He words me, girls

Language. How do we use it? How should we use it? Are dictionaries and grammaries tools for effective use, helping to guide and shape language for clear and precise use, or are they paper prisons, hemming in the English language from its natural inclination to metamorphose with the times and to assimilate new influences?

This debate has been going around the internet a lot lately, thanks in part to Ms Sarah Palin attempting to “refudiate” one thing or another. She isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, to bring up the idea of language’s fluidity, though. Whether by creating new words or by using old words in a new way, changes to the English language have long been a subject of both scholary and popular concern. The existing commentary, as with anything on the web, ranges from inane to thought-provoking, and I’ve been enjoying reading what others have to say. Thus far, however, I’ve resisted the urge to explicate my own feelings on the matter every time I see it mentioned on Twitter or on a blog, lest I develop a near-terminal case of ‘someone is wrong on the Internet‘.

Need food for thought? I offer the following:

What all of the above leave out, however, is something I consider tremendously important: rhetoric.

Verbing a noun — or nouning a verb, or any sort of similar syntactical confusion — isn’t just a modern device. Much as I’m sure some pundits would like to, it’s not something to blame on technology, the media, texting. The ability to Google something is a recent development, but the ability to use a noun in that way isn’t. It’s a rhetorical figure of speech called anthimeria, and it comes to us all the way from Classical Greece (as so many of the good things in life and language do). It can be a sign that a character is either of very high intelligence or very low, depending on whether the word-play illuminates or obfuscates meaning.

Other related devices exist — catachresis, the use of a word in a context that differs from its proper application (“the elbow of his nose” being a good example); acryon, the use of a word repugnant or contrary to what is meant; enallage, the subsitution of inappropriate grammar; metaplasm, intentional misspelling; hyperbaton, reordering of words for effect — anthimeria is just my persona favorite, and it’s also the one that’s recieved the most focus in recent years. (The portmanteau, while not a rhetorical device by strict definition, falls into this category of wordplay as well). What’s true of anthimeria is true for them all, though — there’s a difference between using such devices intentionally, to demonstrate real skill with language, and using them by stumbling unintentionally into them.

A character of high intelligence uses these word-changing devices purposefully. It demonstrates the ability to use language creatively, and it indicates that the character is capable of divergent thinking. In Shakespeare, characters who use language in this way are often rulers, monarchs, leaders, but may also be the wits and the thinkers of the play:

A character of low intelligence uses the devices accidentally. In this case, the wordplay tends to go along with what we think of as malapropisms (though the term is anachronistic for Shakespeare). The character is generally unaware that he has used a word incorrectly; the misuse derives from an incomplete grasp on the language. The character is not intentionally breaking rules; the character does not know what the rules are and so cannot use them effectively in the first place. In Shakespeare, clowns use anthimeria in this way:

  • Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,–” says Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Odours, odours,” corrects his beleaguered director Quince. Bottom’s mistakes will continue throughout his performance, including the mistaking of “deflowered” for “devoured.”
  • Is our whole dissembly appeared?” — Dogberry, in Much Ado About Nothing. Also “O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this,” and many, many other examples.
  • “To be brief, the very truth is that the Jew, having done me wrong, doth cause me, as my father, being, I hope, an old man, shall frutify unto you— ” Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, who might be trying to say any number of words that would make sense, and instead comes out with one that means nothing He also misuses “defect” for “effect” and refers to Shylock as “the devil incarnal.”

So, Ms Palin, yes, you are like something out of Shakespeare. But not, I think, in the way you intend (or hope).

For me, I believe as I always have — before you can break the rules, you need to prove you can use them correctly, first. I think a lot of the beauty of the English language is in its fluidity, in how creatively and how inventively we can use words — but that’s no excuse to think well of onesself for ignoring the rules entirely. The thing of it is — the options are so much greater, so much better, if you do know when to play by the rules and when to throw them to the wayside. There’s so much more you can do with language, if you know what it is that you’re doing. We ought to value words, however we use them.

One thought on “He words me, girls

  1. Another low-intelligence misuse comes from Sir Andrew Aguecheek, as I discovered the other day. He also is unable to say "the devil incarnate" and instead calls Sebastian "the devil incardinate."I completely agree with knowing the rules before you break them.

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