February 07, 2008

Lounsbury on linguistic martyrdom and the transience of slang

My latest column on OUPblog takes a lead-a-horse-to-water approach to two usage points that are among the favorite bugaboos of peevologists. One of them — the less vs. fewer distinction — has already come up on Language Log several times recently. But I don't believe the other one — none used with plural verbs — has been addressed here directly (though Mark Liberman's post on syntactic and notional number and Arnold Zwicky's posts on agreement with the nearest are certainly helpful for thinking about cases of plural concord like "None of them are old").

It's a bit hard for me to fathom why anyone might still be clinging to the notion that none can only be used with singular verbs in the misguided belief that it is a shortened form of not one. Yale professor of language and literature Thomas R. Lounsbury (1838-1915) demolished this argument a century ago in his fine antidote to linguistic degenerationism, The Standard of Usage in English. In my column I quote the following eloquent passage from Lounsbury's book:

There is no harm in a man's limiting his employment of none to the singular in his own individual usage, if he derives any pleasure from this particular form of linguistic martyrdom. But why should he go about seeking to inflict upon others the misery which owes its origin to his own ignorance?

Lounsbury (no relation, as far as I know, to Mayan hieroglyphics expert Floyd Lounsbury, who taught at Yale several decades later) had choice words for contemporaries who railed against the "corruption" of English from some supposed "golden age." He also saw no danger in slang terms, since most of them pass quickly from the language anyway, and the ones that last have proven their utility.

The good professor wasn't perfect in his predictive powers, though. In a New York Times interview about slang from May 31, 1908, he said:

Those who think that 'slang' is getting too much of a permanent place in the language need only look at college slang for reassurance. In colleges slang is especially prevalent... When I first taught at Yale the word 'snab' was used to designate the female sex as a whole. There was a college poem at that time which began with these lines:

The snab fill all the gallery
In beautiful array.
Any one noticing the prevalence of 'snab' in speech at that time might have become seriously alarmed as to the future. Yet who ever hears of the word nowadays?

So far, so good. (Maybe snab is due for a comeback?) But then Lounsbury pushes his luck:

Take 'dude,' too. It has never really won a place and is, I think, dying out.

Dude. Dude! No, seriously, dude:

(Bud Light commercial via Slate, via Away With Words.)

[Update #1: Rich G. points out that this week's Mutts comic strip (1, 2, 3) uses dude prominently, in a direct homage to the modern cinematic classic The Big Lebowski. Lounsbury notwithstanding, the dude does indeed abide.]

[Update #2: Karl Hagen sends along an excellent example of linguistic martyrdom over none, from the British actor Stephen Fry in his position as host of the television show QI:

Karl has blogged about this clip here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 7, 2008 09:00 AM