Amglish in, Like, Ten Easy Lessons.
A Celebration of the New World Lingo.
Arthur E. Rowse.
When I was growing up in Lexington, Ma.s.sachusetts, in the 1920s, we had no alanguage artsa in my public grade school. We had separate cla.s.ses in English grammar, spelling, and penmanship run by no-nonsense teachers. Despite having much difficulty twisting my wrist into the prescribed position for perfect penmanship in the Palmer style, I learned to love the language even with its many idiosyncrasies.
I liked to read books about boys going on great adventures and playing tricks on people. They made me want to write for fun or money. But since there were not many such paying jobs for ten-year-olds, I created my own job by starting a weekly neighborhood newspaper. I got the idea when my father gave me a cast-off Remington typewriter after I had spent a day ahelpinga him at his office.
My first brush with censorship came early when I put a snide dinner-table quip from my father into print. He had said a neighboras new baby girl had been named aHopea because the parents were hoping for a boy. My father made me run a crayon through the disputed sentence. I made sure the words remained visible. (The rebellious quality comes from living in athe birthplace of American liberty.a) My first bout with a stilted language came on graduation day after six grades at Hanc.o.c.k School when I was awarded a prize for scholastic excellence. I was hoping for something useful such as a chocolate cake, certainly not a copy of Master Skylark, a Story of Shakespeareas Time, published in 1897.
When I opened the book later and read the first page of flowery British prose by author John Bennett about apunts . . . poling slowly on the Avona and aApril sunlight dancing on the brazen horns and the silver bellies of the kettledrums,a I put the book down for good. It was not my kind of English.
After four years as editor and publisher of the Naborhood News, I retired because of issuesa"todayas in-word for such complications as schoolworka"that led to an editorial in the town weekly t.i.tled aWhy Editors Quit.a I eventually fell into some ahigher education,a World War II duty in North Africa and Italy, the authorship of a few books, and a string of editing and writing jobs mostly at Boston and Washington newspapers, where some knowledge of formal English was still required.
It wasnat until much later in life that I realized why my neighbors and relatives were willing to pay two pennies to read the Naborhood News. I concluded that it was not for the news, which was little more than a reflection of family dinner conversations. It was to laugh at all my malapropisms and mistakes in grammar and spelling. I remember one headline, b.u.m bites gas man, referring to a neighborhood dog.
By the time my own kids went to public school in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, alanguage artsa were beginning to supplant the much-despised cla.s.ses in grammar, spelling, and penmanship in some schools, though not yet in our neighborhood school. In fact, unknown to me at the time, the main English teachersa a.s.sociation of the country officially condemned separate cla.s.ses in grammar in 1963, the all-time peak year for verbal SAT scores. I suspect that not many parents knew that agrammara had become a dirty word.
In the next few decades, I became increasingly shocked at the failure of many Americansa"at all levels of societya"to absorb the basic fundamentals of their native language. My shock turned into disdain, especially for well-educated people who apparently didnat know the difference between lay and lie, that and which, and other fine points of proper English such as differentiating between subjective p.r.o.nouns and objective ones.
But I had a linguistic epiphany after George W. Bush became president in 2000. Here was a budding world leader, a man of great privilege enhanced by education at prestigious schools, who appeared woefully unable to mouth a simple sentence without violating at least four or five basic precepts of English. At first, I marveled at how blas Americans were about choosing a leader with such a gross deficiency in his mother tongue.
I joined millions of other people around the world snickering at the way the nationas most prominent bushwhacker shredded the language in such funny ways. It was during one of those laugh-ins I finally realized, languagewise, here was a politician who did not speak much differently from other Americans, including at times my friends, a.s.sociates, and myself.
It also began to strike me that n.o.body can be a perfect master of English. Indeed, it is an impossibility because of the languageas many mysteries and defects. We all make errors when using our native language, regardless of our education.
I began to realize that language errors have become an integral part of the current linguistic upheaval. Even more interesting are the many efforts to be original. New words and phrases are bubbling up at a furious pace, either by accident or design. And those who are not innovators help the process by pa.s.sing along anything interesting that they encounter. The whole exercise is either a delight or a continuing disaster, depending on your point of view.
I chose the positive approach and became taken in by the charms of informal English, especially the neologisms, the grammatical variations, the innovative texting, the flood of acronyms, the smiley faces, and the disappearance of capital letters and punctuation. I also realized that there is nothing anyone can do to stop language from constantly changing.
