Last week on Dictionary Day, Charles Gibson of ABC News ran a piece on how language evolves through the repeated use and gradual acceptance of erroneous word usages. I couldn't find any comments on that piece here (but maybe there are), so went out and found this blog entry on the subject. Along the way, I found another engaging article engaging article about shifting verb forms.
The ABC segment gave me a chance to explain to my husband the difference between a prescriptivist and a descriptivist--words I never used until I came here.
P.S. We should have Ben Zimmer look up "be gleamed" in the Oxford University Corpus.
Word: I used to be a pre- but it causes anxiety and heartburn so I turned in my credentials and adopted those of the de-
Although I must admit I'm still appalled every time I see a semiconductor memory called a "drive"
Interesting blog entry by Zimmer and another to which he links. These concerns, as well as the popularity of the terms prescriptivist and descriptivist, all stem from the early '60s when Merriam-Webster published the third edition of their international, unabridged dictionary. Though, Charles C Fries wrote a book that went far to disturb people in 1940, American English Grammar: The Grammatical Structure of Present-day American English with Especial Reference to Social Differences or Class Dialects. In it, he looked at personal and business letters, and other documents, written by people who seldom wrote in formal English. Not all language changes stem from mistakes. Dale's passionate drive and my oft-mentioned file are good examples of gradual change over time. File originally referred to the red silken string that held together important multi-page documents. Then it came to mean the manila folder in which such documents were kept. Next, it was transfered to the things stored rather than their container. When a metaphor was needed in the IT industry for a collection of bytes with a specific name and location, file became some pulses on some magnetic medium. (Of course, to most computer users a file is an abstract something like a letter to mom that is viewed in a word processor and which is associated with a dog-eared page icon in some, equally iconic, folder on a drive.) Drive has a similar history. From its early meaning to push or propel something or someone, to its application, again in computer terminology to a mechanism that turned some physical medium around so that fixed heads could read the data, to the entire mechanism of stepper motors and media, and finally to a black box, the contents of which few people know about or have seen the internals of. This black box meaning is now used by some of a device, also a blackbox, that stores files on flash memory (or chips). That a similar meaning, i.e., RAM drive, predates the Web is also overlooked.
—Ceci n'est pas un seing.
This is mentioned in Ronald Wardhaugh's "Proper English". The third edition of Webster’s dictionary in 1961 described usage and marked a lot of words as "nonstandard", "slang", and "vulgar". It was condemned. It was called a "scandal and a disaster," a "political pamphlet," "bolshevik".
So in 1969, the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language deliberately tried to create a guidebook of usage rather than a descriptive document. They "eschewed the 'scientific delusion' that a dictionary should contain no value judgments." They gathered a panel of writers, educators, and judges to formulate opinions on how the language should be used. Linguists were not invited.
American Heritage Dictionary
It's interesting that recently the AHD has been becoming less normative in the eyes of many prescriptivists.
Slowly, but surely, I've been collecting many of the books of usage mentioned in the bibliography of the wonderful Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. They make for good reading, and it's fun to trace the history of particular usages. I've oftentimes wondered in awe at the propensity of self-anointed grammar mavens to judge folks by how they speak and write. A blog entry is not a letter to mom, an SMS text message, or an article intended for a refereed journal. They insist that language change is decay and that the only kind of change is by mistake. I think it more likely that much language change comes about precisely because of people's desire and need to communicate. (The primary purpose of communication is to impart new information, and people are constantly tweaking the meanings of words by using them in ways that depart from the norm.) A doyen of literate society looks at some teens texting one another and expresses horror at the degradation of the language brought on by semi-literate ignoramuses. I look at the same thing and see people using a language in a compact and efficient way to communicate. I may not text myself, I may not understand or agree the subject of their discussion, but I have to agree that what there doing is communicating with language. I am amused with, but somewhat saddened by, people, who after ranting on and on about the fiats of political correctness and the horrors of linguistic engineering at the hands of a language academy along the lines of the French or Spanish models, then turn and tell me (and anybody else within hearing or reading distance) that there is but one kind of English and we must all slavishly adhere to its rules (as revealed to us by Saints Lowth, Fowler, Simon, Fiske, Truss, and the chorus of celestial grammarians). That they can do this without sensing the irony of it all flabbergasts me.
—Ceci n'est pas un seing.
They've even got a linguist heading their usage panel nowadays!
That's a long list! I wish you luck.
Very interesting, Wordmatic. I like the idea of tools to determine how people are using language. Surely the onset of the Web has brought up more of these variants than have occurred in the past.