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#Grammar's Blog of Wordliness

Accidental Acts of an English Evolutionary

Bee Words

This is the week in America of the 2017 National Spelling Bee. It’s an international competition, a national event and quite the saddest of spectacles. It has as much to do with language as the Eurovision Song Contest has to do with great songs. This is an exploitative spectacle driven by performance not content. And when all that matters is the shape of words devoid of meaning then what is a televised spelling bee if not some weird kind of lexical porn?

Those of a grammatically nervous disposition should note that the event happens in America therefore the spellings are in American English. It doesn’t make a lot of difference, to be honest, but you have been warned.

The National Spelling Bee is a contest for kids. There they are, lined up with numbers hanging around their necks looking like a menu for bullies. The youngest contender is a 6-year old.

The winning spellings in 2016 were of gesellschaft and Feldenkrais.

No, me neither. No idea. I had to look them up.

Does spelling matter? Of course, but does it matter that much?

According to the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, Gessellschaft is ‘a social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization’. (Oxford unlike the National Spelling Bee prefers an initial cap).

This is way beyond championship spelling; this is premier league stuff.

Feldenkrais is not even in the OED. It is taken from the Feldenkrais method, an ‘alternative’ system of exercise for physical and mental well-being devised by Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-84).

I bet they weren’t in your 6-,7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year old vocabularies. These are the lexmarks of Midwich Cuckoos.

OK, how about 2015? The winning words that year were nunatak and scherenschnitte.

A nunatak is a rocky outcrop in a field of ice or snow.

Scherenschnitte is the German craft of artistic paper cutting. Not in the OED but to be fair it’s an American competition and the word is in Merriam-Webster. Wowzah! It’s one helluva lot of word too. Gawp at your screen in astonishment as the geeky kid nails it.

2014?  feuilleton – part of a printed publication that is devoted to fiction or light criticism – & stichomythia – a dialogue for two characters speaking alternate lines of verse.

This really isn’t the regular English language as you might use it.  These are just the words that got spelt by those non-X Factor kids on TV. That was enough. The challenge was just to remember the words. Who cares what it means?

Teach these word-hungry children the joys  of language.

Scrolling backwards through the history of winning spellings the first word that I could understand the meaning of without external assistance doesn’t show up until 1999. Defined as a tendency to verbosity (I wonder why I should know this word?) you get logorrhea. Of course, I know it better when it is spelt correctly – with three o’s. I warned you about the US spelling.

What nonsense! Spelling matters. A bit. Of course it does. But not as much as the meaning of words. The whole purpose of a word is what it communicates.

Learning to spell matters a bit. Of course it does. But not at the cost of childhood. Even a childhood enhanced by the celebrity of national TV. There really is something deeply depressing about the notion of the National Spelling Bee. It’s like the parents* haven’t learned the difference between education and indoctrination (* see also: stage mothers and those who groom for junior beauty pageants) and yearn for the reflected glory of their progeny.

Imagine a house of words built by one of these spellers. It’s a flat and square construction because that’s the shape of barely understood words fitting together. After all, why would you want to study the bricks of lingo in detail before you can have seen and experienced some of the inspirational architecture of our common tongue?

& for those bee effs who think that spelling is the bee all and end all, please remember this: Shakespeare, who was pretty good with words, didn’t spell his name the same way two times running.

Now bee off.

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Wha’gwan mugwump?

Some immediate jottings on a word for today (the 27th April 2017).

We all know that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson PC MP is fond of a fecund phrase.

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Who can forget such classics as “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it” and “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”.

Today, displaying the early symptoms of a feverish election, Boris deliberately dropped a dirty needle into the media haystack, dubbing Jeremy Corbyn a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’.

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Eh? D’you what? At first reading, the instant and easy presumption is that Bojo is mocking the Labour party leader as an idiot (or something else equally derisory).

Sorry. Oops. My bad.

Apparently, now that he is in the Foreign Office, Boris and/or his advisors disapprove of the epithet Bojo. Too clownish for a dignified officer of the state perhaps. Fair enough, Bojo the Clown is no more. Gone, like the dodo. Bojo the dodo. Of the FO. Hey ho. It’s fun to play with words.

Back to the ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’. It has a great ring to it but does actually it mean what the flaxen-headed one would wish us to understand?

Well, no. Not really.

‘Mutton-headed’, yes. In the unambiguous and barely shining rhetoric of today’s political elite it means stupid. Simple as. It is little more than an unpleasant and unnecessary name-calling; playground politics. Your choice of politician is a wrong-headed, pig-headed, birdbrained, boneheaded, bovine, thickheaded, dunderheaded fathead. And so on. Yah boo sucks!

‘Old’ is perfectly accurate in context but by nuance it is dismissive of experience and in practice it is tantamount to ageism. Bojo the dodo looks ridiculously old to young voters but now there’s a faint whiff of Eton bully in the air.

So, over half way through the phrase of the day, and what have we got? An ignorant insult and an example of intolerant discrimination – but don’t worry because it all sounds  jolly jolly clever and such fun. Time now then for that word which is rattling the cages today: mugwump.

Oh and look away now if you deplore Americanisms, even when applied derogatorily or with humor… Although the ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’-coiner handed back his US passport in 2015 he obviously retains his love for the American tongue.

Mugwump seems to have been adopted from an Algonquian, First Nation American word meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’.

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The primary definition in the OED is of ‘an important person, a leader, a boss’.

Then, in the 1880s mugwump gets some political edge when it is used of Republicans who refused to support the Republican party nominee for US president. Sitting on the fence, with their mugs on one side and wumps on the other.

From there mugwump evolves into someone who is independent and aloof from party politics.

The most modern (and still mainly American) sense is ‘a person who remains non-committal, an independent, or self-important person’.

Aloof from party politics? Non-committal? Self-important? With recent political history in mind mugwump sounds much more Bojo than Jezza to me.

