Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Data points

A few language tidbits from the past week’s peregrinations:

1. H.W. Fowler demonstrates that he’s OK with using the pronoun that (rather than who/whom) to refer to a person:
It is the second-rate writers, those intent on expressing themselves prettily rather than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurement of elegant variation.
(From Modern English Usage, 1926; thanks to Ben Yagoda, who quotes the passage in today's post on elegant variation. Fowler doesn’t have a separate entry on the who/that question; the peeve hadn’t yet been invented.)

2. Audiences at a broadcast of the National Theatre's "She Stoops to Conquer" last week were reminded that locutions like “to Janie and I” are not the innovations of a grammar-challenged new generation. We all know Shakespeare wrote "betweeen you and I," but I hadn't heard this one, from the first scene of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 play. Mrs. Hardcastle says to her son, as he heads off to the pub:
Tony, where are you going, my charmer? Won't you give papa and I a little of your company, lovey? 
(For much more on the history and behavior of "nominative coordinate objects," see Arnold Zwicky’s comments and bibliographies at his blog. Also, the video of  “She Stoops” will be repeated April 18 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass.)

3. Etymology -- it's child's play! Anyone can invent an etymological story that someone will believe. I was reminded of this when, in researching hoodlum, I learned that some people still subscribe to the fanciful tale that  
hoodlum was the accidental coinage of a newspaper reporter. In a story about a gang of ruffians led by a fellow named Muldoon, the reporter spelled the name as Noodlum to avoid reprisals. The newspaper's compositor misinterpreted the name as Hoodlum.
But I had even better proof at hand. Last weekend, my preschooler grandson asked why strawberries were called "straw" berries, and we told him nobody knew for sure. A bit later, when the aforementioned berries were served, he was ready with his own theory. "I know why they’re called strawberries,” he told us. “I think straw is the way you say 'seeds' in French."

(No, he doesn’t know French. You don’t need knowledge to invent etymologies, just a lively imagination.)


languagehat said...

What a great story (about "strawberry")! Truly, the just-so storytelling impulse is ineradicable, and in a way it's a shame that we have to tell people their beloved stories about words and language are wrong.

Ø said...

Give him a lot of credit, anyway, for trying to guess. Most people his age, and many people of any age, probably don't even stop and think much about why words are the way they are.

Bryan White said...

I can't believe I've never heard of "elegant variation"! I catch myself doing that some times, but I thought it was just another one of my bizarre neuroses. I never would have thought there was an actual name for it.

Ø said...

It's my favorite Fowler phrase, with the exception of "sturdy indefensibles".

Jean Berko Gleason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gregory Lee said...

I think it's remarkable that many of the citations from renowned authors in the descriptions by Poutsma and Jespersen come from dialog in dialects that the authors probably found substandard. So here, because Goldsmith put an objective "I" in the mouth of one of his characters, we shouldn't conclude that Goldsmith found this to be an acceptable usage.

Jan said...

Gregory, of course the language of fictional characters can be purposeful "bad grammar," but I don't think that's the case in Goldsmith. The Hardcastles are country gentlefolk; it's their daughter who must "stoop to conquer" (pretend to be lower-class) because her very eligible suitor is shy with well-bred young ladies. If the plot summary doesn't persuade, the text is online, of course -- I'd like to hear what you think.

And Empty, you made me laugh. Give the kid credit? I was bending over backward not to sound as if I was boasting; apparently I succeeded!

Ø said...

I didn't express myself well, Jan. Who could not admire his effort?