The English language is a strange one, for sure, thanks to the Isles’ long history of war and conquest. Each wave of conquerors left its mark on the language, from the Romans to the Vikings and Normans.
Antiquated rules can cast long shadows, as seen even today by certain grammar rules. A typical example is the split infinitives one, invented by 19th-century grammarians who felt the proper model for English was Latin, and in Latin, infinitive-splitting is impossible. Another one is the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” “rule,” invented by the English poet John Dryden in 1672. Dryden probably based his objection on a bogus comparison with — you guessed it — Latin, where such constructions don’t exist (you can find more such examples on my post, My 4 Golden Rules of Writing).
Anachronisms, Clichés, and Retronyms
As Hunting for fossils in the quirks of language, a recent Economist article by Johnson points out, metaphors and clichés are often a record of bygone cultures.
Take, for example, anachronyms — words which no longer makes sense, because the underlying facts have changed while the language has not. Anachronyms abound. People still “dial” phone numbers, though phones no longer have a dial. They are told to “tune in” to a television show, though TVs no longer have tuners. E-mail’s “CC:” feature stands for “carbon copy”, though the smeary blue paper that once made instant copies possible is nowhere to be found on Gmail.
Clichés and ossified phrases are another way to get a glimpse into a lost past. Take “stuck in a rut”. Most people have an idea that a rut is a kind of physical groove, but what kind? The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully explains that the origin is the groove cut by sharp cartwheels in a soft road. Today, in a world full of soft wheels and hard roads, only metaphorical ruts remain, a reminder of an earlier time. It is a kind of phrasal anachronym.
An anachronym is different from a retronym. These are words that have had to change because the world has changed around them. A guitar was once a stringed instrument whose hollow wooden body produced its sound. Then someone added magnets and electricity, and the popularity of the electric guitar necessitated a new word for the old thing: the “acoustic” guitar. People buying their newspaper from a newsstand may ask for a “print newspaper,” a term that would once have been a tautology but has become, in the era of digital publishing, a necessary retronym.
History’s Wear and Tear
Much of the gunk and irregularity of language begins to make sense when approached as a kind of fossil hunt. Why does the commonest verb in English—“to be”—have the wildly irregular conjugation am-is-are-was-were? Nobody would design such a verb, and indeed no one did. It is, in fact, a mash-up of three proto-Germanic roots, one of which produced am-is-are, one of which yielded was-were (replacing the past tense of the am-is group, in a process called suppletion), and one resulting in “be” itself. It is the duck-billed platypus of verbs, an odd hybrid of features. But just as evolutionary biology explains the platypus, historical linguistics shows how the three verbs piled up on each other.
Etymology and the history of language are intriguing in their own right. Who could not love the fact that a “daisy” gets its name from being the “day’s eye”, because the flower opens in sunlight?
Assorted unconnected facts are just that—fleetingly arresting cocktail-party diversions. However, when the processes of change fall into regular categories and patterns—retronyms or suppletive verbs like to be—they illuminate something bigger. Beneath the illogic of irregular verbs and baffling proverbs is, if not order, at least reason.
As a bonus, there are lessons aplenty about the history of human culture more generally, like our love for rules… and for breaking them, as Ricky discovers in this memorable clip from I Love Lucy: