By Tim Dowling │The Guardian│3 min
Iregularly have cause to recall a scene from a novel called Madder Music, by Peter de Vries, in which the main character, a writer who specialises in polo, hears a match announcer telling newcomers to the ground that, contrary to popular belief, the ball is struck with the side of the mallet, rather than the end. The writer, having never realised this before, feels obliged to abandon his life’s work on the spot.
It’s a chillingly familiar feeling, although my side-of-the-mallet moments tend to be about writing itself, or at least about language. I was well into my second decade of journalism before I found out that “enormity” is a synonym for monstrosity or wickedness – not hugeness. In practice, you can almost always pretend you meant monstrosity, since huge things are often also monstrous. But that didn’t stop my ears going hot when it was first pointed out to me.
Things native English speakers know, but don’t know we know: pic.twitter.com/Ex0Ui9oBSL— Matthew Anderson (@MattAndersonBBC)
Last week it happened again, when a paragraph from a book called The Elements of Eloquence went viral on social media. The paragraph concerned the order of adjectives – if you’re using more than one adjective before a noun, they are subject to a certain hierarchy. You know it’s proper to say “silly old fool” and wrong to say “old silly fool”, but you might never have thought about why – or if you did you probably imagined it was just some time-honoured convention you picked up by rote. But it isn’t. There’s a rule.
The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed.
In this case my ignorance does not constitute a professional emergency, since I doubt I’ve ever put adjectives in the wrong order. If you’re a native speaker, the hierarchy is ingrained in you. Only people trying to learn English actually need to know the rule. But I’ve duly ordered a copy of the book, just in case there’s anything else in there I didn’t know.
Bosh bash bish
In a piece for the BBC, The Elements of Eloquence author Mark Forsyth examines a rare exception to the adjectival hierarchy: the Big Bad Wolf. Bad is opinion, and should therefore come first. However, as Forsyth points out, this phrase is too busy obeying another rule I’d never heard of: the rule of ablaut reduplication.
Other examples of the rule in action include chit-chat, singsong, flipflop and hip-hop. When you shift vowel sounds for effect this way, the vowels always follow a specific order: I, then A, then O. You’d think it was more complicated, that it depended on mood or context, but no, it’s that simple – bosh bash bish.
A needless four-letter word
The Dictionary of American Regional English is trying to encourage podcasters to employ endangered American words and expressions in the hope of preserving them. A list including “fleech” (to wheedle or flatter) and “to spin street yarn” (to gossip) has been drawn up. The problem with endangered words is that no one knows what they mean any more. You can’t chuck them into a conversation without stopping it.
This news comes as the Oxford English Dictionary welcomes the word yolo, among others, into its quarterly update. This strikes me as a little bit hasty – I don’t really fancy yolo’s chances in the long term. We put up with the expression “you only live once” for a long time without anybody deciding it required a dedicated acronym. It was never a terribly profound sentiment, and making it shorter doesn’t help much, unless you need to tattoo it on your knuckles. I think you’d regret the decision in any case – the days when yolo stops a conversation because nobody knows what you’re talking about are coming sooner than you think.