Mon, Jun 24, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Language wars: Sixteen of the greatest linguistic spats of all time

Words are ever evolving — but not without controversy. From creative applications of an apostrophe to the overuse of literally, what makes you rage?

By David Shariatmadari  /  The Guardian

The Nantucket lightship sits docked in the harbor last month in the Seaport neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, US. Feminists argue that the tradition of using “she” to describe ships is anachronistic and “perpetuat[es] the patriarchal view” while naval enthusiasts claim it is “political correctness gone mad.”

Photo: Bloomberg

What is it about language that gets people so hot under the collar? That drives them to spend hours arguing with strangers on the Internet, to go around correcting misspelt signs in the dead of night, or even to threaten acts of violence? The languages we speak are central to our sense of self, so it is not surprising that their finer points can become a battleground. Passionate feelings about what’s right and wrong extend from the use of “disinterested” to what gay people are allowed to call themselves. Here are some of the most memorable rows, spats and controversies.


A so-called “grammar vigilante” has been correcting shop fronts in Bristol, England, for more than a decade. His pet peeve is the confusion of plain old plurals with possessives, which in English are usually marked by an apostrophe followed by an S. Confronted with a sign advertising “Amy’s Nail’s,” he will obliterate the second apostrophe with a sticker. Addressing the potentially illegal nature of his mission in a BBC report, he said: “It’s more of a crime that the apostrophe is wrong in the first place.” Linguist Rob Drummond disagrees : “Fetishizing the apostrophe as if its rules are set in stone,” he writes, “and then fostering an environment in which it is acceptable to take pleasure in uncovering other people’s linguistic insecurities is not OK.”


Use this word at your own risk. If what you want to say is “lacking in interest” then brace yourself, because there’s an army of people who will point out that it should be “uninterested,” and that “disinterested” must mean “impartial.” They are sticklers for what they regard as the correct meaning, and have taken up columnist William Safire’s command to “rear up and rage, rage against the dying of an enlightening distinction.”

The problem is that if a word is more frequently used to mean one thing than another, then that’s effectively what it means: you can’t fight a linguistic consensus. The news for pedants gets worse, however. The OED tells us that the use of “disinterested” to mean not interested or unconcerned has been around since at least the 17th century, used by no less a stylist than the poet John Donne.


“It is an insult to a generation of sailors ... a ship is like a mother.”

An incensed Admiral Lord West was speaking earlier this year about the Scottish Maritime Museum’s decision to stop using “she” to describe ships and boats on its information signs. The move, made after the female pronouns were scratched out by persons unknown, provoked a furious debate, with feminists arguing that the tradition was anachronistic and “perpetuat[ed] the patriarchal view” while naval enthusiasts claimed it was “political correctness gone mad.”

Unlike English, many languages force speakers to assign a gender to inanimate objects, and there is evidence that it influences the way they think about them. For example, “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. When asked by researchers to pick words they associated with it, German speakers chose adjectives like “beautiful,” “elegant,” “pretty” and “slender” and the Spanish speakers chose “big,” “strong,” “sturdy” and “towering.”


The fact that we used to make fun of George W Bush for his malapropisms seems quaint these days. But it was worrying to many of us at the time that the man in charge of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal didn’t seem to be able to pronounce it right. He said “nucular” and it was one more black mark against his intelligence. But this syllable-flip is in fact a fairly common linguistic process called metathesis. All English speakers live with the results of historic metatheses that caught on: horse used to be “hros” and bird used to be “brid.”

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