A few years ago, the marvellous John McIntyre, late of the Baltimore Sun, coined peeververein, from peever + verein (German for club – the kind you join, not the kind you hit people with. Although…) for that group of people who have taken it upon themselves to tell everyone else how to write and speak (and therefore how to think) for no other reason than people aren’t doing their writing and their speaking according to the peeververein’s personal preference. They even write books about it. Recent-ish additions to this genre include Simon Heffer’s Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write … and Why it Matters (2010), John Humphrys’s Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language (2004) and Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words: A Guide to the English Language (1997).
Peeververein promptly – and accidentally – got reduced to the handier peeverein by Barrie England (about which change, McIntyre sagely comments: ‘I’m hardly in a position to dictate orthography. Once you let go of a coinage, it circulates freely.’ The embodiment of the anti-peever(ver)ein). Anyway, peeverein is the term I’m going to use here.
The peeverein recently came back to me as I read Rebecca Gowers’s Horrible Words (2016), although she calls them gripers. Gowers, great-grandchild of Ernest Gowers, knows her stuff. She finds, repeatedly, that the gripers fail on simple research, condemning words that have been in use for hundreds of years for being modern and therefore nasty, getting their etymology wrong and innumerable other basic mistakes. A little knowledge can be an embarrassing thing.
The nature of ‘correct’ English, and what the peeverein don’t get
Let me introduce you to language – English, in this case. The standards of correct English are a mirage. Correct English is what English users say it is, by weight of numbers. That’s how change happens. If language didn’t change, we’d all still be exchanging caveman grunts – if we’d even got that far.
What the peeverein don’t like is changes since that have occurred since they were a child. What their nannies taught them is What Is. And then they apply a little faulty reasoning, proudly call it ‘logic’ (as if logic has anything to do with it!) and tell everyone English is going to hell in a handbasket, a sure sign of universal ignorance and poor education.
Tell me, what kind of person writes books sneering at people who aren’t as clever as they are? A fully paid-up member of the peeverein, that’s who.
Grammar police – and worse
Another name the peeverein seem to quite like going by is Grammar Police (bad enough – but they don’t restrict themselves to grammar. Peevers: grammar cannot stand in for the whole of language – there’s far more to it than that). And then there are those that think policing isn’t going far enough, and call themselves Grammar Nazis. Now, this is all kinds of offensive.
My advice, if you see people on social media calling themselves either of these terms or anything akin to them, or merely sharing and/or approving messages from such folks, is to unfollow and block, then run in the opposite direction, because those people are eejits of the first water. What you shouldn’t do is engage with them, or argue with them, because there is no arguing with them and you have better things to do with your life, like live and let live.
Plus ça change
As I edit texts in the humanities and social sciences, I often come across snippets that stay with me. One such, in a book about Tacitus, was that, in the first century CE, people were complaining that the modern speakers weren’t a match for the orators of old and that standards were going right down the pan. In Tacitus’ Dialogus, Messalla blames this on declining standards of education and upbringing.
So we see that for at least the best part of two millennia, people have been complaining that mastery of language isn’t what it used to be, and that people today are ignorant and ill-educated, and their parents haven’t brought them up right.
That does rather suggest that it’s merely the human condition to complain that things aren’t what they were in the good old days, that golden age when all was rosy. Gowers tells us that, in Troilus and Creseyde, Chaucer observes that words from the past now seemed ‘nyce and straunge’, in the 1380s (and by ‘nyce’, he meant ‘rare’) but that – gosh! – people really did used to speak that way.
Another element of the human condition is to be playful. And one thing we love playing with is language. Like other kinds of play, it’s how we learn and grow. It’s also self-testing. If you invent a term and no one can work out what you mean by it, you’ve failed in language’s only concern – to communicate. If you invent a term and people like it, they’ll use it themselves, regardless of what the peeverein may make of it.
Despite difficulties with how to count such things, English is amongst the languages with the largest vocabulary. Some sources say it’s the largest, others that it’s there or thereabouts. English has rich reservoirs of language from the languages it’s absorbed into itself over the centuries, after all. This gives me the perfect excuse to quote James Davis Nicoll’s colourful turn of phrase:
But that’s only half the story, of course – English words are also cuckoos, having taken up residence in languages right around the world. I’ve not seen any demands that we should take them back, but perhaps the peeverein don’t care about the ‘purity’ of other folks’ languages.
On this point, I was delighted, if bemused, to discover a few weeks ago (thanks to Richard Osman’s House of Games) that in Sweden, ‘golf’, ‘squash’ and ‘cricket’ are written, er, ‘golf’, ‘squash’ and ‘cricket’ (and, I’ve discovered since, ‘rugby’, too – and can you guess what they mean by ‘fotbollsmatch’?), which is something to add to those old stalwarts le match de football and le week-end, in French.
