(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, May 27.)
I’m not sure whether this qualifies as some sort of psychological disorder, but I have become mildly obsessed with the way we use the English language. It’s reached the point where I find myself frequently jotting down newly observed quirks of linguistic usage and pronunciation.
Some of these irritate me because they’re lazy or ignorant, but just as often I’m simply curious about how they originated and fascinated by the speed with which they take hold. They are as virulent as the most rampant pandemic and as invasive as old man’s beard.
One example is the use of “surgeries” in place of “operations”. My Oxford New Zealand Dictionary, published in 2005, doesn’t define “surgery” as an operation and lists no plural form of “surgery” other than doctors’ surgeries – i.e., the premises where GPs work.
But somewhere along the line, “surgeries” has morphed into a synonym for “operations”. The takeover is now so complete that the latter word is rarely used.
How did this come about? Beats me. “She had three surgeries” conveys no more information than “she had three operations”. But someone, somewhere, decided surgeries was the preferable term, and it took off like a fire in the fern.
The pluralisation of “surgery” is consistent with the equally inexplicable fashion of putting an “s” on the end of other nouns that previously didn’t have one, such as “harm” and “behaviour”.
A British language writer perceptively noted recently that people who talk about “harms” and “behaviours” tend to be the same ones who begin statements with the word “so” – another linguistic practice with no obvious purpose.
Academics and bureaucrats are particularly prone to such usages. Linguistically they are early adopters – eager to embrace new trends, presumably to show they are ahead of the game. Language, after all, has always been a potent means of demonstrating exclusivity and superiority. That’s why so many academics take refuge in pretentious, impenetrable gibberish.
Now here’s another weird thing: “pupils” have become “students”. There has always been a sensible and commonly understood distinction between these words. Children are pupils while they’re at primary school and become students when they move on to secondary school and later to university.
But primary school pupils are now routinely referred to in the media as students, and logically it’s only a matter of time before kindergarten-aged children are similarly labelled. This may result from a misapprehension that the word “pupil” is somehow demeaning, in the same way as “actress” and “waitress” are commonly but mistakenly thought to imply inferiority.
Thus language becomes an ideological tool for putting everyone on the same level, theoretically at least. In the process, English is robbed of words that helpfully convey a precise meaning.
But if some changes in the usage of words may be explained by ideology, others can only be attributed to ignorance. Twice recently I’ve heard broadcasting journalists, one quite senior, say “exasperated” when they clearly meant “exacerbated” – a muddling of two words that sound vaguely similar but have completely unrelated meanings.
Some journalists also confuse “formally” with “formerly” and “incredulous” with “incredible”, and mangle their tenses – for example, using rung instead of rang and shrunk when they should have said shrank. The present generation of journalists may be the most educated ever, in terms of paper qualifications, but their understanding of basic grammar is often poor.
Does it matter? I suspect some journalism tutors would say no, as long as the meaning is clear. But the rules of grammar exist for a reason. Journalism depends on precision and clarity in the way sentences are constructed and words are used. Meaning can be blurred by sloppy writing.
Speaking of grammar, another distinction in danger of being lost is the one between adjectives and adverbs. We’ve all been exhorted recently to “drive safe” and “shop local”. Apparently that extra “ly” – safely, locally – is just too darned cumbersome.
Harmless? I suppose so. In any case, we have to accept that English is in a constant state of flux. But the puzzling question remains: how and where do these linguistic fashions start? “Bored of”, instead of “bored with”, is another. Do these usages originate in some linguistic equivalent of a Wutan wet market?
Last but not least, there’s the relentless advance of American English. Recently heard Americanisms include grocery store for supermarket, yard for garden, to-go for takeaway and the ridiculous “reached out to” for contacted.
We can expect to see more instances of the conjunction and vanishing, resulting in such phrases as “go see this movie” or “come stay with us”. American pronunciation is gaining ground too; “route” is increasingly pronounced to rhyme with “out” and the emphasis is shifting to the first syllable in “address”. This is especially noticeable among millennials.
I have nothing against American English; it’s swell in America. But language is a key part of our culture and identity, and we should treasure it as one of the things that sets us apart.
On the other hand, perhaps we should at least be thankful that we’ve been spared some of the more exceptionally unpleasant Americanisms, such as sonofabitch, asshole and mother****er. Long may it stay that way.