John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Musée des Peevologies

Though I do not aspire to be its curator, a collection of the historical representations of peevology* should be of some use to the student of language. Some readers may already be aware of the rich repository of examples at Language Log. I have some material near at hand that could be considered for exhibition in the musée.

In 1710, for example, Jonathan Swift complained in The Spectator about “the deplorable ignorance that for some years hath reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” Two years later he published “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” in which he advocated formation of an English Academy of notables, based on the French model, to superintend the language. The proposal had no legs then, and it has none now.

The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe is bringing out an edition — soon to be examined here — of Ambrose Bierce’s style guide, Write It Right, annotating Bierce’s quirky advice, often based on minute distinctions that no modern eye can discern.

In 1962 — 1962, one of the last of the Good Years, in which the echoes of the Fifties sounded in all ears — Dwight Macdonald published Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture. My crumbling paperback copy includes “Updating the Bible,” a jeremiad about the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible of 1952; “The String Untuned,” an examination of the descriptivist wickedness of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged); and “The Decline and Fall of English,” a fusillade at the wanton perversity of linguists and pedagogues.

Not on the shelves but in the garage with the other books from my former office at The Sun, is The State of the Language, an anthology edited thirty or so years ago by Christopher Ricks. You may recall some of the menaces of the Seventies — hopefully used as a sentence adverb, and the Episcopal Church’s carelessness in revising the Book of Common Prayer into texts comprehensible to worshipers.

All of these works grow increasingly quaint with the passage of time. More to the point, all illustrate components of the peevologist personality, a subject to which I plan to return in a future post. For now, as it occurs to you what exhibits you would like to see displayed in the musée, by all means suggest them.



*peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.

**When I see the plaint “I want my America back” at rallies against health care reform, I tend to think that it is the Fifties the loss of which is so keenly felt — that blessed age when blacks were at the back of the bus, gays in the closet, women in the kitchen, and white men in the White House. But I digress.







20 comments:

  1. I think that you've actually identified the salient characteristic of peevology, but along with it, also showed why there's no point in attempting to engage with peevologists rationally. Because it isn't about language/healthcare/whatever, it's about a sense of embattlement which gives purpose to people's lives.

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  2. I have little expectation of engaging productively with peevologists; my ambition is to rescue their innocent victims.

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  3. Patricia the TerseAugust 25, 2009 at 5:46 PM

    It's mildly interesting and immutably predictable that when Americans speak out against the Democrats' latest plan to grab more power, influence and sway over individual decisions, they are accused of wanting the 1950s back, an obvious cypher for being racist, sexist and anti-homosexual. (Homophobia is a fear of homosexuals, not the dislike of them. The two are not the same.) This specious comparison just doesn't work anymore, so please don't use it. I can disagree vehemently with any President's politics: does that make me biased against whites, blacks, men, people from Kansas, people with thinning hair, or Presidents who smoke? When the argument fails, the calling of names begins. The 1950s were hardly the worst of America. And the current versions of The Book of Common Prayer do make the service incomprehensible - it's rather like reading a badly edited newspaper. "My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth....." If only......

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  4. Let us not neglect perhaps the most peevish of contemporary peevologists, John Simon, whose Paradigms Lost was a prickly lament over the barbarism done to correct usage by authors he didn't like.

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  5. Re: the 50s 'halcyon days' - spot on! For further evidence of the wonders of this mythical age watch Revolutionary Road.

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  6. Re the Democrats and their plans to grab more power:

    I certainly don't object to anyone's opposing the policies of this president or any other.
    But when I see people protesting policies that do not exist, I suspect that other factors are at work.

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  7. Homophobia is a fear of homosexuals, not the dislike of them. The two are not the same.

    Ahahahahahahahahahaha.

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  8. Patricia the TerseAugust 26, 2009 at 1:33 AM

    They are protesting policies that one or more factions of a now one-party government, and the special interests that support them, very much wish to see made law. Once bills are signed,it is far too late. If you think the majority of protesters see the bogeyman everywhere, you've been living too close to Washington , and in a majority Democratic state and city for too long. Any attempt to make medical insurance the sole province of the federal or indeed any state government - which many on the left wish to see as law - would result in such disruption in all aspects of this current social and economic system, that any attempts to dismantle it would take decades. That is what they are protesting. It is the same impulse that got people angry about "reforming" immigration policy. There were too many hidden demons in the proposals that would have made the system more expensive and more unfair to native-born and naturalized American citizens. These are not the fans of conspiracy: they see and hear what their elected representatives say and do and they don't like it. These are, for the most part, concerned, worried, voting Americans: they know that their Constitution allows them not to let the government that is supposed to work for them,run over them with policies they oppose. If you are looking for "other factors", I suggest you look at the likes of George Soros, say, or the NBC News empire. Incidentally, I was of the opinion that this space was to be about language, editing, and other matters pertaining to the subject. When you append remarks like ** (ut supra) you change the tenor of the conversation - and not to the good.

