|Robert Hartwell Fiske, Editor and Publisher|
|April 2015, Vol. 17, No. 4||ISSN 1542-7080|
In previous TVR essays, such as my recent serial debate with Lane Greene, and my Prescriptivist Manifesto [henceforth PM], and in my book Language & Human Nature [L&HN], I've remarked that virtually every publishing season since the mid-twentieth century has seen the publication of at least one attack on Prescriptivism each one exactly like the last, down to the last error of fact, fault in reasoning, and failure of common sense. And the first entry of 2015 in that annual parade of nonsense is now here it's Oliver Kamm, There Is No "Proper English," The Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2015), page C3. Mr Kamm, "an editorial writer and columnist for the Times of London," is remarkable for having collected in one brief paper nearly every fallacy that has ever been offered as a refutation of Prescriptivism (he does not use the terms Descriptivist and Prescriptivist, but he is the former, and is attacking the latter). Here are his chief points, boiled down to their gists (note that when I say "Kamm says," what follows, unless in quotation marks, is my paraphrase of his words; please consult his actual words to assure yourself that I've been fairly representing his views):
Prescriptivists are always saying that the English language is in decline, or is under assault, but the language has survived very nicely, showing that they're wrong.
My comment More ...
Wizards, adepts of sorcery, stirrers of strange cauldrons, don your pointy hats and star-flecked robes, wave wands and hold bubbling beakers high! For today we examine the origin of words associated with alchemy, precursor of modern chemistry and metallurgy during medieval times and the early Renaissance. Under the etymological microscope come words like retort, alembic, crucible, athanor, and the word chemistry itself whose root may hark back to pharaonic times.
Alchemy, of course, was not scientific, being encumbered with ancient magic, Hermeticism, astrological gibberish, and hidden symbols. The pseudo-science's principal fallacy was universal transformation, a fancy that base metals like iron could be turned into gold and silver, through the discovery of a preternatural catalyst called a "philosopher's stone" or "the alkahest," a universal solvent.
I claim a side path here to mention the man who gave us the word
alkahest. He was a Swiss German alchemist who called himself
Paracelsus (CE 14931541). He had very little
Arabic, but was sufficiently acquainted with Arabic forms to name his
universal solvent. So he simply made up an Arabic-sounding word,
alkahest! More ...
He was, according to his biographer James Boswell, a huge man. When he was barely out of infancy, he contracted scrofula, a disease that severely impaired his eyesight and left his face horribly disfigured. He attended Oxford University but, because of family finances, did not take a degree. For a while he operated a private school, but that failed.
Yet 260 years ago, on April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson fat, ugly, blind in one eye, and incompletely educated produced the first modern dictionary. "Languages are the pedigrees of nations," he proclaimed, and, in compiling his wordbook, Johnson conferred a pedigree on the English-speaking nations. In garnering the rich, exuberant vocabulary of eighteenth-century England, the Dictionary of the English Language marked a turning point in the history of our tongue.
There had, of course, been earlier English dictionaries, the
first being one Robert Cawdray's A Table Alphabeticall, compiled,
as he described it, for "ladies ... or any other unskilfull persons."
Published in 1604 and consisting of but 120 pages and just 3,000 words,
A Table Alphabeticall had as its purpose, as did the other lexicons
that appeared during the seventeenth century, the treatment of only the
hardest and most scholarly words in our vocabulary.
In every sculptor, there's a blond vandal
My Georgia grandmother, beloved for her pot roast, urged her children and grandchildren to "cook and serve that which is within" or suffer the consequences. I've taken that advice to heart, yet the pot's bottom is not in sight. Indeed, the more I serve, the greater the contents grow.
Prior to writing this piece, I marinated myself in as many relevant ideas as I could locate. Then I put myself to sleep for several nights sampling the "roast," the "vegetables," and the "juices." Over several days, I basted the meat, savoring the aroma as I adjusted the flame. The results lie before you. Bon appιtit.
In 1939, one of Peter Ustinov's masters at Westminster School reported that his pupil was showing "great originality which must be curbed at all costs." Though only eighteen but already acting on the London stage, Ustinov was mature and knowledgeable enough to ignore his master's warning. He knew that individuality and creativity had been regarded as signs of mental illness for centuries. He may also have heard that people drawn to the stage, the chisel, and the pen were often thought to be celibate, stuttering urbanites.
Nineteenth-century Romantic writers had done their best to change the stereotype, but as Ustinov's master demonstrates, the ancient bias endured well into the twentieth century. As the famed actor and writer later observed, "I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape road from the dismal rat race of school." In the twenty-first century, we know that artists and artisans are thirty-five times more likely to seek psychiatric help. But we also know that they tend to be diligent polymaths who are inclusive, self-taught, and adventuresome. As children, they tend to be hard to discipline, hooked as they are on the pleasures and discomforts their creativity brings.
