How NOT to talk about language change

A New York Times article from 1977 article rolled across my screen recently (courtesy of Mark Harris). It concerns language change and boy is it a doozy. The article asked members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel to give their comments on some recent developments in English. Let’s take a look.

So what’s this Usage Panel, huh? I’m glad you asked. The American Heritage Dictionary was invented when Merriam-Webster published their 3rd edition in 1961. And people lost their cot dang minds. Seriously. People thought that Webster’s 3rd was so permissive that they threw it in the trash. A Mr. James Parton lost his minds so bad that he tried to buy Merriam-Webster so he could stop publishing the 3rd edition. He failed and so created the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) with the publisher Houghton. No joke. The AHD might have been the first dictionary created out of rage.

Now, the AHD is a great dictionary. You should check it out. One of the interesting things about it is their Usage Panel, which is a group of scholars, writers, academics, and others who are consulted on language. The AHD sends them a survey and then reports the results in their usage notes at the appropriate entry (I think it’s important to note that the lexicographers at the AHD do not write their definitions based on the replies). Since they send multiple surveys over time, the AHD can show how usage and/or acceptance of a word has changed. For example, here’s the usage note for impact:

That’s all fine and good, but why are we talking about this. Wellllll, the New York Times (NYT) article printed some of the comments of these panelists and these comments have aged like an open cup of yogurt. They are… le cringe (which I’m told is what all the kids say these days). Some of the comments seem downright offensive. But what I really want to show is that language haters said the same things in the 1970s that they said in the 1670s – and unfortunately that they still say today.

Back to the future of linguistic hot takes

In one of my classes, we talk about how English entered its Age of Linguistic Anxiety around the 1600s. This was when people started calling for a standardized form of the language. The calls usually talked about “protecting” English from “corrupting” and “barbaric” uses of the language. For example, in 1712, Jonathon Swift blamed the “ignorant” and “barbarous” people of England’s past for allowing to many changes to occur. To Swift, language change meant language decline – and therefore moral and social decline.

Nothing really came of it except that English developed a standardized form mostly on the basis of 1) what the variety (aka dialect) of the upper class in London was like at the time; and 2) how the people running the printing press wanted to spell words. Various language gatekeepers had some success in setting up “rules” – notably the lexicographers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster – but English never got around to setting up an academy to pass judgment on usage (like France and Spain and other countries did).

This idea of protecting the language was also wrapped up in nationalism. And so later on we got claims like “One Nation = One Language”, an idea that fascists really liked, but that’s a story for another time.

Back to the story at hand. What you’re about to see are some people (who should know better) make some really dumb-dumb claims about language. We can laugh at them now, but let’s remember them the next time we see someone make similar claims in our time. Because that happens.

The Set Up

First up, let’s look at how this article is framed. The author writes:

English suffers endless indignities, but it does not suffer in silence. So many expressions offend against hearing, taste or intelligence that linguistic vigilantes are forever deploying the weapons of authority, scorn, imprecation, even despair.

So what we’re about to see are “indignities” – affronts, offenses, abuses. Think about what you consider an indignity and keep in it mind when we look at the words in question. I guarantee it will not be the same as what’s in this article – or your money back! We’re also supposed to assume that the Usage Panelists are “vigilantes” – What, like Robin Hood? Zorro? The god damn Batman? No. Instead, we’ll see a bunch of people who were contacted by a dictionary and asked to give their opinion, which is about the least vigilante thing I can think of. I mean, petting a kitten is more dangerous than what these people are doing. But sure, they’re vigilantes. Whatever.

The first question posed to the panel is:

Would you favor “affordables.” as in “determining the affordables of skilled workers in a time of prosperity”?

Orville Prescott, a book reviewer for the NYT, calls this word “Vile”, but I suppose that’s what a vigilante would say? Isaac Asimov, the super-famous sci-fi author, says that it’s an “Ugly word.” Spoiler alert to Asimov fans, he’s about to really step in it.