And I remember my roommate at college, studying Russian, coming home very early in the course delighted it was going to be so easy, given that the Russian for radio is radio and for taxi, taksi (though in Cyrillic, obvs).
Another thing that affects language is utility. If a word meets a need, it gets used. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Words have fallen by the wayside just as much as new coinages are adopted. I wrote on this in 2014, which one commenter was kind enough to call ‘a succinct demolition of the prescriptivists’.
Apt words (see what I did there?)
Then we have register – whether that’s how you talk to your own cultural group or to members of another, or to people in authority over you, or to people you have authority over, or to people of a different generation, or chatting to mates or writing an essay or a scholarly monograph or dashing off an email in a tearing hurry.
Gloriously, we have the endless nuance of the precise shade of meaning you want to include. The peeverein often seem utterly tone deaf to nuance, not seeing the difference between (in Gowers’s excellent example) ‘I love you’ and ‘I don’t not love you’ except insofar as second one has a horrific double negative that cancels itself out and is therefore incorrect English.
Hyperbole is another driver of change – we do seem to like building up words to make them bigger and louder and just more.
You’re going too fast, and I don’t like it!
What upset the peeverein greatly, in my view, are the speed of change and how just how widespread it is. That’s the internet for you – all those Englishes mingling and rubbing up against each other (like Nicoll’s cribhouse whore?), without any protection and with no labels hanging round their necks saying ‘Hands off – I’m American’ or ‘Hands off – I’m Indian’ or ‘Hands off – I’m Australian’ or Irish or Welsh or Scots or Canadian or South African or any other kind of regional English. If you see a word that strikes you as fun and/or useful, you use it. It may gain traction, it may not – it may go viral (now there’s a word I’d like to see drop out of circulation for a while) or it may be a slow burn.
Democracy versus tyranny
But what it all boils down to – as do all ‘rules’ of English, because there are no rules – is the prevailing preferences of the day. What most of us agree works. And that changes over time. Ask yourself not ‘What’s the rule about [issue]?’, but ‘How are we handling [issue] these days?’ Language shows its age, and of course books are little time-travelling gems to see the language as it was in days of yore. And the more yore, the less intelligible it becomes. It’s not just spelling – punctuation changes, grammar itself changes, syntax changes. And it’s not stopped yet.
So why people write books about why their own peccadilloes and ill-researched bigotry – for this is what it is – should be imposed on the rest of English-speaking humanity, I really can’t fathom. Well, I can. They feel the need to be seen as superior. It’s sad, and it’s ugly.
So, anything goes, does it?
Anything doesn’t go: even though they change, we have a current set of conventions (aka preferences) that suggest what style of writing, what vocabulary, what register will work in the context, and that’s the standard I edit to, once the publisher’s house style (another set of preferences and subject to change fairly frequently) has been applied.
As I’m a copyeditor, some might expect that to mean I’m one of the peevers policing what you say and what you write. Well, only when I’m at work, and only to a degree. I walk a tightrope, judging what language works for the context. And a word I change in one book might easily be stetted in another.
Why does any of this matter, anyway?
Oh, it matters. Language is something that comes naturally to us, and we learn the way it works from the people we grow up with. Hence idiolect, familect, dialect, slang, jargon and all those other deviations from ‘correct English’.
Gowers reminds us of Fred Vincy in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who says that, ‘All choice of words is slang’. He goes on to say, ‘It marks a class’, then adds the wonderful insight, ‘correct English is the slang of prigs’.
If you’re constantly being told you’re doing language wrong, with people writing books saying that if they sound like you, they’ll sound ‘common’ and making ‘common’ sound like a bad thing – an egregious case of them and us (Mr Humphrys, in Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language) it makes you nervous about speaking up in public, and about writing, knowing you’re going to be judged and found wanting by your self-appointed betters.
And people are nervous about their writing.
If they weren’t, writers’ and editors’ forums wouldn’t be full of people wringing their hands over tiny points that really don’t stand in the way of comprehension but do mark out those who handle the standard written word really well from those who don’t.
If people weren’t nervous about their writing, Grammarly, Hemingway and all the others wouldn’t have a market – and their advertising trades on convincing you writing is difficult and technical and there are all sorts of ways to look ignorant.
I see editors put out strings of social media postings, helpfully explaining the ’rules’ (merely current conventions, which will change again soon enough). Is that really helpful, or does it just make people worry all the more about what gaffes they’re able to make if they do write something?
If you know your language is being judged by people who think they’re better than you, you may well keep your trap shut. And that an insidious method of taking away someone’s voice. Democracy would give people their voice, tyranny takes it away.