Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Evolving Language: Conservatives versus Radicals


William Morris's edition of William Caxton's The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in the English language. (

William Morris’s edition of William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in the English language. (

In his 1985 book The English Language, Robert Burchfield calls the era of frequent changes in pronunciation, usage, and the coinage of new words that started in the late eighteenth century “the period of disjunction.” Disjunction was going strong when Burchfield, a long-time editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, died in 2004, and it hasn’t slowed. Like the expansion of the physical universe, it seems to be accelerating.

Whether for fun, profit, or from passionate commitment or a sense of duty, most people who concern themselves with such changes spend a lot of their time writing, whether their job title is teacher, philosopher, social worker, copy editor, or something farther afield. Such folk span the linguistic spectrum from conservative to radical. A century ago conservatives ran the show; they’re called prescriptivists because they believe there are right and wrong ways to spell and use words. Radicals (descriptivists) decline to criticize even obvious grammatical mistakes, or, more accurately, mistakes that appear obvious at the time.

These labels have nothing to do with politics. Politically I’m left of Barack Obama on most issues, but when it comes to usage I’ve always leaned conservative. Thus my favorite one-volume dictionary is the American Heritage, with its handy Usage Panel, and The Chicago Manual of Style is my backstop for questions about punctuation, capitalization, when to use italics and when to use Roman type, and whether to write out eleven, twelve, thirteen, all the way to one hundred, or use the numerals 11, 12, 13 instead. (And long live the serial comma.)

Then, a few years ago, I caught myself describing a person as “forthcoming”—not that she would soon be making an entrance, but meaning she talked openly about a personal experience. I was on the slippery slope.

As Burchfield points out, brand-new words are much less common than old ones that have acquired new meanings, such as nouns that become verbs (so-called back formations). “Gift” as a verb makes me cringe; I wonder where it came from and why people bother with it. “He gifted me this book” is harder to say than “He gave me this book” and to my ear sounds infantile.

When I was doing research on Cleopatra for a novel, however, I discovered Joyce Tyldesley’s Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt, and on page 11 ran straight into “The Romans… believed they had a valid legal claim to Egypt, which had been gifted to them seven years earlier in a vexatious will….” A few pages later I hit “Cyprus as well as Egypt had been gifted to Rome….” Tyldesley is a British archaeologist and Egyptologist, and her biography of Cleopatra is the all-around best of the current crop. Those are the only two times she gifts us with that unhappy usage, but I can no longer pretend it betrays ignorance.

One word I’ll try never to use (outside quotes, whether on the page or in the air), whose misuse has reached a fever pitch, originally meant “to upset the order of…, to break or burst.” In 1997 it was repurposed by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen to describe a business strategy, summarized by Jill LePore in the June 23, 2014 New Yorker as “the selling of a cheaper, poorer quality product that initially reaches less profitable customers but eventually takes over and devours an entire industry.”

Disruption the old-fashioned way.

Disruption the old-fashioned way.

I’m talking about “disruption,” often heard paired with “innovation.” LePore’s article, “The Disruption Machine,” deconstructs the so-called theory of disruptive innovation, just-so story by just-so story. “Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror,” she writes. If you’re weighing crowdfunding an innovatively disruptive startup app against, say, buying stock in railroads, read the article. It’s full of apposite facts like “Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.” Maybe because I already hated the new use of the word and finally found someone who agreed with me (and had the facts at hand), I thought LePore was one of the smartest writers I’d ever read.

The professor she criticized agrees: “She’s just an extraordinary writer.” In his response on the Bloomberg website, however, he pities himself in the third person (“she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way”), offers feeble excuses for the failures of his theory, and belittles her, repeatedly calling a woman he’s never met by her first name (“Jill, tell me, what’s the truth?”).

The theory of disruptive innovation will fade as its emptiness becomes apparent, but some of the original meaning of disruptive is forever lost. Ending his chapter on the disjunctive period, Burchfield writes, “… most of the new features that are intensely disliked by linguistic conservatives will triumph in the end. But the language will not bleed to death. Nor will it seem in any way distorted once the old observances have been forgotten.”

I’m bracing myself.


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