The growing informality of American English mirrors what is happening to society itself. Just as most people are now choosing casual clothing, they are also becoming informal with language. It has become the in-way to bond with friends and a.s.sociates while keeping pace with the latest trends.
I began to catch some of George Was joviality with language and to recognize the camaraderie and, yes, even excitement that goes with using language in new, more interesting, more enjoyable, more imaginative ways.
I also realized that it was no longer teachers and lexicographers who were shaping language. It was the great ma.s.ses of ordinary people, especially young musicians, humorists, writers, and general dissidents who were leading the way. The process is a constant, natural churning that no language police or remedial teachers can alter.
Suddenly, it seems, almost everybody is speaking and writing more freely and enjoying it more. Many of the rules and standards that have served for more than four centuries are quietly being shelved as we speak and write. We are all constantly creating the new language that is Amglish, the t.i.tle that some people have already given to it.
This is a momentous development at an exciting time. As if to prove the point, the top two editors of the popular online Politico reported in December 2010: aMore traffic comes from an item on Sarah Palinas arefudiatea . . . than from our hundreds of stories on the complexities of health care reform or Wall Street regulation.a Such ma.s.sive attention to language change is unprecedented, and itas worldwide. The subject itself is so huge and so fluctuating that no book can do more than merely scratch the surface of the story. The field is wide open for further exploration.
While this book seeks to share the thrills of the emerging Amglish, it also recognizes the urgent need, especially for young people, to become proficient in their native language, whatever it is. The ultimate cool is knowing how and when to use the prevailing language of business and government for oneas own benefit while fully enjoying the acurrenta wild world of informal language.
In order to paint a full and honest picture of todayas language scene, I have let bits of Amglish fall naturally into parts of this book. My secret hope is that doing so will, like, give me immunity from any criticism about the way that, you know, the book is written.
Let the celebration begin.
From the Author.
A book like this one could not be done without the expert help and willing cooperation of many people, including some who are not aware of the roles they played in providing the evidence needed to ill.u.s.trate the bookas una.s.sailable theses.
As the author, I would first like to credit my wife, Ruth Fort, for rekindling my interest in language with a book gift years ago relating to Sam Johnsonas famous dictionary. I am deeply in debt to her for her unsurpa.s.sed editing and advice from the very beginning of this project. I am also grateful for her toleration of my single-minded devotion to an inanimate object for five years. I would like to put any gross errors on her shoulders, but that would be my first error.
Next, I would like to sincerely thank the worldas greatest caricaturist, John Doherty, for his excellent work so prominent in these pages. John and I first collaborated in producing the famous Bush House of Cards in 2003. I also would like to thank his wife Judith for her extremely careful editing and generous advice.
I give special thanks to Niels Aaboe, Janice Braunstein, Sarah David, Matt Evans, Marissa Parks, and Sam Caggiula at Rowman & Littlefield Publishers for seeing the possibilities of such a book in the first place and for their advice and help since that momentous decision.
Still others who deserve very special mention include John Adams, Tony Badran, Carole Berke, Daniel Bouskela, Maria Angela Loquercio Bouskela, Feodor Bratenkov, Monique Briendwalker, Robert Chaddock, Margaret Chapin, David Crystal, George Dahl, Paul d.i.c.kson, Tsomo Faith, Adam Faulkner, John Fitzgerald, Jurgen Flach, Arthur Fort, Andrew Grant, Irene Grossman, Nick Grossman, Yi Han, Florence Lloyd, Charles Lund, Jay Matthews, Alexander Michaelson, Matthew Michaelson, Ahmed Moamber, Amal Mudallali, William Powers, Martha Rowse, Jim Roy, Julie Schoo, Molly Silvia, Denise Terry, Donald Terry, Tsemdo Thar, Serdar Tonbul, Larry Torres, Lowell Vizenor, Lawrence White, and Dario Zuddu.
From the Ill.u.s.trator.
One day in 2003, my phone rang and it was a man named Arthur Rowse proposing a collaboration on our project that became the Bush House of Cards. My response to him then was, aBoy, did you get the right number!a His vision on that project and on this book has been an inspiration to me. Itas a great privilege to craft his ideas into visual form. His command of the language, his wit, and his ability to connect the dots sent me eagerly flying to the drawing board. So, thanks to him for making that call and for inviting me to share this work.
