A Bigly Truth: The Sordid History of Politics and the American Dictionary

Lexicographers are trained to thrive in the face of endless, grinding monotony, but even we are sick of this presidential campaign. Don’t get us wrong–millions of people have rushed to the dictionary to figure out what exactly each of the candidates has meant when they used “locker-room” or “hombres” or who am I kidding with the “candidates,” it’s practically all Trump, everyone is looking up every  morpheme that burbles from his disproportionately small mouth.

As most people know, we take delight in reporting what sorts of words people are looking up: when life gives you “bigly,” make bigly-ade. But this election season, whenever we have reported on any lookup driven by an election event—and let’s be frank, just about everything this year has been an “election event”— we are dragged into the twittering political fray. “Clearly took out words that would make Trump look bad,” one Twitter user complained; another responded to a tweet about the infamous “mazel tov cocktail” incident with a link to Benghazi conspiracy theories. It’s not just Twitter: months ago, I was in an argument with someone I know and respect very much, and when I appealed to a professionally edited source—namely, the one I edit—to back up my assertion, my friend deflated in disgust. “Merriam-Webster is a liberal dictionary,” they sneered, and I fizzed and sputtered my way out of the room, picking up my jaw as I went.

The dictionary, as modern lexicographers are fond of hollering into the void, is not a political tool. It is a pedagogical tool; it is a linguistic record; it is steadfastly, tirelessly, blandly objective. But we can’t blame people for thinking otherwise, because that’s not always been the case.

When Noah Webster set out to write his 1828 magnum opus, it wasn’t because there wasn’t an adequate dictionary on the market. There were several, actually: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Perry’s Royal  Standard English Dictionary. There were even dictionaries and glossaries compiled by Americans— the 1798 A School Dictionary by the aptly named Samuel Johnson Jr., who was no relation to the O.G. Drudge in London but was the first American lexicographer, and the 1816 A Vocabulary: Or, Collection of Words and Phrases, which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America, by John Pickering, whose work focused entirely on Americanisms. No: for Webster, an American dictionary was integral to American identity and American politics. “Customs, habits, and language, as well as government, should be national,” he wrote. “America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy before the States can be either independent or respectable.”

Noah definitely indulged in a little patriotic propaganda. In his 1806 Compendious Dictionary, the trial run for the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, he defines “Americanism” as “love of America and preference of her interest,” which draws some local ire:

Americanism_is described thus: “Americanism, n. love of American and preference of her interest,” but it usually means an expression peculiar to our side of the Atlantick, not admitted in elegant English; and the alteration by Mr. Webster is preposterous. He says in his letter that he has been censured for introducing Americanism into his work, and proceeds to justify his conduct. But he surely means to speak as a philologist, and not a politician. (The Star (North Carolina), July 5, 1810)

A quick perusal of the evidence shows that though there is some use of “Americanism” to refer to something akin to patriotism, the word is most often used to refer to a word or saying “peculiar to our side of the Atlantick.” Was he reproved? Perhaps only moderately: the 1828 definition for “Americanism” is “the love which American citizens have to their own country, or the preference of its interests. Analogically, an American idiom.” For Webster, the patriotic (and limited) meaning of “Americanism” was far more important than the more common lexical use. It was a part of American identity, and what better way to promote it than through the American Dictionary of the English Language?

The goal of helping shape American culture led Noah to do some things that modern lexicographers would cringe at: he got his friends and man-crushes in politics to promote his dictionary as the American dictionary—national identity! USA! USA! This was not greeted with unanimous support:

We find in the Washington Telegraph, a certificate of more than one hundred members of Congress to the merits of Webster’s Dictionary, recommending it as a work proper to be consulted as a standard of the language. … Without meaning any disrespect to the gentlemen who have subscribed this certificate, we must say that we do not think it will do the Dictionary any good. We suffer members of Congress to make our laws, but not to make our language. (The Evening Post (New York), April 12, 1831)

Gee, it’s almost like the American people had just declared their independence from a distant and elitist government and didn’t want to be told what to think!

