Athiests and hippocracy
According to Amatomu statistics, the most popular post on this blog in the last 30 days was one with the title I wish athiests would learn to spell atheist. I found that rather strange. I commented on the spelling because it turned up that morning in big bold letters on the Amatomu tag cloud that shows up on my other blog.
It was just a throwaway remark based on its prevalence, indicated by its size in the tag cloud. So why should it be so popular with readers that nearly twice as many people looked for that post as looked for the next most popular?
But it’s made me reflect on something I’ve noticed ever since I started communicating by electronic text back in 1989, with messages left on BBSs and Beltel (remember them?).
I freely admit to being something of a language pedant. It was (and to some extent still is) my job. For a fair chunk of my life I’ve worked as a proof reader and copy editor, and so language and spelling are important to me, and I sometimes, though not very often, comment on them where it is appropriate to do so. One of the rules of Usenet, and many other electronic forums, is that one should not comment on other people’s spelling or grammar mistakes. It’s a good rule, because generally such pedantic comments are distracting, though if someone is writing in a language that is not their own, and consistently makes the same error, they very often are happy to have it pointed out.
There are forums like alt.usage.english where such things are discussed, and so there it is appropriate to comment on spelling and grammar etc. And, since it is one of my interests, it’s appropriate for me to comment on such things in my blogs (though generally not in other people’s blogs), even though some people who have left comments on this blog don’t seem to think so. They object to the “language police”, but who made them the blog police?
But there are two things that I’ve noticed since I began using this kind of communication in 1989.
One is that there are all kinds of misspellings and malapropisms and other errors that I would never have suspected, and suddenly I began reading them.
I think one reason for this was that people who did not normally make use of written communication suddenly began doing so. They did not write letters, they phoned people. With the advent of e-mail and such things, however, more people began using written communication who did not previously do so. And so I began to see things like “a waist of time”, “baited breath”, a “toothcomb”, “for all intensive purposes” and “you’ve got another thing coming”. These kinds of errors were summed up in the tag line “Put knot yore trussed in spell chequers”. I’d like to make a collection of such things, out of interest, so if anyone reading this knows of any, please put them in comments.
The second thing I noticed was something in myself. Electronic communication was ephemeral, and so I took less care over my own writing than I did when writing hard copy. Messages left on a BBS would be deleted after 30 days, or when (in those days when a 40 Mb hard disk was regarded as big) disk space needed to be recovered. E-mail messages on Beltel and the like were usually deleted when read. So I didn’t always read what I’d written and correct the typos, and the garbled sentences.
But my perception was wrong — I reckoned without Google and its predecessor Deja-vu, which archived Usenet messages, so that people on the other side of the world might read one’s throw-away remarks years later, typos and all.
In spite of that, I still make typos and other mistakes that I don’t spot until much later, sometimes when it’s too late to change them. But at least I do spot them eventually, and realise that they are errors most of the time. I still have trouble spelling words like rhinoceros (I originally wrote “rhinocerus”, and the WordPress spelling checker pointed out the error).
But when such errors are repeated and persistent enough to turn up in tag clouds in bold, perhaps the time has come to say something.
There was a discussion of this on the “My Word” programme on SAFM the other day. In some South African dialects it is common to say “My father is late”, meaning that he is dead. In most varieties of English, however, “My father is late” would be taken to mean that he is unpunctual. Should an English teacher point such errors out and be “prescriptive”? The panel on the radio programme thought they should. Not that they would say that the expression should not be used at all, but merely to point out that it was not universal to all English dialects, and therefore could be misunderstood. So if someone said “My father is late,” there wouldn’t be the embarrassing reply, “Oh that’s all right, we weren’t expecting him anyway.”
But my favourite recent sighting is “hippocracy“. This was a system of government described by Jonathan Swift in his book Gulliver’s travels, where it means rule by horses, and he described a country in which horses rule, and the brutish ignorant Yahoos (humans) are used as draft animals.
But it seems that “hippocracy” is quite commonly used on the Internet as a malapropism for “hypocrisy”. And, in spite of having said that it’s bad, as a general rule, to comment on such errors in other people’s blogs, I did so comment in one blog that used “hippocracy”. Now there’s hypocrisy for you!