Speaking eloquently and articulately is very much like dressing an invisible man or woman (I don't know why, but for some reason I prefer to think of myself dressing an invisible woman but let's stay focused). Putting your inchoate thoughts, images, impressions and intuitions into words is a process of draping perceptible things on imperceptible things much like throwing iron filings on a magnetic field in order to make it visible. It's causing the ghostly to become, in the case of speech, audible. In that sense it is something akin to taking necromancy a stage further than usual: when you summon forth immaterial spooks and spirits, you just barely see them (I assume, speaking as I am from anything but personal experience). But speaking well is the art not just of making your gauzy thoughts faintly ascertainable but in scaring them up so that they blaze forth solidly and brilliantly and colorfully. And with no significant gap between what you thought and what you expressed.
Now, just as in necromancy you have to select and pronounce your incantations precisely and according to rule if you wish to see the apparitions, so in writing and speechmaking you have to adhere to certain long-established formulas and rules if you wish to make your auditors grasp the "spirits" in your mind (where, spookily enough, science tells us all is pure silence).
I bring this up because Oliver Kamm has a piece in the on-line Wall Street Journal (dated March 13, 2015) in which he makes the ever-popular contention that there are really no rules in grammar that need to be adhered to, and language is whatever people speak and write. I repeat: there are no rules in English, and you can say and write any way you want to, and that is perfectly fine.
In other words, anything goes. Mr Kamm (without saying so explicitly) recommends chaos as a perfectly acceptable state of affairs when it comes to people expressing themselves. Does this make sense?
He would probably say that as long as individuals succeed in making themselves understood, then they have succeeded period. That is all that is required of verbal or written communication. If you understand what I was expressing, then my job is done, whether I broke every so-called rule in the grammatical rule-book or not. Does this make sense? More ...
Here are a few of the more than one thousand examples of rhetorical English in Robert Hartwell Fiske's Elegant English, Second Edition. I've decided to offer these few hundred examples in two parts, to be published in the April and May Vocabula Review. As I say, the book contains many more than these few examples.
Rhetorical English adds effect and feeling to a sentence.
Rhetorical English is eloquent English; it is effective speaking and writing; it is the use of figures of speech to move or persuade, to emphasize or impress, to clarify or, even, conjure. It is the peak, the pinnacle, the high point of elegant English.
The following pages offer examples of ten rhetorical figures: amplification, comparison, correction, inclusion, inversion, juxtaposition, omission, parallelism, repetition, and substitution.
Not in the least is this list a complete catalogue of figures of speech, of which there are hundreds.
And, as you will notice, some of the examples, though listed under one rhetorical figure, clearly illustrate two or more rhetorical figures.
Less important than the name of the figure is the song, the sway of the sentence. Listen to that.
AMPLIFICATION OF A WORD, CLAUSE, OR SENTENCE (AMPLIFICATIO)
Where a person adds detail or emphasis to a word, clause, or sentence.
She's got plans for herself, too. Horrible plans. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Evil thoughts became my sole intimates the darkest and most evil of thoughts. Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat
She wore a faded dressing gown and she carried a candle, holding it high, so that its light fell upon her face: a face quiet, grave, utterly unalarmed. William Faulkner, Light in August
COMPARISON OF ONE THING WITH ANOTHER (SIMILE)
Where a person, using the word as or like, compares one thing with another, quite different, thing.
Sid and Charity simply dropped out of sight like the weighted bodies in a pond. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. James Joyce,A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Gooseflesh rippled like wheat along his flanks. His scrotum drew up tight as a slipknot. Walker Percy, The Second Coming
CORRECTION: OF ONE'S WORDS (METANOIA, CORRECTIO)
Where a person amends, or corrects, what he says or writes while saying or writing it. If you hear anything against your father anything I mean, except that he's odious and vile remember it's perfectly false. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
Felt, seen, heard, not fully felt, most meagerly seen, scarcely heard at all, and still in me, rattling, like a receding footfall, or Count Dracula's swagger. Edna O'Brien, Night More ...
Vocabula RevisitedCleaning Up My Act
Lots of women have now taken to swearing. The right to use profanity is, I suppose, one of the side some would say highly dubious benefits of women's liberation. "When I was young," Tom Lehrer has said, "there were so many words you couldn't use in the presence of a girl. Now you can use them all, but you better not call her a girl." Too true.
I decided to banish profanity from my conversation because it began to seem indecorous, especially in a man who is a grandfather. A clue that it was time to cease was when I began to part words in the middle with the f-word: as in unf------believable. Besides, I don't want my deathbed words to include profanity. More ...
Free in Vocabula
Love a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our list of Best Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your high regard for a word; emotional reactions to the sound or meaning of words are welcome. If a word you love is already listed, you are welcome to tell us why you, too, love the word. The Best Words have an aura of fun or majesty.
Free in Vocabula
Hate a word? Tell us what it is and perhaps we'll add it to our
list of Worst Words. There need not be any well-reasoned analysis of your
distaste for a word; visceral reactions to the sound or meaning of words
are welcome. If a word you hate is already listed, you are welcome to tell
us why you, too, hate the word. The Worst Words have an aura of
foolishness or odium.
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