Etymology Nazi

When I was first in college, most of my friends were English-major types.  It’s no surprise, then, that I know more than a few Grammar Nazis.  While there have always been cultural conflicts with those who use language “properly” and those who use it “improperly,” the phenomenon of the Grammar Nazi is very much a product of the Internet.  Indeed, the phenomenon is so widespread, it has become a meme.

How is correcting other people’s grammar an Internet phenomenon, you might ask?  Well, quite simply, before the Internet, the only people who corrected others’ grammar were copy editors and English teachers.  Historically, speaking or writing with bad grammar might get you mocked as an indicator of your social class or your lack of education, but no one tried to police it.  Now, with the interactive nature of online forums and comment threads, words can not only be preserved, but become the focal point of a new conversation.  Unfortunately, this “conversation” tends to take on the form of a flame war, but that’s only to be expected.

Of course, I appreciate well-crafted writing and speaking as much as anyone.  I do a fair amount of writing and I have, on more than one occasion, spent hours rewriting a single sentence until it conveys precisely the meaning I want it to.  However, I also understand that language is not an eternal, immutable construct that has existed since before the dawn of time.  Language is fluid.  Language evolves.  What we consider “proper” vocabulary and grammar came about after a bunch of Germanic-speaking Saxons were put on an island for a few hundred years, tossed about a bit by vikings and then severely clobbered by a bunch of francophones.  I’m often amazed that we can communicate with it at all, let alone create amazing written works the likes of Milton, Orwell or Tolkien.

Stephen Fry does a much better job of articulating this than I:

I certainly don’t mean to imply that putting thought into writing isn’t important or that grammar itself isn’t an important construct.  Quite the contrary.  Nevertheless, I find it hard to get really annoyed when someone uses their words incorrectly.  There is a fine line between “incorrect” and “novel,” and that line lies in a distinctly grey area between the two others.  Any use of words, if enough people adopt it, has the potential to take the English language in a new direction.

There is, however, one misuse of language that I simply can’t abide…

I once walked into a class on the first day of the semester, interested in the subject and eager to learn.  The instructor seemed friendly and knowledgeable (as every instructor would hope to seem), and his first lecture certainly wasn’t dull.

Just as the class was about to end, he used the word “Sesquicentennial.”  Just to clarify, he noted that “Sesquicentennial means ‘one hundred and fifty years.’ ‘Cent’ means ‘one hundred’ and ‘sesqui’ means ‘fifty.’”

I immediately felt my blood start to boil.  The other students were hopefully sufficiently attentive to the teacher as to not notice that I had gone completely rigid, save for some sporadic twitching in my left arm.  I had to use every ounce of self-control I possessed to keep from raising my hand, clearing my throat, or simply standing up in the middle of his sentence in order to correct him.  The class ended, I got up and I shook his hand, once again mustering all my willpower, then walked out the door, never to return.  He might have been an expert in his field, but my confidence in him was shattered.
For those who may not be quite as familiar as I am with their Latin roots, “Sesquicentennial” does, in fact, mean “one hundred and fifty years,” but does not come from the word for “one hundred” and the word for “fifty.”  The Latin root “sesqui” means “one-and-one-half times,” or in other words, a sesquicentennial commemorates “one-and-one-half centuries.”

Though the distinction was probably missed by most of the class, I was thoroughly annoyed with my instructor’s blatant ignorance of the word’s etymology.  Moreover, he paused his lecture in order to teach his students an incorrect word origin.  While I don’t expect every university instructor in every subject to also be an expert in Latin roots (though I certainly wouldn’t object to it), if you don’t actually understand it, don’t try teaching it.

That was the day I realized that I was an Etymology Nazi.

One might argue that I am guilty of the same basic errors made by the Grammar Nazis of the world, that my quest for proper use of suffixes and roots is no less pedantic and misguided than their quest to enforce strict adherence to a mutable concept.  While I concede the fact that I am somewhat overzealous on the matter, I see a very important distinction.  While Grammar Nazis primary flaw (apart from a general deficiency of tact) is failing to account for historical context, historical context is the whole point of etymology.  The whole key to understanding how words function in our language today is understanding where they came from and how they entered our speech.  While one could suppose that in a few hundred years there may be one common spelling of the words “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” or English could follow the example of Slavic languages and drop the use of articles, one could not suppose that the Romans ever said “sesqui” when they meant “fifty.”  Latin evolved and changed just like every other language, but that’s not the way it changed.  Latin is, as they say, ancient history.

This is perhaps the reason why I like etymology so much.  Etymology is history.  It’s tracing the origins of the way we communicate—the way that ideas and cultures traveled across the globe, evolving, changing, influencing, competing.  We can look back at how word meanings changed as people used them differently, just as we can look at a meme on the Internet and watch it change and evolve as it is posted and linked and remixed.  History, of course, isn’t perfect.  We are dependent upon the records that were kept and the artifacts that were left behind.  It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly not something you can just make up.

Are there more Etymology Nazis out there?  Who knows.  Fortunately, most people don’t toss around bad Germanic sound shifts like they do apostrophes.  Will it rise to meme status?  I doubt it.  Will any good come of my rantings?  Probably not.  But if you, dear reader, take nothing else from this, remember this one thing:

Find out where words have been before you put them in your mouth.

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