To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/fix-ii
Welcome to The Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, squeeze language’s cheeks and say, “Haven’t you grown?”
Coming up in the show are some words which you may find distressing if you're the kind of person who punches the tabletop whenever you hear something like 'irregardless'.
Let’s prepare for that with a little etymology, sponsored by Hover.com.
On our current theme of the misuse of English, listener John tweeted: “I’m in a lecture where the presenter has said "the whole gamete", when they mean gamut, three times. How do you politely point out this kind of thing?”
Typically, John, combining pedantry with politeness doesn’t tend to go all that well. But how about this. Pick out a tasteful and inoffensive greetings card, such as you might send your grandmother for her birthday, with a picture of some Etruscan pottery or a black and white photo of a lily pond. Inside, you write:
Thank you so much for the lecture, which I found very thought-provoking, to whit: the word ‘gamete’, which as we both know means a sexual reproductive cell, is from the Ancient Greek 'gamos', meaning marriage, indicating the romantic union between gamete and gamete at conception. Whereas 'gamut', which as we both know means the full range of something, is a contraction of the medieval Latin phrase ‘gamma ut’, from the Greek letter G, gamma, which indicated the note on the musical scale below A, and ut, which around the 11th century was the first note in the musical scale - ut-re-mi-fa-so-la - 'ut' was later replaced by ‘do’, for reasons which I can't go into because I'm running out of space on this card.
Anyway, gamete and gamut, similar sounding, but really such different words. I know I won't be muddling them up in future! And maybe you won't either.
Best wishes, John.
Etymology AND etiquette there, sponsored by Hover.com, which helps you navigate the uncivilised world of domain registration with grace and ease.
Say you were setting up your website the gamut of gametes. Hover will tell you which domains are available, and you can register the ones you like the best. You can get it all set up in an instant, along with setting up custom email addresses and connecting your domains to your web hosting, and if you run into any trouble, they have email and livechat customer support, AND real people on the phone ready to help without making you wait on hold or go through any of those automated menu systems that are even more infuriating than the full gamete is to John. For 10% off your first purchase at Hover.com, enter the code ‘allusionist’ at checkout.
On with the show.
ANNOUNCER: Previously on the Allusionist:
VOICES: Why is the English language such an idiosyncratic mess? And why has nobody tried to sort it out?
But it didn’t work.
You can’t control how people use English.
If you press down on a sandwich to make it tidier, the filling will just squirt out the sides!
But they’re using it wrong!
How can you know what is right or wrong when many of the rules are fabrications?
They’ve rearranged the aisles in the supermarket and now I can’t find the bread!
I need stability! Tell me English can be fixed!
Do you mean fixed as in mended or fixed as in made stable?
I mean both, dammit!
HZ: Also, better not forget the getting your pet fixed sense of fixed, as much of the resistance to fixing the English language rests on not wanting to neuter it.
But since English is not fixed - in any of the senses - that leaves it evolving with abandon, in many diverse directions.
HC: My name is Hampton Catlin, and I’m a co-founder of Wordset.
MC: I’m Michael Catlin, and I’m also a co-founder of Wordset.
HC: Which is an online collaborative dictionary that’s meant to cover all the different types of English, because Michael’s English and I’m American.
HZ: That’s right, Hampton and Michael are trying to collect every form of English around the whole world.
HC: One of our goals is to represent forms of English that are not typically represented in dictionaries: Indian English, South African English, AAVE - known as ebonics. We want to include all of them, because they’re all English.
HZ: They've even come across a modern strain of English that I’ve never heard.
HC: We ended up discovering that there is a whole other group of English speakers you don’t normally think of. It’s a very small group; they speak a very strange version of English; and they’re some of the most powerful people on the planet. They probably directly influence your lives. And they speak a strange pidgin of English, known as Euro English, or Euro Speak.
HZ: Who are ‘they’? European Union officials.
HC: Euro English is the English spoken by technocrats at the EU. Most of them don’t speak English as a first language, so what’s happened is they’ve kind of misappropriated English words and misunderstood what they mean, or invented new words that only exist - one of my favourites is 'planification'. What is planification? It’s just planning.
HZ: Why did they do that to that poor word?
MC: I guess ‘ing’ suffix is English, ‘ification’ is more Latinate?
HC: So a lot of these are false friends, and a lot come from French.
MC: Like ‘actual’ means ‘current’. “Our actual head of sales” means “Our current head of sales”. I remember learning in French, ‘actuellement’ means ‘currently’, similar in Spanish. So it seems like some of these are also ways to prevent confusion where English is the only language where it means - not the opposite, but a distinct meaning.
HZ: But it creates confusion!
MC: Yeah. But I guess there’s a greater spread of languages in the EU -
HC: There are 23 languages in the EU
MC: There you go! And I guess only two countries, Ireland and the UK, are going to be native speakers. So I guess they don’t get much of a vote over whether ‘actual’ is going to mean ‘current’.
HZ: One feature of Euro English is words that hitherto were not verbs are now used as verbs. ‘To badge’ means to give someone a badge, makes sense. ‘To visa’ means ‘to approve’ - ummm - and I’m really not sure what ‘to precise’ means.
MC: I’m not comfortable with that either. There’s a lot of weird verbing.
HZ: And even commonplace verbs such as ‘to value’ can be transformed into other verbs.
HC: ‘Valorise’ is to add value to something, or to assign value, depending on the circumstances.
MC: ‘Let’s valorise this piece of land.’
HC: [stumbles over pronunciation] I can’t even say it. ‘We’re going to valorise our helpfulness to the community’, which means to improve the value of.
MC: Does 'valour', as in the British English word, come from 'value'?
HZ: Yes, ‘valour’ and ‘value’ both descend from the Latin ‘valere’, meaning to be of worth. But I don’t think it helps that words share a root if, in the intervening millennia, they have diverged and taken on separate meanings. Take the word ‘actor’. It’s reasonable to assume that to most people, that word describes someone who portrays characters in dramatic productions. But you can see alternatively how the word can literally mean a person who acts, ie who does something. Which is how it’s used now in Euro English. And accordingly, ‘actor’ has spawned another noun: ‘actorness’.
HC: Actorness = the level to which you’re involved with something. My actorness in doing the laundry is low, because Michael did it; but I had high actorness in cleaning the bathroom.
HZ: Is one of the problems that they’re being too literal? They’ve got ‘actor’ as in ‘one who takes action’, but English is not a literal language. English has travelled all over the place to become what we’ve got now.
HC: Yeah, I think they’re trying to bring a formality to the language. We tried to find examples that weren’t hyper-formal, and there are none.
MC: Obv this language is being used to write laws, and memos. It’s not as if they’re writing poetry or novels. Yes, it is very literal, but it doesn’t have to be anything else. It’s legalese, almost.
HZ: It shows how English fails if you approach it methodically or logically.
MC: Yeah, definitely.
HZ: I should have phrased that thought differently. English is a language which is not very logical or well-behaved. These European Union technocrats are trying to apply logic to it, and thus a new version of English has been born. It would probably be healthier to think of it less as incorrect English, and more as a separate language with origins in common with British English..
And while I may mock words like actorness and planification, I do think there might be valorisation in observing this fledgling form of English, that's being shaped by people who don't have a native acquaintance with English. Free from the influences of the past, and not conditioned to tolerate or assimilate the irregularities of the present, they might be establishing the most efficient modes of expression. Not walking along the path around the lawn but cutting straight across the grass.
HC: That’s what fascinates us, that language evolves so naturally. This makes me happy. It doesn’t make me outraged that they’re changing English. I love that there’s a little community that’s forming a new language that’s combining - like a lot of it is very technical-sounding, very formal.
MC: There’s a lot of business jargon, corporate jargon. ‘Hierarchical superior’ instead of ‘boss’. Or ‘fiche’.
HC: I love ‘fiche’.
MC: For a print-out or packet of…
HC: A ‘fiche’ is a French word, from ‘microfiche’ because you’d use a microfiche to print out things. And it now just means any kind of printed material. So they use that in English a lot - “Welcome to the meeting, here’s your fiche.” I really like the word.
MC: Yeah, because we were trying to come up with the British English - well you’d say ‘packet’, I don’t like that. I prefer ‘fiche’.
HZ: Forget what I said before. This is the version of English that will be mandatory when robots conquer humanity.
MC: We have a global network, where people can speak English, and to communicate effectively, you do need to have some compromises.
HZ: So tough luck, English. Variations are the price of popularity. It’s your fault for being the most widely spoken language geographically.
HC: When you’re the lingua franca of the modern age, you pick up words; you kind of lose control of your language a little bit. At least if you’re doing it right. Because it’s being used by people who don’t speak it natively.
HZ: And, as became clear in the last episode, you can’t wrestle control of a language from the myriad people who use it.
HC: When you’re a language of commerce, business, government, it kind of takes a life of its own. It leaves its homeland, it goes off to school. It’s not our English any more; it’s everyone in Europe’s. I think there’s something romantic about that. Just thinking of technocrats misusing words isn’t what everyone would call romantic, but…
HZ: Hampton and Michael Catlin founded the collaborative dictionary Wordset, which they want to make the best dictionary in the world. Go to wordset.org if you want to pitch in. You can also hear them on their podcast, We Have a Microphone.
If you want to immerse yourself in the unlikely romance of technocratic English misuse, the resource the Catlins recommend is the 66-page report from the European Court of Auditors, called Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications. However, it's not intended to be a study guide. It's trying to stamp out all these rogue linguistic developments and return British English to the EU linguistic throne. TL;DR: It’s a 66-page primal scream of pedantic misery.
HC: If you want the most thrilling EU publication you can read as a listener to this podcast, you should check out ‘Misused English Terminology in EU publications’.
HZ: I love the little landmines of emotion.
HC: It’s very passive aggressive.
MC: Or just regular aggressive.
This episode of the Allusionist was sponsored by Passion House Coffee Roasters. You can subscribe for a monthly, bimonthly or weekly, dispatch of freshly roasted coffee beans, or just get a one-off - either way, it’s a very good-smelling parcel to arrive in your mailbox. Their coffees are categorised in three different genres: Ambient, Mainstream and Experimental, and if you want to taste all three, you get 20% off an AME Mix box set if you use offer code ALLUSIONIST when you visit passionhousecoffee.com.
Today’s episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Hampton and Michael Catlin, Matthew Crosby, and Martin Austwick for the music.
The Allusionist is proud to be a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collection of the most glorious podcasts on the planet. If you want to hear something about as far away as possible from a technocrat talking in Euro English, I direct you to the ever magnificent and provocative Love+Radio. You can find it, and all the other Radiotopian shows, at Radiotopia.fm. And if you want to sponsor any of of them, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As well as the sponsors, the fuel for Radiotopia is provided by you generous listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
gleet, noun, a watery discharge from the urethra caused by gonorrheal infection.
I hope you don’t have to use it in an email today.
You can find me at Twitter and Facebook slash Allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org. Until next time, I bid you farewellifications.