Eltham Philosophy Group

Talk by Richard Schurmann on Words

Talk date = 21-05-2013

Chapter Headings

1. Introduction

2. Different Approaches – Different Outcomes

3. Biology and Evolution

4. Is our language “Going to the Dogs”?

5. You and Your Lexicographer

6. Some Quirks

1. Introduction

The document represents the first pass in the reprocessing of the material that I gathered together for an evening meeting of the Eltham Philosophy Group. I might sort this material into separate documents by subject, and do other things with it. For now, I am contenting myself with making the changes necessary to convert this from a set of notes for my own oral presentation to a document that is suitable for reading by others. To fit within the meeting time constraints, I had omitted some material. Some of this will go back in. A reader can skip over parts that are not of interest, whereas an oral presentation has to be snappy for as many of the audience as possible. Some, but not all, of the audience seemed to enjoy the presentation. When it came to an end, there was silence for a while, and then the discussion started to flow.

The participants on the evening had been provided with background reading. I will merge material from the background material with material for the talk as appropriate.

The above picture, which represents me speaking to the group, is a composite that I made up from reproductions of many drawings all by the one artist. It had been on the title page of the background reading.

I asked the gathering if anyone knew who the artist was. “James Thurber.” was a quick reply. James Thurber loved words. Once he was in bed in hospital and a nurse asked what was on his mind.

“I am thinking about words”, he said

“It's amazing all the unusual words you know Mr Thurber” chirped the nurse.

“And usual ones as well...” he murmured.

After a moment's thought, he asked

“What seven letter word has three “u”s in it?

“I'm sure that's unusual!” replied the nurse.

Thurber was quick to respond, “Well it is and it isn't”.

Two statements in one. These two statements, which on the face of it seem to contradict, are both correct!

Is this a sign of a flaw in our language? ….or is it a sign of the beauty of it? (rhetorical)

On one hand it might be a sign of a well formed language if ambiguity were impossible. But we would be deprived of a lot of fun.

A Buddhist at the counter of a hamburger stand said:

“Make me one with Everything!”

He got his hamburger and put $50.00 on the counter. The man behind the counter took the money and the Buddhist munched away on his Hamburger. Presently he asked “Where's my Change?”

“Change comes only from within.” was the reply.

After a hearty audience laugh, I pointed out that we appear to derive pleasure from ambiguity, so it really isn't all that clear whether we should say it is a good thing or a bad thing.

It was now time to stop telling Jokes and start with the talk. First I had to explain that I am completely unqualified to speak on this subject. Audience member, or reader, you must judge everything I say on its merit: not on the authority of the source. (But shouldn't you do this anyway?) When it comes to words, I am self taught. You might say that I am an autodidact.

My daughter says that self taught means only half taught, so I suppose that makes me an automonodact.

Only a half taught lover of words could make up the word “automonodact”

(The “di” in 'autodidact” does mean 2)

However, as I have researched this seminar, I have been surprised to find how often my training as an engineer has been relevant.

About ten years ago, I was on the Shire of Eltham Pest Plant committee. At one meeting, I used the word “prioritize”. (I had an advantage in the oral presentation, in that I could just say this word without committing to a spelling of it. This is dealt with later.) One participant said “Oh don't use that word!” What do you think I did?

First of all, consider some of the possible ways I could have reacted. [At this point I looked for input from the audience, but there was none.] What factors might have come into play in making my decision? [This was the audience's second scripted chance to speak. Again they chose not to.]

This wasn't a moral question.

This wasn't a question that I could settle with logic.

This wasn't a religious question.

I thought it was a philosophical question, which is why it interested me.

Not everyone would come up with the same answer.

Not everyone uses words the same way. Not everyone addresses a question such as the above in the same way. Some of us are interested in such a question and some are not.

Chapter 2 Different Approaches – Different Outcomes

Every time we speak or write, we must make many choices about how we will express ourselves. Much of this choice making is done unconsciously. What factors are at play?

