Tuesday, 9 November 2010

I'm feeling a little welmish today

Emma has drawn my attention to SavetheWords.org, a promotional gimmick by the OED to draw attention to itself by highlighting the rapidity with which words are falling out of use.

For instance, my friend Mark is suffering from a range of illnesses at the moment. He has also recently suffered feline bereavement. This leads me to suspect that he's contracted pilimiction - the presence of hair-like bodies in the urine, which leads me to suspect that he has eaten his cat.

My favourite words are 'fescue' (a teacher's pointer and also a generic term for a family of grasses) and 'defenestrate' (to throw someone through a window). Neither are obscure, but they're satisfying. So is 'micturate' (to urinate) and 'osculate' - to kiss. I basically like words ending in -ate. In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a move to de-Latinise English in favour of Saxonification, influenced by the English sense of kinship with Germany (from where they'd acquired their royal family). Hardy, Dickens and rather late to the party, Orwell (see his 'Politics and the English Language') contributed to this effort:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers 

Predictably enough, Wor(l)d War 1 put an end to that in any meaningful fashion, though Poul Anderson's 1989 Uncleftish Beholding tries to explain atomic theory in Germanic words only. See also Cowley's (dubious) How We'd Talk If The English Had Won In 1066 (dubious because 'England' was a series of Anglo-Saxon and Norse states, all with close ties to European nations, including the Normans. 'English' is a very retrospective term for 1066.

Your contributions please.

While you think about them, this is what Orwell has to say about writing in 1946. How I wish I could stamp this onto essays:
 As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? 
Orwell also knows that language is a disguise for atrocity - think of the current collateral damage, for instance:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. 
This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. 
Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  
 And remember, during this period of adjustment, we're all in this together. Shut up about control orders, start paying your graduate contribution and supporting the war on terror. Support the Big Society and Welfare Reform. Doesn't all that sound better than a depression in which we abandon the poor, tax students to the hilt and bomb Muslim countries into behaving?

Dear me. I really should do some work. Got a bit carried away. Do use the comments section to add your favourite obscure words and weaselly uses of language.


Ewarwoowar said...

I'm not intelligent enough to read most of that but a good blog entry none the less.

(Are you in your office this evening? I've suddenly realised that watching porn and gambling isn't going to get me a degree, and I need help outrageously quickly)

Sinéad said...

>>'English' is a very retrospective term for 1066.

Of course, back then, it would have been very 'nowtro'...