July 16, 2005


Ceej complains:

AP headline on Salon right now: Ill. Student Beat to Death With Bike Lock. Was beaten. Beaten beaten beaten. Jeebus, I can't stand looking at that headline. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard. [...]

What is wrong with that headline writer?

Just an old-fashioned guy or gal, according to the OED:

The pa. pple. beat, still occasional for beaten in all senses, ... comes naturally enough from ME. bet, shortened from bete, beten, found already in 13th c., and having the open e of the present.

Cited examples include:

1541 R. COPLAND Guydon's Formul. Uiij, The whytes of egges, and oyle of roses bet togyther.
1602 W. FULBECKE Pandects 28 Democracie hath beene bette doune, and Monarchie established.
1607 SHAKES. Timon III. vi. 123 He gaue me a Iewell th' other day, and now hee has beate it out of my hat.
1611 SHAKES. Wint. T. I. ii. 33 He's beat from his best ward.
1712 ARBUTHNOT John Bull (1755) 47 They were beat..and turned out of doors.
1738 WESLEY Wks. (1872) I. 91, I was beat out of this retreat too.
1793 SMEATON Edystone L. §238 The stone..was then lowered..and beat down with a heavy wooden maul.
COOK Voy. (1790) V. 1772 The bark of the pine-tree, beat into a mass resembling hemp.
1798 NELSON in Nicolas Disp. III. 2 The man who may have his Ship beat to pieces.

The AHD gives the participle as "beat·en or beat", and Merriam-Webster's Unabridged likewise says "beaten; also beat".

I don't want to make (too much) fun of ceej, to whom we owe a debt for precision in expressing the feeling of hearing or seeing (certain) perceived rules violated: "it's like fingernails on a chalkboard". In a case like this, the facts of linguistic history and current usage don't really matter. Ceej is in pain, and needs to tell someone.

I remember vividly the first time I noticed that some people use the word real as an adverb, as in "it's real hot in here". I was ten years old, and the offender was a teenage boy from Ohio. He used real that way a real lot, essentially every time he produced an adjective. Every time he did it, it set my teeth on edge. After a couple of hours, I felt like hitting him.

I was already aware of many other non-standard usages that didn't bother me a bit. Ain't wasn't a problem; double negatives didn't trouble me; "we gotta go" and the like were fine. Of course, the fact that my friends and I used such expressions all the time probably had something to do with it. But somehow I had never run across adverbial real, or never registered it.

By the age of 10, I think that I'd already internalized the libertarian ideology about usage that's natural to most Americans. People should talk as they please, I believed. Others are free to evaluate the results according to their lights, but I thought of this as a rational categorization: person A has a French-Canadian accent; person B talks like a Yankee farmer; the kids in the trailer park drop their g's and use a lot of slang. This was like noticing that someone had red hair or bad posture or wore flannel shirts all the time. I had never before experienced anything like this visceral reaction to someone's speech. My feelings offended my inner Spock: "irrational", I thought to myself. But I still couldn't stand that boy.

I got over it. You can hurl adverbial reals at me all day, now, and I won't flinch. I don't use them, though, myself.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 16, 2005 12:26 AM