‘The quick, brown whadda-ya-call it jumps over the lazy thing-a-ma-jig’

Paul Sparkes
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“Is there anything wrong Ma’am?” I asked. “Can I get something for you, or call someone?” Without looking up from what she was doing, she said, “No, my son, you can’t do nothing for me. I gits this wonderful pain all the time.”
“The rude thought occurred to me that she was suffering from an advanced case of double negatives, but, of course, I said nothing.”

From a school composition book c. 1900. Students were asked to write an account of the picture. Perhaps it shows class reaction to another lesson in grammar (much reviled as a subject but considered essential). — Submitted image

It is likely that if you “get” that extract which I found in a small book published here 24 years ago, you probably had English and grammar (and essay writing and maybe even handwriting and letter writing) in school. Those were essential communication tools back — whenever.

Only a week ago I was reading a high-sounding report on the Internet that had to do with the Canadian Senate. It was high-sounding until I got to a phrase which said something to the effect that so-and-so was “weary of saying too much at this time” and another which said, “the other senators collaborated his statements.” I was looking for the journalist’s email address in order to straighten him out on those two words (he meant wary and corroborated) — but I couldn’t find it so I gave up. I’m presuming that not only the writer, but the editor who passed the material on to the Internet, knew no different.

Those of you who write “LOL” in your emails, being either too lazy or unaware of the translation to write “laugh out loud” can stop reading right now. I am going to either boar you to tares or drive you crazy.

Some time ago I wrote a column on a letter exchange between a prime minister of ours (Sir Robert Bond) and a member of our upper chamber who wished to see him return to politics. Writing from Whitbourne, Sir Robert’s expressions and choices of words (in ink) were, in comparison with what might be done today, an art form. He left his reader with no doubt — not only to his meaning, but to the strength of his conviction on his point. Not once did Sir Robert use the conciliatory phrase, “you know.”

A week ago I was in a small store here in St. John’s where I knew both the owner and the (only) employee. They were each of that age where they were confident in how they expressed themselves — they knew the words they needed to use. They did not speak like Oxford dons. They spoke like ordinary people here in St. John’s. But the notable thing was, they did not stumble around, looking for words. They knew what they wanted to say and they said it.

“People don’t know how to communicate today,” she said.

“They know how to email,” he said.

“Yes, and that’s usually because they don’t want to actually talk to you,” she added.

“They are too lazy to have a conversation,” he suggested.

And so forth.

As far as I can judge, those uncommunicative people referred to would likely blame the Internet (social media, texting, etc.) if anyone were to raise an eyebrow over their approach to communication. They may not even believe it was because educators some time ago decided it was unfair or unnecessary to burden the young student with grammar, spelling and whatever else you may call the practice of verbalizing thought.

If there is any tragedy to all this, it is the great likelihood that electronic communication is driving people apart.

“I think I need to reach out to them” an acquaintance suggested to me one day in reference to a work obligation. “Why, are you drowning or would that help you in going forward?”

You can see from these silly lines that if humankind lived to be, on average, 165 years old, communication between young and old would be non-existent.

The English schoolmaster Henry Watson Fowler published “A dictionary of modern English usage” in 1926. His book has been called “one of the most influential and most frequently quoted books on the English language.” He was correct and fussy and it is those qualities that make his book an enjoyable read.

Here is what Fowler wrote about the word escapee:

“Escapee, escapism, escapist are words too recent to be in the Oxford English Dictionary; they are no doubt a natural product of the atomic age. Escapee is a superfluous word that should not be allowed to usurp the place of escaper. One might as well call deserters, desertees”

And he goes on and on — highly entertaining to the person who would subscribe to Fowler’s brand of humour. But apart from a helpful little explanation of the meaning and use of certain words here and there, the humour (mostly, I suspect, unintended) is the only value left in his great work.

You know (let me interrupt myself here) we are not talking about people who may say, in the old outport way, “I minds a time when” — “minds” was the word which to the person who used it explicitly meant “remember.” The speaker was sure of it. So the speaker used it.

Here’s another Fowlerism (he would hate that):

“Meaningless words — words and phrases are often used in conversation, especially by the young, not as significant terms, but rather, so far as they have any purpose at all, as aids of the same kind as are given in writing by punctuation, inverted commas and underlining.”

When he talks about “officialise,” Fowler is at his best.

He write that the word is “ascribed to … a feeling that plain words sort ill with the dignity of office, a politeness that shrinks from blunt statement, and, above all, the knowledge that for those engaged in the perilous game of politics, and their servants, vagueness is safer than precision.”

Doesn’t that last phrase take you back to the senate as it is characterizing itself right now?

Fowler was married. His wife was either a saint or hearing impaired.

From Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary: “Verbicide — Word-murder; mangling or perverting a word.”

Of course, the whole language is just a breath away from crazy.

For instance, if you disliked how someone was expressing himself and you said he was into “verbicide,” you could justly be accused of that yourself.

To back up my charge, look at the word “gurry” — often used in Newfoundland to refer to fish guts (those that have been released from their nature-given location).

Mrs. Byrne gives it several meanings including diarrhea, a small car, a sleigh, wheelbarrow and a fort.

Now put the word in a sentence and try not to sound preposterous: “I was not feeling well, so I went outside and sat in my gurry.”

Here is David Crystal writing in his book “The Stories of English” (2004): “Many people now realize that labels such as substandard or broken English are just as insulting and out of order as any set of racist or sexist names. We have seen … people asserting their right to be in control of their language rather than to have it be in control of them.” And he adds, “For many, prescriptivism (the prescribing of rules for language) has come to be seen as a bad dream from which we are only now beginning to awake.”

So, I mean, like, rules? What are you on about? And spelling? I mean, come on, get a life.


The following paragraph may in some respects come under the heading of “How we communicate.” It points up, to my mind, the callousness so pervasive today and the belief (maybe the truth) that attention spans can be instantly diverted 360 degrees:

On Sunday, Nov. 10 I watched a video on Google posted by three storm-watchers in The Philippines, Josh Morgerman, James Reynolds and Mark Thomas. The short and horrifying piece showed rain flying horizontally, borne on screaming wind, across their view from a concrete hotel in the city of Tacloban. Their vision was almost fully obscured.

They then switched to the flooded lower levels of their hotel where elderly and otherwise less-able people being floated to safety on mattresses. Suddenly there appeared before my riveted eyes a bar-shaped commercial from The Tie Bar (I had to play the video twice to identify who the advertiser actually was). It told me I could get “Fashion for $15 bucks.”

I could order a big, crazy bow-tie. What was this like? Maybe it was like suddenly serving hotdogs in church?

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Canadian Senate, Oxford English Dictionary, Google

Geographic location: Oxford, Newfoundland and Labrador, Tacloban

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Recent comments

  • Dolf (or Adolph)
    November 18, 2013 - 06:08

    You say " He write that the word...." You lost me there. Other than that I love this piece. Oh, oh, better be careful with that word, it's how Premier Dunderdale refers to major legislation. Also loved the reference to penmanship. People toay handle a pen like I'd hold a baseball bat.