David Frum

04.30.12

Busted by The Language Cops

language-police

Think the fights between liberals and conservatives get hot? You should see the battle between English language "prescriptivists" and "descriptivists."

Prescriptivists believe that there exists a "correct" use of language, departures from which are wrong.

Descriptivists believe that language is what language does. If a majority of English-speakers decides that "hopefully" means "I hope" and that "infer" and "imply" are synonyms—well then, that's the language, no matter what Edwin Newman has to say about it.

Intellectually, I agree with the descriptivists. Language evolves. Don't scold.

The trouble is that human beings love to scold. We may talk like descriptivists. We act like prescriptivists.

On Sunday morning, I tweeted the following about the president's speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

Over the past few yrs, we've learned a lot about Obama humor style: whatever is the opposite of a self-depreciating joke, he likes that.

I got some angry push-back from Obama supporters. But that was nothing compared to the scolding I got from would-be language police who objected to my use of the term "self-depreciating." Didn't I know that the proper term was "self-deprecating"—minus the "i"? Didn't I realize that to describe President Obama as "self-depreciating" makes him sound like an apartment building or piece of industrial machinery?

I am not a language cop myself. Talk the way you want, I won't scold. I am fascinated by linguistic change. My wife wrote a whole hilarious book in Instant-Messenger-speak:

But it does chafe to be arrested by language cops when you are in fact driving in the right lane.

The verb "to deprecate" entered the English language in the 17th century. It quickly came to mean, to deplore or to disapprove in an especially morally laden way. The word derives from the Latin verb "deprecare," meaning to pray for deliverance from something evil or from a calamity.

Centuries later, the term "self-depreciating" was coined to describe speech that belittles or humbles oneself.

As politics became more democratic in the 19th century, politicians discovered the value of humility and the power of humor. The self-depreciating joke was born. "If I had two faces, do you think I'd wear this one?"

But "self-depreciating" is a mouthful: six syllables, counting the dipthong as two. To clip "self-depreciate" into the terser "self-deprecate" felt natural, and since the arcane verb "deprecate" was not much used or widely known, few noticed the change. Even the most zealous language cops soon surrendered the fight. William Safire devoted an article in his Political Dictionary to the term "self-deprecating" without any sign of awareness of the term's uneasy history. 

Which is fine! Go ahead, say "self-deprecating," you'll get no complaint from me—until I get pulled over for using the term that used to be correct. Oh well, maybe there is a lesson here after all. We're all prescriptivists under the skin. And descriptivism may be the last refuge of the linguistic conservative after the former mistake has become the current rule.