What’s one of the best things about the English Language? The fact that we often have no idea what we’re actually saying. We’re so dumb like that! See Part I
Chip on the Shoulder
Today’s Meaning: “To bear a grudge, or to perceive inferiority.”
Nope, nothing to do with sculptors sneezing and sending their chisel right through the marble of their statue’s shoulder, this old phrase is actually to do with woodchips and manly men, spoilin’ for a fight. In 18th century America, when two fellas were squaring up to do pugilism on eachother, it was a provocative statement for one of them to grab a woodchip, rest it on his shoulder and dare the other to knock it off. Think of it as yesteryear’s boofhead equivalent to the open-armed ‘come at me bro’ taunt of today – but using a prop from the garden. Strutting about with a chip literally on the shoulder was ye olde badasse’s way of letting everyone in town know he was one angry man and well-prepared to throw down.
Wait With Bated Breath
Today’s Meaning: “To feel anxious or excited while waiting for something.”
Often spelled incorrectly as ‘baited breath’, you’d be forgiven to believe this was something to do with old sailors lingering about the docks with breath smelling like pilchards. But it has nothing to do with halitosis at all, as the term is actually ‘bated’, shortened from ‘abated’ – meaning lessened or lowered. It originates from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when the beleaguered usurer Shylock denies Antonio a loan, telling him he won’t bow to him and speak in ‘bated breath’ (a soft tone) because of Antonio’s previous jerklike actions (ie. spitting on Shylock, kicking him and being a general bastard). How the idea of anticipation entered the phrase, though is anyone’s guess.
Today’s Meaning: “Empty, insincere or nonsensical langauge.”
It’s easy to sneer down at the great unwashed from the lofty balconies of so-called ‘high-brow’ entertainment, judging them for their reality TV and canned laughter. True enough, the likes of Please Marry My Son and The Kardashians destroy brain cells faster than huffing spraypaint and a career in boxing, but people in glass houses should not throw stones. We may well describe inane television as ‘claptrap’ but the origin of the term lies in the glory age of high-brow snootery. At some point in the mid-18th century, classical composers and playwrights began to purposefully insert dialogue or crescendos designed specifically to rouse reaction from the audience. The kow-towing to the crowd was to spark applause – a trap for claps. The practice influenced a new direction in theatre especially, from Shakespearean plays to bombastic Victorian farce and comedy operas. The claptrap even had competing producers hiring groups of ‘clappers’ to sit amongst audiences and applaud voraciously at certain points to lull the other onlookers into similar reactions. Or they’d even hire groups to heckle and boo their rival’s shows. Cluey enough observers criticised the shameless practice, but cueing a reaction continues today, and effectively. [APPLAUD].
Today’s meaning: ‘Someone or something that is failing to function with little hope of recovery.’
Every now and again a phrase comes along with just awfully morbid origins, especially when they are literal. And involve explosions. ‘Basket case’ originates from the depressing halls of United States military hospitals at the end of World War One. It was a colloquial term whispered across the wards that referred to those desperately unlucky soldiers who’d been shot, grenaded, landmined, bayoneted, artillery shelled and mustard gassed to the point that they were left so brutally incapacitated, usually limbless, that they would need to be transported around in a basket. A bit like ET, but way sadder. (Note: Never, ever look up the 1982 film Basketcase, or its sequels if you ever wish to sleep again. Oh god!)
Today’s Meaning “An insane, or mentally unstable person.”
For most of history (until relatively recently, in fact) when someone started to go a little cray-cray and lose the plot, the elders and wise men of the community agreed on the most logical conclusion for the behaviour: it’s the moon’s fault. Yes, the moon, the timeless symbol of mystique, was believed to directly influence certain people by imposing on them strange behaviours through its own cycles. Without any understanding of certain behavioural disorders, such as bipolar or cyclothymia, the peoples of yore simply assumed it was the moon pulling the strings, as it does the tides, and casting people into spells of madness. And so the Latin-derived luna, meaning moon, was used to describe those people who suffered intermittent insanity. The moon was also linked to the female menstrual cycle, but let’s not go there.
