March 03, 2007

The history of linguistic annoyance

Craig Brown has taken a historical look at the storm surge of usage gripes that has overtopped the Telegraph's digital levees in reponse to the question "What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?" (2863 comments and counting!). His essay ("Today's cliché is tomorrow's proverb") starts like this:

Hi kids! Hiya guys! Bear with me. Quick question, hopefully. First up, can you see where I'm coming from? Cheers! Phew! Then we're up and running! Absolutely!

It sometimes seems that the only way to gain the undivided attention of Telegraph readers is to employ an indecently modish word or expression.

Dr Johnson would have been the first to sit bolt upright. He deplored the use of ghastly new Americanisms such as jeopardy and smoulder and glee, little realising that, like gotten and trash and quit, they were in fact ancient words which had fallen out of use in England but had somehow been preserved intact in America. He also hated yobbish abbreviations. Why use the horrible new slang word mob? What on earth was wrong with good old mobile vulgus?

Brown cites some other historical offenses against linguistic decency:

Today's Telegraph readers hate new words and expressions such as stakeholder and no problem and tasking, just as the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge was driven mad ("vile and barbarous!") by a horrible new word which had just come on to the scene. That word was talented. In many cases, it is not the word itself that is hated, but what it represents: in 1982, Prince Philip contributed a list of his 14 "most ugsome" words to the magazine Logophile.

His list included nihilism, macho, upcoming, avant-garde, camp, obscene and gay.

Let me note in passing the irony of flagging hated innovations with the cutesy coinage "ugsome", which raises my own hackles almost as much as shall and shan't do. As I've observed before, this "I can innovate but you can't" attitude is typical of self-appointed guardians of the language. (Craig Brown has more to say about Prince Philip's love/hate relationship with neologisms in an earlier article, "Gadzooks, what a schonk!", 5/1/2004.)

Here's a last blast of historical context:

In 1949, The Daily Mail published a list of new American words it irritably judged to be "positively incomprehensible" to the average Englishman.

The list included commuter, seafood, living room and rare (in the sense of underdone). Who worries about them nowadays? We simply wouldn't have the time, what with cashback and gobsmacked and oven-baked hammering at the door.

[Hat tip to Mark Etherington]

[Update -- Qnavry Pheevr writes:

"Ugsome" may well be cutesy, but it seems to be an atavistic affectation rather than an innovative one. The OED says that the word was "common down to the latter part of the 16th cent.," and blames Sir Walter Scott for its re-emergence in the 19th century. Its long history doesn't necessarily make "ugsome" any less self-descriptive, but I do think it sounds nicer in the context of a line like "Of že orible oxin, vgsome to see" (from the Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy, quoted in the OED s.v. ugsome) than it does in a 1982 rant about disliked words. (At least Prince Philip didn't go so far as to spell it with a v.)

I stand corrected. Orible oxin it is. It's always a mistake not to check the OED. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 3, 2007 09:27 AM