Book review: Have You Eaten Grandma? By Gyles Brandreth

Have You Eaten Grandma? is another entry in the list of books that claim to be about grammar, but are mostly about punctuation and spelling. It’s written by Gyles Brandreth, who, like others that write these kinds of books, claims to love language but spends his whole book proving that he actually hates it.

I’m going to start off with good stuff in this book. Then we’ll move on to the meh stuff and end with the garbage fire material.

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What does the word origin mean today?

What does the word origin mean today?

There was a recent post on the blog Science-Based Medicine which discussed the changing meaning of the word organic. I think the author hits the nail on the head, but misses the mark slightly. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?! Let’s dig in.

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HAWKEYE and prepositions

I was re-reading the HAWKEYE book by Matt Fraction and David Aja and wouldn’t you know it, in issue #3 there is some dialogue relevant to this blog. The character Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) scolds the character Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye… don’t ask) for dangling a preposition. Check it out:

HAWKEYE #3 (2012) by Matt Fraction (w), David Aja (a), Matt Hollingsworth (c) & Chris Eliopolous (l)

But wait a minute! Is that really a preposition? Haykeye Barton is talking about the word “to” at the end of Hawkeye Bishop’s sentence:

‘Cause I’m about to.

So is that a preposition? It depends on who you ask.

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The Language Snakes on Carl Sagan’s Plane

In my last post, I mentioned that Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite pointed me to an interesting claim made by Carl Sagan. Early in the book, Kaplan mentions in a footnote that Sagan claimed there might be a link between snakes and the sh-sound that people make when they want to command attention or silence. The book Kaplan refers to is Sagan’s Dragons of Eden (1977) and in it Sagan postulates the idea in the form of a question (that he doesn’t answer):

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Some strange language claims in Kaplan’s book on monsters

Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is about the science behind monsters, or how we can trace the origins of some of our most classic horrible creatures. The book does a good job in that regard, but it also makes some interesting claims about language. One of these seems to be a simple slip up, while a second follows some unfortunate tropes of describing languages that aren’t in the Germanic or Romance families. The third one is a side note about a claim made by Carl Sagan and it’s very interesting. Let’s look at these in turn.

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Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s words and phrases

The podcast On The Media recently ran an interview with Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who is a former professional basketball player and current color commentator for the New York Knicks. As the interview shows, he has a way with words. But I found his commentary on how he developed his voice really interesting. He told host Brooke Gladstone:

Frazier: To improve my vocabulary, I used to get The Sunday Times, the arts and leisure section when they critiqued the plays.

Brooke Gladstone: Oh, the plays?

Frazier: Yes. Riveting, mesmerizing and provocative, profound. People think I’m a voracious reader but I have books and books of words and phrases. When I first started, I just studied these books over and over. Ironically, you can use cliches and no one will ever say anything, but if you use ubiquitous twice, they’ll go, “He used that word twice already.”

[laughter]

Frazier: Then all of a sudden, I fell in love with words. Words are like people, the more you see them, the more you relate to them. Even today, just like fashion, I’m always looking for new words and how I can incorporate them into my style.

[applause]

That’s a pretty good point about ubiquitous. People love to nitpick when that word is used. But it’s an even better point about cliches. Even though the style guide will tell you to avoid cliches, using one is often the best way to go. Check Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage if you don’t believe me.

This part of the interview starts at around 12:30 minutes in. Go listen to the interview with Frazier. That page also has the transcript of the interview.

Superman and Batman and Language!

I bet you weren’t expecting some tricky linguistic commentary in the pages of SUPERMAN & BATMAN VS. VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES! But here it is!

In Issue #4 of the six-part series, our heroes are hanging around making plans and waiting to be attacked by demon-like creatures (as you do). That’s when Jason Blood, aka the rhyming demon Etrigan, senses the creatures’ arrival and says “THEY’RE HERE”:

Superman_Batman_Vampires_Werewolves_Issue_4_1
SUPERMAN AND BATMAN VS. WEREWOLVES AND VAMPIRES #4 by Kevin VanHook (w), Tom Mandrake (art), Nathan Eyring (c), and Steve Wandis (l)

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Dictionary.com with some good advice

I don’t know what’s going on over at Dictionary.com, but I like it. They’ve been stepping up their blogging game recently. Gone are the days of word hating (I hope)! Instead, they recently published a post about the problematic nature of some words that get casually thrown around. If you don’t know why it might be harmful to use words like Sherpa, Nazi, and hysterical, you might want to check this one out.

Stop Using These Phrases in 2020 (Use These Synonyms Instead)” on Dictionary.com

Good job, Dictionary.com. Keep it up!

Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions

So the New York Times has another opinion piece about language and (surprise!) it’s a stinker. Not as bad as it could’ve been, but still not good. Let’s take a walk through it, shall we?

The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.

What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes. Continue reading “Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions”

Tom Freeman on Lionel Shriver on semantic drift

Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.

I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:

The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.

Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.

I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?

Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:

For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.

The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.

That’s a very good point. Go read the rest of Freeman’s article here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/how-do-you-cope-when-everyones-usage-is-wrong/