Do the words matter?

It depends how you respond to the words – are you a stupid, aging mugwump? – and that will be coloured by your political tolerance. And whether by expression or intention we are taking a diversion through the looking glass just yet. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Of course, Boris is a good egg who has Humpty Dumpty’s way with words – &, by the way, doesn’t mugwump sound like it’s been coined by Lewis Carroll.

Or, more Slytherin in tone, it could be the work of J. K. Rowling. ‘Oi! Corbyn, you muggle.’

For my part, all in all, I would prefer politicians to argue their corners with words and language that speak clearly to promises and ambitions rather than name-calling,

However, and by the by, if name-calling is your preferred form of political debate, then I am happy to tell you that Boris is a name of Turkish origin. It means means short. Johnson is a slang word for a penis. There you go. Short prick. Much better than Bojo.

DICTIONARY TO BE CLEANSED

PRESS RELEASE

Embargoed until: 01.04.2017

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In a speech to the Poisson d’Avril media conference in Paris, Lexi Concepción, the newly-appointed HMG Junior Minister with responsibility for clear communication, will announce that the Department of Brexit is keen to negotiate a phased removal of all European ‘dots and dashes’ from properly authorised English dictionaries.

Ms. Concepción will state that “Proper standards must be improved and historic errors corrected. It is not right that children in our schools should be told that it is acceptable to use foreign accents. This government recognises that some elements in our common native usage are utterly unacceptable to right-thinking people and, furthermore, that our present situation is both acute and grave.”

Civil servants and academics have been charged with the responsibility of identifying and erasing every circumflex, cedilla, umlaut, grave and acute, and so forth, with reasonable [sic] immediate effect. An experienced lexicographer will be appointed shortly to take overall charge of the purification process known as ‘dictionary cleansing’. Government statisticians have estimated an ecological benefit in both ink and bandwidth savings.

“Patriotic English speakers have already rooted out the circumflex in rôle, the cedilla in façade and à propos of which, the grave of apropos. The next step is to eradicate the acute from a glacé cherry. Only hopelessly naïve and clichéd liberals could possibly argue against this policy of linguistic prudence.”

The minister’s speech will conclude with a rallying call: “We all know that things are dire. Critical action must be taken if we are to protect the sovereign state of our glorious English vocabulary from these insidious enemies in our midst.”

Biographical Note:

Lexi Concepción, MP for Coxcomb-under-Hoyden, is engaged to marry. She and her fiancé have agreed that before too long she will be properly Anglicised and known thereafter to be Lexi Cally-Peerless.

 

 

Something and Nothing

“How about some words that say something and nothing?”

Last week I gave myself a challenge: to discover and catalogue an hitherto unrecognised category of words. Not easy. All words say something, it’s the nothing that’s the difficult bit. So  I have been trying to compile a list of words that fit a very narrow set of criteria, and here are the results of my week’s worth of research. I have to say that it’s a very short list.

Hmm.

No, that’s not a word for my list, not hmm (hmmm too), that’s just you and me thinking aloud. That’s all hmm is: a lexical version of my exclamation of consideration. That’s what hmm (h’m too) means. It says everything it means and it means something.

Not harrumph nor ahem neither – let’s not hack nor hem and haw.

No, I am looking for words that have a meaning but are used without any sense of that meaning. I’ve got two (maybe three if you count the written word). There must be more.

rhubarb

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Let’s go to the theatre. A nice chocolate-box, proscenium arch and all that orchestra stalls. On stage, upstage, somewhere in the background of a scene, actors are acting talking. It’s a low, indistinct buzz of atmospheric chatter that lends lifelike detail to the artificial, well-lit, suspended reality of the situation. Look closely. Use opera glasses if you must. Is it possible that these out-of-focus actors are using the renowned one word language of ‘rhubarb’?

Legendarily, rhubarb is what upstage actors speak. “Rhubarb”. Just that. Simple as. No harsh notes or jagged corners, just random repetition. Rhubarb, divorced from any meaning, is a word that has exactly the right phonemic sound and shape not to draw focus. Listen carefully. Is that a blending and blurring hum of drama kings and queens making ‘rhubarb, rhubarb rhubarb’ sound intelligent?

Rhubarb is such a useful word, first in my list of words that say everything and nothing, smoothly iterated, easily hidden in a crowd.

Of course, that’s not all there is to rhubarb. There’s all the meaningful rhubarb without which there would be no place in this something and nothing list. Obviously, rhubarb is a vegetable. If you thought it was a fruit you are probably thinking of tomatoes. In the US, apparently, it can mean a lively disagreement. You say tomatoes/I say tomatoes. Who are we to have a rhubarb about it?

And sometimes when nonsense is being talked in not particularly theatrical circumstances, or if good sense is spoken in a tongue that is not understood, it may be reported as rhubarb. Rhubarb, meaning nonsense, appears to have derived from the upstage prattle of actors.

“The Taffs were talking that yakky dah rhubarb.”[1]

rhubarb rhubarb

When rhubarb is used as a stand-in for reported speech two rhubarbs will do the job nicely:

“…and the prime minister’s like, ‘rhubarb rhubarb’, and I’m like ‘yeah, innit’.”

rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

On some occasions when you run out of words, or run out of the energy to keep going, or when what you have to say is so tediously predictable, or, for reasons of personal taste, you wish to replace details with words that euphemise everything and nothing, try rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

On some occasions rhubarb rhubarb rubarb or for reasons of personal taste you wish to rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb everything and nothing, rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

You might think that rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb is the perfect form of censorship but it’s much more of a nod and a w*nk than that: this rhubarb implies the content, and the nature of the content that it is replacing. These rhubarbs are meaningful words. Like, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, and so on and so forth, et cetera, etc, &c. Quacking gesture (talk, talk, talk).

