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


Now we have far greater opportunities for ridicule in Donald Trump, whose multisyllabic manglings have become world famous: “covfefe” anyone? But acting as a linguistic irritant appears to be a family trait. Journalist Eve Peyser has kept tabs on words the president’s daughter Ivanka seemed to misuse in public pronouncements, and they included relative (“my husband keeps incredibly long hours, so I try to keep mine on a relative basis”), otherwise (“Cuddling my little nephew Luke, the best part of an otherwise incredible day!”) and “indeniably” (“Indeniably it’s very expensive to raise children.”)


Let’s just hope none of the Trump family gets to rewrite the US constitution, because it’s there that linguistic quirks get really serious. Its precise wording, even punctuation, has been endlessly scrutinized, sometimes with life-and-death consequences. The second amendment states that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The comma after the word “arms” has been used to argue that the framers of the constitution believed the right of an individual to own a gun was more important than collective self-defense. That interpretation ultimately resulted in the striking down of some Washington DC gun controls, which had been among the strictest in the nation.


The word used to refer to gay people has been controversial in several languages, not least English, where people railed against the co-option of the term until quite recently. In 1990 an anonymous journalist wrote a piece for Newsweek headlined “Please return the word ‘gay.’”

“It is of the least possible concern to me what homosexuals do with one another in the privacy of their homes ... But I want the word ‘gay’ back. ‘Gay’ used to be an extremely useful word. It showed up frequently in poetry and prose — Shakespeare used it 12 times.”

Fast forward 30-odd years and a similar row is playing out in China, where the word tongzhi (同志), whose literal meaning is “comrade” increasingly only has one interpretation. That didn’t stop the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary from prudishly refusing to list its common connotation, with one compiler telling the BBC they “did not want to draw attention to its more colloquial meaning.”


In 1996 the school board of Oakland, California, decided to recognize the dialect of many of its African American pupils, which it called “Ebonics,” as a language. It would henceforth be used to “facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English-language skills.”

The move became a major flashpoint in the US culture wars after being attacked by commentators across the country. Then-Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel labeled it “a big mistake” and black leaders weighed in, too, with Jesse Jackson writing “in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language.”

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