But this state of affairs set the tone for the rest of American lexicographical history. In the attempt to sell dictionaries, Webster and then the Merriam brothers appealed to the ruling elite–including as many politicians as they could muster–to endorse their book, and to some, the dictionary became inextricably linked to politics. Even as the defining itself moved to a staff model, which helps insure against one person’s personal biases and quirks overruling actual usage, and the prefaces of newer Webster’s Dictionaries were filled with lists of sources from which evidence for definitions was pulled, the charges of politicking flew. “RADICALS TAMPERING WITH THE SCHOOL BOOKS,” one 1866 headline trumps, continuing, “Partisan Definitions in the New Editions of Webster’s Dictionary.” An 1870 advertorial in a different paper for competitor Joseph Worcester’s dictionaries (the last of which had come out ten years prior) notes that Worcester is preferred over Webster in part because

[Webster’s] definitions of political words and terms are frequently sectional and unjust, and convey to the reader a wholly wrong idea. We pointed out the other day the changes made in Webster in the definition of such words as constitution, compact, nation, congress, and republic. All these words have been defined by the present editor of Webster’s Dictionary so as to furnish arguments against the democratic view of our institutions, and against the views of Dr. Noah Webster himself, whose definitions were accepted as correct. [Ed. note: hahaha, sure, okay.]

The present editor was not, as this note would suggest, a rabid anarchist. He was, it should be noted, just trying to do his goddamned job.

Even modern attempts to sway people away from this notion that the dictionary is political have failed. In one of the most widely-read and scathing critiques of the 1961 Webster’s Third, Jacques Barzun calls the book “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” This in spite of the fact that one of the deepest yet subtlest changes made to the Third by Gove, its editor in chief, was the removal of editorialization and bias in definitions, labels, verbal illustrations, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

In one of his dissertations on language, Noah Webster wrote, “Small causes, such as a nick-name, or a vulgar tone in speaking, have actually created a dissocial spirit among the inhabitants of the different states, which is often discoverable in private business and public deliberations. Our political harmony is therefore concerned in a uniformity of language.” Anyone who has lived through this election feels that in their deep waters: words like “deplorable” and “divisive” have become overnight dog whistles; you know instantly where a person falls on the political spectrum depending on whether they call it the “Democratic party” or the “Democrat party”; who would have thought that “pussy” would have been one of the biggest news stories of a presidential election?; “bigly” has, out of nowhere, become the shibboleth by which we cull out supporters of the opposition (on both sides, on either side, on every side). The election is being played out in all sorts of odd places, letter by letter, morpheme by morpheme.

But there is a weird comfort in knowing that language has always been politicized, and yet here we are: e pluribus unum-ing our way into 2017. I walked to my polling place this morning past a house flying several Trump banners, just around the corner from  another house with a “Hillary: Because Sane People Live Here” yard sign. I walked past about a dozen people who all had “I VOTED TODAY” stickers on; I knew some of them might yell nasty things at me for supporting my candidate (whichever one I supported). But every person who passed me looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said “hello” or “good morning,” and y’all, I live in New Jersey where looking a person in the eye and saying “hello” to them might get you cold-cocked right in the kisser. There will be a shit-ton of whining and anger and pain and whatever tomorrow when we wake up to a new president (whichever one). But for one small moment today, we were all on the same page: we were all voters.

I said in a recent Washington Post article that one of the great things about reporting lookups was that you find not only that words matter, but that the people behind those words matter more. It’s the one lesson from this election that might actually be worth putting on a sticker or baseball hat.

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I Wrote A Book

About eight years ago, my husband and I redid the kitchen in our apartment. Our apartment is not the biggest, and our kitchen is similarly minuscule, and you’d think that this would make a renovation manageable but it did not. If anything, it just served to emphasize how much work needed to be done. Every nail in the floor that needed to be pulled; every warped layer of drywall to saw through; every floorboard that needed to be repaired was a gargantuan undertaking, because there was literally no room for it to be lost in. We spent Saturdays and late nights on our knees with nail-pulls, and then on ladders with sanders, and then on our knees again with sanders, then getting exuberant with sledgehammers. We became experts at microwave cooking; I had vivid, yearning dreams about washing dishes in a sink.

We finished and began moving back into the kitchen the dishes, the food, the microwave, the old coffeemaker which was on its last legs, the new coffee grinder because we killed the old one making deathwish-strength espresso to power through late nights. And once it was all put back together, we were so exhausted and sick of being in the kitchen that we ordered pizza and ate it on the couch. Then we did it again. We had a new kitchen and were absolutely done with kitchens.

But one morning, I stumbled into the kitchen to make my morning cup of deathwish and was literally stopped short, because for the first time in months, I really noticed how much we had done on the kitchen, and it was all great. It all struck me at once, and I wandered in a (very tight) circle, admiring drawer pulls, the counter, the double-sink, the sink sprayer. When my husband came in to get some coffee, he found his very happy and slightly deranged wife standing in the middle of the room, beaming. “I love this kitchen!” I chirped. “Look at it! Look at everything we did!”