Red Smith, a sportswriter, bizarrely says that “The mother tongue can’t afford it.” What, we gotta pay for new words now, Red? Language is free, boss! In fact, it’s the opposite of free and Red Smith should know that since he literally got paid for writing words down.

The next question is

“Admit” (in the sense of “confess” or “acknowledge”) is often used with “to,” as in “She admitted to having withheld information.” Acceptable?

Gilbert Highet doesn’t like it and claims that “American English tends to heap up unnecessary prepositions and prepositional adverbs: students don’t study Aristotle, they study UP ON Aristotle people don’t meet friends, they meet UP WITH friends. The ‘to’ is quite otiose.” But are these prepositions and adverbs really unnecessary or pointless (aka “otiose”)? To study and to study up on don’t really mean the same thing. The first means to study as in a subject at college, but the latter means something like “read the Wikipedia page of”. And not for nothing, the OED has entries for meet up with going back to 1870. If you’re looking for someone to blame, Gilbert, it’s your parents’ generation, bro.

In Which the Players Show that They Know How to Exaggerate

So we’re starting to see that some of the panelists don’t really like language. Or they like a very specific form of the language – whichever one they happen to imagine that they speak. Isn’t that strange? Ah, it’s probably just a coincidence. What the panelists really like, though, is hating on what they think are new uses or new words.

We see Robert Coughlan say that downplay as a transitive verb is “revolting”. J. K. Galbraith says that free up as a verb is “Indecent, even obscene.” Bruce Catton says that input is “particularly offensive” and Berton Roueché says that this word “turns my stomach”, while Red Smith says it brings him “a violent output of nausea”. The hyperbole is thick with these boys. Or then for some reason the word input made Red Smith throw up. Life must’ve been tough for Red.

Then comes a question about whether the panelists accept prioritize as a verb. J. K. Galbraith says that it is “Terrible. Also cannot be spoken.” Which is weird because prioritize is a really easy word to say. I mean, compared to squirrel or ennui or Schuylkill? Piece of cake. Maybe Galbraith just wasn’t very good at speaking English. Or… he’s being hyperbolic in a condescending manner? What a vigilante.

In the final comments, Heywood Hale Broun says something really peculiar: “Pericles, Cicero, Burke and Lincoln were politicians and they didn’t talk or write this way. What happened?” Well, Heywood, I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons Pericles and Cicero didn’t “talk or write this way” is because THEY WERE BOTH DEAD FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS BEFORE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE EVEN EXISTED. Edmund Burke died in 1797. Are we really supposed to be talking and writing like Edmund Burke? No thanks! Same goes for Lincoln. I mean, go ahead and talk like you’re from 1840. See how that works out for you.

Big Disco Yikes

Ooooookay, time for the bad stuff. The panelists were asked about the word gay meaning “homosexual” and some of their responses are OOF. Let’s set the scene: The year is 1977 and the question is

Is “gay” (homosexual) as an adjective and as a noun appropriate to formal speech and writing? How about “gays” as in “The gays were among small groups of protesters”?

Ruh roh, Reorge.

So, “the gays” sticks out as looking particularly bad. Tacking a definite article onto words used for a group of people has a way of othering them or making them seem distant, not part of the group. When the word is used with a group of people who have a history of being marginalized from society, such as in examples like the gays, the blacks, the Muslims, then it’s even worse because it also treats the group as homogenous, as if they all think and act and speak in the same way. And let’s not forget, the NYT does NOT have a great history with “the gays”. Some hits from the highlight reel:

  • In 1975, the Times style guide was updated to say “Do not use gay as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter.” Because…
  • Gay people working at the NYT were discriminated against for being gay, and…
  • An op-ed in the NYT by William F. Buckley – who was on the AHD’s Usage Panel– argued that people with HIV/AIDS should all be forcibly tattooed. Yeah. That happened. He wrote it and the NYT published it.

See more horrifying examples in a recent letter to an editor of the NYT criticizing its coverage of trans people. The letter can be found here: Scroll down to the paragraph starting with “In 1963…” for the relevant parts to this post.

