Monday, October 13, 2008

Flying, giant friction blast

I love this introduction to an article about metaphors used to describe the English language; Kenneally's question, "why do metaphors get mixed in odd ways or proliferate wildly?" is similar to what I'm working on in my dissertation about how eighteenth-century writers describe the spread of errors in texts (as being like smallpox, financial bubbles, unweeded gardens, etc.):
In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are "witnesses.") They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a "social energy.") English is an object of trade. (It was "imported.") It is an animal. (It has a "pedigree.") It is a human professional. (It has a "career.") It is a space ("a place of strange meetings"). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it's not just "promiscuous"; it's a "whore."

Hitchings is an excellent writer, and if the list looks excessive when pulled from the page, it's only because English is a dizzying and manifold thing. In this year's many other books about the language, including John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue, and David Crystal's By Hook or by Crook, English is variously described as weird, kinky, oceanic, or a supernova. In Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice and Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, its immensity is discussed with some degree of rapture. Overall, English is portrayed as either language triumphant or the scrappy linguistic underdog who came out on top.

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