The actors’ rhubarb on the other (non-quacking) hand has no discernible meaning. Hence its place in my short list of words that mean something and nothing.[2]

cheese

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Say “cheese”. It brings your teeth together and stretches your lips to their widest. Cheese is a word of great power, one that can make a camera-ready poseur reach for the rictus.

We all know the meaning of cheese. It’s a comestible from the dairy. From Abbaye de Belloc to Zwister (according to cheese.com[3]) or, if you prefer your cheeses to leave the blander tang of Brexit in your gob, from Abbots Gold to Yorkshire Blue. That’s cheese, for you. There’s any number of cheese-related words. Whether you fancy it soft, hard, semi- or blue is your cheesy business.

Cheese and rice! Cheese it! Are you cheesed off? Hard cheese, chum…

In US slang cheese is money, and the big cheese is the boss or someone important.

Yet, when a photographer’s subject obeys the injunction and says “cheese” the word, at that moment, is empty of all meaning. It is being spoken purely for the shape of the cheesy grin that results. There is some evidence of ‘to cheese’ meaning to smile, however, that verb is unlikely to have any other derivation than that of making the shape of a word without regard to any meaning.

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If you are feeling experimental, the word oats when spoken to a camera has the power to make you look sexy, apparently. Although that could depend on who is pointing the camera, I suppose. Try it.

So, there we are: cheese. A word that really does mean something and nothing. That’s the second one in my list: rhubarb for the sound it makes, cheese for its face-shaping properties; in each case the word’s meaning is irrelevant to its use. The third and – so far – final item is included for the shape that any number of words may make on a page layout.

lorem ipsum

This is pretty much the something and nothing Latin what Cicero wrote. Well, kind of. Not sure if it fits the list.Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 15.55.20

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43BCE) – according to Wikipedia so no rhubarb ­– was a wealthy ‘Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist […] His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history.’

& according to generator.lorem-ipsum.info, ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ad quo liber vulputate liberavisse, id vel putant quaeque, cetero nominavi molestiae ut sed. No tota pericula pri, ex pro laoreet petentium. Modus delicata corrumpit no eum. Ut vix tota porro volutpat, munere aliquam ornatus ea usu. At nec summo mazim reformidans. Eu doctus quaeque partiendo ius, diam constituam sea ei.’

& lorem ipsum is one of the more obvious ways that the modern world honours Cicero’s place in history, with faked and falsified Latin text used as dummy content by designers and their software. It started out, at a time when pre-digital giant Letraset bestrode the typographical landscape, as an extract from Cicero’s letters. & at that point it must have made some kind of sense to Latin scholars if no-one else. However, in order to echo the patterns of the European languages being serviced, the original Cicero was corrupted. Punctuation was introduced, non-Roman characters too. If you look at the lorem ipsum para above you’ll find a ‘z’. If you read Latin you’ll recognise it as so much nonsense.

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Ex vim homero ancillae. Ne mea alii unum. In est semper vivendo alienum, ea vix dictas accommodare concludaturque. Ei quem animal persecuti nam. Quo omnesque urbanitas id. Congue appellantur vix at.

Mea soleat voluptaria in, duo viderer albucius periculis at. Ut clita munere efficiantur duo, fuisset delicata liberavisse cu mea, ea est similique disputationi conclusionemque. An aeque omnium eripuit his, legere blandit abhorreant his an. Ne vix esse simul. Mei ignota iudicabit ei.

Quo in dissentiunt deterruisset. Nihil nostrum consequuntur at sea, ne nec utamur urbanitas. Duo ex dicat indoctum mediocrem, at quo adipiscing interesset neglegentur. Discere theophrastus te his. Enim vocent per ex, mundi audire erroribus an nam.

& that’s why I am not certain of lorem ipsum‘s place in my list of words that mean something and nothing. Some of the words, not lorem ipsum but some of them, have meaning – albeit in Latin – but the overall content is rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, effectively using nonsense to dummy up nonsense.

Whatever. This is a very short list. Is there any chance you could possibly add to it?

Say “cheese”.

[1] Taff, a generalized nickname for a Welsh(man), abbreviated from Taffy, derived from a Welsh pronunciation of a the male name Dafydd (David). ‘Yakky dah’ is used in English as an all-purpose catchphrase and example of the Welsh language; derived as an approximation of Welsh iechyd dda (good health).

[2] Not to be confused with political words that promise something and mean nothing.

[3] “Find over 1750 specialty cheeses in the world’s greatest cheese resource.”

zeitgeistier than thou

I was browsing Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang by the wonderful slang lexicographer Tom Dalzell when I bumped into some cool words that took me to the UK back in the day…


If you are, just for the nonce, a vibrant shadow in the spirit of our times; and if you describe an arc that is the cutting edge in the circles within which you move; then, you my friend, you are ahead of the curve. But are you cool?

If you have captured this moment, like a gaudy butterfly pinned to your page in history. If that is you with the à la mode gleam in your eye, then you are a cultural treasure. But y’know, are you cool?

If you know what is what and have cool regard of le dernier cri, from avant-garde to zeitgeist, then you, oh hipster dude, you are living the dream. But really, are you cool?

& how much of this dream you are living will you remember when you wake up?

are you cool?

The zeitgeist is ephemeral and, let’s be honest, not properly identifiable until its time has passed. Without retrospect how will you ever know that you were riding the zeitgeist until yesterday’s fashions are patched and flapping in the winds of change. Unless, perhaps, you were a cultural icon and, somehow, above showbiz and apart from celebrity. Were you once a legend in your own lunchtime?

Will you remember the daze when you were cool? Because nothing dates quicker than words for the culturally hep. And nothing measures up to cool. So, here’s a short, nostalgic lexicon of some modern words for modern people compiled by someone who may have had a Warholian fifteen minutes of cool way back in the 70s. Or not. It’s hard to remember. My list of words is in no way comprehensive, whatever. However, if you are or ever have been stylish and attractive, up-to-date, awesome or admired then these words may be yours.


cool – originally African American slang, was first recorded as a form of approval in 1884. Its generally ‘excellent’ sense didn’t fully emerge until the jazz scene of the late 1940s.

