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How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D . When I wrote about President Goodluck Jonathan’s grammatical boo-boos last week, part of my motivation w...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

When I wrote about President Goodluck Jonathan’s grammatical boo-boos last week, part of my motivation was to contribute to the conversation about how elite grammatical infractions contribute to the decline or vitality of English usage. While Goodluck Jonathan is certainly the worst abuser of the English language in the history of Nigerian presidency, he is by no means the only prominent political or cultural figure to violate the lexis and structure of the language in the English-speaking world.

In this week’s column, I chronicle a sample of unorthodox elite usages that have acquired prestige over time, and wonder if Jonathanisms, (as I call the idiosyncratic grammatical slips of President Jonathan) might enjoy some acceptance in the pantheon of English usage in the future.

In an April 29, 2010 article on this issue, I observed thus: “Now, what is considered correct usage is often no more than elite social tyranny—and sometimes the product of an improbable concatenation of ‘popular’ pressures and elite consensus. Pierre Bourdieu has written brilliantly on this in his book titled Language and Symbolic Power. And because ‘standard’ usage norms often reflect the biases and arbitrary social conventions of the ruling intellectual, cultural, and political elites in any given epoch, the norms usually change in the course of time.”

Well, see below a list of prominent personalities who have pushed the frontiers of English grammar and vocabulary—and who sometimes succeeded in changing the rules of usage.

The Queen of England. Even the Queen of England, the unofficial guardian of the English tongue, is given to occasional violation of the rules of her own language. In their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut shared how the Queen misused the expression “due to” and inadvertently caused the rule to be changed in favor of her misuse.

 In traditional grammar "due" is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition "to" it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of "due to" at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of "because of" or "owing to" was considered uneducated. But when the Queen of England, in a Speech from the Throne, said "Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage," this "uneducated" usage gained respectability. It is no longer bad grammar.
Queen Elizabeth
 I once observed that this example shows the arbitrariness and unabashed elitism of (English) usage norms.

But that’s only partly true. What is equally true is that research has shown that the Queen of England has lately been speaking like her subjects, leading the Daily Mail, UK’s second-biggest selling newspaper, to write in a recent story that “The Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English.”

Former US President Warren Harding. America’s 29th president, Warren Gamaliel Harding, who was like the George Bush of 1920s America, was famous for committing a malapropism that later became normalized in American English. During America’s presidential campaign in 1920, Harding’s slogan was: “A return to normalcy.” 

His first mention of “normalcy” was during a political speech. He said, “America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.” The word appeared again in his inaugural address after he won the presidential election. "Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way.... We must strive to normalcy to reach stability,” he said.

 Now, the usual noun associated with “normal” in America—and elsewhere in the English-speaking world— in the 1920s was “normality,” not “normalcy.” As you would expect, political opponents and American grammar nazis of the time viciously excoriated Harding for this malapropism.
But “normalcy” is now an acceptable word in American English, although it is still frowned upon in British English. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “normalcy” has, in the course of the years, become “recognized as standard by all major dictionaries,” pointing out that “there is no need to avoid its use.”

Intriguingly, though, recent research has found that “normalcy” has existed in the vocabulary of the English language way longer than the 1920s. The Oxford English Dictionary says “normalcy” first appeared in English in 1857, that is, about 50 years before Harding used it. But the word had been dormant until Harding revived it—in “ignorance.”

George W. Bush. Former president George inflicted a lot of violence on the grammar of the English language. His often comical grammatical missteps have come to be known as “Bushisms.” During a January 11, 2000 campaign speech in South Carolina, for instance, he famously said, "Is our children learning?" He, of course, meant to say “Are our children learning?” In an October 18, 2000 speech at a town in the state of Wisconsin he also said, "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream" instead of “Families ARE where our nation finds hope, where DREAMS take WINGS."

But by far his most legendary malapropism was “misunderestimate.” He wanted to say his opponents underestimated him by mistake, so he took “mis” from “mistake” and added it to “underestimate” to produce “misunderstimate.”
Misunderestimate now appears in a number of dictionaries. While many linguists still ridicule the word, others think it will endure because it has filled a lexical void in the English language. Wikitionary, the collaborative online dictionary, says “misunderestimate” is a portmanteau of “misunderstand” and “underestimate” and defines it as “to underestimate severely.”

I won’t be surprised if “misunderestimate” achieves the same level of acceptance and prestige in American English as “normalcy” has.

Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin is the former Republican vice presidential nominee during the 2008 election. She is also notorious for her atrocious grammar and hilarious malapropisms. Her most memorable malapropism was her use of the non-existent word “refudiate.” During the controversy over the building of a mosque near the World Trade Center in New York, she wrote the following message on Twitter: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

She meant to write “repudiate,” but probably also thought of “refute” and then got confused, so she blended “repudiate” and “refute” to form “refudiate.” Of course, critics and grammatical purists pounced on her immediately. But unlike Harding and Bush, she fought back. “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” she wrote on Twitter.

(For those who don’t know, “wee-wee’d up” is a phrase invented by President Obama during a speech in Washington, DC. He used it to mean “overexcited about trivial issues,” but “wee-wee” is normally a children’s term for “urinate.”) writes: “Say what you will about her invocation of Shakespeare, but Palin raises a classic debate among linguists and lexicographers (people who create dictionaries). Dictionaries have always faced the dilemma whether to be prescriptive or descriptive. Is it the job of a dictionary to direct how words should be used, spelled, or pronounced, or should a dictionary simply document the current usage of the language?”

Well, dictionaries grapple with this dilemma only when the political and cultural elite in (native) English-speaking countries invent or distort words. That is why, although “refudiate” is a clear malapropism, it won New Oxford American Dictionary‘s 2010 Word of the Year! The dictionary defines refudiate thus: “verb used loosely to mean ‘reject’: she called on them to refudiate the proposal to build a mosque. [origin — blend of refute and repudiate]”

Would any dictionary consider President Jonathan’s inversion of the meaning of “filter” as a word of the year?

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