My greatest support and inspiration in my art and life is my wife, Judith Doherty. Her experience as a writer and editor added another set of eyes to this project, all the while juggling her own work and freelance schedule. And we stayed married! Thanks to Niels Aaboe, Sarah David, and all the staff at Rowman & Littlefield for their support.
Made in the U.S.A.
Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.
a"Sarah Palin on Twitter, July 18, 2010.
With her words above, the former Republican vice presidential nominee was trying to urge people to reject a proposed Muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. She immediately drew some flak for partially misidentifying the issue and maligning Muslims. So she toned down the wording in a subsequent tweet.
But her worst crime, judging from press reaction, was to make up the term refudiate. Grammarians were shocked. Journalists exploded. aThereas no such word,a they shouted in print and on Twitter as they relished one more chance to show that the feisty former Alaska governor was out of touch with reality.
The flames temporarily singed Palin into hastily subst.i.tuting the word refute. When that didnat work, she fired back, adding an old gem from former president George W. Bush and some slang for getting too excited: aRefudiate, misunderestimate, wee-weed up. English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin words too. Got to celebrate it!a Write on, Sarah! Itas time to celebrate the new lingo thatas sweeping around the world. All nitpickers should put their picks away. Letas face it, formal English is dying. A new, much less formal language is taking over this country and the world. And itas time to welcome it with open arms. In fact, thereas no way to stop it.
In Praise of Palin.
Asher Smith, a reporter for the Huffington Post, was notable in his objection to the firing squad lined up against the former Alaska governor. aHand it to Palin,a he wrote. aRefudiate is catchy and sounds right to the ear.a Smith had a point. Palinas word could be considered more logical than many words already accepted in the famously illogical English language.
What was so wrong about combining refute and repudiate? Palin had used the word a few days earlier on The Sean Hannity Show without arousing any reaction. Palin obviously a.s.sumed that was enough approval to make it an OK word in todayas environment. She knew that the ultraconservative host would not allow a verbal abortion on his program.
And what about Palinas abbreviation for please? This slimmed-down version of the word was propelled by the advent of texting and has become so universally understood and accepted, especially on Facebook and Twitter, that none of her detractors even mentioned it. Language establishment leaders may not have been plsd, but they are no longer able to control the spelling of many wds, especially now that so many people are alluva twitter about language.
The Quirks of English.
For centuries, Americans have been trying to deal with the mysteries of the language their forebears heedlessly brought with them from England in the seventeenth century. No other language has ever been st.i.tched together by so many sight-impaired, hearing-impaired, tongue-impaired babblers into such a crazy quilt of rules and traditions.
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Numerous books, including many recent ones, have been written to show people how to comply with the increasingly outmoded requirements. Some sell well perhaps because of the large amount of grammar guilt still harbored by many people. But the only thing that has improved is the failure rate of national language tests.
The Need for Leadership.
As the third millennium neared, confusion over language standards was reaching a peak in the United States. English teachers appeared unable to explain why verbal SAT scores were dropping so steadily. And many students must have wondered why they were penalized for saying and writing things that were making equally young musicians and comedians filthy rich.
Older people who were not swept up by the new lingo probably wondered whether to ignore what they had learned in school or keep trying to conform while so many around them were not. And many young adults must have pondered when to follow the rules and when to run with the crowd. Everyone wanted to know how to act cool in the changing language environment.
Among those raising questions publicly was President George W. Bush when he asked, aIs our children learning?a5 Educators were shifting millions of students into remedial English courses without knowing how best to solve the plague of early dropouts from school. Many parents were also getting worried about whether their childrenas language was good enough for the job market.
The time seemed ripe for some kind of national language leadership. The basic question was whether formal American English was beinga"or should bea"replaced and whether influential Americans should embrace the winds of change. A related question was who was going to step forward to help find the answers?
By the late 1980s, President George H. W. Bush had shown some awareness of the overall challenge when he offered up an occasional malapropism or grammatical lapse. At a formal dinner for the Pakistani prime minister on June 6, 1989, he admitted, aFluency in English is something that Iam often not accused of.a But the next president, Bill Clinton, had too much love for formal English to lead a popular rebellion against it. His only public lapse came during a brief moment when he was questioned about the Monica Lewinsky matter, and he found it necessary to question the meaning of the word is. For this, he was sometimes called a cunning linguist.