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Digging it down the decades, cool is the coolest. However, before things could be cool they were sometimes hot. But, hey, this language is still evolving as succeeding generations make of it what they need.

Cool is still current, often in a weakened form as a substitute for ‘ok’. But if someone or something is really cool it’s better than ok. It’s cool.


hot – carrying many of the positive qualities of cool is recorded in 1845. It is still cool to be cool. Hot is not so hot.


fab  short for fabulous, full of optimism, turns ups burning brightly at the beginning of the 1960s. Within a couple of swinging years British pop sensation the Beatles were the zeitgeist and aka the Fab Four.

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By the mid-60s though, around about the time when children’s television series Thunderbirds started using ‘F.A.B’ as a radio call sign, fab fashion moved on. Ah well, all things must pass. Twenty years later George Harrison (he was a Beatle in case you are too young to be expected to know these things) recorded the song When We Was Fab.

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Fab is still out there, and some fantabulosa vocabularies wear it with pride, but its fabness is now little more than a tarnished sequin on the taffeta in a vintage frock shop.


groovy  – all fine and excellent but, alas, now much derided, it is no longer cool. It first shows up in the great American jazz vocab of the 1940s, and all that jive, swinging all o’ way back to the 1930s’ jazz cats getting lost in their music, getting ‘in the groove’.

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The 50s weren’t groovy.

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But, hey, man, groovy is, like, so groovy & for just the grooviest of whiles it was, like, the 60s and everything was groovy.

Now, fifty years on, the retro ghost of groovy feasts on nostalgia like an undead fashion victim.

 

 


gear – from the gear, ‘that’s the gear’, just the job.

In early 60s’ Liverpool the Beatles made gear cool. To the world they were ‘fab and gear’. The Beatles split up, officially, in April 1970 but in truth they gave up the ghost while the 60s were writhing to death. The swingin’ sixties hadn’t been gear for good few years by the time the Fab Four were no more.


hip –  derived, apparently, from an old wrestling expression ‘to have on the hip’ which, as all grappling fans must be hip to, is a winning position. Hip has ridden the zeitgeist wave for longer than most. I was never hipHip shows up in America just as the 20th Century is getting started, and for decades after hep was hip and hip was hep. In the end though hip was hipper than hepcats were hipped on. Some modern hipsters have beards like old-time wrestlers. But are they really hip? Do they have hipness?


in, uptight, & out of sight – Stevie Wonder was definitely in in 1965 when he had a hit with Uptight (Everything’s Alright). Who could forget those immortal lyrics ‘Baby, ev’rything is all right, uptight, out of sight‘.

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Even now you may be in with the in crowd but in is not outasight, even if you are in it is unlikely that you are uptight, alright. In my world ‘uptight’ mainly meant something different: tense, worried, anything but cool, and I was never able to utter out of sight (except when singing along) without feeling like an absolute fraud.


with it – a term from the early 60s according to the OED. It is ‘up to date’. To be with it is to be fashionable. But is it cool? Are you with it?


You may well be on fleek right now but that doesn’t make you cool, does it? There’s any number of words that don’t quite ace it.  Peachy superlatives abound. Hip hop in its pomp flung the best and worst of them around with gay abandon – da bomb, phat, fly, the shizzle – these words are wicked, they are bad, they may even be awesome but they ain’t cool.


There were days when I think I might have been cool. I remember being certain of what was uncool – that particularity was important to me at the time. However, that was once upon a time long ago in a far off land called the 1970s, and if I was cool I didn’t know it at the time, and can’t really remember the details now.

Slang superlatives may be fleeting and very much of their time but some of these words linger, echoing times when being cool mattered. These words register like a smell: one sniff  and it’ll take you right back there.

So, are you Bluetoothed into the zeitgeist, dude?

 

Big Brother vs. Newspeak 2017

This is Oceania.

This is my blog about the English language. This in particular is about how words are manipulated and neutralised to sell a political idea or enforce a doctrinaire authority.   Of course, not everything I write will be true.  Or make sense.

You lost. Get over it.

Newspeak

In 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Oceania is a totalitarian state under the guiding eye of Big Brother and the Party. Control of the citizenry is acomplished in great part by a linguistic fraud that is packaged and marketed as Newspeak. This is a long-term and ongoing cultural theft that will, the authorities believe, stifle the freedom to debate ideas and so ensure obedience to the state.

Welcome to Oceania. Here on Airstrip One we have heard from way too many experts so don’t go getting clever. No facecrime. Not now the thought police are among us – No! don’t look round – history will be re-written by the winners. Are you a winner or an unperson? Winners conform. Do you want to be rectified?  

In 1984, under Big Brother’s authority, discourse is being systematically reduced as swathes of language are removed from licit circulation. Words are simplified, restructured or retasked as required by those who know what’s best. The Party believes that by creating an acceptable, politically-corrected vocabulary the possibility of any dissent against Partywise orthodoxy will be eradicated. The greater good requires that any democratic freedoms to express views that the authorities consider ungoodful must therefore be criminalized. And such is the nature of man that the constantly diminishing and rigidly enforced vocabulary of Newspeak has become a commonplace. It is accepted as the social norm. We the people of Oceania have been habituated to the concepts of thought crime.

War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength. 

John Bull says: Do it to Julia.


Language, our language, our magnificent English language in most of its myriad forms is a democratic wonder. It is ours. So much more than a merely cultural achievement or accident; we didn’t just happen to inherit it, we took it on and took it further. Our language continually evolves in answer to the needs of all of us proles. It is perhaps the greatest, overtly democratic achievement that we all actually own and don’t merely pay lip service to. And, like our democracy, it is far from perfect. But our tongue can lick the hand that feeds it. This is English: tarnished by imperialism, stained by propaganda, free at point of use.