But let’s see what the Usage Panel thought of gay in 1977. Annie Dillard and Ken McCormick come out looking ok, with both of them accepting gay as an adjective (as in “I’m gay”) but not gay as a noun (as in “the gays”). Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., on the other hand, says “‘Gay’ used to be one of the most agreeable words in the language. Its appropriation by a notably morose group is an act of piracy.” Ah yes, gay people, famous for being… morose? I mean, I guess some gay people are, but… does Schlesinger not know what “morose” means? Huge if true! But’s lets be real here – Schlesinger calls this use of gay “an act of piracy”. That means that gay people are doing something illegal by calling themselves gay. Because gay people didn’t have enough on their hands in 1977, now they also had to be considered criminals. FFS, Arthur.

Then we have Highet again, who says “[W. H.] Auden was a very amusing man when slightly drunk, but one look at that seamed and haggard face would keep anyone from calling him GAY.” That’s right – gay author W. H. Auden was too haggard-looking to be all caps GAY. Maybe he was just lowercase gay? You know, like a little bit gay. Tiny gay, if you will. When he was sober.

Next up is Isaac Asimov, who outdoes the previous brainfarts by saying “I bitterly resent the manner in which ‘gay’ has been forced out of speech. I can no longer say, ‘I feel gay’ or speak of a ‘gay spirit.’” Isaac, buddy, you can definitely say “I feel gay”. No one is stopping you. It’s the 90s 70s, baby. Seriously, though, this quote from Asimov may bother you, but a section of his Wikipedia page is titled “Sexual harassment” so, great sci-fi writer, not a great man.

But Asimov is probably happy that Russell Baker comes directly after him because Baker steals the show with his bigotry… sorry, vigilantism. Baker says “The current acceptance of ‘gay’ reflects a modern tendency of educated folk to oblige vociferously aggrieved minorities too readily, sometimes with odious results.” The what? You mean to tell me that gay people in the 1970s were “vociferously aggrieved”? How about legitimately aggrieved for just wanting to exist without being shunned, assaulted or murdered? Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American medical establishment until nineteen seventy fucking three and by the majority of the public until way too much later. But Baker hates it that people are accepting the term preferred by many gay people at the time – a term specifically used to avoid the derogatory (at that time) word queer. You can tell Baker’s mind is going “How dare gay people choose the word used to reference them and expect us to accept it?!” I say good for gay people for being vociferous. They earned it. And fuck you too, Russell.

— Ok, breathe —

So yeah, it’s pretty bad. Sorry – cringe! It’s cringe. (I’m so hip.) And rightfully so. If these people claim to respect language so much that they accept a position on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, they should know how they’re going to sound in a few decades. They’re not vigilantes saving English from indignities. They’re gatekeeping the spaces of power from anyone who doesn’t speak and write like them and other straight, old, white people.

It is shameful to describe language change with words like “vile”, “ugly”, “otiose”, “detestable”, “revolting”, “indecent”, “obscene”, “odious”, and “offensive”. If a language doesn’t change, it dies. Literally. The people on this panel have a very narrow idea of what English should be. There are boatloads of words that changed meaning before the panelists were born and we have to assume that they are fine with those changes. But for some reason the language has to stop changing during their lifetime. Sorry, but that’s not how the game is played! (Also, it makes you wonder what words these panelists use for actual vile, ugly, and revolting things.)

Remember this when people make similar claims about language change today; when they come across your social media decrying new words and new meanings as “indecent” and “offensive”. Remember this when you see people today trying to use language as a proxy to dehumanize and oppress people. In the 70s it was gay and trans people, today it’s mostly trans people – but they’ll throw gay people in there as soon as they get the chance. Sometimes language change is benign (like input and prioritize) but sometimes its highly tied up with an oppressed group’s struggle for human rights (like gay). These panelists are all dead now (I think – who cares?), but their ideas about language have been passed on – in part because of publications like the NYT lending them credence. The same notions and the same arguments are being used for other words and against other groups of people today. Don’t let them do this. Call them out on it.

(H/t to KP for encouraging me to blog again. Thanks!)

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