February 23, 2016 by libroshombre
Sometimes lawlessness works. Compare the practically unfettered, free-for-all English language with the highly-regulated French language. New words enter English all the time, but the Academie Francaise, “the watchdog of the French Language,” oversees all official alterations to their language. The most recent Academie-inspired uproar came when they decided to make “[c]hanges to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for school children, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ‘ognon’ as well as the traditional oignon,” according to a recent TheGuardian.com article by Kim Wilsher. “The aim was to standardize and simplify certain quirks in the written language, making it easier to learn.”
The most controversial change was the removal of the little tent-shaped circumflex sign (^) over the letters I and U “where the accent does not change the pronunciation or meaning of the word.” “In French,” Wikipedia says, “the circumflex generally marks the former presence of a consonant, usually ‘s’, that was deleted and no longer pronounced. A no-brainer,right? Within hours a Twitter account called #JeSuisCirconflexe, “derived from the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag,” and the far right Front National political party attacked the changes, declaring “the French language is our soul.”
The Academie actually voted in these changes unanimously in 1990, but no one noticed until this month when a television reported about the school textbook publishers deciding to incorporate the spelling changes. Within days the “growing fury forced the education ministry in France to reassure the public … that the circumflex accent was not disappearing, and that even though school textbooks would be standardized to contain new spellings, pupils using either would be given full marks.”
Of course, the relative porosity of our tongue means words enter the English lexicon in the strangest ways. A former co-worker from our library recently sent me a document containing the news that February 28 will be 85th anniversary of the demise of the term “dord.” On this date a Webster’s New International Dictionary editor noticed that the entry for “dord” was missing an etymology describing its origins. It turned out that “ ‘dord’ had no etymology because it wasn’t a word. In 1931 a slip reading ‘D or d, cont. density,’ which meant to add ‘density’ to the list of terms abbreviated as ‘D,’ was misread as ‘Dord’ and filed as a separate word. Soon, through sheer inertia, ‘dord’ acquired a part of speech, ‘n.,’ and a pronunciation.”
Confession time. Patrick O’Brian, my favorite author, is known for the precise historical accuracy of the events he describes, as well as the richness and hidden treasures he salted throughout the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, his 7,000-page masterpiece. I’m forever re-reading these great novels, and in the current one, “Fortunes of War,” Maturin asks an American medical colleague the meaning of the American expression he’d overheard: “cuts no ice with me.” “After barely a moment’s pause, Mr Evans said, “Ah, there now, you have an Indian expression. It is a variant upon the Iroquois ‘katno aiss’ vizmi’ – I am unmoved, unimpressed.”
Naturally, I took Mr. O’Brian at his word, for he was an imminent researcher honored by the British National Library by being the only author to have a novel published by them. Then WorldWideWords.org told me “You have fallen victim to Mr. O’Brian’s droll sense of humor … The supposed Iroquois expression is, of course, just a respelled version of the English.” They go on to say that “cuts no ice” wasn’t recorded until the late 1800s, but I began spreading O’Brian’s version as gospel in the late 1900s.
There’s lexicographical backup when I tell you that the ubiquitous Internet expressions “OMG” and “LOL” weren’t the brainchildren of teenaged girls. In 1960 “LOL” meant “little old lady,” and the library’s beloved Oxford English Dictionary insists on listing “Lots Of Love” as one meaning, because it’s what some of us fogeys still think when encountering LOLs. The first recorded use of “OMG” came in an excited letter from an Admiral Jacky Fisher to Winston Churchill in 1917, stating “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis – O.M.G (Oh! My! God!).” Or as French traditionalists prefer saying, “sacrebleu.”