On Grammar and the Birth of Words

16/12

‘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.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6.

I read two great essays recently at Huffington Post, both by Jonathon Owen. The first is 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes and the other is a rather defensive response to criticism he got as a result of the first, Yes, ‘Irregardless’ Is a Word.

Both are great reading, and as an admitted unreconstructed Grammar Nazi I recommend you go read them now (if you haven’t already) if you are serious about being a writer. And this is despite the fact that Owen is essentially hauling my Grammar Nazi ass to Grammar Nuremberg in both articles. I suggest you go read them because he is right and I am wrong.

Grammar has been very much on my mind as I’ve been slogging through the first draft of Crush Story. With two teenage boys as protagonists, swapping narration and POV back and forth between them, it’s vital that I maintain separate voices for the two of them. The best ways to do that on the printed page are through word choice and grammar. So I decided that one of them, Jason, would have a fairly well developed vocabulary and would use somewhat proper grammar. The other, Sam, would have what I call “lazy” grammar and use fewer words. It got so bad that I had to turn off grammar check in Microsoft Word because when I would write a chapter by Sam, half the page would get green underlines about sentences ending with prepositions or “me and him did that” phrases.

But if the book ever gets published, I will lay better than even odds that Sam’s chapters “sound” more real to the teens who read it, because the way I have him talking is closer to how English is actually spoken today by kids born in this Century.

Grammar is an evolving beast. Most of the rules of grammar as learned by students in the Twentieth Century were not the rules of English as it had actually grown, they were imposed upon it by academics who decided that nothing had changed since the days when Latin ruled the known world. Those academics trying to impose the rules of Latin spelling and grammar on English (which has more in common with Germanic tongues than with Romance languages anyhow) are the reason we spell “vittles” as “victuals” although no one who has ever spoken the word has ever pronounced the c or u. And please don’t start me on the insanity of trying to impose the rules of a language that declines its nouns upon a language that determines sense by word order.

But as right as Owen is in the two essays, I do have to take exception with him on one matter. In both of them he defends “irregardless” by offering a supposed counterexample:

Flirgle, on the other hand, is not a word — it’s just a bunch of sounds that I strung together in word-like fashion.

This is where Owen is wrong. “Flirgle” is a word. Why? Because he used it as a word.

Words are invented every day. I’ve created a couple. “Metroburb” wasn’t a word before someone first used it, and now it refers to a metropolitan area that is subservient to a larger metropolitan area, like Jersey City is to New York. “Smog” wasn’t a word until someone felt the need to use one word to describe the combination of smoke and fog created by auto exhausts. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll created hundreds of words between them. We’ve lost count of how many words Shakespeare coined. (Or at least I have; smarter people could probably tell you an exact number.) None of those words existed until they were used. And now they do.

And now, despite Owen’s protests to the contrary, “flirgle” does.

What does it mean? It must mean something, even if it is assumed it means nothing. Even gibberish has some meaning behind it when you get down to it, even if the meaning is nothing more than a desire to amuse. So it must have a meaning. If it must have a definition, I proposed that a “flirgle” be defined as a nonsensical counterexample to a logical thing. After all, that’s how Owen used it.

So never say that a word isn’t a word. “Flirgle” is now as much of a word as “irregardless” ever was, because Jonathon Owen willed it into existence. It may die out from lack of use (and probably will, as most new words do), but for one fleeting moment, it achieved worddom, and a word it is.

Put that in your pipe and euphemism it.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the response, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree. I didn’t actually use the word flirgle—I only mentioned it, which is an important difference. As Ben Zimmer pointed out in a comment on my blog, at least one dictionary doesn’t include irregardless because most of the printed evidence for it is composed of mentions (discussions of its use) rather than uses themselves.

    Plus, it doesn’t really have a meaning, which is why you had to invent one for it. But you’re absolutely right that it could be a word if it were used and given a meaning. I’m not sure I’d say that it’s just as much of a word as irregardless, though, because irregardless is clearly much more established than a one-off coinage like flirgle. The strange thing is that a one-off can be less established and yet more acceptable than irregardless, because being established and being acceptable don’t always coincide.

    Thanks again. I liked the image of a Grammar Nuremberg. 🙂 (And I feel obliged to point out that my name is spelled Jonathon, not Jonathan.)

  2. Pab says:

    I stand corrected on the spelling, and have fixed it. Thank you for your explaining your position. We will continue to disagree, which is good for the language in the end. Uniformity makes language stop growing, which leads to death.

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