Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Linguistic Whateverism"

Image from YouTube

From Susanna Kelly's piece in the September issue of the West Coast Editor, I learned about "linguistic whateverism." Coined by Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University in Washington, DC, this lovely phrase refers to the current tendency of the wired generation to turf rules of grammar, punctuation and usage, and say -- well, whatever.

Throughout history, fast linguistic change has gotten up the noses of the self-appointed police and guardians of "correct" expression in speech and writing. Over the centuries, many have recorded such complaints in impeccable prose.

Madison Avenue brought us free gifts many years ago. Now we have text messaging. The corner coffee shop is not helping either, as the Plain English Campaign points out. These days when I ask for a medium coffee and the perky young clerk says, "You mean a regular?" I'm tempted to riposte, "No, I'd much prefer it to be irregular. Medium size please." That would confuse her instead of me.

Speaking of language police, the same edition of WCW (ed. Cheryl Hannah) reports a 2009 Telegraph story that involves both language and police. Bad spelling turns out to be a blessing for a government minister on the hit list of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The title says it all: "FARC guerrillas fail in bid to kill defense minister after spelling mistake."

It's a rare case when bad language can save lives. Definitely food for thought for those who share the doomed ambition of bringing the frisky dog of language to heel.

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