This is episode 3 of the Words You Should Know podcast, and it’s time to take a step back.
So what am I doing here? Here’s a hint: it’s more than teaching you that you want your football team to have a “disinterested” ref rather than an “uninterested” ref. And this podcast is more than making sure you know whether you should teach your dog to “lay” or “lie” down… though I’ll get back to that second one.
Episode 3: Franklin, Roosevelt & Getting a Grip on the English Language
We all write, folks. We all use words.
And you know what? We all make mistakes. It’s called being human. It’s called being busy, preoccupied, distracted by to-do lists and deadlines and family and technology buzzing all around us. But these details about our lives don’t give us an excuse for sloppiness.
Oh, this is where you might be expecting a grammar police moment, but please let’s step past that. Yelling at each other about comma usage and a misspoken “less” when it should have been a “fewer” doesn’t really solve anything. Yelling don’t solve much, really, so let’s take some time to hash things out. And by that I don’t just mean adding hashtags.
Let’s figure out why “spilled” beans (with an “-ed” on “spilled”) and “spilt” milk (with a “t” on “spilt”) are both okay.
Our language can be disorderly and oftentimes nonsensical, and that’s where this podcast comes from.
People have cared dramatically about the English language and its rules across time, and we need to continue this conversation.
Ben Franklin suggested that we create a new 26 letter alphabet, dropping the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y and adding in 6 new ones of his own creation. Of course, Ben Franklin invented new ones. He was Ben Franklin. Now, altogether, this new alphabet would allow, he said, for a phonetic reading of the entire English language.
Inspired by Franklin, though not going quite as far, Noah Webster did simplify a number of traditional spellings in his American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, such as removing the “u” from “color,” “favorite,” and “honor,” and removing the “e” on “ax.” He also reversed the “re” in “theater” and “center.” Thus, the differences between American English and British English were born.
But my personal favorite is the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s spelling controversy. Speak softly and carry a big stick wasn’t just a plan of foreign policy; it was also an English language rampage that just never got off the ground, even though Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and Melvil Dewey (yes, of Dewey decimal system fame) were all on the Simplified Spelling Board that again took up the mission to make learning English easier for school children and immigrants, with a desire to make English “the world language of the future.”
Roosevelt issued an order in 1906 that all documents coming from the White House would follow the new spelling system. The matter went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in the end, it was shot down by the House Committee on Appropriations—but not before a heated discussion of why “through” should not be spelled “t-h-r-u.”
A desire for clarity. Order. Simplicity.
I absolutely get those moments, but the English language is a language of rebellion, or maybe I should say freedom. For better or for worse.
Something people forget when they’re getting worked up about things is that our language and its rules and its spelling have changed dramatically many times over. Its why “spilled” and “spilt” both work. Its why an emoji was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015. Seriously. This is the OED. The Oxford English Dictionary. The face with tears of joy might have made some grammarians have tears of their own—and not always the joyful kind.
The English language is fluid. The rules of today might not hold forever, and new words and phrases are added to the dictionary all the time.
Language exploration and understanding are essential for stronger communication, but not grammar Nazism—may I tell you how much I loathe that wording (“loathe” with an “e” because “l-o-a-t-h” without the “e” means something else entirely)? You can be particular and precise but we must remain respectful, thoughtful, and kindhearted. You can strive to do your best and not point out the mistakes of others. It’s true in language and in life.
Using our words well is about sharing ideas. It’s about changing the world—in big ways or minuscule ways (this is my passing reminder that spelling “minuscule” correctly means that the word “mini” is not actually in it).
Our words let us communicate in every aspect of our lives—work and play, social and familial. The idea of writing shouldn’t scare you. Spelling. Punctuation. Dare I say grammar?
Communication shouldn’t be something we groan about. It’s simply how one human being connects with another. Ideas. Storytelling. Evoking imagery and metaphor and actionable items and mission statements and manifestos. But how do we do all of these things if those who are listening to our words—if those who are reading our words—are distracted or confused by how we arrange them?
I’m not offering the answer that will make the English language easier for all. Should I say I’m no Teddy Roosevelt? But I am offering you reminders of what you know, or what you should know. I’m offering you a chance to do better. Because you can. We all can.
Grammatical perfection is rare—perhaps it’s not even attainable—but elevating our language is doable. I say, let’s start now.
And for those of you with dogs, please teach them the command to “lie down” not “lay down.” Commanding them to “lay down” requires that they be putting something down. Perhaps for the really meticulous among you, you could use “lay it down” instead of “drop it.” But maybe that goes too far.
A friend of Ben Franklin, Mary “Polly” Stevenson, didn’t care for his proposed new alphabet and spelling changes because, she argued, changing these spellings would mean losing the relationship between spelling and etymology, between spelling and the history of words. I absolutely sit in Stevenson’s camp.
There are words we simply should know. Some of them simply require a bit of exploration, and that is what this podcast is all about.
Next week we’re going to hash out the language choices of Judas Priest and a word choice confusion plaguing the world since 1919, or at least that’s when the Oxford English Dictionary got involved.
Until next time…
Words. Language. Communication. Let’s do this.
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