Origins of the Specious

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2010-08-24
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
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Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces "niche" as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with "and," or says "octopuses" instead of "octopi"? Do you think British spellings are more "civilised" than the American versions? Would you bet the bank that "jeep" got its start as a military term and "SOS" as an acronym for "Save Our Ship"? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you're myth-informed. Go stand in the cornerand read this book! InOrigins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman explode the misconceptions that have led generations of language lovers astray. They reveal why some of grammar's best-known "rules" aren'tand never wererules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn't necessarily purer. This playfully witty yet rigorously researched book sets the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony francais, fake acronyms, and more. English is an endlessly entertaining, ever-changing language, and yesterday's blooper could be tomorrow's bon motor vice versa! Here are some shockers: "They" was once commonly used for both singular and plural, much the way "you" is today. And an eighteenth-century female grammarian, of all people, is largely responsible for the all-purpose "he." The authors take us wherever myths lurk, from the Queen's English to street slang, from Miss Grundy's admonitions to four-letter unmentionables. This eye-opening romp will be the toast of grammarphiles and the salvation of grammarphobes. Take our word for it.

Author Biography

Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, has written four books on language and writing–the bestselling Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English; Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing; Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English; and You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online.

Stewart Kellerman has been an editor at The New York Times and a foreign correspondent for UPI in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. He co-authored You Send Me with his wife, Patricia T. O’Conner, and he runs their website and blog at grammarphobia.com. They live in rural Connecticut.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xiii
Stiff Upper Lips: Why Can't the British Be More Like Us?p. 3
Grammar Moses: Forget These Commandmentsp. 17
Bad Boys of English: And Why We Still Love 'Emp. 44
Once Upon a Time: The Whole Nine Yards of Etymologyp. 61
Sex Education: Cleaning Up Dirty Wordsp. 79
Identity Theft: The Great Impostorsp. 93
Au Oeuf Is an Oeuf: Fractured Frenchp. 109
Sense and Sensitivity: PC Fact and Fictionp. 121
In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Pointsp. 153
Brave New Words: The Good, the Bad, the Uglyp. 174
Afterword: Morocco Boundp. 197
Notesp. 205
Bibliographyp. 245
Acknowledgmentsp. 249
Indexp. 253
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One

Stiff Upper Lips

Why Can’t the British Be More Like Us?

Winston Churchill gave the folks at Bartlett’s plenty of fodder for their books of Familiar Quotations: “so much owed by so many to so few” . . . “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” . . . “this was their finest hour” . . . and more. But he didn’t describe England and America as “two nations divided by a common language,” though thousands of websites say so. What he did, though, was pass along a great story about how the two nations were indeed divided by their two Englishes at a meeting of Allied leaders during World War II.

“The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions,” Churchill wrote in The Second World War. No interpreters were needed, for one thing, but there were “differences of expression, which in the early days led to an amusing incident.” The British wanted to raise an urgent matter, he said, and told the Americans they wished to “table it” (that is, bring it to the table). But to the Americans, tabling something meant putting it aside. “A long and even acrimonious argument ensued,” Churchill wrote, “before both parties realised that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.”

I’m no mind reader, but I’ll bet the Brits at the table felt their English was the real thing, while the Yanks felt apologetic about theirs. If there’s one thing our two peoples agree on, it’s that British English is purer than its American offshoot. My in-box gets pinged every week or two by a Brit with his knickers in a twist or an American with an inferiority complex. A typical comment: “Why do you refer to ‘American English’ and ‘British English’ Surely it should be ‘American English’ and ‘proper English.’” Ouch! Is their English really more proper—that is, purer—than ours? Which one is more like the English spoken in the 1600s when the Colonies and the mother country began diverging linguistically?

First of all, “American English” and “British English” are how authorities refer to the two major branches of English, and reflect the changes in the language since the Colonies separated themselves linguistically from England. The differences are many, but they’re minor from a grammarian’s point of view. Most have to do with spelling, pronunciation, and usage. En?glish grammar is English grammar no matter where you live, despite a few exceptions here and there.

The truth is that neither English is more proper. In some respects American English is purer than British English: We’ve preserved some usages and spellings and pronunciations that have changed over time in Britain. But the reverse is also true. The British have preserved much that has changed on our side of the Atlantic. In many cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell which branch has history on its side. Take “table,” the word that gave those Allied leaders such grief. In the eighteenth century, the phrase “to lay on the table” could mean either to bring up or to defer. By the nineteenth century, the Brits had preserved one of those meanings and the Yanks the other. So the verb “table” meant one thing there and quite another here.

In case you’re wondering who should get the credit for that crack about “two nations divided by a common language,” the answer is nobody exactly. George Bernard Shaw was quoted in 1942 as saying, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” But nobody is certain where or when he said it. What we do know is that Oscar Wilde said the same thing in different words in 1887: “We have really everyt

Excerpted from Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Stewart Kellerman, Patricia T. O'Conner
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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