February 03, 2006

Standing up to linguistic terrorism

The world is full of menace these days. Ayman al-Zawahiri boasts that Al Qaeda will bring Americans "catastrophes and tragedies", unless perhaps George W. Bush converts to Islam. Fatah "militants" are promising to "shell the headquarters of the EU and all European countries" if the governments of Denmark, France and Norway don't "officially apologise" for failing to stop newspapers in their countries from printing cartoons of Muhammad. But the most consistent and widely applicable (if least serious) threats are those of home-grown Anglophone grammar terrorists. In a recent example, automotive journalist Jeremy Clarkson has put us all on notice that he will respond to the misuse of pronouns with an especially atrocious form of assault:

If you send a letter to a client saying “my team and me look forward to meeting with yourself next Wednesday”, be prepared for some disappointment. Because if I were the client I’d come to your office all right. Then I’d stand on your desk and relieve myself.

Talk about your "dirty bombs"...

Well, we here at Language Log are united in our determination not to surrender to terrorists. We defy al-Zawahiri, we support the freedom of cartoonists, and we stand firm against Clarkson's threats. Hey, Jeremy, I can't say that we're looking forward to the experience, but my colleagues and me are prepared to watch yourself soil the reception desk at Language Log Plaza. It's due for replacement anyhow. After we rub your nose in it.

In case I haven't offered enough provocation, I'll also respond to the opening paragraph in Clarkson's Times opinion piece, in which he names what he considers to be the "worst word in the world":

Wog. Spastic. Queer. Nigger. Dwarf. Cripple. Fatty. Gimp. Paki. Mick. Mong. Poof. Coon. Gyppo. You can’t really use these words any more and yet, strangely, it is perfectly acceptable for those in the travel and hotel industries to pepper their conversation with the word “beverage”.

But it's not just "those in the travel and hotel industries", Jer. The OED cites Caxton, Shakespeare and Boswell, among others:

1475 CAXTON Jason 52 Metes delicious and with al beuurages and drynkes sumptuous.
1611 SHAKES. Wint. T. I. ii. 346 If from me he haue wholesome Beueridge.
1791 BOSWELL Johnson (1831) I. 297 Tea..that elegant and popular beverage.

Mark Twain used this "worst word in the world" in Life on the Mississippi, writing of Burlington, Iowa:

It was a very sober city, too -- for the moment -- for a most sobering bill was pending; a bill to forbid the manufacture, exportation, importation, purchase, sale, borrowing, lending, stealing, drinking, smelling, or possession, by conquest, inheritance, intent, accident, or otherwise, in the State of Iowa, of each and every deleterious beverage known to the human race, except water.

And Thomas Jefferson used it too, writing about beer in a letter that

I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whisky which kills one-third of our citizens, and ruins their families.

Charles Dickens tells us that

Mr. Pickwick could not resist so tempting an opportunity of studying human nature. He suffered himself to be led to the table, where, after having been introduced to the company in due form, he was accommodated with a seat near the chairman and called for a glass of his favourite beverage.

Walt Whitman, in a prose piece, modified the Worst Word with the same adjective:

We took our seats round the same clean, white table, and received our favorite beverage in the same bright tankards.

Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre exclaim

How fragrant was the steam of the beverage, and the scent of the toast!

A search on LION turns up more than 350 poetic examples, including some from John Dryden:

Assisted by a Friend one Moonless Night,
This Palamon from Prison took his Flight:
A pleasant Beverage he prepar'd before
Of Wine and Honey mix'd, with added Store
Of Opium ...

William Wordsworth:

Yet more,---round many a Convent's blazing fire
Unhallowed threads of revelry are spun;
There Venus sits disguisèd like a Nun,---
While Bacchus, clothed in semblance of a Friar,
Pours out his choicest beverage high and higher
Sparkling, until it cannot choose but run
Over the bowl, whose silver lip hath won
An instant kiss of masterful desire---
To stay the precious waste.

and again:

But still, to a bosom susceptibly placid,
The anguish of love will but heighten the joy;
As the bev'rage uniting a sweet with an acid,
Is grateful, when nectar untempered would cloy.

John Keats:

Hence Burgundy, Claret, and Port,
Away with old Hock and Madeira,
Too earthly ye are for my sport;
There's a beverage brighter and clearer.

Robert Browning:

Thomas stands abashed,
Sips silent some such beverage as this ...

and again

I did not call him fool, and vex my friend,
But quietly allowed experiment,
Encouraged him to spice his drink, and now
Grate lignum vitæ, now bruise so-called grains
Of Paradise, and pour now, for perfume,
Distilment rare, the rose of Jericho,
Holy-thorn, passion-flower, and what know I?
Till beverage obtained the fancied smack.

So, Jeremy, after a frank exchange of views in the reception area at Language Log Plaza, we'll invite yourself to retire to the cafe, where we look forward to offering yourself a generous sample of additional quotations, along with a tankard or two of your favorite beverage. You might even get that fancied smack, if you insist on it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 3, 2006 06:51 AM