I will identify some obvious ones.

1. Peer pressure.

Very strong in my view. Different Peer Groups pull in different directions.

Once when I was attempting to correct my son for using a construction that combined an error in case with an error in order: of the form “me and Sanjeev went down the street.”, he complained that if he were to say “Sanjeev and I went down the street” amongst his friends, they would all laugh at him for his poncey way of speaking.

Sometimes the division into peer groups goes along class lines.

This is from notes that Bernard Shaw wrote about his play “Pygmalion”

Shaw used the word “hate”. Perhaps that is too strong. Irritation can certainly arise, though.

2. A value system that says whether it matters or not. The attitude of the speaker/writer can fall anywhere from the pedantic to the slovenly. This will have a profound affect on the choice of manner of expression.

3. Upbringing. The speaker will have an accent. This will have a profound influence.
(a) (This point was easier to say than to write. I will attempt phonetic spelling to make my point clear.) I was brought up to say Plant and Grant yet I say Aunt and carn't. There is an irrational compromise here that I share with many Australian speakers. I have tried to lengthen the a in these words on some occasions, but I can't do it. My Susie says “plarnt” and “grarnt” with aplomb!
(b) I once had a workmate who spoke with a regional English accent. He would pronounce “bang” as “bung”. A new computer arrived at the office. The brand name was “Wang”. He called it the “Wung”. He was applying his accent to a proper noun that one might regard the owner had the right to choose the sound of.
(c) The existence of the English word “wand” and the feminine proper noun “Wanda” in which the “a” is pronounced as an “o”, seem to act as strange attractors which distort the pronunciation of the central/East African country of Rwanda. Many ABC people, who should know better call it “Rwonda”. (This is, of course, pronounced by the locals “Rwarnda”)

4. Choosing words to suit the audience or readership.
True wisdom knows it must contrive
Some nonsense as a compromise
Lest fools should fail to find it wise.

5. Listening.
There are different approaches to listening and reading as well. Again the spectrum runs from the pedantic to the slovenly. No matter how careful a speaker is to say exactly what is meant, the effort will go to naught if the listener is slovenly. A man and a woman once attended a marriage guidance counsellor. At one point in the proceedings the wife saidWhat I can't stand about my husband is his pedanticness!” Without thinking, the husband responded,The word is pedantry, Dear.”

One common example of where the problem lies with the listener is when the word “Percentage” is used.

(Not to be confused with the Australian Rules football term “percenage” - as in: Essedon got the most goals but Seth Melbourne won on percenage”)

Recently, a medical research result was announced on the news. I do not remember the details clearly: perhaps it touched on hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer. The announcement took the form that a widespread and useful treatment caused a significant increase in some other ailment. Let us say it was a 24% increase. The ailment in question affected a very small number if people. Don't remember the figure. let us say 1%

As we don't have the actual figures (they have no bearing on my argument, anyway) we will run with my assumed ones. The information we had been given amounted to this: the ailment frequency changed from 1% to 1.24%. That is what a 24% increase means. There was wide spread alarm, as many listeners thought that they had been informed that the ailment frequency was 24%. A subsequent news bulletin apologized for a confusingly worded report. There was no confusingly worded report. The meaning was very clear to all except those who don't have a good grasp of English and those who add their own confusion to taste. Unfortunately the latter class wield huge power. We are not allowed to make public statements if they can be imagined to be something else altogether that might upset or alarm.

This leads to censorship and to self censorship.

3. Biology and Evolution

Two Apparent Analogies.

(I believe that one is and one isn't)

I found a good definition of “analogy” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analogy

Analogy (from Greek ἀναλογία, analogia, "proportion") is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target), and a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process. In a narrower sense, analogy is an inference or an argument from one particular to another particular, as opposed to deduction, induction, and abduction, where at least one of the premises or the conclusion is general. The word analogy can also refer to the relation between the source and the target themselves, which is often, though not necessarily, a similarity, as in the biological notion of analogy.

