A Grammatical Note on the Usage of Certain Colloquial Words

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To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

The colloquial English word “guy”, in its singular form, is always masculine. In English, the gender of a noun is not as much of an important principle as it is in other languages, because neither the definite nor indefinite article change forms depending upon the gender of the noun, and not even adjectives have gender. But the noun “guy” is singular in that it is exclusively used to refer to a male person. As is to be expected, the plural form “guys” is also masculine and refers to a group of male people. There is one interesting exception to this rule. When used as a direct address, “guys” is gender neutral. A person can start a statement with “Hey guys,” regardless of whether the addressees are male, female, or a group including members of both genders. (If you live in the Southern portion of the United States, the term “y’all” serves the same purpose. Unlike the word “guys”, it is actually a pronoun, since it is a contraction that contains the pronoun “you”.)

The word “dude” is a colloquial term similar to “guy” in usage, but the two are not interchangeable. For one thing, “dude” is used primarily as a form of direct address, and the plural form is significantly less common than the singular. Like the word “guy”, “dude” is technically masculine, but can be used as a gender-neutral form of address. This is handy, given the fact that, as previously mentioned, “guy” is only gender-neutral in the plural. If it wasn’t for the useful word “dude”, there would be an inconvenient gap in the English language, for there would not be a good gender-neutral colloquial term to be used to address just one person. (I am deliberately not counting any words that are fairly unusual or that could be considered profane or derogatory. I also am not counting “hey you”, for the word “you” is actually a pronoun, as previously noted. Additionally, I am not counting “person”, because it is unusual and a little awkward to address a person as “person”. I, of course, do it quite often, for I am unusual and awkward.)

In short, the word “dude”, when used to address someone, is the singular form of the word “guys”, despite the fact that this is grammatically absurd. This just goes to show that colloquial English is just as weird and confusing as the more formal form of this language.

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There’s this book I’m reading, episode 4

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1984I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.

When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future.  This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)

I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.

The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.

OrwellThat’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific.  You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”

Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood.  This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”

Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.

As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.

I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful.   It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.

Alacrity and Other Words

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The scrabble dictionary kind of blends the two definitions.

Today, I discovered something which has shattered my view of the universe. (Or at least my view of the English language) It turns out that, for years, I’ve been wrong about what the word alacrity means. I’d always thought that alacrity was just a fancy and particularly awesome word for speed, but it turns out that it really means ‘cheerful readiness’. Actually, Google informs me that ‘speed’ is an acceptable alternate definition, but it goes without saying that I should have been aware of the primary definition.

A sister without a shoe

I still remember the day when I heard the word alacrity for the first time. It was a Sunday morning when I was a small child. We were about to go to church, and almost everyone’s shoes were missing. (For much of my childhood, it was necessary for my family to set aside shoe-hunting time before any departure from the house) As the shoes failed to appear and the danger of being late for church increased, my mother requested greater alacrity in our search. I asked her what alacrity meant, and she answered me, but now that I think back on it, I don’t remember exactly what she said. Did I immediately forget, and then later replace the definition in my brain with something else and attribute that answer to her? Or did she tell me that alacrity meant speed? I suppose I could ask her, but she probably doesn’t specifically remember the incident and won’t be able to tell me exactly what she said. I shall be left wondering where I got my misinformation, even while I am lamenting the (almost) non-existence of the definition of one of my favorite words.  This disturbing realization forces me to face a troubling question: should I remove ‘alacrity’ from my list of really cool words, or should I keep it on the list, but adjust the terms of my penchant for it in order to reflect my new understanding of its true meaning?

My list of really cool words doesn’t actually exist in a written form, although it has been my intention to write it, mainly because I like making lists. Here are a few other words that would be on that list, all of which I have just looked up to thoroughly ensure that they really do mean what I think they mean. (Disclaimer: In case it isn’t painfully obvious, I don’t know any Latin whatsoever, so all of the Latin words used here came from the all-knowing internet, and I may have used them incorrectly)

 

Decimate (verb)

Definition: To kill or destroy most of something

Etymology: From the Latin ‘decimare’, which technically means to kill exactly one tenth of a group. Although it had never occurred to me before, I guess it ought to be pretty obvious from the ‘deci’ that it had something to do with the number ten. That’s interesting. Now I’m really glad that I decided to look up these words.

