Friday Report: Fascination with the English language
June 19, 2014
Most politicians are good with words, either ones they write, ones they steal from others, or ones they hire others to write for them. They know it isn’t the pen that’s mightier than the sword; it’s the words that come out of the pen. The English language is unique in that it grabs new words like a refrigerator magnet. Even common names become nouns.
A Jacuzzi is now the generic term for any old hot tub, much to the dismay of the Jacuzzi Corporation. Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine. Leotards were made famous by the French acrobat, Jules Léotard. We wear pants in tribute to a comic stage actor named Pantaloon who died more than 1,200 years ago. We don’t lynch criminals anymore but in 1493, James Lynch Fitzstephen, Mayor of Galway, Ireland, hanged his own son from the balcony of his house after convicting him of murder.
The guillotine was named in 1789 after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician and the first reformer of capital punishment. His proposal included a plea for humane executions by mechanically separating the guilty from their heads.
Charles Boycott was the unfortunate land agent whose job, in 1880, was evicting Irish farmers who couldn’t pay rent when the crops failed. He was shunned by the entire community. Laborers would not work for him, merchants would not sell him their wares and the post office wouldn’t accept or deliver his mail.
Bowdlerize is no longer a household word, but it’s one that librarians shout out when they get drunk at parties. It means to edit away sexual and other material offensive to those of faint sensibilities. The bowdlerized version of Fifty Shades of Grey would be about a page-and-a-half long, for instance.
Thomas Bowdler was a philanthropist and doctor of medicine. He is best remembered for his gentle rewrites of Shakespeare’s plays. His edition, although tamed like a shrew, brought the Bard’s works into the lives of ordinary families. Twenty years later his name was in common English usage.
Jean Nicot, France’s ambassador to Portugal sent tobacco seeds to Paris in 1550 along with enthusiastic reports about the effects of snorting a line or two. Parisian pharmacists dried and powdered the plant and called it nicotine, prescribing it liberally to counter depression. Not surprisingly, it took off like any fiercely addictive drug is apt to do when introduced to an uneducated populace. Upon learning that parishioners were reporting heavenly visions after just a couple of toots, Pope Innocent X excommunicated all snuff users. Perhaps the sneezing disturbed his sermons.
English itself grew from a German dialect and is the second most-spoken language in the world. Chinese is by far the most commonly spoken as well as being the oldest, dating back over 4000 years.
Oddly enough two languages based on whistling have grown up independently of each other. One is spoken, uh, make that whistled, in Turkey in a remote area near the Black Sea. The whistles convey an astonishing complexity of thoughts and facts.
The other whistling language developed in the Canary Islands (I don’t make these things up). As you might expect, whistlers from the two groups could not understand each other’s tunes.
Misunderstandings often crop up among speakers of different languages. When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova to Mexico, they were amazed at the poor sales until some Mexican-speaking person pointed out that “No va,” in Spanish, loosely translates into “It won’t go.” They changed the name and the car sold like shrimp tacos.
Misunderstandings often crop up among speakers of the same language. When an Englishman says to an American woman, “I’ll knock you up,” he’s telling her to expect a phone call.
There are about one million English words, far more than any other language. Modern dictionaries commonly list around 600,000, but there are fewer than 60,000 in common use. It requires a mere 800 for effective communication.
Isn’t it a shame that even with all those words at their disposal, politicians still can’t explain what useful purpose they serve?