I write a weekly column, WordWays, in the Otago Daily Times newspaper, in which I look at language matters, very broadly conceived. Articles range from the history and grammar and wordstock of English, to its family of languages and beyond, to the purposes of speaking and writing in it, and the rights and wrongs of spelling, pronunciation, grammar, syntax, you name it. I return whenever possible to the best exemplars of our language, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens — the giants of English expression.
Recently someone described me as a “word-surgeon”. This prompted me to examine her metaphor. I dissect words, and study their anatomy. I work out how language ticks and sometimes I sound like a GP when asked for advice on usage. But, a word-surgeon?
I do sometimes propose that some word or phrase be “cut out” of one’s usage —most likely in the written form, because speech is freer, more personal, and has more contextual help (from gestures and facial movements) to achieve clear understanding or goodwill. More often, I find myself recommending self-rationing, and most often of all I advise reserving some current favourite expression, some media buzz-word or colourful metaphor, for the right occasion. Or a strong word for a big occasion; for instance, an emotive word like “jealousy” or “spite” for the rare times when naming it could do some good.
And I dissect. Individual words aren’t as interesting as language in fuller action, though dictionaries and wordsmiths tend to think most about these monads. Still, each word is born, lives, grows, travels and changes, before it dies. It has kindred. And it has parts, which can be dissected.
Dissection itself, for instance, is borrowed from Latin, from which tongue we see its make-up. Dis– prefix, “apart, in separate directions”: like disheveled, “hair all over the place”. And –sect– from secare, the verb to cut. And –ion, from Latin nouns in –io which describe an action. Like transaction.
This pattern, of a word having its main idea amidships, modified by prefix and suffix, is very common. In a language quite unconnected with Latin, biblical Hebrew, the same combination is even more evident. Linguistic typology is based on this kind of recurring pattern, which is not accounted for by a simple etymology like deriving English dissection out of the Latin from which it was taken.
And such dissecting is not always simple. Take surgeon. If English spelling makes you compare pigeon and dungeon or sturgeon, forget it. Surgeon was sorgien in Middle English. It came from Old French serurgien or cirurgien, which had it from Latin chirurgos, and had come to the Romans (as so often with medicine) out of Greek, kheirourgos — “working by hand.” Surgeon, once this dissecting is over, comes in two parts, from the fact that a surgeon “works” at healing with the “hands”. To a word-dissector, the vagaries of spelling and pronunciation, shortening and borrowing, become as fascinating as the history of medicine (of which indeed they form part).
All the same, surgery and dissection don’t altogether appeal to me as metaphors to define what I do. Words as they work together have a good health, like the good health of the whole human body, or that of body, mind, and spirit together. For this reason, examining the syntax of a sentence tells you more about language than this or that word within it. Syntax, the “arranging together” of words (Greek sun+taxis), shows the skeleton and muscles of language in action.
Rather than surgeon or dissector or even anatomist of language, I prefer to think of myself as a word “doctor”: consultant, or clinical psychiatrist, are too grand, so maybe a GP. No drugs are prescribed: instead I suggest patterns of avoidance, of temperance and right use, and role models. Self-awareness, self-criticism, reading your own words aloud and hearing yourself, give a more enduring path to the good health of writing. Speaking too? Harder still.
The link with Corpus leaps out: does the good health of language tell its readers anything about its human counterpart? Does it have a wellness, well-being, or soundness and so on, distinct from its “health”? Are these states defined by their opposites, for certainly language likes to work with words in pairs, or sets, a system of differences?
Mind you, any analogy with medicine is limiting. How far should one try to intervene at all, or even guide usage? Linguistics abhors prescriptiveness.
But yes: on the whole, the analogy makes sense. We do know a “fit body” when we see one in action. We can often say what (as the word entails) it is “fit” and ready for. As a teacher and practitioner, I do know when I read or hear good English in action. And I shudder at its misuse or manhanding, written and spoken. Language, too, once spoke of “fit” language—purposeful expression. “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,” warbled Sir Philip Sidney. Our social world teems with unfit words, from people who don’t know and increasingly don’t care how to express a thought well.
But still beware the downside. The equivalent to being a health fanatic is caring too much about expression. Competent pedants pounce on a fault. Fluent writers show off their fluency, when they indulge in “fine writing,” every main point a purple patch. Columnist, beware.
Since retiring from the Otago University English Department, Dr John Hale has divided his energy between research on John Milton (six books to date), and the more pressing deadlines of a weekly Otago Daily Times WordWays column, with occasional teaching for the U3A.