Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 July 2016
Guys in whatever guise

Were I to formally address you, Dear Readers, I would use the term 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. This is an established format which has the weight of tradition behind it. However, in the fast-moving world of contemporary speech there is, by definition, no tradition. So how does one address a mixed group of males and females without offending the sensibilities of the politically-correct members of the audience?

The problem is that it is hard to informally address a group of women without offending someone. 'Ladies' sounds too formal, and, as one blogger complained, 'It makes me think of the word 'ladylike' which has some very outdated and sexist connotations.' If 'ladies' is offensive to some, those same people get apoplectic about being referred to as 'girls' (unless every one of them is under the age of seventeen). And somehow addressing a group as plain 'women' just does not work.

The usual solution is to refer to the group - be they males, females or both, as 'guys'. However, this too has come under fire because (according to a recent article in the Guardian Newspaper) it patronizes females by making them 'honorary males'. So apart from throwing one's hands into the air and walking off in despair, what is one supposed to do? The Guardian suggests using 'folks', but I would argue that, outside parts of the American Mid-west, one can only get away with using this term while wearing dungarees with a corncob pipe clenched firmly between one's teeth. Why not stick with 'guys'?

For a start this term is already generally used these days to address men, women or both, so why change what works? Furthermore, the word originally was used in the 19th century to refer to a grotesquely or poorly dressed person without discriminating by gender. Thus one can argue that women are merely reclaiming the right to be jocularly insulted as men always have been.

But in fact, just as the word evolved from its original derogatory sense to informally refer to a group of men in general, there is no reason why it cannot evolve further to address a mixed gender group.
15 May 2016
The highest star

Recently I read of an internet hoax which claimed that 'superstar Pauley Perrette is dead'. While this information might have stunned some users, I had heretofore - with all due respect to Ms Perrette - been unaware that she was alive. A quick check on the internet revealed that the lady in question plays the part of a forensic scientist in the crime drama NCIS, and both she and the character she plays are both very much alive.

This incident got me wondering what qualifies someone as a 'superstar' these days. Originally the 'star' was the leading actor in a cinematic production. If the leading actress was not sufficiently important in her own right, she was rather patronizingly called the 'starlet'.

Today, thanks to Hollywood promotions, a certain degree of verbal inflation has taken hold. Even people with walk-on roles are called 'stars' while the leading actors are 'superstars', even if the show is an obscure drama on cable TV with an audience of ten, including the superstar's mother. As a result increasingly desperate attempts are made to define people of whom the general public has actually heard. 'Megastar' is the current favourite, though this is less popular with the digital generation to whom a megabyte is actually rather tiny. 'Gigastar' has already been taken by a satiric comedian, so I'll be interested to see what the publicity machines come up with next.

In rather the same way, have you noticed the hunt for rare metals among the credit card companies? Where once credit cards were silver or gold, the new standard is platinum. Unfortunately after that rare metals become rather toxic and obscure. A Gadolinium Credit Card actually sounds rather impressive, but advertising inflation has settled for the more mundane 'Platinum plus'.
15 March 2015
A Good-humoured Blog

Do you have a sense of humour? Actually, you should have four humours, because the ancients believed that the 'humours' were actual fluids in the body. 'Humour' and 'humid' have the same etymological root. Though today we associate humour with fun and amusement, humours need not be so pleasant. Melancholy is also a humour - once believed to be caused by too much black bile in the body. When you think about it, if humour was always pleasant, we would not refer to a personality as 'good-humoured', since 'good' would be redundant.

Even today, although we do not use 'humour' as a class, we refer to character types in that class by their 'humour'. If someone is 'sanguine' about a result, it is because blood as a humour makes one cheerful, optimistic and carefree. On the other hand a phlegmatic person is calm, thoughtful and patient. We have seen that black bile makes us melancholy, but yellow bile was supposed to make a person choleric - restless, irritable and unsociable. These character classes were called 'temperaments', which is why today someone whose mood changes quickly through the classes is called 'tempermental'.