Neils Bohr's model of the atom made an analogy between the atom and the solar system. It is very clear that no one would say that an atom and a solar system are the same thing. I think that this example gives a clear distinction between analogy and identity.

In the reading notes for this talk I included an extract from Charles Darwin and another from the book “The complete Plain Words” By Ernest Gowers. In both of these, an analogy is drawn between the natural world and the world of language.

I am not sure how I regard Darwin's claim that the letter m in am means I. This is not substantiated by OED2 (1989). Perhaps this is an error that was caused by believing something that a linguist wrote: if so a rare slip into slovenliness by Mr. Darwin. Of more importance is that fact that this piece shows us how quickly after the idea of natural selection was first published, it was applied to words and language.

Here is a piece from Pages 106 and 107 of “The Complete Plain Words” by Ernest Gowers.

The thought that there might be a parallel between the natural world and the world of words just seems to pop up.

Apparent Analogy 1.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was described in an influential article titled "The Tragedy of the Commons”, written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal "Science” in 1968

Central to Hardin's article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd) involving medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's example, it is in each herder's interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all as a result, through overgrazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all. Hardin also cites modern examples, including the overfishing of the world's oceans and ranchers who graze their cattle on government lands in the American West

Thucydides (ca. 460 BC-ca. 395 BC) stated: "[T]hey devote a very small fraction of time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays."

I'm not sure that we have a “common” in Australia. I think the idea comes down to us from medieval times, and the places called a “common” in England probably date from those times. There used to be a place near Geelong called “Belmont Common”, but I do not know if it really was a common in the old sense. I think that the nearest we have here in Australia is the Crown land tied up as State Park or a National Park, or State Forest. We have the “Tragedy of the Commons” here too.

Some years ago I made several trips in the middle of the night to the forest to the east of Gembrook with my sister who was wanting to find a particular species of owl. We went several times on week nights. There seemed to be a lot less wildlife than expected, although we saw a couple of feral cats. We drove up a few tracks off the road, but all we saw were the piles of asbestos which have proliferated since the ordinary tips aren't allowed to take that stuff.

On the last nocturnal visit, we went on a Saturday night. The hills were alive with the sound of motorbikes! The place certainly wasn't a suitable habitat for native wildlife if this goes on every Saturday night!

Yes. We have the Tragedy of the Commons in Australia!

Of course, there are some people who choose not to contribute to the tragedy. many bush parks have “Friends of the Park” groups. There are two in Warrandyte. I am a member of one down on the West coast of Victoria. These people through their weeding and planting seek to compensate for the damage done to those environments by the acting out of the tragedy.

Our language (with its lexicon) is a Common resource, and I contend that the tragedy of the common is played out in this sphere as well. There are some people who treat that common resource in a slovenly manner, and there are those who are more like Friend's Group members.

Next time you correct some person's misuse of the language, and they retort that “The language is always changing!”, DON'T STAND FOR IT! Slovenly speakers are not on the vanguard of some charge towards a glorious future (“moving forward” they would say),


Apparent Analogy 2.
Evolution by Natural Selection in the biological world by natural selection, and evolution of language.

Advances have been made in the field of natural Selection. This is not some sudden new thing. The particular work that I am alluding to dates from 1964. WD Hamilton, and George R. Price. Perhaps John Maynard Smith is a key early figure as well. The work of these people provided for a mathematical characterization of evolution by natural selection.

See http://stevefrank.org/reprints-pdf/97Evol-Causal.pdf

as an example of a paper in which mathematics is required to cover advances in biological analysis. I did not include this in the reading material, as I believed that only one audience member would read it.

This had two consequences:

Consequence 1.
The characterization of Evolution by Natural Selection was able to stand alone without reference to biology. The biological world became a mere substrate in which the mechanism could act. The world of languages is an alternative substrate in which the exact same equations can be applied. Thus we can say (and this is my view):

“There is not an analogy between the differentiation that arises in (say) language in two places (such as the Korean language in North Korea and in South Korea, or the English language on the two sides of the Atlantic) and on the other hand, Finches on two of the Galapagos islands. On the contrary, the phenomena are examples of the same thing.

