March 05, 2006

Pioneers of word rage

A few months ago Mark Liberman remarked on a phenomenon that seems peculiar to the English-speaking tradition: "word rage" — that is, disgust over non-normative language use accompanied by imagined physical harm to the transgressor. A classic example is the reaction of Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady: "By rights she should be taken out and hung / For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." I've been keeping an eye peeled for historical cases of linguistic fury, and I've come across a couple of humorous progenitors for today's word-rageaholics.

The first example is from the British writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902), best known as the author of the satirical novel Erewhon. In 1875 Butler wrote the poem "A Psalm of Montreal" after a visit to that city. Like Erewhon, published a few years earlier, the poem lampoons the affectations of Victorian society. Here is a description from Betty Bednarski, in an article about a French translation of the verse:

Butler's poem is a comment on the prudish atmosphere that prevails in late 19th-Century Montreal, where, shoved away in a back room of the Natural History Museum and gathering dust, its offending piece of private anatomy facing the wall, he has found a plaster cast of a famous Greek statue. He is informed by an employee of the museum, a stuffer of owls and such, that the Discobolus — as it is called — is not fit for public view, since it has no "pants" to wear. Butler makes fun of the prudery, the lack of culture, the indifference to beauty, and the Canadian use of the word "pants."

The museum taxidermist, who has boasted that his brother-in-law is the haberdasher to one Mr. Spurgeon (evidently an important man in Montreal society), is rebuffed by Butler with scriptural wrath:

Then I said, "O brother-in-law to Mr. Spurgeon's haberdasher,
Who seasonest also the skins of Canadian owls,
Thou callest trousers 'pants', whereas I call them 'trousers',
Therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!"
O God! O Montreal!

For Butler, the taxidermist's Ashcroftesque insistence on concealing the statue is matched only by his ridiculous North American use of the word "pants." The Wikipedia entry for "trousers" helpfully explains the trans-Atlantic distinction:

In North American English, pants is the general category term, and trousers refers, often more formally, specifically to tailored garments with a waistband and (typically) belt-loops and a fly-front. For instance, informal elastic-waist knitted garments would never be called trousers in America.
In British English, trousers is the general category term, and pants refers to underwear (in America, called underwear, underpants or panties to distinguish them from other pants that are worn on the outside).

It's safe to say that Butler wasn't seriously condemning the museum worker to hell-fire for his impertinent colonial usage of "pants." Rather, he seems to be saying: "So you're offended by a nude statue? Well, I'm offended by your use of the word 'pants'! Which is the greater sin?" The image of hell-fire (and the mock-Biblical style of the "Psalm" in general) only serves to give the taxidermist a taste of his own pious medicine.

Butler doesn't quite threaten physical harm, instead sardonically implying that his Canadian interlocutor is doomed to suffer everlasting misery in the hereafter. But we can find depictions of actual usage-inspired violence in American cartoons from a century ago.

The year was 1906, and President Theodore Roosevelt had turned his reforming energies to... spelling. An advocate of simplifying English orthography, Roosevelt issued an executive order that required the Government Printing Office to adopt 300 reformed spellings, as recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board (an organization that included the likes of Andrew Carnegie, William James, and Mark Twain). This peremptory imposition of spelling reform was greeted with widespread scorn, both in Congress and around the nation. Roosevelt ended up being forced to withdraw the order, and his political miscalculation effectively killed the simplified spelling movement.

The vehemence of the backlash against Roosevelt's spelling reforms is vividly illustrated by the comic strip "The Outbursts of Everett True" by A.D. Condo and J.W. Raper (thanks to Josh Fruhlinger at The Comics Curmudgeon for the link).

It's worth noting that Everett True's savage pummeling of the unfortunate spelling reformer is entirely in character. As explained on the Barnacle Press site where these cartoons are archived, most strips follow a simple formula: in the first panel, Everett is annoyed by someone, and in the second, he beats the person up. He's just as likely to assault a tiresome song-plugger, a smart-alecky policeman, or a lascivious ankle-ogler. The preface to a collection of strips calls Everett "a living protest against the incarnate irritants that are with us always." So the spelling reformer was just one of the many "incarnate irritants" of the day, but the strip implies that readers would share Everett's orthographic indignation, even if they weren't driven to acts of violence.

Cartoonists also violently depicted Roosevelt himself during the spelling-reform fiasco. A video clip from a public television documentary series called "Children of the Code" describes Roosevelt's attempted reforms, with commentary from John A. Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Gable presents a 1906 cartoon from the popular magazine Collier's in which Teddy, sporting a half-academic, half-Rough Rider ensemble, shoots up the King's English in the form of a dictionary. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Dr. Johnson, Shakespeare, and Chaucer look on in horror.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 5, 2006 12:32 AM