In the UK we do not yet live in a satirical Oceania. You may think otherwise but if we did we would surely not have needed so much as an advisory referendum to yield our freedoms. 1984 is a satire. No one here, now, really believes in Big Brother, do they? It’s a literary allusion. Besides, we do have sufficient words should we need to express ourselves, don’t we?

How many words does anybody need?

And we have great words, we have the best words. We know the oldspeak words. Brilliant oldspeak words, by the way, but goodthink rectifies words from our oldthink wordlist. Not ungood. We blackwhite a bit of self-rectifying is doubleplusgood than causing offence. Innit.

Newspeak 2017

In the modern, all-singing-and-dancing la la UK we are variously obliged by parts or all of society to avoid hate words. Fair enough. Shifting moral standards are part of the evolution of our language. No argument with that. It is also why we conspire to refrain from being unsubtly offensive with regard to (in no particular order in case you are thinking of taking offence at an implied hierarchy) gender, disability, age, race, religion, sexual-orientation, size; by and large, we hear whoever’s shouting loudest and conspire to society’s standards and evolving morality. Our language in this regard isn’t simplified à la Newspeak: it is euphemized and encrypted.

Our language is not under control – ah! the joy of unbridled lex! Every word you may need is there in dictionaries or on the street. If you can’t find the word you want, neologise: coin a phrase, start a bit of slang. Years pass, society’s attitudes change, but we always have alternative means to say what we think … For instance, in that diversity list a few lines back, I wrote ‘sexual-orientation, size; by and large’. Did you notice? Say it out loud. The pun was intended. Not particularly offensive – unless, perhaps, you are bi and large and you would rather I hadn’t mentioned it, in which case I apologize. The point is that whilst our expression may be constrained our thought is free and our language is able to run rings around the rules. 

But if a hater hides his/her ideas how can I argue? Will Big Brother’s restricted palette of verbal colour really crimestop ungoodthink? Words express ideas but they do not of themselves rein in the idea. Ultimately any Newspeak will surely fail – but at what cost to our lives and liberties? Freedom of expression is the greatest achievement of democracy because with that one freedom we can argue for and defend every other tenet of our beliefs. So, we must fight to maintain every word we know. And welcome and protect those we don’t.

I have the freedom to believe that you should use all the words you have. Keep them in circulation, don’t hide them away. Learn new words and put them about a bit. Offence is in the expression not the vocabulary. Don’t hate, celebrate.

Here’s a true example. Only the slang has been changed to protect the differently innocent…

There was a time, not so long ago, by and large, when the police routinely and offensively referred to certain elements in society, in derogatory ways that could no longer be tolerated in a civilised society. Certainly not PC enough for where the PCs work. Use of the term ‘bi and large bastards’ was officially frowned upon. Station slang abbreviated the unacceptable term to its initials: BLB. It was still offensive, of course, but the words themselves had been sanitized. In time the authorities caught on and BLB too was outlawed as a demeaning category. Too non-PC to speak. Trouble is, to some recalcitrant coppers the BLBs were ‘still BLBs’ whatever anybody else said. Down the nick, not for fear of causing offence but rather more in the spirit of jumping though hoops to keep their jobs, the hurtful category that had become known as still BLBs was euphemistically reduced to stills. The mindset was offensive, the expression of that mindset was offensive. The words made no real difference. Same hate, different vocabulary. Still. True story.

Please believe me, I am not arguing here for freedom to hate. I am arguing against the deliberate or collusive impoverishment of our language. Personally – and I would remind you that this is my blog ­– I find censorship offensive. It may be that the time will come when our kaleidoscope of liberal values will fall foul of the prevailing establishment. I would hate to think we collaborated in the disabling of our language.

Big Brother used malreported as a word to dismiss inconvenient news media. Now, we see accusations of fake news and alternative facts. No less pernicious than a politican being ‘economical with the truth’. No less oppressive than the propaganda in Oceania that spewed forth from the Ministry of Truth.

More Newspeak 2017

Language that has it both ways is doublespeak. Perhaps the greatest example of current Newspeak doublespeak is Brexit. Trying hard to set political adventuring to one side, let’s concentrate on that word. Brexit.

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First there was Grexit, an economist’s compound of Greek and exit favoured by journalists for the discussion of Greece potentially leaving the eurozone. Not the European Union. Big difference. Grexit is an ugly portmanteau word that was far easier on the headline. Even the Greek headlines adopted Grexit. And Grexit was much in the headlines from 2012 on. Still is.

 

Then, kind of following a Grexit template we got lumped with Brexit.

Br’exit took the Br from Britain or British or British Isles – and already the word has been imbued with a muddled notion of sovereignty. Britain is not a political entity, not in terms of EU membership anyway. That would be Great Britain or more precisely since ‘sovereignty’ has been a point at issue, Great Britain and Northern Ireland … Blah blah blah. In Orwell’s Newspeak that’s duckspeak.

Yet it has been quacked that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ by politicians who patently have no firm or settled notion of what Brexit actually means. This is Newspeak walking hand in wringing hand with doublethink. Brexit is a vague word that can be bent to political will. Yet, really, Brexit means nothing, or too many things, to too many people. It does not define the political will nor the ‘will of the people’ – the vogue doublethink semantics at play do not favour definite or specific meaning.

The establishment too has been let down by this Alice Through the Looking Glass word that means everything and nothing but never quite whatever you want it to mean. 

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But like the finest items of Newspeak vocabulary this Brexit word seems to have replaced any and all alternatives. So now we struggle to comprehend hard Brexit and unhard Brexit, project fear, and all stations to Free Market Central.