Consequence 2.
As the mathematics has developed and a full understanding of the subject is only available to those who follow the mathematics, there have been left behind a body of people who purport to be seriously studying their subject, but just don't get it.

This occurs in all fields where evolution by natural selection is at play, but is particularly marked in the field of Linguistics where we observe the embarrassing phenomenon of a book being written on the subject of language change by a professor in a prestigious British university who just doesn't get it!

It is as if the alchemists continued to practice alchemy years after chemistry had developed. In my view, there is no analogy here. the key expression is “same thing”.

4. Is our language “Going to the Dogs”?


There is a tendency, whenever there is a discussion between someone who cares about words and someone who is slovenly in their use of words, for the slovenly one to accuse the other of wishing for a move to the past. It is not always recognized that what the slovenly one is doing here is setting up a straw man. Too often the pedant falls for the trick and ends up trying to defend the indefensible.

There are four things wrong here.

1. The language has a long term trend of improving.
Two hundred thousand years ago there was no language on the planet. Now there is the language that we are using here. The language of poetry and of fiction, of science and philosophy. However you measure it, that is an advance over that last 200 thousand years.

2. Random short term variations are often mistaken for trends.
There is often confusion between a trend and just random noise. Every awful construction is not at the vanguard of some new trend!
Imagine this picture.

The street where I live. A neighbour and I meet.
My neighbour says to me: “Richard Why don't you wash your car? It is terribly dirty.”
(You can imagine whatever reply from me you like)

He then goes inside and says to his wife “Richard Schurmann should clean his car. It really is disgusting!”

Now this is easy to imagine. We don't need to have my neighbour say “This is a trend. The standard of car cleanliness is going to the dogs. the whole aesthetic of our street-scapes is on a down hill slope!” to make it credible.

Yet when such an interaction takes place about word use, the imagined “trend” so often is called into play. When someone uses a word in a slovenly manner, it is just disgusting. Don't grace it with the notion that it is some advance, or it marks some permanent shift in the language.

3. The language had serious flaws before we got to it.
I stand for thoughtful, consistent, logical yet creative language use. This does not mean that I defend the language as it was in my childhood. I do not get tricked into defending it. I wouldn't defend:

(a) The way “will” and “shall” are defined. Silly arbitrary rules, which seem to be based on a medieval notion of free will which might not be universally accepted today.

(b) The way “may” and “might” are defined.
The concepts “have I permission”, and “there is a probability that” are sufficiently far apart, yet so dangerously close in some sentences, that they need a word each.

(c) The Copula.
It is a sign of a sound structure that each realm should have clear definitions without exceptions forced by some other realm. The structure:

Subject: verb : object

might have been allowed to stand without reference to what the verb is. To say that the structure has to be altered if the verb has attributes of the verb “to be” is thinking that might have arisen in ancient times, but does not belong to the clear thinking capacity of today.

“It is I!” What nonsense!

(d) That our language (in ordinary everyday use) can make the question “Have you stopped beating your wife” seem problematical.

(e) That a verb such as “forgive” can hide its nasty core and seem to represent a virtue, because the aspect of “blame” in its meaning: “abandon blame” is so deeply hidden.

The man who has not stopped beating his wife might be more virtuous than the man who has forgiven his wife.

I could go on and on.

(f) Wouldn't it be nice if absolute words had some special suffix which made any effort to use them as comparatives become really obviously stupid? We could be saved “Fairly unique”.

If we had that, it would apply to more words than “unique”. It would apply to “final” as in “semi final” and it would apply to “perfect” as in “pluperfect”.

4. A use might seem terrible and might grate when it first arises, but then perform a useful function without offence later.

Old books about good 'word choice practice' rail against many constructions that we would be completely happy with today.