So how did the four humours condense into one idea with the meaning of light, funny and amusing? Well, the change came in the late Middle Ages, when humour started to be associated with mood. If the balance of the four humours in a body changed, the person might become 'ill-humoured', and sad or irritable. However, it was noted that a person's body fluids could be brought back into balance by managing that person's emotions. You just had to 'humour' him.

So humour evolved into something changeable, easily attracted to an idea and as easily distracted. Of course if something was light and amusing, it was more likely to be attractive, and so came to be described as humorous.
15 January 2016
The Singular 'They'

'I would want to really know a person before I marry them', remarked a celebrity on TV recently. While the sentiment is unremarkable, the use of the pronoun bears further examination. 'Them'? We can safely assume that our celebrity is not contemplating bigamy here, since a singular partner is explicit in 'a person'. So why did the speaker chose to use a plural pronoun?

In fact, this usage is not new - for years I have been teaching students that in some circumstances the singular 'they' is acceptable. For example, as a class leaves the room, I might remark, 'Someone has left their backpack behind.' Should a student remark that this is improper pronoun use, one might respond that if so, then the error is common also to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and almost every other great writer of the English language.

While we rightly laud the flexibility and expressiveness of English, the language does have some lamentable and obvious failings. One of these is a gender-specific third person singular. If we use a third-person pronoun we have explicitly to refer to the gender of the subject of that pronoun - even if that gender is irrelevant or unknown.

In the past, this was dealt with by the 'inclusive' male pronoun. Where gender was uncertain 'he' included both male and female. 'The male embraces the female', the grammarian ruled, and wondered why this pronouncement did little to dispel the claim that the 'inclusive' pronoun is seen as sexist. Politically correct types have taken to using 'she or he' (in that order) to be fully inclusive and non-discriminatory. However, like many things politically correct, this can get long-winded and tedious very quickly.

Ideally what we need is a new pronoun which refers to a person of unknown or irrelevant gender. Running through available letters of the alphabet, I'd recommend 'k' for 'khe, kis, kers, kim' as in; 'If anyone objects, khe is welcome to kis opinion, so long as khe respects mine as I do kers.' As with most logical reforms of English, I don't see it catching on.

Instead it looks at though, by default, we are stuck with 'they'. 'They' already includes all genders, non-genders and all the new genders that are popping up nowadays. For example, our celebrity might be a pansexual and indifferent to the gender of a potential spouse. But at least khe was clear about the intended number.
15 November 2015
'Two bee' or not 'two bees'?

Consider these two sentences -

'Frightened by the dog, the sheep ran across the field.'
How many sheep are we talking about here - one, or an entire flock?

'While Fred is away, I am feeding his goldfish.'
How many goldfish? One, or a pond full of the things?

Some words in English have no plural form. (Okay, I know that the plural of sheep is allegedly 'shaepu' but try getting away with that in everyday conversation.) These plural-free words are fairly random. We have two sheep, but two cows and not 'two cow', we have three deer, but four rabbits. Fish are remarkably singular, as we see with salmon, trout, hake and other finny creatures. However, remove the fins and we get 'oysters', 'crabs' and other seafood - apart from 'shrimp' which appear to be honorary fish in this regard.

There are several possible explanations for these exceptional words. Some are imports from languages which handle plurals differently. This is why we have one or seven samurai (though no-one can explain why ninjas have been pluralized anyway). Many plurals are food animals, and the argument is that these are somehow uncountable, like 'bread' and 'butter'. Fair enough, but why are 'sheep' singular and 'goats' plural? Or 'buffaloes' plural but 'bison' singular? Anyway, other cases have nothing to do with dinner. We have two aeroplanes, but three aircraft. I weigh 14 stone, but 195 pounds.

The most plausible reason is that most of these words were originally strong Anglo-Saxon neuters, and they failed to develop a plural as the language evolved simply because the need was never great enough. Language generally follows the path of least resistance. Actually when you think about it, plurals are not generally needed. Why do we need words to signal the difference between one and more, but not the difference between two and two thousand? When we do need to indicate number, we can do so specifically (e.g. 'two thousand and five') or generally ('lots', many', 'several'). As sheep and salmon show, we can just as easily do that for indicating one or more. But we don't.

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