Lexicographers have put Brexit into Dictionaries, even recorded it as one of the ‘Words of 2016’ but still they struggle for a perfect definition. A dictionary maker’s job is to record not proscribe or validate. Inclusion in a dictionary merely acknowledges a word’s existence and offers a definition based on recorded use. Collins Dictionary got Brexit down to: ‘the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union’. However, whatever your point of view, Brexit encompasses or connotes ill-defined nuances of process,  national  identity, splendid isolationism, xenophobia and outright racism. And, honestly, the Brexit word is not up to the job. And that is kind of its Newspeak point, isn’t it.

Remoaning

A remoaner is a UK citizen who argues for the UK (etc) to remain in the European Union. In short, a dissatisfied naysayer, and one who is opposed to the current political orthordoxy. The word, remoaner – geddit? a groaning, weaponised pun – is Newspeak 2017 at its absolute finest. Let’s face it, intelligent debate is not the way of many of the brexiteering bastards in modern Oceania but the word remoaner can be tactically discharged by any prole.  It is thought to have the power to neutralize any logical or ideological argument made by a majority of the country, and who, by definition (and arithmetic, if you prefer; and including in their number the not-then-pm Theresa May) did not vote in favour of Brexit – soft, hard, vague, extreme or whatever. Remoaner is Newspeak in action: language intended to defeat the will, to remove our identity. How can you argue with the offensively facile charge of remoaner? You lost your country, get over it.

Seize the word, my fellow remoaners. We moan, we remain, we moan again. 


Don’t worry: my blogxit is nigh. The truth is that there have been a few moments when this blog couldn’t quite tell where we were heading. That’s what happens when words are divorced from meaning. I blame Brexit. What’s more I blame all the brexiteering bastards – sorry, is that offensive? How about if I call them BBs? – is that better? Whatever. 

In Oceania Big Brother is sometimes still referred to as BB.

There is no certainty that Big Brother was ever anything more than a personification of a political regime; a well-marketed, anthropomorphic representation of the nation, the people and the spirit of Oceania; a national symbol a bit like John Bull (or Uncle Sam for those with a different set of linguistic problems). When governments fear loss of control it is always doublepluseasy to bellyfeel a big lie if John Bull says so. You can write that on the side of bus.

Still.

 

 

 

Flick the Vs

Don’t start at A. Lexicographers agree. When commencing work on or with a dictionary…

So,

V

noun

  • the letter V
  • a V-sign

The gesturer’s palm faces inward, the index and middle fingers are raised, spread and, often, jerked upwards. Up yours. Get stuffed. Piss off. Fuck you. This is the signature gesture of confrontational British slang: the two-fingered salute, the fingers, the two up, cunt hooks, the Harvey Smith.

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The V-sign enjoys a multiplicity of folk-etymologies and etymythologies. The most popular  derives it from an alleged historical insult by Welsh archers to their de-fingered and thus disarmed French counterparts. Nonsense, of course. … probable histories lead us to darker places: the V-sign has its likely origins, as do so many things, in the spread legs of a woman, or the female pubic triangle, or the open female genitals.

The most likely of these is the anatomical representation of spread legs. But it’s complicated. Whilst generally defined as, or used in place of fuck you, we can clearly guess the true generation of the V-sign in an offensive and equivalent use of cunt. Which, It follows that the V-sign is comparable to the middle finger gesture that, in similar context, stands proud for the erect phallus.

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As V for Victory or Victory-V, also familiarly known as the vick or the Vicky, the same basic sign, given palm in or out – usually palm out – served as British prime minister Winston Churchill’s Second World War visual catchphrase,

Both ways about, the V-sign was a smugly triumphal gesture in prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s hands too.

The V for Victory actually started in 1941 as anti-German graffiti in Nazi-occupied Belgium; it spread to France and the Netherlands. Churchill adopted it as a symbol that spoke of “the unconquerable will of the occupied territories”.

The V was broadcast by the BBC to occupied Europe, in musical morse code, in the form of the first four notes of Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ – duh duh duh duuuuh.

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Dot dot dot dash.

Palm out, with a different intention, sincere, ironic or merely following fashion, the same digital arrangement becomes a peace sign.

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With mischievous intent it can turn into one variation of the rabbit ears that adorn unsuspecting photographic subjects.

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Laterally, it animates as scissors and, in hip-hop and urban culture, it becomes the deuce (and deuces), a multi-purpose physical embellishment and gesture of farewell. as seen in countless selfies).

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As seen in countless selfies.

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In January 2017 scopes.com reported a little online angst: a story from Japan that  hackers can extract fingerprints from peace sign selfies and thus steal people’s identities. Peace out.

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As an initialism the V is also an informal indicator of vodka, Viagra and, echoing V for Victory, may represent the cultural and political symbolism wrapped up in V for Vendetta, the influential comic book series and movie. The last of those V’s is shown scrawled across a circle, similar in form to the preferred symbol of anarchists.  This V is  an anti-nazi, anti-authority, anti-totalitarian state graffito for our time: a symbol that speaks of the unconquerable will of occupied territories.

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Meanwhile, back in the shallows, BBC TV co-opted the V as a logo-style for The Voice UK talent show.

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In informal American Sign Language [ASL] it may indicate a vibrator. Which, in a funny kind of a way, brings us full circle back to those spread legs…

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Conventionally, of course, it signals the numeral two (unless you are speaking Latin).

of!

“When we’ve weaved a web of words whereof we wot of what we speak why wouldst we not of wondered why?”

What?!

 

You really wouldn’t of thought this particular grammar glitch warranted that much attention would you? Yet some grammarian supremacists do get proper aeriated about it. For these evolution-deniers the tiny pitter patter of of as it learns to stand up for itself must be an unbearable bugbear, an intolerable assault on the traditional values and fundamental grammar of all they hold dear.

