Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem

As regular readers know, I love the peculiarities – the quirks, as it were, of the English language.  Because to me, English is a bottomless trove of enigmas, a linguistic vein to be mined in endless permutations.  Creatively, it remains an invaluable resource, for if you are ever short on inspiration, you need only dive into its well to uncover a fresh helping of treasure.  Do not fear that bane known as writer’s block.  English will always be there when you need her.  Finding the creative impetus again can begin with something as small as the shape of a single word.

Glance if you will at the following sentence.  “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”  I borrowed it from a classic episode of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a sketch involving Stephen and Hugh discussing the infinite capacity and flexibility of English.  Just ponder for a second the absurdity of that phrase and how it could only belong to the Queen’s grand old tongue.  Keeping in mind of course that other languages can be arranged in their own nonsensical combinations, Fry’s main argument – delivered in his unique style – is that because of the dexterity of English, one can speak such absurdities in the certainty that they have never been uttered before by anyone in the history of language itself.  Language is capable of so much more than we realize.  Much like the oft-repeated factoid that humans only use 10% of their brains, in our regular conversations we use only a fraction of language’s potential.  No wonder why dialogue with one another can often feel so stilted, so underwhelming.  Our reluctance to exploit the potential of language to its greatest extent is one of our many failings.  Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about how we converse with each other, and whether we are truly saying all we can say.  Quite possibly, those word-a-day calendars are really on to something.

Realistically, though, one has to wonder if we are an evolutionary downslope when it comes to how we speak to one another.  Slang is a far-too-easy layman’s recourse when our brain’s thesaurus fails to measure up.  Textspeak is another, and to a linguist like Stephen Fry must represent a true collapse of imagination, his well-documented love of technology to the contrary.  Ultimately the best approach on an individual basis is to set a good example, and hope that others may rise to the challenge.  Very likely some may dismiss this as elitism or worse, snobbery.  Whether or not they do is no reason why we shouldn’t still try to raise the game.  Xenophobia, or more precisely the fear of strangers’ reactions, certainly isn’t, in my mind, a compelling argument against it.

You may have noticed, if you are reading astutely, a particular quirk with this post, and you’re invited to submit your best guess as to what it is in the comments.  Zillions of imaginary happy points to the winner!

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6 thoughts on “Fun with words: Fry’s Theorem”

  1. There are approximately 750,000 words in the English language and I dare say making it all but impossible for the average speaker to master. Currently the Oxford Dictionary ( the definitive of the Kings’ English) contains the definition of just over 171,000 words of which roughly 10,00 are obsolete
    but still in use. English is a fluid language loosing and gaining words as both society and technology evolve. For example the Canadian Oxford now contains the phrase “Double,Double, in reference to how you order your coffee.

  2. Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still.

    I’ve read your post half a dozen times now, Graham, and I can’t put my finger on the quirk! In any case, I share your passion for language, and the brief quote above is from T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton. I love it, for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand.

    1. Thanks for the quote! I didn’t know it.

      As for the quirk, let me drop a hint. Think about the alphabet and the order of things. How many sentences are there in the post?

      1. OK, well, I don’t think I deserve the happy points based on finding the quirk, since I never would’ve noticed it without your hint. No matter, though – just the fact that your entire post reads so eloquently, despite the constraint you applied, makes me happy a zillion times over!

        1. Writing under constraints is a surprising way to unlock creativity. I find I’m much more juiced when writing one of those posts than any of the others, because I’m challenging myself to see if I can do it.

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