Didn’t Pan Out
Today’s Meaning: “Events or circumstances didn’t eventuate as you had hoped.”
When some lucky carpenter struck gold in California in 1848, every man and his greedy dog scrambled to the American east to begin digging up the terrain in search of the shiny stuff. The most common method for the goldseekers was to use a pan to sift through the rocks in riverbeds hoping to uncover small chunks of gold. The belief was that every cubic foot of gravel would ‘pan out’ to around 20 dollars in gold. But those predictions were a little optimistic and after months spent knee deep in muddy water shaking a pan full of pebbles, most eventually admitted defeat and gave up the gold search – lamenting later that their dreams of untold wealth ‘just didn’t pan out’.
Rack your Brain
Today’s Meaning: “To strain your brain to remember or understand something.”
Medieval life was not all plague this and peasantry that – there was lots of torture going on too. The medieval folk loved their torture, inventing hundreds of sick and twisted ways to cause immense pain and suffering to fellow human beings. One of the favourite devices of the times was the rack, a simple machine that used ropes and cranks to slowly, but agonisingly surely, tear the limbs right off a body. Nifty! Shakespeare, doing what he did best, verbed the word (see what I just did there?) and ‘rack’ became a synonym for ‘strain’. Over time its use as a verb settled solely on mental strain, and is still used often today.
Flash in the Pan
Today’s Meaning: “Something initially impressive and showy, but fails to deliver anything of substance or value.”
The mention of pan, like the above ‘pan out’, leads many to believe this idiom also has roots in the gold rush days. Prospectors were supposedly excited by seeing a ‘flash’ in their pans, only to disappointedly discover it wasn’t gold but merely a glint from the sun’s reflection, or something. That’s a myth, but the real origin is equally literal. Old flintlock muskets used in the Napoleonic era and American Civil war were designed with little pans that stored charges of gunpowder to fire the pellet down the barrel, out the muzzle and into the baddy’s chest. Sometimes (well, often) a soldier would pull the trigger and light up gunpowder charge in the pan, but the gun would malfunction and fail to shoot a bullet. When that happened it was known as a ‘flash in the pan’, and also: ‘oh shit, we’re all going to die now.’
Today’s Meaning: “To speak enthusiastically”
I personally reserve a special kind of hatred for this overused, annoying phrase. It’s not clever and it doesn’t make you an expert on the subject. Anyhow, it is interesting as it’s the only thing keeping the archaic term ‘wax’ from extinction. The word ‘wane’, as in ‘to decrease’ is still kicking about, but everyone seems to have forgotten its direct opposite number, ‘wax’ – meaning ‘to grow/increase’. Technically you can wax a lot of things. You can wax your credit card limit, or wax the television volume or even wax a quaint little herb garden. But for whatever reason, perhaps with a sniff of irony, this dying word survives only within a phrase about speaking with excitement and poeticism. It also just makes me think about eating a candle, which is just weird.
I hate ‘puritans’ of language. Hate is a strong word, but I really do. You know the type, the pretentious stormtroopers of the grammar Nazi party: the feckless, condescending jerks who seek desperate intellectual credit by spouting endless nonsense about their false passion for and knowledge of The English Language.
I’m not talking about those who respect correct spelling. I’m talking about the smarmy ones who peer down their beaks at anyone whose Facebook status is missing a comma and wince whenever ‘who’ is used instead of ‘whom’. They clutch their little orange Penguin Classic paperback tightly and find joy in their pompous judgement of texts. It is of zero importance to them that something reads enjoyably or naturally or poignantly. It can be so overwrought and tedious your eyes would tear up and refuse to read it, but so long as it is cleansed of demonic split infinitives, non-reflexive pronouns and (gasp) stranded prepositions, then it gets their stamp of approval. Well, to these people I repeat the withering retort that may or may not have been said by Sir Winston Churchill: “This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.”