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  9. You mean Swift's "Proposal" wasn't satire?

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  10. “I want my America back” is not a policy critique. It is an emotional appeal with the advantage of not risking the alienation of anyone. What is "my America"? Whatever the utterer wants it to be. Great for politics. Meaningless for debating policies and proposals. Of course, who wants to actually discuss policy and proposals anyway? Bor-ing

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  11. One of my favourite examples of peevology is Orwell's Politics And The English Language - which combines a solid argument about the relation between words and ideas with a bit of whinging conservativism about how dreadful things have grown.

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  12. It isn't only rightists who use rallying cries like "I want my America back." During the Bush/ Cheney years there was a lot of that from the left as well, as for example with Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?" And a good thing, too; if right-wingers were the only ones capable of raising a protest when things have taken a turn for the worse, we'd all be obligated to become right-wingers.

    Though Patricia the Terse and I don't agree politically, I sympathize with her on this point. It is time we had a version of Godwin's Law declaring that any participant in a debate who accuses an opponent of wanting to return to the Fifties, "when blacks were at the back of the bus," has lost that debate.

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  13. Speaking of peevology, I have two peevology questions. Is it correct to say that someone graduated college. My mind always stops to insert a "from" between "graduated" and "college"? Similarly, has it become correct to say a couple dogs were seen sniffing. My mind has to insert "of" between "couple" and "dogs." Nothing is saved by ommitting a word if the reader has to pause to mentally insert it.

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  14. If you wanted to sound like a 1930s era pedant, you could say "Patrick was graduated from college." If you wanted to sound like a rough-hewn ordinary bloke, you could say "Patrick graduated college." I think "Patrick graduated from college" is the most usual form, though.

    When I read "has it become correct to say a couple dogs were seen sniffing," I unconsciously inserted "of," so that I had to reread the sentence to see what your question was about. No pause required, in my case at least.

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  15. I like it but I prefer the spelling to be, and the sounding out of the word, to be PEEVIOLOGY, as in PEEV--EE--OLOGY. Peevology sounds like there's a sound missing to make the word more ....graceful. PEEVOLOGY sounds too quick, although it is correct for what the museum curates. But l like Museum of Peevilogoy better. Second opinion?

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  16. Complaining about the loss of "of" from "couple of" or "from" from "graduate(d) from" is hopeless. Yes, those prepositions used to be standard. But they're disappearing from English. The loss of small bits of redundant phonemes is one of the most common kinds of language change. A thousand years ago, English lost most of its inflectional endings, and the language survives without them. The loss of final sounds from words is common, as seen over recent centuries in languages as diverse as French, Estonian, and Mandarin. Leaving out things like prepositions or pronouns when they are obvious has happened in many manguages. Russian no longer has a present tense of "be" (though Ukranian still has it). And so on. Feel free to be peeved about such things, but you can't fight it.

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  17. Patricia the TerseAugust 27, 2009 at 4:49 PM

    Much of the loss of standard grammar - and pronunciation, incidentally - is doubtless the fault of the public school system. If the teachers pass on their ignorance, what can you expect from the students? And then there is the press......not to mention the writers of scripts for televison.

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  18. As director of the Museum of Folly, I extend a warm welcome to the Musée des Peevologies (surely you have accidentally put the accent on the wrong ee) and assure you we will carry your exhibition catalogues in our museum store.

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  19. A comment by Joe Tello:

    In 1924, Lenin wrote an essay, "On the Cleansing of the Russian Language", where he bemoaned much of what Orwell complained about in "Politics and the English Language": the use of political jargon, the perceived loss of clarity, and language loss to foreign words. He concluded, "Is it not time to declare war on the corruption of the Russian language?" This lead to various policies that enforced "approved" vocabulary, much like the type of regulation that Orwell objected to in "1984″. I thik that juxtaposing both essays would contribute to a kind of historicist component of peevology. While both authors were ideological opposites, both believed that language was an instrument of control and that "political chaos is connected with the decay of language".

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