Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Word Snobs Are the Worst

I recently got into a one-sided argument on the internet about whether one could say “pierogies” as the plural form of the word “pierogi.” Their view: mortal sin because that’s not how one would say it in the original language. My view: IDGAF I’m gonna say what I want.

Obviously both sides here have a point. On one hand you’ve got preservation of a language in its original intended use. I mean, what are traditions and traditional food without the words to go with them? On the other hand you’ve got the common current colloquialism of the same word (and my Slovenian grandma said it that way, so there, internet person). I checked Wikipedia for the plural form of the word, and they cited a book in which it was written that both are correct. So who’s right here? And what does this have to do with writing?

I’m getting to it, I promise. This isn’t just a rant about That One Guy on the Internet.

What this disagreement made me think of was Kory Stamper’s WORD BY WORD, which is a nonfiction but extremely voice-y book about how the dictionary definitions are written. She wrote a chapter about the word “irregardless” and the vitriol surrounding the word. Some people get quite worked up and insist that it can’t be a word, that it must be some modern oddity that needs to be eliminated from the lexicon. But the thing is, “irregardless” has been in use for over 150 years. Doesn’t that make it worth including in a book that chronicles language and its current use? “Irregardless” is used to mean “regardless,” and regardless of what naysayers might…well, say, people do use it that way in modern parlance. Why can’t we just accept this and move on? Somehow “inflammable” and “flammable” mean the same thing, and yet nobody’s up in arms about that.

I know this sort of word snobbery comes naturally to a lot of writers. (Personally, my big thing is misuse of the word “entitled.” It doesn’t mean the same thing as “titled,” and…sorry, I’ll leave it at that.) I’ve seen this in works ranging from my favorite author’s books to the manuscript I’m critiquing. What I’ve found to be most common is that one character is a grammar snob and continuously corrects another throughout the manuscript. What do we as writers hope to accomplish with this? Nobody likes a grammar snob in real life; why would a reader sympathize with them on the page?

I’m no authority (on anything, really), but I think this comes down to a combination of insecurity and arrogance. We want to prove that we know what we’re talking about, that we’re familiar enough with the English language and its “proper” usage. We want to look like an authority so others will read our work and say “Ah, yes, clearly this person is well-versed in the English language.” But the thing is, as anyone who had to read Shakespeare in high school will tell you, language is not fixed. Phrasing changes, words are invented, and meanings shift (why on earth does “cleave” mean both “split from” and “join to”?).

What I’m getting at is that we all need to back off. It’s not cool to tell other people how to speak or how to write. It’s not cool to tell others, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I mean, come on, The Princess Bride is a treasure and shouldn’t be used for putting others down. We need to take a collective deep breath and remind ourselves that the way we use the English language is as individual as our fingerprints, and that’s okay.

Now leave “irregardless” alone so I can eat my pierogies in peace.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Amren: Language, the nuances of words and their usage are very interesting topics. Some words or expressions that were considered ok, are no longer used. For example, "today" was once written as "to-day". But now no one puts a hyphen.
    One expression that I find very disconcerting is "one of my friend". It should be "one of my friends".

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  2. I once knew a Polish guy, who had never lived outside of Poland, but who frequently told anybody who didn't speak BBC English they were wrong. And listened to an American who had never lived in Italy correct an Italian's pronunciation of her native language.

    Ironically, the debate between descriptivists (people who believe dictionaries and language lessons should reflect spoken language) and prescriptivists (people who think language academies, dictionaries, and other official sources should dictate how language is used) is, so far as I can tell, completely settled among experts…with descriptivism winning. So the people who make the dictionary the rule enforcer quotes usually doesn't believe that's how one should use the dictionary.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    Replies
    1. "Titled" and "entitled" can mean the same thing.

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