A Real Feather-Ruffler

Up until the late eighteenth century, Brits spoke with an American accent.

So says the noted language scholar Patricia T. O’Conner.

The “English” accent as we know it didn’t develop until the late 1700s. That’s when British snobs started doing things like dropping r’s, adding and subtracting h’s, saying “pahst” instead of “past,” and “sec-ra-tree” and “mill-a-tree” instead of secretary and military. Before that, the English said most words the way Americans did.

When this faddish new way of speaking swept Britain, a lot of people over there, including prominent linguists, decried it.

So much for all those claims that Americans corrupted the English language. In 1770, a British customs official called American English “perfectly uniform, and unadulterated.” An Englishman visiting a few years later wrote, “They in general speak better English than the English do.”

So begins a breezy, fascinating, sometimes exasperating book that will leave a lot of self-styled language mavens muttering to themselves.

Origins of the Specious, written by O’Conner with her husband, Stewart Kellerman, takes an impeccably researched look at our language’s snares and, in the process, challenges the validity of some of the most persistent misconceptions about English.

Origins even makes a case for the ignoble double negative. I didn’t see nothing would be correct in French, Russian, and several other languages, and used to be OK in English, too. It still is in special cases: I can’t not buy those shoes.

Did you know? …

• In the fourteenth century, a girl was a child of either sex.

• Thomas Jefferson gave the world belittlepublic relations, and pedicure. Abraham Lincoln was the source of relocate. Theodore Roosevelt introduced lunatic fringe. Franklin D. Roosevelt coined cheerleader.

• Julius Caesar was not born by caesarian section.

• The plural of octopus is not octopi; it’s octopuses.

• The word ain’t “was routinely used by the upper classes … in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The word, or variations of it, can be found in the letters and diaries of Swift, Lamb, Byron, Tennyson, and Henry Adams.”

Origins takes a bold stand on “facts” that are sacred to traditionalists. O’Conner makes a convincing case that forte (meaning one’s specialty) can be pronounced “for-tay,” which is a controversial position, to say the least. Diligent speakers make a point of pronouncing it “fort,” especially since the musical term forte (loudly) is already pronounced “for-tay.”

The author’s claim that media can be singular or plural is unacceptable and offensive to many sticklers—not just because the word is the plural of medium, but because it’s important that people think of “the media” as many voices, opinions, and perspectives, rather than one monolithic entity.

And nitpickers will squirm at O’Conner’s defense of ignorant or careless pronunciations like “flassid” for flaccid (should be “flaxid”) or “neesh” for niche (“nitch”). That’s why purists are so crabby, because ultimately, “correctness is determined by common practice,” and “democracy can be exasperating when you’re on the losing side.”

a book report by our late writer and editor Tom Stern

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