What makes someone an authority on the English language?

A vocabulary slip on my part in a recent post led to an email conversation with long-time reader Steve G., which eventually meandered over to this question.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on the idea, and can offer a short list of the most important criteria: an authority backs up its position with evidence, experience, consensus, and the respect of other experts and authorities. (We could add other factors, but I’ve limited this post to that short list.)

Some languages have official language academies with the mission of keeping the language pure or honest or “consistent with its fundamental principles.” But English has no equivalent of the RAE, the Académie française, or the Accademia della Crusca. There’s no official version of English, no designated English language institute to issue new words or rule on grammatical disputes, and no officially appointed or elected panel of arbiters of correct and incorrect usage.

Yet we have experts (and plenty of them), some commonly acknowledged and others self-appointed. Why give deference to any of them?

Here’s what I think. Since English doesn’t have official arbiters, we also don’t have official manuals stating how to use English. An artificial language—be it Esperanto, or Java or SQL for that matter—can have rigid rules of syntax, with simple and clear guidelines on how the elements of the language (be they letters, words, or sentences) are strung together (into words, sentences, and larger objects) to deliver meaning. There are also rules about things like verb tense, declension, case, and so on. English has plenty of these rules—you’ll instantly look ignorant if you can’t get your noun-verb agreement correct, or if you screw up your plurals—but there’s quite a bit of leeway. These rules don’t have the force of law, but grew out of tradition, consensus, and expedience.

Without rigid official grammar manuals, English adopts by default the authority of style guides—unofficial handbooks that describe what’s best and explain why. Instead of strictures detailing how the language works, we instead get advice and suggestions (with the occasional proscription) and—in the better cases—examples and models to follow.

Fair enough, you say. There’s no government language agency in London or Cambridge or Washington, DC, to tell me what I can and can’t do. So who are those people in Oxford and Chicago who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell me what I can and can’t do? Who died and made them keepers of the language?

Again, a fair enough question. But let’s turn it around: if you moved into a new house and your electrician told you that he needed to re-wire your main panel, you wouldn’t ask him who died and made him keeper of electricity. If your doctor told you that your cholesterol was too high, you needed to lose 5 pounds, and you weren’t getting enough sleep, you wouldn’t ask her who died and made her the keeper of healthcare.

You would accept their analyses, their conclusions, their professional judgment (a judgement is, after all, a special kind of informed opinion). Why? For many reasons, some having to do with education, training, and certification, but others having to do with their practical experience doing that job, built on a long tradition of formal and informal education and accumulated knowledge.

Who said that doctor deserves to be a doctor? The school where she earned her degree. Well, who gave that school the right? An accrediting body. Yes, but who gave them that right? Well…we can keep going deeper and deeper, but what you’ll find in most professions is that there’s some kind of body that at some point in history was created when the members of that profession made an effort to hold themselves to rigid standards and drive out the underqualified amateurs and quacks. Some of these groups go back centuries, others are quite new, but they have that in common: they needed a way to formalize their standards and build outsiders’ confidence in the profession.

For language authorities, the idea is the same, although the implementation isn’t. Professional users of language have all sorts of associations and societies: the Writers Guild of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Modern Language Association, and AWP, to name a few of very many. They have different focuses: screenwriting, travel writing, teaching, and so on. (I’ve been a member of different groups but am a current member of only the Editorial Freelancers Association).

But membership in these groups is not particularly stringent. You can’t join the AMA without a recognized medical degree, get into the ABA without verified licensing, or become a voting member of IEEE without proper accreditation or demonstrated competence. In many cases, however, you can join a writers’ association with little or no
fuss. Even when there are higher bars, these organizations have no actual power when it comes to what you can and can’t do professionally: the medical profession has ways to stop unqualified doctors from practicing, but anyone can write and publish a book, no matter how much of an affront the content is to readable English.

How does an individual or organization become an accepted authority on English? The same way one becomes an authority on anything: through education, training, practice, dedication, an adherence to professional standards, and a demonstrated record of quality work. The only real difference is that “the profession of English” has no accrediting body. There’s no shortage of professional associations, but few of them make any claim to being arbiters of “good English.”

If I were to ask you who you accept as an authority for English spelling, grammar, punctuation, and so on, you would probably rattle off names from a short list, including Strunk & White, OED, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage. If I tweaked the question a
little—who would you cite for best practices?—and gave you time to think, you might throw out the names of some respected institutions and successful authors: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood. We’ll disagree on specifics, but not the general idea: we’re all willing to trust institutions with a long history of integrity and individuals with an acknowledged expertise in the language.

You might spot a weakness in my case. ‘My eighth grade English teacher had 30 years experience, but I’ve had to unlearn almost everything he taught me.’ Or ‘That author has sold 100 million copies, but educated critics agree that some of the writing is near gibberish. Why should I trust advice from that source?