Joy in Muddleville.
The five-to-four Supreme Court decision in the contested election of George W. Bush as president in 2000a"while ballots were still being counted in Floridaa"brought unbounded joy to the ranks of language rebels. Bush had clearly shown an intriguing originality with words during the campaign. He wasted no time connecting with the public mood when he blurted out, aThey misunderestimated me,a after his election.6 With those three words, George W. clearly signaled that he was primed for a leadership role in the language wars. Although he must have been exposed to some formal English at Andover and Yale, he obviously was more interested in things he didnat need lessons in, such as baseball and bar hopping. From watching his father, he also had become fully aware that a generous amount of broken English could bring handsome political rewards to men of privilege by leveling them linguistically with the hoi polloi.
However, his feisty mom presented a slight problem. Eleven years earlier, she had noticed a failure of many American familiesa"possibly including her owna"to be able to read and write English. So she formed the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, no doubt to share the lessons that some in her own family had failed to learn at home with people who might better appreciate them.
In the end, she did not stand in Georgeas way, and he was off and running. It was not until three years into his presidential term that he finally realized what his mom was so concerned about. He said, aThe literary level of our children are appalling.a7 He were not joking.
Bushas knack for going with the flow of language was fortuitous for all Americans as well as for Amglish. Only three months after his inauguration, he saw the need to finally straighten out the long-standing public confusion over when to use the words lay and lie, just one of the languageas many conundrums. Language authorities had tried for centuries to clear it up, but none had succeeded.
aWe understand,a he said, awhere the power of this country lay. It lays in the hearts and souls of Americans. It must lay in our pocketbooks. It lays in the willingness for people to work hard. But as importantly, it lay in the fact that weave got citizens from all walks of life. . . .a8 The answer was finally clear: Lay is the choice, hands down, in all circ.u.mstances. End of problem. But a broader message was implied: that it was okay to wing it when faced with such quandaries in English, including when to use who or whom, will or shall, that or which, further or farther, et cetera. There has always been a leadership vacuum for such quandaries. Language authorities have never been able to explain them adequately.
When history finally a.s.sesses George Was deeds, lax lingo may be his greatest legacy.
What Is It about Yale and Language?
Students of Yale University tend to become either internationally famous for their language or hopeless followers.
Prominent in the first group, of course, are the two Bush presidents, lexicographer Noah Webster, and Dr. W. C. Minor, the convicted murderer who wrote much of the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary from an insane asylum, according to author Simon Winchester.9 Prominent in the second group is Bill Clinton, who uses formal English with scarcely a flaw. In a middling category are those who attended Yale but didnat graduate. Examples are Vice President Dan Quayle, whose main claim to fame was his imaginative spelling of potato when presiding at a student spelling bee, and former Veep d.i.c.k Cheney, who has done little to promote Amglish except mix up a few p.r.o.nouns.
Even Jacob Weisberg, the journalist who exploited his famous fellow graduates with his Bushisms books, is a Yalie. Go figure.
Neologisms Are Us.
At the same time, the country was becoming entranced with the idea of making up words and phrases as well as playing loose with grammar and syntax. It didnat matter whether the increasing laxness was accidental or purposeful. Language was becoming something to enjoy and be stylish with. Even the media, which have long prided itself by keeping up to the old rules, have joined the new game with vigor.
One of the more logical inventions is idolspize, a term promoted by the Washington Posta"in a separate articlea"to denote simultaneously idolizing and despising a celebrity.10 Just as one word can lead to another, so can one neologism lead to another.
A year later, the paper went into a full-page o.r.g.a.s.m over the latest word for an important female body part, vajayjay. The term apparently got its start on ABCas Greyas Anatomy and then got ma.s.saged by Oprah and enough other TV personalities to gain entrance into Merriam-Websteras Open Dictionary. If the originating show had used the anatomical term instead, n.o.body would have noticed.
The Post chose to violate a famous language rule and use a noun instead of a verb to describe the way in which Hollywoodas Joan Collins went aswanning through the lobby of the Ritz Carlton . . . with just the right accessories.a11 Broadcasters can also play the game. NPR ran a contest to find the best neologism for an aborted sneeze. The witty winner was sniff-hanger.
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