On Language

December 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Russell Smith has an interesting column in today’s Globe & Mail about mistakes in the English language, when the wrong word is used, and the resulting innovation in language.  He makes a convincing argument, I must say.  And it’s a funny read, too.  Essentially, he argues that malapropisms can lead to new meanings, and, in some cases, welcome meanings.  For example, he presents us with some examples:

How many times, for example, have you heard someone say that she was “on tenderhooks”? She means tenterhooks, of course – the hooks on the tenter, the device that stretches canvas. Such a stretching would make one anxious and eager for the feeling to end. But there is another, perhaps even more painful image that comes from “tender hooks” – the juxtaposition of the sharp hook and something tender, such as flesh. This is a particularly poetic image because it is the hook itself that is tender: This is the kind of impossible metaphor that surrealist poetry is built on.


Similarly, when I read that someone’s hair is “tussled,” I can never be really sure whether it’s a simple misspelling of tousled (rumpled) or a clever play on to tussle or fight – a coiffure that’s been roughed up, you might say. When people say they want to “curve their appetite” I know they mean curb, but an interesting idea comes up: the appetite as line to be bent into the desired direction. I also like the overlay of meaning in “boast your confidence.” It comes from boost, of course, or possibly even bolster, but the new connotation of vanity amps up the phrase a little.

He then talks about “eggcorns”, when we use words incorrectly.  An eggcorn is apparently a more creative malapropism.  Like, for example, Cold Slaw, instead of coleslaw.  Or Jade Goody’s famous declaration that she didn’t want to be an “escape goat.”  And so on.

Balderdash.  Whatever.  Smith clearly has not spent a lot of time marking undergraduate papers.

I see malapropisms and eggcorns and I kind of worry.  For example, my students oftentimes write that they “should of” done something, rather than “should have.”  Or they use “than” instead of “then.”  They don’t know the difference between “they’re”, “there”, and “their.”  Or “where” and “were.”  This kind of thing worries me.  Call me old fashioned, call me fussy, whatever.  I believe literacy matters.  And I get concerned when I come across the sorts of malapropisms I come across marking the average paper.

Language works because it is a universal coding system used by speakers of that language.  English-speakers, for example, have a general, universal, understanding of what words mean.  We see words and we understand their meaning, we then decode them in order to understand what we are reading or hearing (or speaking or writing).  There are times when abbreviations are necessary, such as txting or when we leave short notes for spouses, partners, lovers, roommates, and so on.  But these usually accord to a universally-agreed upon system as well.  These universally-agreed upon codes are central to communication, of communicating ideas to one another.  If we cannot communicate, well, the downside to that is rather obvious, I would say.

And so, when my students display a fundamental misunderstanding of the language they speak, it concerns me.  Especially when they are 19 or 20 years old.  I read too many sentences like this one: “He than thinked of another solution.”  Or “He as did a new program.”  These are real sentences I read today in marking a stack of papers.  The first one, of course, was trying to say “He then thought of another solution.”  The second, harder to decode, meant, “He created a new programme.”

Certainly, it is my job to help students learn these basic facts of communication, but I don’t think that CÉGEP is where they should be learning this.  These are basic laws and facts of the English language I understood long before I finished high school.  Raising a generation of people who are not fully fluent in their native language is a terrifying thought.  Especially when you think about all of the fights and arguments we get into over the course of our lives due to a miscommunication, a word used incorrectly, or heard incorrectly.


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