Which gets us back to the real criteria for expertise: evidence. None of the authorities I’ve
mentioned, regardless of how long they’ve been around or how well-regarded they are, should stand if they tell you what to do but don’t back it up with evidence.

When it comes to English usage, this means that an authority can’t say ‘Do it this way.‘ An authority must say ‘Do it this way, because of this. Here are examples.’ All good authorities do this.

The best will go further: ‘Here is an example of it done wrong: note the difference. Here is further historical support for this recommendation. Here are summaries of what other authorities have said on this point.

And, by the way: an authority does not have to be ancient and well-known to be trustworthy. Some have been around for ages: OED, Strunk & White, Fowler. But there are perfectly good modern authorities who can be trusted because they provide consistently good advice supported by solid evidence: Garner, Language Log, Grammar Girl. There are numerous authorities you might not have heard of, but which have earned their reputations by providing both solid advice and advice that is solidly supported.

Should you consider me an authority? I don’t presume that you will. But if you follow this recommendation and require that every authority provide good evidence before you accept its advice, then you’re likely to always choose good authorities that deserve your respect. The overall quality of contemporary English will have risen, if ever so slightly, and you will (I can only hope) have improved your critical thinking ability. That’s more than enough for me.

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Blacklist vs Blackball

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” – Groucho Marx

Blacklist or blackball? Which term is correct in which context and why?

I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of misuse and confusion with these two terms recently. I’ve noticed this problem occasionally before, but it’s been more frequent and more obvious over the past couple of months, specifically when one term or the other is used in relation to the “scandal” around some players taking a knee, staying in the locker room, or otherwise expressing an opinion during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games (the “scare quotes” ought to indicate where I stand on this issue, but if you need it spelled out: there’s a reason the First Amendment comes first and isn’t tucked into a footnote).

Many reports have discussed or otherwise commented on Colin Kaepernick being “blackballed” by NFL owners and management since he got the whole thing started in August of 2016. Putting aside the politics, is that interpretation correct: has he been blackballed and, if so, what does that mean?

The simple answer is noHe hasn’t been blackballed. He’s been blacklisted. An uninformed person might assume that these terms mean the same thing, but they do not.

Accuracy and precision are often critical when using words, and these two terms are no exception. The difference between blackball and blacklist, as Twain said, might be the difference between lightning and lightning bug (or, if you prefer, the difference between a ham sandwich and Hamtramck). When you use (or encounter) either word, you should understand what it means.

Blacklisting sort of sounds like what it is: someone, somewhere, is keeping a list. Historically, a blacklist is a list of individuals, organizations, or even entire countries that some entity finds undesirable, for whatever reason. It might be due to a legitimate concern: a blacklist of known criminals, for instance, or of countries with an unacceptable level of government corruption. But blacklists are just as often used for discrimination on social or ideological grounds.

The most infamous example is the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s, a shameful incident in American history when many actors, screenwriters, directors, and others were barred from working because of their political beliefs, largely based on innuendo and paranoia. Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s what seems to have happened with Kaepernick (who drew no attention to his protest and, in his direct statements, offered no disrespect: this was attributed to him by others). The fact that no NFL team will sign him, even though many observers are of the opinion that he is demonstrably better than some current NFL quarterbacks, suggests that he has been blacklisted.

It is necessary to note that a blacklist does not have to physically exist for someone to be blacklisted: the entire process can be informal, occurring only by word of mouth, or by wink and nod, or by tacit complicity. It’s a matter of intent and outcome. The concept of a blacklist is probably as old as human society itself; as a specific phrase in English, the OED dates it as far back as 1624 as a noun (with variable shades of meaning) and 1837 as a verb.

This is different from being blackballed. The term blackball comes from a process by which any existing member of a group has the power to prevent a new member from joining. This is not a “the majority rules” process, but a veto power: in a club of 100, if only one existing member blackballs a potential member, that candidate will be rejected. (In practice, organizations that use a blackball method usually require at least two black balls, but the principle is the same.) OED offers examples of blackball (in the correct context) as a noun back to 1550 and a verb to 1765.

While Groucho Marx was not blacklisted, one must assume that he would have blackballed himself, if ever given the opportunity.*

Kaepernick often appears to be on an NFL blacklist of one, but similar blacklisting has been noted in professional sports in the past (note that this particular article misuses blackball over blacklist in its headline).

For what it’s worth, I’ve found incorrect uses of blackball for blacklist going back several decades. People have probably been making this error for as long as the two terms have coexisted. That doesn’t make the usage acceptable, only persistent. When you have the opportunity to use one of these terms, be sure to choose the correct one.

= = = = =

* The Groucho quote used here deserves a few more words. Some sources attribute it to Groucho, but many regurgitate the debunked notion that it stems from an idea in Freud (a mistake in turn attributed to a Woody Allen film).

