April 07, 2004

Anguish languish

In an article in the April issue of The New Criterion entitled "Reflections on the oldest profession", Theodore Dalrymple writes:

Since then, I have treated a lot of prostitutes as patients ... for the most part, they have been creatures who look as if they have emerged from the canvases of Otto Dix, razzled by drugs and disease, with crumbling bones and wrinkled skin, beaten into submission by pimps festooned with gold chains and mouths full of redundant golden dentistry.

I'm always happy to see people enjoying themselves with words, as Dalrymple clearly is in this article. But I'm pretty sure that razzled in this passage is a malapropism for raddled. The OED glosses the verb razzle as "To live a life of pleasure, to enjoy oneself; to go ‘on the razzle’." The "life of pleasure" part sort of half-way fits the drugs and disease, but the verb is intransitive, and is flagged as "slang". Encarta flags it as "early 20th century". I've never heard of it -- the "razzle" in razzle-dazzle is just a variant reduplication of dazzle. In contrast, the American Heritage dictionary glosses raddled as "worn-out and broken-down", which seems to fit exactly.

Now, if the folks at The New Criterion want to dust off razzle and start using it in place of raddle, good luck to them. As a linguistic libertarian, I'll just observe calmly from the sidelines. However, as "[a] staunch defender of the values of high culture" in "the culture wars now raging throughout the Western world", TNC is probably against such grass-roots poetic innovation as a matter of principle.

The most interesting aspect of this (exceedingly minor) point is that it's usually so easy to figure out what word someone really meant when they use the "wrong" one. This is probably related to the phenomenon of reading jumbled words.

A mind-numbingly repetitive application of the same effect can be found in Howard L. Chace's 1956 Anguish Languish, which was a popular citation among AI speech recognition researchers in the early 1970s. You can get a whiff of the idea from the first sentence of the introduction:

English words are astonishingly versatile and could readily be made to serve a new and extraordinary purpose, but nobody seems to care about this except SPAL (Society for the Promotion of the Anguish Languish).

and you're hit with the full force of the idea a few lines later:

A visiting professor of Anguish, Dr. ________, who, while learning to understand spoken English, was continually bewildered and embarrassed by the similarity of such expressions as boys and girls and poisoned gulls, used to exclaim:

"Gracious! What a lot of words sound like each other! If it wasn't [sic] for the different situations in which we hear 'em, we'd have a terrible time saying which was which."

Of course, these may not have been the professor's exact words, because he often did his exclaiming in Anguish rather than in English. In that case he would say:

"Crashes! Water larders warts sunned lack itch udder! Effervescent further delerent saturations an witch way harem, wade heifer haliver tam sang witch worse witch."

This stuff makes my teeth itch, but some people like it. And the point is absolutely correct: "the different situations in which we hear 'em" are just as important as the words that we hear -- or read.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 7, 2004 10:35 AM