“Well, why do the patently illiterate insist on saying ‘of’ when every well educated person knows that the word that should of been  used is ‘have’?”

It’s as though grammar was set in stone at some mythical date in that  golden-age when schooling was beaten into you… Ignoring the insults to our patently illiterate intelligence and ill-formed education, and pausing only to dismiss the invalid syllogism on which the almost exemplary grammarian’s unreasoning  demand is based (it is made on an unproven assumption and yet, whilst trying to have it both ways, reasons, falsely, that the presumptions made of of in the statement of the question itself must be evidence enough of the use of of to justify the inherent falsity of the question’s original premise)… Sorry, all that logic spinning around is making me quite giddy. Let’s answer the big question here, loud and clear, if not once and for all.

To of or to have? Your choice: either may serve. To be honest, in the limited context of this petty controversy they are pretty much the same thing

of is not a grammar error

Of course it’s not.

  • of is not a grammar error (nor/or grammatical error, if you’re feeling picky);
  • of is a perfectly healthy mutation;
  • of is a by-product of our language’s constant evolution;
  • of is a shiny splinter of the past tense history of have.

Have has had, and continues to have, an interesting life. The contraction ’ve is simply the written form of a spoken usage.

Have is a special verb. It has been around since we all spoke Middle English (oh, what a time we had!). Have has been familiarly and contemptuously used for so long now that I doubt, had we had to, that we could of got through a single day without it. We have knowledge, property/ies, quality/ies, food and drink, sexual relations  & what have you. That’s a lot of responsibility for just one verb to have. No wonder we’ve abbreviated it a bit along the way. Like I’ve just done in the last sentence. Like I’ve just done in the last sentence.

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The pronunciation of ’ve that we choose to use is governed by the open or closed sound at the end of the preceding word. So, here are some examples of have in its contracted form. The first lot is a selection of  pronouns and adverbs with open syllable endings:‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘there’, ‘who’, ‘why’; each familiarly contracted to the point where the whole term is sounded as a single closed syllable.

There’s no ‘she’ or ‘he’ in the list as only the rustic grammar of mummerset have ‘she have’ or ‘he have’ anymore and that baint be what this partic’lar blog be about.

  • I’ve
  • you’ve
  • we’ve
  • they’ve
  • there’ve
  • who’ve
  • why’ve

If you read them aloud (“I’ve”, “you’ve”, et cetera) you’ll note that that each of the terms listed above sounds like a single word.  It’s a shade more complicated when looking at the next couple of items though. ‘How’ and ‘where’ aren’t quite open enough for some speakers. The contracted spellings remain constant, however, when these are pronounced (or – no need to get carried away – simply sounded in your head) the echo of have may well survive.

  • how’ve (may be pronounced ‘howve’ or ‘how-uhv’)
  • where’ve (may be pronounced ‘whairve’ or ‘where-uhv’)

Which brings us to  the closed syllables of ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘which’

  • what’ve (pronounced ‘what-uhv’)
  • when’ve (pronounced ‘when-uhv’)
  • which’ve (pronounced ‘which-uhv

So far so uncontroversial. It’s this next batch of wordswhen spoken in combination with ’ve (pronounced uhv), that prove a little troublesome: ‘could’, ‘would’, ‘should’, ‘may’ and ‘must’.  Somewhere along the way the  phonetic line between ’ve (uhv)  and of (ov) must of got crossed and have was spoken of.

  • could have > could’ve > could of
  • could not have > couldn’t have > couldn’t’ve > couldn’t of > could not of
  • may have > may’ve > may of
  • may not have > mayn’t have > mayn’t of > may not of
  • must not have > mustn’t have > mustn’t’ve > mustn’t of must not of
  • must have > must’ve > must of
  • should have > should’ve > should of
  • should not have > shouldn’t have > shouldn’t’ve > shouldn’t of > should not of
  • would have > would’ve
  • would not have > wouldn’t have > wouldn’t’ve > wouldn’t of > would not of

It is clear that of for ’ve is currently used only in past tenses and is, in fact, an indicator or acknowledgement that the grammar of the past tense is being used.

Compare “I must have it” with  “I must have had it”. In the present tense “I must’ve it” and “I must of it” make no sense, whereas the past tense “I must of had it” is perfectly clear. Be reassured that his is linguistic evolution at work, not an accidental slip. Nostalgic grammarians, have no need to be afraid of the present: strike a careless pose  whistle a happy tune. The replacement of ’ve is grammatically restricted to the past tense.

The pronunciation of of in much spoken English is close enough to ‘uhv’. It’s the same sound (give or take) as the contracted form of have. So, of (‘uhv’) is ’ve (‘uhv’) in a good deal of colloquial conversation. This interchangability isn’t notable until some users ‘correct’ their rendering of of so that it becomes ‘ov’ and then that ‘correctly’ spoken word is recorded in writing.  And, fair enough, it may have jumped off of the page for a while. However, little by little, have evolves into of – or, rather, of becomes used as a synonym for ’ve. Our humble little of, that noble preposition, the key word in so many relationships, has evolved a new sense, still somewhat informal and used alongside the original ‘ve but it’s a new sense nonetheless.

Whereof we should be rejoicing that our language has become a just that little bit richer.  & it is perhaps worth noting that ‘whereof’ is always pronounced ‘where-ov’.

We should be celebrating of. We should be welcoming this tiny refinement of English into the mainstream. Shall we dance? Etc, etc, etc.

Perhaps the grammarian gripers didn’t get the memo. You wouldn’t of thought it possible though, would you? I wouldn’t have of.

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Exclamatory re: marks!

OK! Let’s celebrate one of the true marvels of modern punctuation!

