An old article gets me thinking about language again

Over the weekend, a few of my Pittsburgh friends posted an old article on Facebook that exclaimed that “Jagoff” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. I didn’t even realize it was an old article, and I gleefully shared it.

I am certain that the Me of August 1990, who arrived for college in Pittsburgh aghast to find a world of new words and seemingly ridiculous grammar, would scoff at my glee for a word such as “jagoff” being officially added to such an esteemed publication as the OED. That version of Me was (1) very young and (2) ignorant as to the ways of language.

When we are in school, be it middle school or high school, or when we learn from grammar books, we are prescribed rules of grammar and usage. This is why any high school graduate can spout off a “rule” like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and “don’t split an infinitive.” When we come to appreciate the English language as a fluid, changing, evolving language, we also learn that those rules are (1) not rules at all and (2) really just the tip of the iceberg for learning how to parse English as it can be written.

Even through college, I was resistant to changes in grammar and usage rules as I had learned them, and for absolute certain, I know thirteen uses for a comma and do not deviate from them. But in my 20s I started to ask questions like “how did we decide as an English speaking species that a tree was a ‘tree’ and that rain was ‘rain'” and I started to be pulled into the world of linguistics. I asked the question one night to someone I thought might want to philosophically discuss it and instead he gave me a copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, and from Pinker I learned how language shifts and evolves, through innate behavior and caused by shifts in population. Of course Pittsburgh would have different words and different language. Later in Roger Lathbury’s class on Editing, I would learn about studies taking place throughout the United States to compile the Dictionary of American Regional English. Having grown up in New York, I was not naive enough to think that the New York accent was the “correct” way to speak, but it took a more mature brain, perhaps, to realize that every American “accent” is a form of Regional English and a language in its own right.

As for the OED, my interest in linguistics took me to Simon Winchester’s book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (surprisingly, just sitting out as a recommendation at Kramerbooks & Afterwards one day in the late 90s). A really fun read, this was also the book that finally imparted to me that the Oxford English Dictionary reports on language and is not prescriptive. This information can be used, in my opinion, two ways. If someone reports to me that a slang term is perfectly acceptable in a formal document because the word is in the OED, my response is that the OED reports on usage and does not comment on whether the usage is acceptable for a formal document. But also, if a word is found in the OED, it has now been used enough that it should be recognizable by some portion of the population. It can be “looked up” if it is unknown, and it is part of someone’s regional English.

I want to take this just one step further and relate this to writing and editing. When you’re hiring a writer, you may find yourself with someone who is incredibly rigid or you may find yourself with someone who has an appreciation for the fluidity of the English language. Certainly for technical documentation you may want to stick with rigid, but for position papers, proposals, white papers, and web content, you might want someone who is more fluid. It is a good idea to ask your writer what their writing philosophy is and to ask your editor what rules they follow. They might say “AP” or “Chicago” or “MLA” but they may also say “I like to sit down beforehand and ensure that we’re on the same page so that this document doesn’t deviate too much from other work you’ve done.” All of these are good answers depending on what you’re doing, but having a writer or editor who has an answer to give is the key.

Now, I’m going to go find a time machine and find 1990 Me and tell her to relax a bit.

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