Tag Archives: Geoffrey Nunberg

Ms. Language Person Discusses Language Abuse

First, a disclaimer:  Fakename does not claim to be an expert in this field, and is all too aware that she is guilty of some of the same abuses she is about to make fun of.  (Or would that be, “of which she is about to make fun”?)  The difference is, that when you do it, it’s funny, and when Fakename does it, it isn’t, and certainly should never be mentioned in polite company.

Before we begin, Fakename will commit her first faux pas by switching from third person to first person, because that third person thing is really hard to maintain.  It’s ever so much easier to type “I” than it is to type “Fakename”.

Now then, I said that when you do it, it’s funny–but not always.  Sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I gnash my teeth.  I mean, let’s take George W. Bush, always my favorite source of language abuse.  I mean, come on, the guy went to Yale and can’t say “nu’-clee-ar”?  Every time he mangled that word I felt those chills you get when somebody scrapes their fingernails down a blackboard.  For now we will call this particular form of language abuse “mispronunciation”.

It turns out that linguists, having not much else to do, have come up with all sorts of words to describe language abuse.  Not having much else to do, I love linguists.  There is, for example “malapropism” and “neologism”, but there are many more words to describe words.  Turning once again to GWB, my favorite quote from him involves the word “misunderestimating”.  I mean, you know just what he means, don’t you?  Technically speaking, I think this might be a “portmanteau”, a combination of the words “misunderstanding” and “underestimating”.  A successful portmanteau, like a successful neologism, will come into common usage.  My guess is that “misunderestimating” will not fall into that category. 

I actually first became fascinated with language in the 7th grade, when our entire English class was devoted to grammar.  Everyone but me hated it.  I loved its orderliness.  And I loved that only when you know the rules can you successfully violate them.  It’s like using a salad fork.  It’s fine to say, the hell with the salad fork, I’m using the dinner fork for my salad, as long as you’re doing it voluntarily.  Not knowing what the salad fork is for, or where it should be placed, is uncouth.  Rejecting it when you do know is perfectly acceptable, and is a sign of intelligent rebellion.  Damn.  I have a sudden urge to use an inappropriate semi-colon. 

I next became enamored with language as an anthropology student in college, where differences in language set cultures apart–from the Inuit with their 50 or so different words for snow, to the tribe in Africa with only two words for plants: edible or inedible. 

And now, just as I thought I’d left linguism and salad forks behind, there is NPR, specifically “Fresh Air” and real life linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose first book was “Going Nucular”.  In that book, he speculates that GWB said “nucular” on purpose, believing that most people pronounced it that way, so he did too–thereby making himself seem more accessible to the imaginary “common man”.  Oh what nonsense.  The easiest explanation (see: Occam”s Razor) is that GWB really is stupid.