Tag Archives: Language

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!

An aggravating post

As I’ve discussed before, language, and particularly the English language, is in continuous motion.  While I’m all in favour of conjuring new words and phrases as our little rock spins silently around its mother sun, I’m not so keen on the ongoing mangling of the lexicon we already have.  What is most frustrating is how much of this misuse becomes societally acceptable and adopted into common parlance.  One grating example, timely with the summer Olympics unfolding in London later this year, is the transformation of the word “medal” into a verb.  As in, “the Canadian team is poised to medal in the fifth race,” when the proper phrasing would be “the Canadian team is poised to win a medal in the fifth race.”  I first encountered this malapropism during the broadcast of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and, though it was pointed out at the time as incorrect, to my chagrin “medal-as-a-verb” managed to infect all subsequent television coverage of Olympic events.  I can’t quite figure out why this usage arose – were the colour commentators simply too lazy to say two syllables, “win a,” or was it a conscious decision to remove the element of competition from this, you know, athletic competition?  Like how they now always say “And the Oscar goes to,” instead of “And the winner is,” because being nominated alone is supposedly enough of a win.  (Tell that to the runner-up in every election in history.)  The endgame of this will be, of course, the use of the individual medal colours as verbs.  “Schmidt silvered in the downhill yesterday, this is a disappointment from when he golded four years ago.”  So the bronzer I buy at the drugstore will, apparently, now help me win Olympic third-place medals.  Perhaps – if I’m competing on Jersey Shore.

I’m really not that much of a grammatical Puritan.  In fact if you go back and read through these 55 posts so far you’re likely to find plenty of split infinitives, dangling modifiers, lapses of British versus American English and even the occasional occurrence of E. Henry Thripshaw’s disease (Google it).  But if there’s a common thread running through everything I write, it is my desire for us to do better as a species – to always aim for the greatest heights.  If we fall short, it shouldn’t be because we didn’t try hard enough.  Which is why the lazy use of language infuriates me – it’s the sign of an unengaged intellect.  I’m not talking about slang, that’s a different category altogether.  I’m more concerned with writing and dramatic presentations that are full of amateur mistakes, from people who should know better.  Few cinematic experiences are as disappointing as watching accomplished Shakespearean performers reciting dialogue that is just plain wrong.  The 90’s Star Trek shows were horrific offenders in this regard.  One episode of The Next Generation had a scene where Captain Picard was talking about the Borg and he said something along the lines of “their entire existence was centered around acquiring cultures and technology.”  Centered around.  So many shows make this mistake.  You can’t center around something.  You can center on it, but not around it.  But even that doesn’t compare to the most egregiously misused word, one that causes my blood pressure to rise several points every time it emerges, like sandpaper against skin, from an actor’s mouth:  Aggravating.

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with that?  That guy who cut me off on the highway this morning was really aggravating.  My co-worker forgetting to refill the photocopier really aggravates me.”  For the love of Oscar Wilde, no!  What you mean to say is irritating.  Aggravating means to exacerbate, to make something worse, like, “Eating hot peppers aggravates my heartburn.”  If bad drivers or your co-worker’s laziness are getting up your back, it’s irritating you.  I suspect what has happened is that people have latched onto the “gra..ting” part of aggravating and confused it with grating, resulting in this strange substitution of one word for the other.  And, like “medal-as-a-verb,” “aggravating-as-irritating” seems to be finding more and more societal acceptance.  I hear it from the mouths of colleagues, superiors, friends, and in almost all of my favourite TV programs.  I daresay it’s almost a lost cause at this point – but I’m doing my part to try and reclaim its proper meaning, without being that guy who’s smugly correcting everyone else’s grammar.  Otherwise, all the irritation I feel at the misuse of aggravation and its variations will be fruitless stress, and there are much bigger things to worry about.

Like the many other mysteries of English, including why incense can be thought of as calming, while to be incensed is to be utterly outraged.  Then again, that’s what the ad wizards live for.  “Feeling incensed?  Try incense!”

May your day be free of irritation and “aggravation.”