Why Is It Wrong To Be Right?

I don’t relish the false dichotomy set up around linguistics and language: in terms of Living Language, “yer eether fur us ‘r agin’.

Am I a prescriptivist? Sure. Does that mean I’m opposed to the formation of new words, the evolution of the language? Absolutely not. I think some vernacular trends—born of online-speak—are stupid and useless, and I think others are handy enough to use IRL.

I can understand the argument that the dictionary is meant to represent an ongoing gazette of the linguistic topography, describing words as they are used currently. But what that means is that if enough people get a definition—or a spelling—wrong enough, that is, if very many people misuse it for a long period of time, it becomes “correct.” This path only leads to Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty, for whom any word means exactly what he wants it to from moment to moment. Further down that path is Orwell’s 1984, when the names of nations are mandatorily changed on a regular basis, to disorient the population and impose control.

I don’t believe definitions should be subject to vote. My break with Living Language comes when people embrace and defend inadequacy. A former roommate used to threaten me with “deflamation of character,” which is a comical error, but if his friends started using that and it caught with the media, in a period of time it would be written into the law books, and “defamation” would be relegated to orig. and then obs. before being obliterated from the dictionary entirely, appearing in some tedious “whatever happened to…” archive of quaint and dead words every dozen years.

Why is it so forbidden to say “you spelled that word wrong”? Why is it frowned upon to point out “that is not a real word”? You can nurture an individual without endorsing their mistakes. Shrugging it off with “oh, you know what he meant” isn’t any kind of solution—that is still a breakdown in communication. What would your reaction be if you bought a car whose manufacturers gave up halfway through, threw a bunch of junk into the trunk, sealed it off and said, “Close enough.  They’ll know what we meant”?

It’s different in song lyrics and poetry or any form of creative expression. It’s different to know all the rules and then bend them, as opposed to being nescient of most of the rules and stumbling your way through proper speech. Mash-up words are fine because they are juxtaposing two concepts and creating a third. That’s awesome. Creative expression is wonderful, and the images summoned by colorful, nonsense words can be as valid as jazz or interpretive dance. Why not? I don’t believe creating something innovative and new is the same thing, at all, as spelling or pronouncing a word wrong due to ignorance. And it’s dangerous even to use the word ignorance, despite its benign and precise definition, simply because of the associations with which it has been saddled. If a group of high school students wanted to create a semiotic hijack and turn shoe into an obscene term, using it as a sexual euphemism, the word shoe could reasonably be banned from school usage. Why is it a greater offense to ask people to know and understand the words they use than it is to support incorrect usage?

No one, to date, has been able to sufficiently explain this one to me.

[Ed. note, 4/6/2017: This is from a very old blog and I don’t believe these things anymore. John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel converted me to descriptivism.]

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