The QES is gone, but the English language lives on

As reported on Language Log, the Queen's English Society has been disbanded. Don't worry, royalists: the Queen was not harmed. Now that her name is no longer associated with a shitty little club for misanthropes, I'm sure she can only prosper.

The QES had already closed its inept English Academy in November 2010 after much negative publicity and bad, punctuation. Our language seems to have survived well since then, even without its pompous policeman, but this is not a day for celebration. What the QES represented still exists.

The QES (see my article about them) were at the more cartoonish end of the prescriptivist scale. By denouncing poetry, school teaching, and a man on a train, they occasionally provided material for newspapers needing to fill space, but no sane person should have taken them seriously. There were clear signs: their badly-designed websites with their badly-written articles full of hatred and misinformation and unfunny jokes. The same goes for the Proper English Foundation.


But the QES's linguistically-irrelevant opinions do not die with them. Many books still depict language as a stick with which you can hit people you dislike. These books' authors aren't as obviously ridiculous as the QES, and won't actually sound racist against Americans. But, whether they're banning words or decreeing punctuation and punishments, they use the same combination of tactics: they have to present themselves as authoritative and sensible, "the voice of reason", while also blaming low standards on certain easy-target groups who they, coincidentally, don't care for in real life either.

They might criticise businesspeople, politicians, youngsters, foreigners, Americans, Australians... "Hell is other people", indeed. (Kiwis get off pretty lightly.) This has little or nothing to do with language, but righteous anger seems to sell. It's more fun than actually being informed about language and how it works.


And yet you can learn so much just from reading the dictionary! Looking up "misanthrope", I found out that it's formed from the shortened prefix "miso-", meaning "hatred" (like in "misogyny"), and the Greek word "ánthrōpos" – human being or man. Therefore it's not "hatred of anthropologists" like I thought, but "hatred of human beings"; I can scarcely believe I chose such an appropriate word to describe the QES!

The point of my little interlude is that language does not come from nowhere – it has evolved into its present form. Words and phrases are usually "older than they think". Similarly, the peevers' rage is nothing new either. If you find yourself getting angry about words, mere words, I'd suggest your anger must come from somewhere else. Maybe it's not so much the sin, but the sinner, that you dislike.

For example, when my bank sent me a letter fining me £50 using cold, impersonal language, I was angry, but I didn't write a language guide to remedy the situation. Don't get me wrong bro, I did write a language guide, but that was to remedy the QES's language guide.

Outside of the dictionary (my favourite book), a great antidote to self-important language books would be David Crystal's writings. He manages to be completely sensible about language, without harping on about how reasonable he is (or how unreasonable those other people are). So it comes as no surprise that the QES seem to have hated him. Well, you know what misanthropes are like. Crystal recalls:

"The QES always sent me copies of Quest - mainly, I suspect, because they hated me so much that they wanted to make sure I didn't miss any of the vituperation. There was Crystal-bashing in most issues, which always gave me great amusement. [...]
"Oh yes, there was always a far-right element in the pages of Quest. And an unpleasant intolerance over diversity." 

That's his reply (he elaborates on it on his blog), after Mark Liberman's unsurprising discovery that the QES's magazine, Quest, printed an article by a BNP member, Malcolm Skeggs. So if you're going to call someone a "grammar nazi" (little n, they don't deserve a big N!), make sure to put it in perspective.

So, what will the QES's legacy be? I don't think this atmosphere of fear and loathing over language was the QES's doing. Lynne Truss helped it along a bit, but it's probably almost as old as language itself. I can't understand why descriptivism, the rational study of language practised by actual qualified linguists, gets so little publicity. In language coverage, the media are just as likely to give a platform to someone totally unsuited to talk about it, as the Queen's English Society proved.

The QES dismissed descriptivism. They saw it as a permissive attitude that says "anything goes" in language, which is a lie. But even if it were true, "anything goes" is a more attractive argument than "what I say must go". Maybe people who read the peeving authors are just gluttons for punishment. It must be the peevers' witty, catty writing style that lets them get away with it (again, not at all influenced by the QES).

It would be odd for an organisation that existed for 40 years to make no impact on the world, but perhaps the QES didn't make any (apart from trolling this article, obviously). The German Democratic Republic also lasted for 40 years, and even the communists left behind some unusual traffic lights, at least.
Like the QES, they will be judged by history.