. I play it in fond irony, but it's tradition. (Notice that I have made this kind of Christmas show without meaning to — as if I planned all this.)

But this is how that cut ends:

[“Go Tell it on the Mountain” sung by Gordon MacRae]

[Lexicon Valley theme music]

So if you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts at this thing called Booksmart — which is different from Slate — so Banished and Bully Pulpit, or just to subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org, just type it in and you'll get to it. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo. Our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services and wisely selected this year when we were starting this from, among other choices by my lady love. And notice, I just did kind of a Christmas show, and that's the best that I could do. But I hope you enjoyed what I took you through, which was what I was actually thinking about when it was time to plan this end-of-the-year show. I am, as you know, John McWhorter.