The sentiment is sometimes attributed to a line in The Forsyte Saga (1922), but the term is not used and a careful reader will conclude that the context is different: the character the line describes enjoys being curmudgeonly and disagreeable at the expense of his fellow club members; he feels no compunction about associating with them or adhering to club norms, and continues to view his membership as valuable.

Groucho’s general sentiment was not original: Abraham Lincoln wrote something similar in 1838. But regardless of the ultimate origin, Groucho honed the comedic use of this line and popularized it, and deserves full credit for the modern formulation.

An exhaustive look at variants of Groucho’s usage can be found here.

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Coming, Going, and Out in Droves

What is a drove, and why do people come out in them? If you didn’t know any better, the way the word is used might lead you to think it’s a kind of conveyance (“They came out in droves. Have you ever tried to park a drove, let alone 15,000 of them? It was a nightmare!“). Or a fashion statement (“They came out in droves but their neighbors went with a more casual look: shorts and polo shirts.“).

This one was on my mind after hearing it used in a questionable sense by a non-English speaker in a radio interview. The dicey non-idiomatic use, coupled with the accent, caught my attention and after hearing several others use it over the next few days I thought it worth a closer look. Sometimes I learn something on these mini research efforts—maybe sometimes readers do, too.

First off, let’s distinguish the two main uses of drove: we’re not talking about the past tense of the verb to drive: “She drove from Boston to Altoona without stopping.” For this discussion, verbs are off the table.

We’re looking at drove as used in the phrase in droves, which colloquially means a flock or a herd or a crowd: some sort of loosely organized mass movement, primarily of living things, generally concentrating in one area. It’s most often used in contemporary
contexts to describe consumers rushing out to buy something, voters turning out to the polls, or protesters or fans of some sort showing up at an event. But you’ll encounter it applied to many crowd or mass gathering situations.

And that’s about it. You’re rarely going to see drove or droves—as a collective noun—show up in any other sense in modern English. It appears to be something of an idiomatic fossil, a word that might have once been used commonly but has settled into a single niche in one last expression.

Drove is a very old word, with it’s origin purely in Old English. There’s no direct connection to any of the usual suspects that English has borrowed so many words from (Latin, Greek, medieval European languages). Some form of the word was probably in use in England by no later than the 7th century (although there are few written sources to support this). Drove as a noun meaning herd or flock can be found in the written record from at least the early 12th century, when English was barely recognizable as the language we use today. By the middle of the 16th century, most modern speakers would have been able to “get it” as far as both the use and spelling were concerned.

In droves turns out to be a fairly old construction. It wasn’t always applied to a literal flock or herd, even early on. By the late 16th century the figurative sense was in use, but not necessarily common: a 1596 citation mentions creatures returning to their country in droves (the author was writing about salmon in Scottish rivers). He tags the description with “as it war” (“as it were”) because he’s using it in a figurative sense: he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable using droves (“draues“) to describe fish, or in using “their awne cuntrey” (“their own country”) to describe their native river. (This history courtesy of the OED; the closer reading of “The historie of Scotland” courtesy of The Internet Archive.)

How common has this phrase, in droves, been? Surprisingly, it seems to have become popular only in recent history. According to our good friend Google Ngrams, the phrase is nearly unheard of in the written record until near the end of the 17th century. Early references (before about 1750) lean toward actual flocks or herds (of animals) but include people. For the next couple of hundred years, use of the phrase is not particularly frequent, and continues to be split between animals and humans. (One 1793 source disparagingly references Gypsy pickpockets who “in droves” swarm through crowds, relieving others of their possessions.)

Something happened around the middle of the 20th century to give its use a bump. I haven’t been able to put my finger on what—which is typical of English trends—but it caused a usage peak in the 1940s not seen before (and not matched until the mid 1990s; that pushed on to a new peak in 2003). The current use trend is uncertain (Ngrams fails after 2008), but my assumption is that use is still fairly steady, especially since it’s normal to run into the phrase on at least a weekly basis.

In droves, by the way, doesn’t seem to have one sense you might assume it would because of its connection to drovers (herders, or those who drive flocks). There’s very little (if any) sense of being driven when something is mentioned in droves today.

While most use is in the form of “they came out in droves” a few similar forms are also used, most frequently the slightly truncated reference to something “coming in droves” or “going in droves” (without the “out“). Both are far behind the full “out in droves” form: combined, they’re used less than half as often. “Out in their droves” is a much less frequent variant (it’s somewhat more common in British English; overall you’ll run into it about once for every 40 uses of the other phrasings). Citations suggest adding “their” is both newer and leans to the pretentious.

