The Greatest Review of the OED I Know

Speaking of the OED, filed under People Who Win the Internet is the Amazon reviewer who goes by the simple moniker person. I first stumbled upon this person when I was looking at the OED on Amazon. I noticed that someone gave it a one-star review. Who gives the OED one star, I thought. Then I read the review:

Very slow
I’m at the ABs, and I still can’t get a grip on the plot. Characters enter, are introduced in exhausting detail and then disappear again! Very frustrating. The only time an old character shows up again is in another’s history!
Perhaps things will become clearer when we meet Oxford, English or Dictionary — clearly three key figures.

If you have some time, I recommend reading some of person’s other reviews. They’re hilarious.

Unfortunately, person says that they are not allowed to write reviews anymore. From now on they will be handled by reviewer Pirate the Cool. So be it.

On the bright side, this type of snarky reviewing happens a lot more than I was aware of. Here’s the A.V. Club on some of the more famous examples. Included in that list is a product called Uranium Ore (“for educational and scientific purposes only” butofcourse). Person’s review of the product:

Not very practical
Every time I try and use this, the Libyans show up and steal my DeLorean.

Maybe these reviews are a little ahead of your time. But you kids are gonna love ’em.

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Two thoughts on two recent OED Words of the Day

1. The OED’s word of the day for January 24 was doryphore (subscription to OED required):

doryphore, n.
One who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.

If only this word was more common, we’d have the perfect term to describe 99% of internet commentors.

xkcd

2. The OED’s Word of the Day yesterday (Jan. 29) was green man. I think the first definition is the most appropriate in this day and age:

green man, n.
1. a. In outdoor shows, pageants, masques, etc.: a man dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility. Now hist.

“Now historical”? Like many, many thousands of green people from history times? Class.

And Read All Over Wuz Here

Recently, an Estonian friend sent me a link to The Chaos, an interesting poem which points out the irregularities of spelling in English. I’ve been seeing it pop up on Facebook for a little while now and although it is an impressive piece of poetry (for its content, not its meter), I don’t think many people think about why exactly it’s interesting. If you haven’t read it, go here and check it out. No need to read the whole thing, the first couple of lines will tell you what you need to know.

First, the poem was written by a Dutchman, Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité, as an introduction to spelling irregularities for learners of English. In that, it’s quite amazing as the full version of the poem lists about 800 irregularities. But the real question is, why would English learners need to be told about the irregularities of English spelling? Presumably they would come across it in every class. Also, English certainly isn’t the only language with irregular spelling. What is amazing about The Chaos then is that it is a poem about a language with irregular spelling (English) by a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (Dutch) and dedicated to a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (French – do I really need a link here?).

Second, the poem is bound to trip up native English speakers in some places. Consider:

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.

That tier/tier tripped you up at first, didn’t it? It’s because the context which the pronunciation is based on comes after the first instance of two homonyms – tier and tier. There are other examples presented without any context (does – third-person singular of do or plural of female deer?), but they really just point out what speakers of languages with irregular spelling already know – context is key.

Third (and somewhat related to the point directly above), mispronunciations are rarely examples of a non-native English speaker rhyming a word with another of similar spelling. Consider this line from the poem:

Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Have you ever heard a non-native speaker rhyme these words? I didn’t think so. If I was more of a dialect expert, I could speak better about this, but learners of English (whether as a first language or not) very clearly learn to do away with the notion that words with similar spellings always rhyme (or to base their pronunciations of unknown words on the pronunciation of words with similar spellings). This is very easy for humans to do.

Fourth, The Chaos is bound to not rhyme in some places for some native speakers. There’s a classic example of the difference in pronunciation between, for example, Brits and Americans in the last stanza:

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?

The different pronunciations of rather nicely encapsulate the problem with this poem, i.e. that English orthography is causing a problem with learning. This idea is not as spelled out in the poem as it is by (Dum Dum Dummmm) The English Spelling Society. According to their “Axioms,” the spelling irregularities of English make “literacy unnecessarily difficult in English throughout the world, and learning, education and communication all suffer.” Hmmm… sounds tempting, but at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man (“no good rotten kids can’t bother to learn the language like I had to”), there are also some major problems with spelling reform.

I’m willing to kind of sort of suppose that English orthography could be easier on the eyes, but in light of the problems associated with spelling reform and a lacking body of research on dyslexia (both in and across languages with different orthographies), I’m left to wonder which is the bigger problem – irregular spelling or spelling reform? I also don’t think the spelling reformists take psycholinguistics and the capabilities of the human brain seriously enough.

Finally, and completely unrelated, is the English Spelling Society’s take on why English spelling should be more like Finnish spelling. It’s not that such a thing wouldn’t help, it’s just that they clearly don’t know much about the Finnish language. It’s hard to take a group seriously when they publish nonsense like this. I recommend those with knowledge of Finnish to head on over here for a few chuckles. Here are a couple of highlights with my comments:

NK and NG [in Finnish] are sounded as in English sinking. [Not by native Finnish speakers, that is.]

The lack of a B means that most Finnish ears cannot distinguish, eg, Big Ben from pig pen. Nor can they distinguish between shoes, choose and juice, and as they always stress the first syllable, they tend to pronounce interpret as interbreed. [Seriously, the Finns this guy was hanging out with either had a twisted sense of humor or they were retarded. Interbreed? WTF?]

