Whom is Just the Fancy Who: Notes on the English Langue from Someone Who Practically Speaks It

If you’re edged ’cause I’m weazin’ all your grindage, just chill. – Pauly Shore, Encino Man

People say all kinds of crazy shit these days, am I right? Since when did “no problem” become a reasonable substitute for “you’re welcome”? How could someone so eloquent as our president begin an argument with “So”? He’s not concluding a thought. And how, pray tell, have our lexicographers seen it fit to include “sexting” and “mankini” in the OED?

Once in a while, I man the phones for a public radio show about language, and amid the nuggets of fun (my Grandma from Alabama used to say “it ain’t no hill for a stepper like you”) are the recurring concerns of those who see their beloved language headed down the sinkhole. They lament our absence of an Academie Francaise or a Real Academia Espanola. If relativism is the standard, then Justin Bieber holds the same linguistic authority as Bryan Garner, and that ain’t right. “Myriad of” is redundant, and you don’t learn someone to read, you teach them. Language is not a matter of fashion; the rule for affect vs. effect exists as a Platonic form somewhere off in the ether, and ah do decleah, this looseness of the tongue is something up with which we shall not put!

In a meeting last week, the producer of a game show I helped on prefaced his report of these listener surveys with a warning: there’s a difference between what people say and what people mean. I’m not a neuroscientist or an academic linguist, but we can all identify, based on the empirical data we collect in our daily lives, the myriad ways in which this principle manifests itself. Someone says disinterested when they mean uninterested. Someone sits before a Grand Jury and says, “I can’t recall,” when they mean, “I do recall, but I don’t want to go to jail.” Someone talks about “discourse analysis,” and nobody knows what it means. My mother tells me I’m handsome—that doesn’t mean I’m handsome. The English language is magically imperfect, wonderfully manipulable, and, yes, constantly changing.

There’s a neat phenomenon in chess where, at some point during a game, the arrangement of pieces on the board fails to match any scenario previously recorded in the history of competitive chess (since they started recording it, I guess). This is called going “out of book,” and with the proliferation of encyclopedic computer software programs that many players train on, it’s become all the more interesting when this happens, because players practice based off precedent. An expert recognizes a layout and moves their piece in accordance with a memorized order of operations — if that falls apart, you’re switching brain hemispheres. But of course, just because an arrangement hasn’t occurred before doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. Chess, unlike checkers, is “insolvable” — no computer can calculate the amount of variations that could occur on the playing board, even within the sound rules of the game.

Going forward with this blog, I’m looking to find instances of people going out of book, as it were, with language. If the point here is what we mean, not just what we say or write, then our language, too, is insolvable. There are, theoretically, infinite ways in which one can communicate a thought. And when we hear or read something new, it’s anathema to progress if we simply dismiss it as wrong or improper. New variants must be recorded and added to the book. Otherwise, how’s a playa gon’ learn?

This article is the first in a bi-weekly colum by James Ramsay entitled, "Whom Is Just the Fancy Who: Notes on the English Language From Someone Who Practically Speaks It.

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James Ramsay

James Ramsay lives in Brooklyn and works for the public radio show "A Way with Words".

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