There is nothing wrong about being passionate about language. I love it, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. But it’s just so fascist to think the joy of language is to sniff out the zee radicals and punish them in zee manner befitting zee crime. I believe the true joy found in language is its artistic malleability. The written word yields great power when used cleverly, not necessarily correctly. Churchill’s quote demonstrates this deftly, cheekily – utterly brilliantly. True mastery of language is not to adhere to linguistic law but to bend its supposed boundaries and rules to craft a message with wit, intention and impact. The message is always more important than immaculate grammatical piety. Think of the ‘spoon’ scene in the Matrix. There is no spoon. Of spoon, there is none. Cut to Keanu Reeves’ vacant expression aaaand there it is. It all makes sense now.
Words and punctuation are just the materials to create language. They are imbued with their own meanings and purposes, but they are there to be manipulated, reshaped – reforged. Language is alive. It evolves over time, it empowers those who use it and it defines the culture they live in. But it can only do so if it’s able to move as nimbly as society itself. Worrying over correctness of words is like sheltering a child from the world; safeguarded from evil, but denied the opportunity to grow and flourish. If you really loved language, you’d let it be free. You wouldn’t allow it to perish, imprisoned on the pages of stale dictionaries and reference tomes.
So, if I casually slip in a ‘totes’ mid-conversation without a need to explain its meaning – where’s the problem? New words come, old words go. Words have to change. They need to adapt so they can continue to survive in the vibrant ecology of language. We naturally decide what sticks; we adopt the terms and idioms that offer us enough sense to improve communication and reject those that don’t. Why did so many English words shed the letter ‘e’ from their posteriors? Why is it that Americans and British use semi-colons differently? For the same reason our modern banter is a delicious, steaming casserole of leftovers from ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Germanic speak: you cannot quell the course of nature.
Sure there must be something keeping us from falling into complete linguistic anarchy – but it’s self regulation. I believe the rules are ‘should’ not ‘must’. It’s not engineering – you build intangible structures with language, not bridges that could buckle and fall into the sea and claim thousands of lives with it. The only thing at risk of collapse is meaning, but that’s a relative concept.
If we insist on composing a list of rules, they should be flexible enough to change too, when the time is right, or when someone shows us a better way. William Shakespeare cared not for Propere Englishe. He wrote for his audience: the great unwashed, the toothless and uneducated. His words today are vaunted today as the absolute epitome of English eloquence and mastery of phrase, and perhaps that’s because in the 16th Century there were no defined rules of grammar. In fact, its the shoulders of the Bard and contemporaries such as Sir Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe (who some believe was Shakespeare), that carried the English language into a new era – to it’s very own enlightenment. These literary pioneers enriched language by expanding the vocabulary, giving words more life and purpose. Nouns and verbs meshed; phrases were coined; words were invented, extended, inverted and upended. The number of words Shakespeare is responsible for introducing to the English tongue is something in the region of 2,000. It’s staggering, and it confirmed his place as one of the most important people in English history. But today, as the English language sits wrapped and bound with more locks and shackles than even Houdini would dare wear, anyone daring enough to experiment with words so liberally is a linguistic heathen.
Well, besides the fact that no-one can ordain themselves the right to police language, I think the language pedant’s problem has nothing to do with their love of language and pain at seeing it tampered with. It’s that they are scared of the fact that they really do not have control over something that’s used to apply some sort of class superiority over others. Education is the foundation of class-division in a Anglicised society; centuries ago it was having an education at all, these days it’s about exclusive schools and the supposed quality attached to that. Proper English, it seems, is a projection of this educational superiority, not talking like a commoner and all. But, like all nobility in history, they fear the peasantry. Land barons forever dreaded the day they’d awake to peer out their castle window and see the entire townsfolk lined at the crest of the hill, hoisting pitchforks and baying for blood. Well, that innate fear of uprising exists within the pretentiousness of the language pedants. ‘The commoners are after our words and heaven knows what atrocious evils they will commit upon them!’
Well, as long as peasants with pens continue to mangle, mutilate and maim the English language, I’ll indulge the apparently sadistic pleasure. Language is rad, like totes rad.
And here, doing it a shitload betterer than I, is Stephen Fry making the same argument.