THE WORDS WE USE

The Catholic Press – 3 July 1930

THE WORDS WE USE

    Professor Weekley is the most entertaining of gossips about words. He is a gossip only in the lightness of his manner, however, for he is a writer who knows his subject from A to Z, as a philologist ought to know his subject. He is a great explorer of dictionaries, a mighty hunter among grammars, and has also travelled widely in many literatures. And here, in two slender volumes, he gives us a report of some of his adventures, in the course of which his most exciting discoveries were neither dragons nor men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders, but words we use in every-day speech.
    “Adjectives—and Other Words,” contains a number of disconnected essays with titles such as “Mrs. Gamp and the King’s English,” “Baby’s Contribution to Speech,” “London Street Names,” and “National Sports and National Metaphor.”
    In the chapter on Mrs. Gamp, Professor Weekley points out that many pronunciations which are regarded as vulgar to-day are really the correct and fashionable pronunciations of previous ages. For words are subject to changes in fashion just as clothes are. Thus, “idee” is an older pronunciation of “idea” than the West-End pronunciation of the word to-day, and aristocrats pronounced “creature” “creetur” long before Mrs. Gamp was born. ”Waps” is not a corruption of “wasp,” but represents the old Anglo-Saxon word from which “wasp” is derived. And “ax” for “ask” was in literary use up till the sixteenth century. The truth is, it is often the correct modern pronunciation that is the corruption. We see an example of this in the nautical word “forge,” which is a Mrs. Gampish mispronunciation of the earlier word “force;” similarly “trudge” is good Mrs. Gamp for the earlier “truss.”

    The vagaries of fashion in regard to words, indeed, are such that one might almost imagine that human beings alter the shapes of words out of sheer perversity. There is certainly no logic in putting a “d” into ironmould (where the second half of the word is the word we now use for a mark on the skin), while, on the other hand, we have taken away the “d” from “mole,” the name of the animal, which is merely an abbreviation for “mould-warp.” We show the same illogic in corrupting the “hole” of a ship into the “hold,” while at the same time we corrupt “buttonhold” into “buttonhole.”
    Not that Professor Weekley is a pedant in these matters. As a philologist he may disapprove; as a modern man he acquiesces. In language, if anywhere, we may say that whatever is, is right. Words may change their shapes and meanings, and when they have done so for a long enough period, the new shape or meaning must be accepted. Thus, there are a number of words that originally denoted virtues, but are now seldom used except to denote vices. “Cunning,” “crafty,” “artful,” and “knowing” were all originally words of praise, but have now degenerated into words of censure. This, Professor Weekley thinks, is “due to our national conviction that cleverness is to be distrusted.” It was only a nation convinced of this, according to him, that could have promoted the word “artless” from being an epithet of contempt to being an adjective of praise, as in the sentimental idealisation of the “artless maid” in the eighteenth century. And if the history of languages reveals a national distrust of cleverness, it suggests that some of the moral virtues were also held in suspicion. ”Parsimonious,” “egregious” and “obsequious” were all once complimentary: now they are contumelious.

    In the essay on “National Sports and Metaphor,” Professor Weekley compiles a long list of phrases that have entered into the general speech by way of the vocabulary of sport. If language could be entirely trusted as a guide to national character we should conclude from this list that the English are a race more given to bear-baiting and cock-fighting than to cricket and football. For while cockfighting has given us “show the white feather,” “crowing over,” “crest-fallen,” ‘battle royal” and other phrases, football appears to have made not a single import ant contribution to English metaphor. Cricket has certainly contributed the characteristically English phrase “it is not cricket”—a phrase used with so odd a mixture of metaphors in Mr. Lloyd George’s remark that “When a man is down and counted out, it is not cricket to kick him.”
    In “Saxo Grammaticus,” Professor Weekley is concerned less with individual words than with the problems of good and bad writing. He has made a very shocking collection of vile phrases from contemporary writers, and the beginner will do well to turn to his book for counsel and warning. He always talks good sense, though he is a little too tolerant of the split infinitive. He defends “reliable” against those who object to its use, and he has a good word for the preposition at the end of the sentence, though he would not go so far as to approve of the English of the little girl who asked: “Why did you bring that book for me to be read to out of from for?”
    Professor Weekley is by no means cheerful about the present position of English. He believes that, while to-day’s English is bad, to-morrow’s English will be worse. And he accuses the present generation of popular writers of wordiness.
    Luckily, with Professor Weekley and Mr. H. W. Fowler continually warning us, we may be saved from the fulfilment of his most dismal prophecies. The amenities of language, like the amenities of the countryside, may yet be preserved. “Saxo Grammaticus” is a vivacious and excellent pamphlet in a good cause.

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