language wars

posted in: words | 0

For you English language buffs: a brief history of the fight between prescriptivists and descriptivists (by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker). In short, prescriptivists believe language follows certain rules, so there is a correct way to speak and write; descriptivists believe that language doesn’t necessarily follow strict rules so the best we can do is describe how people currently use it.

Anyway, one funny bit in the article was a short table of “upper-class” and “non upper-class” English words:

U

Non-U

ExpensiveCostly
False TeethDentures
PregnantExpecting
House (a lovely)Home (a lovely)
What?Pardon?
NapkinServiette
Awful smellUnpleasant odor
RichWealthy
CurtainsDrapes

Get it? It shows what words (non-U) middle-class people use to pretend to be upper-class. At least in 1954, when this table was published (this was taken from “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics” by Alan S. C. Ross).

So folks, the moral of the story is not to use fancier sounding language when a simpler word exists.*

 

*Unless you’re a lawyer, in which case the extreme version of “non-U” is how you make their money.

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