 

Trepidation (noun)

Definition: Fear and agitation

Etymology: The word dates back to around 1600 and comes from the Latin word ‘trepidationem’, which boringly means the exact same thing as the current English word. It is worth noting, though, that it is related to the words ‘tremble’ and ‘tremulous’.

 

Decapitated (adjective)

Definition: Having had one’s head cut off

(Note: It’s also a verb, as the past tense of ‘decapitate’. One who has been decapitated is decapitated, which is a very decapacitating condition.)

Etymology: The word ‘decapitate’ comes from the French word decapiter, which comes from the Latin ‘decapitare’. ‘Capitis’ means head, and ‘de-‘ indicates that the head isn’t there anymore.

 

Simultaneously (adverb)

Definition: At the same time

Etymology: It originated in the 1650s and comes from the Latin ‘simultaneus’, which predictably means ‘at the same time’. The root word is ‘simul’, from which we also get the word ‘similar’.

The reason I like this word is that I know how to spell it. I’m a terrible speller and rely heavily upon Google and spellcheck. They frequently have cause to correct me, but all three of us agree about the spelling of ‘simultaneously’, which makes me feel very clever.

 

Flabbergasted (adjective)

Definition: Greatly surprised

Etymology: Apparently, the origin is uncertain, because the only information I can find is that some magazine article in 1772 listed it as a newly invented word.

 

Subsequent (adjective)

Definition: Closely following (as in a list or chronological order)

Etymology: It comes from the French ‘subséquent’, which comes from the Latin ‘subsequentem’, which literally means ‘closely following’. I’m a bit confused about that because I thought ‘sub-‘ generally meant ‘under’, not ‘close’.

 

Incidentally (adverb)

Definition: Used to introduce a new but somewhat related point

Etymology: The root word, ‘incident’, comes from the identical French word, which comes from the Latin word ‘incidere’. The prefix ‘in-‘ apparently can mean ‘on’, and ‘cidere’ apparently means ‘fell again’. Now I’m kind of confused. Apparently, the current meaning of ‘incident’ dates to the middle of the 15th century, and the current use of the word ‘incidentally’ has only existed since about 1925.

This word had to go on the list because my sisters laugh at me for using it so frequently.

“Incidentally,” I sometimes will say, “what time is it?”

“Incidentally,” they will respond, “we don’t know.”

Then I will explain to them that one never answers a question with ‘incidentally’, and they will explain to me that they don’t care, because they were only using that word to tease me.

 

Discombobulated (adjective)

Definition: Confused and disoriented, mixed up

Etymology: Originally, the word was ‘discombobricated’. It was invented in 1834 by some Americans who thought they were being clever by making up funny sounding words. What an odd thing to do. That kind of thing would never happen in this century. Oh, wait…

 

Camaduka (noun)

Definition: I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

Etymology: My sisters and I invented it.

Most commonly used in the expression ‘Great camaduka!’

Quasycle

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I have recently invented a new word which I think should become commonly used in the English language. The word is quasycle, (rhymes with popsicle) and it is a noun referring to a small object which can be used to store a disproportionally large amount of something. For example, digital storage devices, such as flash drives and CD-ROMs, are quasycles, and a book is a quasycle.  Mary Poppin’s purse and The Doctor’s TARDIS are both quasycles. It is worth noting that quasycle is worth 22 points in Scrabble, not counting the points from bonus squares and not counting the 50 point bonus for using all seven tiles. (In order to play the word quasycle,one would have to use a letter that is already on the board. Also, such a move could only occur in a game where the players had mutually agreed that quasycle is a real word, which is unfortunately not very likely.)

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