Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Specious Origins and Opinions

36. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman

I'm back from vacation, where I managed to get a lot of reading done, of which this is the first. Although there are two authors, the book is written in O'Conner's voice and I will refer to her as the author.

This systematic breakdown of contemporary (and primarily American) English usage declares the true history of popular language faux pas in an attempt to establish the legitimacy or illegitimacy of rules such as "No prepositions at the end of a sentence," and "No split infinitives," as well as words like the ever-bastardized "ain't", and the true origins of words and phrases, including how bad bad words really are and why.

Interestingly, O'Conner comes out against some of the best-known "rules" of the English language, both "No prepositions at the end of a sentence" and "No split infinitives" are Latinist add-ons that she claims make no sense for English. O'Conner constantly belittles those poor eighteenth and nineteenth century schmucks like Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, who tried to make English "more like their beloved Latin," in O'Conner's words. She even knocks on British spellings, like "colour" and "centre" and "realise." These, she claims, are Norman French endings or affectations imposed by later Francophiles. While I'm personally fond of the way those spellings look (call me an Anglophile), I do feel it's rare and riveting to see a defense of American English, and she goes so far as to say that the American accent is closer to that of sixteenth century Britons than the accent of Britons today.

The most upsetting myth to be dispelled, for me, was that "marmalade" did not come from "Marie's malade," a concoction made for Mary, Queen of Scots. O'Conner shows that the usage was common much earlier, and that another version of the tale claims the "malade" was for Marie Antoinette! Guess she didn't have marmalade with her cake! (And the "let them eat cake" tale is far older than poor Maria Antonia, as I hope you all know).

O'Conner defends some mispronunciations (even the much-maligned "nucular") and begs her readers to expunge others, like "neesh" for "niche" (it's pronounced "nitch"). While her research on many word myths and origins is commendable and compelling, O'Conner seems to combine an odd blend of prescriptivist and descriptionist language standards. O'Conner's English scorns foreign impositions, particularly French and Latin spellings and pronunciations, but applauds or at least accepts modern changes in meaning and pronunciation, as long as the (American) majority has put it into use. To me, she seems to fight a strange battle, for an American English that clings to Anglo-Saxon roots and selectively incorporates modern slang, but rejects slightly older impurities. An interesting book indeed, but not without its own misconceptions.

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