Guys: look! Look at it! Look at everything I did:

I WROTE THIS BOOK AND YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY BUY IT, IT IS GREAT!

This is my book: now called Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, it’s available for (frickin’) preorder (YOU GUYS) at several different places, even! Order it from Penguin Random House here, or, if you’d prefer, get it at Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, or iBooksWord by Word will be released on March 14, 2017, and that is still the most surreal sentence I will ever write in my tiny, narrow life.

I’m sure you have questions. For instance, now that I am an authoress, will I abandon the blog and go hang out with Raymond Carver’s ghost instead? No. I find, after a long break, that I still have words and thoughts on words left over. You can expect me to blather in your general direction with more regularity.

What about book signings? Will I autograph copies? Where am I reading? Is there a launch party and will you be invited? IS YOUR NAME IN THE BOOK, OMG OMG OMG? Those are all excellent questions, but I am not going to answer them here on my blog. Let’s be honest: you come here for the witty commentary on what a gorgeous bastard English is, not for me to go over all Jonathan Franzen on you. So I have started up a newsletter, where you can get information about my book: where I’ll be reading from it, where I’ll be signing it, which bookstores I’ve left vandalized secretly autographed copies of that dumb book in, and all the public places you may accost me for a selfie or signed copy of the book. My newsletter will include all the best words, I guarantee it. Please sign up! Yes, even you, Kevin.

Thank you all for hanging in there through the radio silence. This is going to be fun.

 

 

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“It’s,” Complicated: National Grammar Day and Apostrophe Abuse

Yesterday was National (U.S.) Grammar Day, which is the high holy day for us word nerds. Everyone celebrates in their own way–I celebrate by using the singular “they” and ritually burning seven copies of Strunk & White–but one thing that is constant across all of nerddom is the worship of Almighty Grammar. Adherence to Grammar will save us: it will make us happy. It will get us the best job. It will increase our sexiness by 400%.

It’s a shame then that Grammar is so damned mercurial. A cursory look at the history of most usage issues tagged as “grammar” shows that “correct” hasn’t always been–and I’m not just referring to those fine-grain shibboleths of usage that no one can quite get right, like whether you should use “different from” or “different than.” Let’s keep things simple. Let’s talk about the apostrophe.

That hanging tittle is the source of much grammatical spleen, plenty of it vented in the dictionary’s general direction around National Grammar Day (though punctuation is officially outside our wheelhouse). My inbox is chock full of variations on “I hate people who can’t use apostrophes because it’s so simple,” and as proof of its simplicity, sometimes my correspondents even use the proper “it’s” in their complaint. (Sometimes.) But if it’s so simple, as they claim, then how do so many smart people get it so wrong?

The apostrophe first appeared in English sometime in the 16th century, possibly ganked into English printing from Italian or French conventions. Not much is written on the development of the apostrophe, but we know that when it first showed up in English print, it was used to signal that a letter (or several letters) had been omitted in a construction. “She’ll” is a contraction of “she will” or “she shall”; “’tis” is a contraction of “it is”; “‘zbud” and “‘sbodkins” are contractions of “God’s blood” and “God’s bodkins” and truly magnificent in the way that only 17th-century euphemisms can be.

This habit continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries, growing beyond its little garden plot. Apostrophes were sometimes used to clarify pronunciation for the reader, especially in poetry: “banish’d” was clearly meant to be spoken as two syllables to keep scansion tidy and look very Byronic, whereas “banished” could be three, particularly in some florid Drydenesque constructions. Daniel Defoe took this further: he used “cou’d” and “wou’d” in his writings to show that the “l” in “could” and “would” was silent, though I’d wager that most people who were reading Defoe likely knew about “could” and “would.”

That damn’d apostrophe was so handy that sometime around the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, people began to use it to signal possession. It makes a great deal of sense: does “Drydens harrumphing” refer to the harrumphing of one John Dryden, or to a whole army of John Drydens making their displeasure known? We can make that clear with just one blob of well-placed ink! And so the apostrophe was liberally sprinkled among all our nouns and pronouns to mark possession.

