Tag Archives: language

Medalling with English

“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.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-

I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage.  There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available.  (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.)  Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.

Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”.  English is not a prescribed language.  We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage.  Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used.  Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.

Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb.  He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state).  All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators.  But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.

I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new.  Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided).  Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English.  One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.

This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication.  Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it?  That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning.  The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it.  But does the author know any better?  Ay, there’s the rub.  One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”.  This is becoming the dominant form.  It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”.  The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe.  (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?)  Try analysing “you had better”.  It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”.  Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge.  Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form.  To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility.  (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)

So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it.  (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)

Ceci n'est pas un verbe
Ceci n’est pas un verbe

ASDA vs the English Language

Life as a Literalist – Part 1 (since this will probably become a series)

An article in The Guardian about the Bad Grammar Award degenerated, as usual, into a below-the-line slanging match between descriptivists and prescriptivists.  Prescriptivists typically want grammar to have immutable rules, whilst for descriptivists, grammar is the way people use the language.  I would like to be in the descriptivist camp but because I have a very literal frame of mind, I also want clarity.  Language should be used to make distinctions.  This is illustrated by Dorothy L Sayers through her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise:

If you say “Our perry is made from fresh-plucked pears only,” then it’s got to be made from pears only, or the statement is actionable; if you just say it is made “from pears,” without the “only,” the betting is that it is probably made chiefly of pears; but if you say, “made with pears,” you generally mean that you use a peck of pears to a ton of turnips, and the law cannot touch you. Such are the niceties of our English tongue.”

Take, for example, the following simple piece of labelling from ASDA:La vie c'est une chose de la fois

There’s no comma after the “Farmhouse”, so the clear interpretation is that the mushrooms were harvested from the dark, dank cellars of rural settlements, and furthermore the pâté is made from (and by the Sayers definition, chiefly from), mushrooms and peppercorns.  That, however, is not what the labellers of ASDA mean. They intend that missing comma.  But then it becomes a categorisation error: “farmhouse” is intended to describe the style, implying a coarse pâté, rather than a smooth Brussels pâté.  It is not meant to say anything about the source or components of the product; the only time that pâté will see a farmhouse is when a customer takes it there.  By contrast the fungi and spices are ingredients.  What they are actually selling is farmhouse pâté with mushrooms and peppercorns.

Is this important?  Well, yes.  A pâté made from mushrooms and peppercorns could be expected, for example, to be suitable for vegetarians, whereas in this case the majority of ingredients are of porcine origin.

The peppercorns have, however, added some welcome ambiguity; ASDA’s “Farmhouse & Mushroom Pâté” is definitely made principally from finely chopped and ground farmhouses.