Dear (Language Maven/Concerned Citizen/Just Another English User)

In order to make your (job/life/peeving) easier, I, Dr. Joe McVeigh, have decided to create this simple form. Whenever you come across an example of the English language (deteriorating/going all to hell/just simply changing), just circle the appropriate word or phrase in this form, send it off to me and I will forward it to every major newspaper and dictionary in the English-speaking world.

Just the other day I noticed a couple of (teens/colleagues/talking parrots) using too many (adverbs/passives/cheifs, not enough Indians). I nearly (had a heart attack/shit a brick/stopped caring about this). These (people/Neanderthals/birds) were unaware that the sharp ears of the English language’s (arbiter/guardian/inquisition) was listening.

I just have to (speak my disapproval/lodge a formal complaint/foam at the mouth) at such (idiotic/rude/innovative) use of (the English language/my language/their language).

If such practices are allowed to continue, I fear our language may be heading down a dangerous path. Why, in no time at all we may be speaking (a different language/like primitives/English still).

I just can’t stand it anymore and I have to speak up. The correct way to do it is (blah/blah/blah). Please distribute my (opinion/judgment/ranting and raving) to the masses, so that they may (one day be/get guilt tripped into/still not care about) speaking like me, the (greatest/most pretentious/Grade A asshole) of the English language.

Sincerely,

_______ _________

p.s. We all know the English language was perfected (when I graduated high school/when I graduated college/sometime last week).

English Words with No Equivalents

You’ve seen the lists of words with no English equivalents and you’ve seen really, truly the utmost very best that English has to offer, but have you ever wondered what words are particular to English? I’m talking about words that have no equivalents in other languages.

Well, friends, wonder no longer. I have compiled a list for you. Now you can marvel at the intricacies and quirks of the English language. What does it tell about English speakers and their culture that they had to invent words for these strange things? Your guess is as good as mine. On to the list!

1. a, the, in, on, for, to, from – These simple words have no equivalents in Finnish. The poor Finns are stuck putting suffixes on words. It’s a shame really. How do they manage?

2. never – Never mind prepositions and determiners, the helpless Finns are also stuck without a word for never. The closest they have is ei ikinä, which roughly translates to “not ever.”

3. yesterday, today, tomorrow – While we’re up in the Nordic countries, can you believe that Danish and Swedish have no word for yesterday, today, or tomorrow. That’s right. Instead their stuck with i går, i dag, i morgen. Time must move so slow for them!

4. please – Ever wonder why French people are so rude? It’s because it takes them three times as many words (s’il vous plaît) to say please than it does for us. Spanish speakers are in the middle with two – por favor.

5. fuhgeddaboudit – can you believe that Italian doesn’t have a word for fuhgeddaboudit? I thought it was an Italian word! I thought it was passed down through generations of guidos and paisans. Who knew? I guess it’s Jewish.

This is just a sampling of words that English has been blessed with. When faced with such intricate and novel ideas as the ones expressed by the words in this list, other languages are at a loss.

Answering the Critics of the President’s Finnish Society

Inspired by the success and resolve of the Queen’s English Society, I created the President’s Finnish Society, or Presidentin Suomenkielen Mielisairaala. Our intention is to improve the standards of Finnish, to encourage people to know more about the wonderful Finnish language, to use it more effectively and to enjoy it more, to rid Standard Finnish of vulgar slang and foreign words. Or, as the Finns would say, “sinun seura on paska.” Just like the QES, the PFS awards an annual prize for excellent Finnish usage – the Jussi Sekopää award. Last year’s winner, for the eighth time in a row, was Matti Nykänen.

The PFS has been around for twelve years and we are still going strong. But I feel it is time to answer some of our detractors. I do not want to, but it seems they just won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems they might be multiplying. This will not do.

The first criticism to address is that I am not qualified to monitor the progress of the Finnish language. My opponents will say that just because I’m neither a native Finn nor a fluent Finnish speaker, I should therefore not “comment on any alterations to the language that are felt to be not in keeping with clarity and elegance in written or spoken” Finnish, as the QES does for English. I say that I am the proud father of not one, but two native Finnish speakers. So you could call me not just fluent, but proto-fluent.

That’s pretty much the only charge that has been leveled against me. Well, some like to point out that there is already an organization that polices the Finnish language. But those fools just don’t realize that two is better than one. Duh!

Read all about it
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[Updated] Rise Up! Free-form Grammar to Break Your Language Bonds

Too long have we been held in the chains of grammar. Too long have our oppressors, the so-called language mavens, told us what we can and cannot say! Too long!

This is the dawning of a new era, where we will no longer be slaves to our grammarians and their grammar books. This is the dawning of the Age of Avant Garde Grammar.

Free-form grammar is simple. Take the most hallowed rule of English grammar, the granddaddy of them all – that phrases must impart sensible information – and throw it out! Kill the head and the body will die!

Feel liberated, my fellow grammar slaves, for this is Liberated Grammar. You are slaves no longer!

[UPDATE – August 6, 2020] Hat tip to the Society Formerly Known as the Anti-Queens English Society and to the Proper English Foundation for helping the masses to break free from their grammatical bonds. Apologies and condolences to family and friends of the Queen’s English Society. Their death was inevitable, but it’s always sad to see a cult bite the dust.

[UPDATE – June 18, 2037]
Took while, but pre-New World Order grammar really caught, huh? People slave no government world mozzarella sticks. And hockey babies chair bring fellow scholars.

[UPDATE – June 23, 2068]
Lay dying pre-Alien Overlords grammar land law used start, oui? Time was no one mavens remember world chaos inner tube. Respect.