Nouns and pronouns, mind. So while we have the now-familiar “Dryden’s harrumphing” and “dog’s breakfast,” we also ended up with “her’s,” “their’s,” “our’s,”  “your’s,” and–yes, gird thy loins–“it’s,” which were in use as possessive pronouns through the 17th and 18th centuries. Boo, you cry, stupid, but not at all. It’s very logical: if that apostrophe was going to mark possession, then it was going to mark possession goddamned everywhere.

As a possessive marker, the apostrophe is fairly straightforward unless the base word ends in “-s,” and then everything falls all to hell. Is it “Davy Jones’s locker,” or “Davy Jones’ locker?” Yes. Is it “Jesus’s wounds?” Good lord no, of course it is not, why would you even think that? It is “Odysseus’ journey” but “Zeus’s shenanigans.” Why? Heed my words, O nerd: where were you when I laid the foundations of the possessive?

We had punctuation mania: by the 19th century, we were using apostrophes to make single letters plural, as in “p’s and q’s.” There is no logical explanation for this, apart from the fact that “ps and qs” looks odd and might result in some hapless chump spitting all over himself trying to pronounce “qs” as if it were Arabic and not \KEWS\. The pluralizing apostrophe also shows up by the 20th century in numbers (“alternative banjo music of the 1890’s”) and when referring to a word as a word  (“too many ‘apostrophe’s’ in this blog post”), and then later in abbreviations (“RSVP’s”) and with symbols (“&’s”), because why the hell not? Never mind that the apostrophe initially was just intended as a stand-in for elision: we wrested it away from those Europeans with all their diacritic corsetry and let it breathe.

The result is that we have a handful of ways to use the apostrophe, none of which were ever consistently “correctly” used. “‘Til,” a contraction of “until,” has lost ground and the peeververein’s favor to “till” and “til.” At end of the 19th century, you still saw possessives used without the apostrophe–“a stones throw” still shows up in edited prose today. By the time that Robert Lowth was writing his grammar in the mid-1700s, he felt that “its” (no apostrophe) was the correct possessive of “it,” though he hewed to “her’s,” “their’s,” and “our’s.” And the apostrophized plural of letters has been inconsistent from the year dot: “bs” and “b’s” and “beez” and “bees” have all been used in print.

What this means for the modern apostrophizer, of course, is that instead of having one or two simple rules to govern apostrophe use, we now have a jam jar full of smudgy guidelines that don’t have any consistent historical application. Even the most consistent rule–the elision rule–gets fubar’d in real life. How long, O Lord, til you end our “ya’ll” sorrow? And that, remember, is the easy rule. What do you do if you are referring to the house that belongs to the married couple with the last name “Jones”? You practically need a fold-out flow chart to figure out whether “the Joneses house” gets an apostrophe and where.

And here’s the rub: the rules are continuing to change. We’re slowly losing those plural apostrophes in “the 1890s” and “RSVPs.” In Britain especially, the possessive apostrophe in some business names like “Harrod’s” and “Waterstone’s” has scarpered. These changes are themselves inconsistent. “RSVPs” but “OD’d”; “the 1890s” but “the ’90s.” But “RSVP’s” just looks right to me, even though I know that “RSVPs” is more common now and I am ostensibly in the know vis-a-vis apostrophes. The heart wants what it wants.

Considering all this, it’s not too surprising that the grocer’s apostrophe flourishes, that people still send out holidays cards signed “The Jones’s,” that even smart people confuse “it’s” and “its.” None of us–not a single one of us–has gotten the apostrophe right in every circumstance because “right” is a moving target, and that’s the thing that we lose sight of during National Grammar Day. I like grammar in all her forms (both linguistic and populist), but I will not hold her up as the eternal unchanging ideal to which all people’s intelligence and fitness must be compared.

I once dated a man who was smart, kind, witty, and incredibly good-looking, and we occasionally exchanged handwritten letters. A few months ago while cleaning out the basement, I came across his letters to me and read a few of them. They were intelligent, funny, throat-baringly honest–and dotted with a couple misused apostrophes. I received these letters during a time when I was an insufferable asshole-pedant, when I freely corrected wrong “who”s and offered unsolicited advice about the terminal preposition because it was proof I was smart. And yet I evidently never corrected this guy, though it would have been just like me to correct the punctuation of someone to whom I was pitching woo (cf. “asshole,” above). It’s almost as though all his other excellent qualities eclipsed his occasional issues with apostrophes.

Reader: I married him, bad apostrophes and all. Our letters are in storage together; I read a few of mine to him. Wrong “who”s and terminal prepositions all over the goddamned page. He doesn’t hold it against me.