The need to exclaim has been with us since time immemorial. We have always exclaimed. It’s possible the first word ever articulated in any language was an exclamation. It’s intrinsic to our spoken culture. And if we’re giving it a touch of the verbals we may well need to put it in writing…


In glimmering light: an unknown scribe dips a newly sharpened quill into a stained pot of ink. An inconstant candle flame flickers as angry breath flays the air. The writer’s rage is apparent in each scratch and stroke of every word that he commits to the page yet, seemingly, this is not enough to assuage his passion. In our historical reconstruction the writer attacks the page. Is there no ready punctuation that might add force to his exclamation? The quill is his weapon of choice. He attacks. First a downward slash! and then a vicious stab! He has expressed himself. He is finished.The exclamation mark is born…

Well, it’s as likely an explanation as any other.

Shakespeare, as far as is known, didn’t use exclamation marks. There are none in the first folio of 1623 (seven years after he shuffled off his mortal coil!); later editors ‘corrected’ that obvious omission.

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My anxious words exclaimed and spat – yet, hark/ Is that a missing punctuation mark? “Out, damn’d spot!” The trouble is that no one really knows: the history of ! is, at best, uncertain. So, here, rather than get mired in a bloggy swamp of actual etymology, I thought I might briefly wonder who and what the exclamation mark is really for.

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The slash and the stab! In its essence we can see the physical nature of strongly asserted expression. It takes any writer extra effort to apply an exclamation mark. Once upon a time, in the dark days of the last century when exclamation marks were rationed, typists had to type a full stop then back up to top it off with an apostrophe. Can you believe it? Now, of course, with the advances of technology we are rich with the possibilities of punctuational profligacy. Hard to imagine how people actually lived in the twentieth century!!! But still I have to hit the shift key first. See: !

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In its broadest conventional sense ! can express anger, excitement and similarly heightened or aggravated emotions; emphasise the punchline to a joke; and suggest a rise in volume from spoken to shouted.

In its most punctilious, conventional usage ! is restricted to speech – to convey the nature of meaning within quotation marks, or to be spoken after the colon in a playtext.

“However,” says an exemplary grammarian supremacist, “if you really have to use an exclamation mark to add stress then you should never use more than one.” The conventionally-minded prefer italics, of course. “Always remember that an exclamation mark is the absolute equivalent of a full stop at the end of a sentence. One is sufficient.”

Good point. Except that it’s not…

Three full stops morph into leader dots … with a world of fresh possibilities. So, if triplication is good enough for full stops, why not enjoy multiple exclamation marks? In our less than conventional text lives you really have to wonder how many screamers is enough.

The history of the exclamatory urge is littered with informal aliases for ! – a screamer is an exclamation mark is a … ball-bat, bang, boing, dembanger, dog’s cock, dog’s dick, eureka, exclamation point, exclaimer, gasper, pling, screech, shout pole, shriekmark, smash, slammer, soldier,spark-pot, startler, wham … is an exclamation mark! 

Using an exclamation mark (or marks!!!) is nothing more than a way of drawing attention, with the purpose of stressing a particular set of words and marking them out as being extra-worthy of attention. It’s a stress mark! Simple as. Yet, standing alone, ! still doesn’t necessarily make the sense of a sentence clear. Which is the shortcoming in modern grammar that manifold gaspers attempt to address.

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So, how many eurekas do you need to register your meaning?

Excitement – I’ve got stress marks!!!!!

Despair – OMG! I’ve got stress marks!!

Sarcasm – Nice use of stress marks!!! Not!

AlarmStress marks!!

Shouting – I said STRESS MARKS!

Animal noises – Woof!

Surprise – A grammar pedant who praises the use of stress marks(!)

Humour – I’ve got stress marks on my stress marks!!!!!!!!

AngerSTRESS MARKS! !!   !!!!!!!

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Danger!
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Good Idea

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Cartoon Voice

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-17-47-48Place Name –

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Westward Ho!, a village in Devon, is named after an 1855 bestselling novel by Charles Kingsley. It is the only place in Britain that has an exclamation mark as part of its name.

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Corporate Identity

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Google used to have an exclamation point too.

Personal styling

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P!nk’s her showbiz name and that’s how the world knows her.

Your private parts

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-19-35-33Politics – We have the best stress marks! – Soldiers Unite! Slammers stand against any new stress mark policy!!!

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Mischief –  Now! That’s What I Call Stress Marks!

…and so on.

…and so on.

…and so on.

See!! There is no right way, is there? It’s whatever feels right.


In 2010 the hard-boiled American crime writer Elmore Leonard(!) published his 10 Rules of Writing. One of those rules is often selectively quoted by the anti-! lobby:

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Yep! That much advice is perfect for writing Elmore Leonard novels. No question.

However, his quote inconveniently continues, “If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

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Take Elmore Leonard’s advice. Be like Tom Wolfe – express yourself!

Why not combine ! with a question mark?

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! + ? = interrobang. Good, huh?! But sometimes even all of that and more is still not enough…


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We’ve all been there. It’s not until we arrive at the end of a longish sentence that we can see if an exclamation mark is in play, and it is only at that point, when we see one lurking there after putting in all that reading and understanding, that we can properly start interpreting the meaning of the words before us! One solution is to use the inverted exclamation mark.  The Spanish have been starting their exclamations with ¡ for years. The sentence that you are about to read is stressed with an exclamation mark. ¡It’s brilliant!!!  Why not hijack it? ¡¡¡¡ Get a bit creative with it!!!!!  ¡Why not!? ¿¡Why ever not!?!?


My fully serious point here is that punctuation should be there to serve our nuanced communication needs, and not the other way about. The ! is simply a small constituent in the workings of our language. The way these things progress(!), grammarian supremacists of a hundred years hence will likely have codified and ‘corrected’ what is now just experimental evolution, and corralled our errant exclamations into a grammar book of rules.

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That’s when the sticklers will suck the life out of the dog’s cock if they can. So we may as well enjoy all that our startlers and  exclaimers have to offer now before they become part of a conventional establishment.

Ho!

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