Staying away in droves (or a similar twist) gets used occasionally, mostly for the humor. The meaning (one hopes) is obvious and the joke clear, even though the use is illogical: a drove being a herd or crowd, it doesn’t strictly make sense when used this way. A crowd can’t stay away in a drove, because then it wouldn’t be a crowd, unless that crowd goes to another specific location instead. Do you follow? A crowd isn’t a crowd if it’s a bunch of individuals doing their own things in their own places. You can move (or show up) in droves, as a crowd, but you can’t stay away as a drove because a ‘negative drove‘ isn’t a thing. That’s part of the joke.

I hope the above makes some sense. It’s not the kind of post that will bring readers out to this blog in droves, but I’ll take what I can get.

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Vocabulary: What is a bollard?

A quick post today from the vocabulary files. This one’s about something that most of us see many times every day, but don’t know the word for. In fact, most of us don’t know there’s even a word for it. These objects are so common and unobtrusive, they just blend into the background—we don’t consciously register them unless they become an inconvenience.

The object and the word for it is bollard.

A small minority of people already know and use this word. Many sailors are familiar with it. Anyone who works in traffic control or road work probably knows it, as will many architects and security specialists. Outside those fields and a few others, this isn’t a term people encounter much in American English (although in British English the word is significantly more common).

What is a bollard?

In modern use, a bollard is a device used for traffic control. More precisely, they’re used to prevent motor vehicle traffic from entering a specific area. You’re most likely to encounter them as metal posts about one meter high, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some are concrete only, some are steel-reinforced concrete, some are concrete sheathed in steel. Some aren’t even posts, and might take more decorative shapes, perhaps also serving as planters or trash cans. Those big red concrete spheres in front of most Target stores? Bollards. Some are even plastic, and can be moved quickly and easily: you’ve probably seen this style at road construction sites—tall, skinny, orange
posts with reflective bands.

Some bollards aren’t terribly tough. They’re meant as a deterrent to keep drivers from veering into a work zone or parking on the sidewalk, or from taking their vehicles down bike paths or into pedestrian-only areas. Simply by having some form of obstacle (a bollard), most drivers will get the message, even if a lot of those bollards wouldn’t stop a vehicle with a determined driver. But increasingly, much more serious bollards are being installed.

These devices are sturdy—strong enough to stop a car at speed. In fact, many of them, especially the ones meant for high security areas, are able to stop large trucks (if you want to see just how effective these are, google “bollard truck test” and browse the images; this very short video of a test is also revealing, although if you’re more of a “greatest hits” person, try this one). They’re typically made of some variety of structural steel and, when properly installed, very little on wheels will make it past them. They meet rigorous standards for impact (at least one of ISO IWA 14-1, BSi PAS 68, or ASTM F2656-07, if you’re interested).

I’ve had reason to get to know bollards, at least passively, because some editing and writing work over the past couple of years has led me off into traffic safety. My first (incorrect) impression was that the word was most likely old, but obscure. I suspected it was probably a British import to the US (correct), possibly from French (incorrect).

It turns out bollard is a fairly recent word in English: the OED cites a first print use only from 1844. At that time it was a nautical term, indicating the large post on a wharf used as the point to tie up ships. Of course, these posts were used long before that, they simply went by other names (“posts” being one, “knights-heads” another, “bitt” possibly another). Bollards could also exist aboard a ship, not necessarily in the same form but serving a similar purpose (securing ropes and lines). The specific etymology of the word is unknown; it branches off (no pun intended) from the same Middle English word that became bole (the trunk of a tree), which might have come through German from Old Norse—but this isn’t definitive (no matter how many times you see it online).

Traffic bollards are (probably) the later innovation (and certainly a later word usage). OED lists a first use in this sense from 1948. But objects serving that purpose, known locally as Amsterdammertjes, were in use in Amsterdam possibly as early as 1800. Images included in the Wikipedia entry for bollard show them in contemporary illustrations from 1742 and 1766, proving that the idea—if not the name—existed before then. That Wikipedia reference (trust it at your peril) suggests that the concept was being used in London by no later than 1721. To blow a little more fog over the term, Merriam-Webster
claims a 1763 first use for the word (but doesn’t provide a citation: their online dictionary is deficient that way). That’s 80 years earlier than the OED’s reliable citation.

This is one of those situations where it would be useful if an American dictionary included the first known American use of a word as a data point. Did the word skip right across the Atlantic into the specialized vocabulary of traffic engineers as early as the 1950s? Did it seep in during the ’80s or ’90s? Or was it only recruited after 9/11, when anti-vehicle security became more of a concern? Determining that will take more research than I have time for.

Now that you know about bollards, you’re going to see them everywhere…like standpipes and the fnords. It’s not just you, though—there really are more of them out there everyday.

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i.e. and e.g.: You’re not writing in Latin, so why are you using them?

i.e. and e.g.: What are they? Why do we use them? What do they mean? And why don’t we just get rid of them?

Click, that is, use the button on your mouse, for more

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