CHRIS COOPER'S BLOG - infrequent forays into fun, freedom, fysics and filosophy...

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Tuesday, May 13, 2003  

A newly discovered maven

Just discovered Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe – a usage buff. She defines the theme of her latest column thus:

While this column has been preoccupied with topics like war, pestilence, and gluttony, the pronunciation complaints –Iraq-related and otherwise – have been piling up.

Topics include the pronunciations of 'Hopi', 'cache', 'jubilant' (they have trouble with that across the water, it seems) and many others. Did you know that Dick Cheney pronounces his name 'chee-nee'?

I shall be feeding on this stuff. I call her a 'maven', borrowing from the indispensable Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct:

William Safire, who writes the weekly column "On Language" for The New York Times Magazine, calls himself a "language maven," from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group. To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it.

I shall use 'maven' as a term of pride. Another time I'll have to do battle with what Pinker says next:

For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since ... The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible.

Folklore that's several hundred years old, yet doesn't conform to tradition? I suggest that a prescriptive rule that's been held in regard for several hundred years deserves to be regarded as a tradition.

Can't go into this now. But I note that Freeman, like all the language mavens I enjoy reading, doesn't make the crass error attributed to them by their opponents of thinking that the rules of received (notice I avoid saying 'correct') usage have been or should be unchanging. In fact, they're a remarkably tolerant, good-humoured and historically sensitive crowd.

Oh, and check out The Word Spy too, whence I took the Pinker quotes.

8:46 AM

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