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:



Expensive Costly
False Teeth Dentures
Pregnant Expecting
House (a lovely) Home (a lovely)
What? Pardon?
Napkin Serviette
Awful smell Unpleasant odor
Rich Wealthy
Curtains Drapes

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.