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The Word

License revoked

Can bad language punditry be stopped?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
July 27, 2008

PHILADELPHIA'S CITY COUNCIL found out, a few weeks ago, that it isn't easy to legislate truth in tourism. A new law requiring that city tour guides pass a test on local history has been challenged by three of the guides, who claim a First Amendment right to tell their clients tall tales.

Who will prevail in court? I'm no lawyer, but I don't think the new rules force guides to tell the truth; they just have to prove that they know the difference between the Liberty Bell and Taco Bell. The amendment guarantees freedom of speech, not freedom of ignorance. As the case proceeds, I've been pondering the feasibility of instituting a similar test for editors, writers, teachers, and anyone else paid to pronounce on language and word history.

Just think: If he and his editors had been tested on the basics, Brian Williams wouldn't have told his "NBC Nightly News" audience that America suffers from a "bad grammar epidemic." Bob Morris of the New York Times wouldn't have referred, without evidence, to grammar's "drunken, downhill slide."

(People have been "moaning about corruption and decay" in the language for hundreds of years, notes linguist David Crystal in "The Fight for English." If it were declining at the rate John Dryden predicted, "there would have been no language left by now.")

In this utopia, Scott Simon of NPR's "Weekend Edition" would not have credited Peter Mehlman, the former "Seinfeld" writer, with coining the phrase "yada yada" (or "yadda yadda"). Someone would have checked, say, Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate, which dates the term to 1980. (More recently, members of the American Dialect Society, in discussions online at LinguistList, have antedated it - as yatata yatata - to the 1940s.)

If word lore were fact-checked, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wouldn't have credited "The Hustler," the 1961 Paul Newman movie, with "introducing us to the concept of the loser." Someone would have looked it up in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which shows "loser," meaning "convicted criminal," in use as prison slang ("three-time loser") from the early 20th century. By the 1950s it had spread to college campuses as slang for someone worthless or unattractive.

(And while we're on the subject of losers, Harry Potter fans should be advised that "muggle" is not, in fact, British slang for "loser" - though it has been slang for a joint.)

If my word wishes came true, Richard Sher, moderator of the public radio game show "Says You," wouldn't be handing out wrong answers to his panel and listeners. No, "spanking new" doesn't originate with the custom of smacking a newborn baby. The adjective spanking appeared in the middle of the 17th century, explains Michael Quinion at his World Wide Words website, and implied something "especially fine, often something showy or smart. It may have come from a Danish or Norwegian word spanke, to strut."

And the "fell" of Shakespeare's "one fell swoop" has nothing to do with felling trees. It's from the Old French fel, meaning "grim, merciless, or terrible," explains Evan Morris at his Word Detective website. "Fell swoop once conjured up the sudden, savage attack of a falcon on its prey. Today, if we do something in 'one fell swoop,' we do it quickly, completely and with finality."

Both the BBC and NPR, in my etymological Eden, would have avoided broadcasting the story that the market's bears and bulls get their names from the animals' modes of attack: Bears pounce downward and bulls strike upward, this fiction asserts, hence the distinction. True, the interviewee who retold the tale on NPR's "Day to Day," was an expert in his field, Wharton School professor Jeremy Siegel. But his field is finance, not language.

Nobody knows for sure the source of the bear and bull. But the bear, says Quinion, dates from early in the 18th century, and its true history makes the pouncing-bear fantasy sound feeble. The earliest stock-exchange bear shows up as a "bear-skin jobber . . . a middleman or wholesaler who bought and sold shares on the floor of the London Stock Exchange." The name may have come from a proverb, "don't sell the bearskin before you've caught the bear." A bear-skin jobber "sold shares he didn't own, in the hope that their price would fall and that he would be able to 'catch his bear.' "

Of course, like most utopian dreams, mine is destined to fail. The neuroscientists now tell us that repeating false information, even to refute it, helps to engrave it as truth in the reader's or listener's mind - which would make a corrections crusade the very definition of a self-defeating enterprise. But at least we understand why - as Mark Twain didn't say - a lie can go halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.

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