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Book Update: The Bowstring, Twanged

 

Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, lays out three different ways that humanity perceives time. The first is psychological–we perceive that time moves from past to future, because we remember the past but have no knowledge of the future. The second is thermodynamic (or entropic)–our perceived state of the the physical world is that things move from order to chaos, so that as time moves forward, entropy increases. The third is cosmological–time moves in a direction we’d call “forward” as the universe expands and “backward” as the universe contracts. Physicists generally call this flow “the arrow of time.”

The process of writing a book has been, for me, a long sit-down with the arrow of time wedged firmly between my shoulder blades. Continue reading

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Answers I Wish I Could Send: One Week’s Worth

At Merriam-Webster, we receive and respond to several hundred emails a week. While only a relative handful of them are editorial in nature, they are nonetheless a time- and sanity-suck for those who must answer them. Below is a small sample of the editorial email that came in during one workweek in August. Part blah-bitty-blah in a series, and extra-long for your erudition and delectation!

MONDAY

Name: sam
Email: [redacted]@gmail.com
Subject: FAULTY DEFINITION OF “Faith”

Question: you say -“Nothing is more important to her than her faith in GOD” as an example of a sentence with faith My Question is how can u define faith in god as contrary or in ignorance to the facts???

do u have faith in ur wife contrary to the evidence ????
No NOT AT ALL

u see that ur wife is not cheating on u
and on that basis of evidence only will u call her faithful to u. Wont U????
so why define faith as “contrary to the evidence, no proof” ???
I HOPE THIS IS NOT AN ATHEISTIC DICTIONARY!!! Continue reading

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Stop Fighting the “Good” Fight

Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”

That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop, the article that will drive me to pick up one of the usage dictionaries I have on hand and chuck it as hard as I can against the couch. (No, not the wall! That’ll ruin the book, are you mad?) That will be the article that sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over. Most modern grammarians who are “fighting the good fight” have no idea what their own history is, and are doomed to repeat it. Continue reading

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A Special Announcement

O dear and long-suffering readers, I am happy to announce that I finally have an editor.

Sadly, he will not be editing the drivel that appears here; he will only be editing my book.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer & blogger Kory Stamper’s HARMLESS DRUDGERY: How We Define The Words That Define Us, a look inside a lexicographer’s world as we follow the journey words take on their way both in and out of the dictionary, to Andrew Miller at Pantheon….

Yes: I’m writing a book! It’ll be written in the style of harm•less drudg•ery, and it will definitely contain fewer typos. This book has been in the works for a long while now, but the fact that it has left the realm of possibility and moved into, if not immediate reality, then a few blocks down from immediate reality, is pretty damned exciting and surreal. Forgive me if I am gobsmacked. The smack will eventually wear off my gob, I promise.

Don’t fret: I will do my best to keep up the rigorous (<snort>) publishing schedule here at harm•less drudg•ery. After all, those delightful pieces of correspondence are not going to post themselves to this blog. You can also occasionally catch me at Strong Language, a blog that sings my heart’s filthy, degenerate song.

Wish me luck, and send your condolences directly to my editor.

 

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Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

[Ed. note: one in a series.  Emails are only lightly edited for–if you can believe it–clarity.]

Your online dictionary defines “peak” as “a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially :  the visor of a cap or hat”; and tentatively derives the word from “pike”. This is false. “Peak” derives from “beak” (which is why “bill” is a synonym). If I am correct, your definition should be modified.

Your logic is unassailable: “peak” looks like the word “beak,” and both hats and birds have a bill. Or rather, only the hats that truly matter–good American hats–have a bill. I don’t know why we didn’t see this before.

Oh, wait–we didn’t see it before because that’s not how etymology works. Imagine being tasked with creating ancestral photo albums for everyone in your family. You start with your second-cousin; you have, as your guide and starting point, a photo of that cousin that was taken yesterday. You are led to a large, dusty room that is overflowing, Hoarders-style, with pictures. The pictures go back hundreds of years, and several are stained or torn so badly that you can only guess at who the person in frame is. Some of those pictures will be of this cousin; many of these pictures will be of people who look vaguely like your cousin; many will be of other people you don’t know; there are several of Stinky, the neighbor’s dog. The door behind you creaks shut and locks. There are closed doors to your EAST and SOUTH; to your NORTH is a dimly lit brass lantern.

This is etymology. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. Continue reading

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Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from Wine.com to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white. Continue reading

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Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines: Continue reading

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