In language, hell is other people

This article is largely purged from the one I wrote when the Queen's English Society ended. The QES has since reunited for the money, but I made some points then that I still think are valid (first sign of madness, I know). So here they are.

Many books 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 it's all over the place: How Not to Talk Like an Arse (stop insulting people?); Eats, Shoots and Leaves; or even The Elements of Style – though as far as I know, Strunk's original didn't contain any needless sneering until it was 'improved' by E.B. White.

But, whether they're banning words or decreeing punctuation and punishments, the authors 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, poor people, rich people, imaginary teachersEnglish-learnersAmericansAustralians... "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 derived from  "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.

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.

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 proves.

The more clued-up peevers, if they've even heard of descriptivism, dismiss 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. But beware – it conceals a dark (but witty) lack of logic. This subject needs more research, but, like the peevers, I'm unwilling to do it. Ah, just go and read Johnson.