17 October 2007

Corrupting English...intentionally

Publishers at Oxford University Press - yes, the people who deliver and update the leading repository of English in the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED - are, it appears, going out of their way to corrupt it.

That came to my attention via Robert Krulwich's report tonight on ABC World News Tonight. You can currently see it through ABC's webcast, starting about 14:20 with Charlie Gibson's set-up. Oxford UP's Benjamin Zimmer archived the segment, and why not - he appears twice in it. Krulwich was, Zimmer asserts, inspired at least in part by the latter's blog column on "eggcorns."

What peeved me was the apparent effort of Oxford UP to cull blogs, websites, and other online material, to the tune of billions of words, so as to update English with said eggcorns. "Eggcorn" itself, if you read the previous blog link, is what some people - an alarming number of native English speakers, to be precise - misunderstood upon hearing "acorn." Likewise, vocal cords often get misspelled as "vocal chords," and the list goes on and on. There's even an Eggcorn Database on the subject.

And these errors - based on popularity - apparently make it into dictionary updates. If there's more to the method, I'd like to hear it, but I'll continue ranting on this understanding.

Let me be clear: I'm not arguing for some troglodyte, idealized version of English as immutable. On the contrary, I know full well that languages mutate every day with use, technological advances, new ideas, you name it. Otherwise, as one online friend likes to remind me, we'd all be speaking the Old English in Beowulf.

Nor am I one of those cultural hegemons who wants to sweep foreign words out of my native tongue. Yes, English is built off intercultural smuggling, but I always get a chuckle from watching foreign attempts at linguistic house-cleaning.

I *like* some efforts, though not all, to come up with new words and idioms. To me, obscenities constitute one of the funniest sub-domains of language on the cutting edge.

My problem is with making such a conscious effort to collect and equate millions of illiterate or just plain erroneous electronic scribblings with what already exists with identical, commonly understood meaning. How many bloggers or website designers use a spell-checker? What fraction of those can tell when the spell-checker misses problems? How many of them are - allegedly - native English speakers?

(For those of you who aren't, I sincerely commend you for writing in a foreign language. I just wish the Oxford UP wasn't adding even more goofs to the pile.)

Yes, I make my own typos and grammatical mistakes. I'd rather Oxford UP didn't vacuum those up, too, mistakenly assuming that my misfires were intentional. I really don't need to be part of the problem.

The fundamental question is: why do we want to reward people for being lazy in learning their native language? Or cheat them of the "ahhhhhh" moment when they discover their mistake?

People are free to scribble anything they want online, and I will defend that wholeheartedly.

Just don't put it in the OED, at least not without a better set of criteria for sorting out online rantings. How about a rule that says: if an idiom already exists, don't include the alternate spelling on the basis of the growing tyranny of a large minority. It's bloody painful to read online blathering as it is.

Now, if you'll forgive me, I'm off to read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," since I've been greatly remiss (euphemism for lazy) in not reading it before now.

P.S. Now that I've had a night to sleep on it, I have to add a few more thoughts:

1. Why codify ignorance?

2. Won't this muddy etymological waters further than necessary?

I'm betting that historians a few centuries from now are going to shake their heads, asking why we went out of our way to complicate our English-speaking history when we already struggle to reveal it as it is.


Ellen said...

I think my objection to eggcorns and their ilk is that they violate one of the cardinal features of language: shared meaning. The purpose of language is for communication, and the misspelling of existing words renders communication frustrating if not impossible. If I don't know what the hell you're saying, then your point gets lost. Of course, I am biased because I have been grading papers all week. Oh, and there was a discussion of this a year or so on the Chronicle web site, which you may find interesting.

Frank Sellin said...

Hi Ellen!

Good point. Reading eggcorns stops the reader's flow of thinking. My brain starts to zero in on the sensation that something is wrong. So much for doing the job I was doing absorbing the eggcorn abuser's message. Enough abuse of eggcorns, and I'm quickly done with that piece of writing, and probably that writer, if I'm not grading it or forced to review it. I doubt I'm the only reader easily made grumpy when time is at a premium...

Thanks also for the link! Good luck with your paper-grading...oy...the memories...

Nancy Friedman said...

I'm delighted to have discovered this blog via Ben Zimmer's OUP blog. I've been following this discussion and blogging about it over the last couple of days. As a former journalist turned copywriter and name developer, I share Ellen's concerns about communication. On the other hand, as a branding practitioner I acknowledge my industry's culpability. Will today's schoolchildren think it's OK to write flickr instead of flicker and millenia (the way Mazda spelled it) instead of millennia? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to that question.

Frank Sellin said...

Thank you kindly, Nancy! (Thanks to Ben Zimmer, as well!) FWIW, this is one of those topics I indulged on a whim. I'll go stop by your blog to see the larger debate.

Maybe branding contributes to some of it, as per your Flickr example, but I'd put more money on a combination of educational lapses and especially of socialization on the Internet, when you're typing fast in chatrooms or chat-enabled video games. Rapidity of delivering a message matters. I personally have learned the value of typing "k" for OK, "u" for you, "ty" for thank you, and "np" for no problem. :-)

I just don't know how that Internet slang is going to get burnt into young people's consciousness, relative to educated English. ;)

Thanks again for stopping by!