I have always imagined that the word “News” must have been like this. Why, “new” isn't even a noun! We might say “What's new”, but saying “What are the news” must have grated with some. later, it became a single noun. Now it doesn't cause much discomfort to anyone.

5. You and Your Lexicographer

A lexicographer is a person who writes a dictionary.
I chose to mention some lexicographers and their work, and highlight contrasts between them.

Samual Johnson.
He just made up some definitions for fun.
He defined some words according to some descriptive, rather than definitive features.
“oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

The Reverand Thomas Davidson. Chambers's
Can't be trusted to be truthful about spelling.
I will come back to him.

James Murray. Oxford English Dictionary Published from 1884.
600,000 words. Three million citations. 2nd Edition 1989.
A good read, but not suitable for bedtime reading: you can't take more than one volume to bed.

Noah Webster.
In setting out to build a new American language, he made up many spellings, but with some others, he followed the OED exactly, even though they are considered as “Americanisms” as we shall see.

Fowler Brothers
Shorter Oxford Dictionary (SOD) and Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD)
(The COD was apparently brought out to compete with Chambers's)

Some of this work is quaint by today's standards, and bowdlerism can lead to the outright misleading

e.g. masturbation: to practice self abuse (!) (Early editions of Concise Oxford Dictionary)

Henry Fowler survived the First World war and went on to write Fowler's Modern English Usage, a valuable work. Far more than any other lexicographer, he put all his prejudices in the public domain, so we can form a clear opinion on how much we trust him, and what credence we give his lexicography.

Macquarie Dictionary of the language of the yobbos of New South Wales.
If a slang term has different meanings in different states, the new South Wales one is emphasized as if the lexicographer is unaware of other usage.

This dictionary started of as a copy of the Hamlyn Dictionary with a few rude New South Welsh words added.

American Heritage Dictionary
This is a large single volume dictionary which has had a special virtue (recently diminished)

A “usage panel” of well known and respected writers was set up, and these were asked to say whether they approved of certain usages. The panel included Alistair Cooke and Garrison Keilor. Then in the text there would appear comments such as “Not approved of by 90% of the usage panel” One edition had the use of “alternate” to mean “alternative” so marked. A genuine attempt to support the reader who is looking for guidance to usage and not just a record of all the meanings found out there amongst the yobbos. Later editions reduced the emphasis on this valuable feature.

Modern Lexicography
Lexicography has undergone a shift apparently due to academic fashion in recent years. The work is restricted to recording meanings that are applied to the words. No distinction is made between common mistakes and word usage by those who take care how they use words.

This fashion is very convenient for the lexicographers, as it enables them to define away 70% of their work. It appears to be justified on the grounds that to make value judgements is elitist. This gives rise to needless misunderstanding and argument.

For example two people might argue whether a particular usage is correct. One might say that it is no more than a common mistake. The other might triumphantly show that the usage is supported by the Macquarie Dictionary.

The trouble is, that is what the Macquarie Dictionary is: a register of common mistakes.

Two examples of modern lexicographers
Pamela Peters
was Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University and was proud of her lexocograpical record. (Now professor Emeritus).


She is an English woman and speaks beautifully. She not only forms the sounds of her words beautifully, but uses them in sentences in a way that nobody could criticize. I charge particularly that she chooses one standard for how words are to be used for herself, and another standard for readers of her dictionaries. I have corresponded with her about this. So fixated is she about an imagined dichotomy between those who get with the times, and those who live in the past, that she constructed a straw man, and argued with him instead of me.

Kate Burridge is perhaps a philologist, rather than a lexicographer

Holds the Chair of Linguistics at Monash University

Kate starred in the segment Wise Words in the television program Can We Help. A very impressive speaker without notes.


and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCdmBEyH4MY

What is the correct use of bought and brought?

Notice that the question was “What is the correct use?” The shrift that Kate gave the actual question was very short indeed but when she shifted to the history of change, she warmed to that subject, as that was what really interested her. I bet she uses these words correctly herself, so why shouldn't her listeners be entitled to a focus on the answer to the question?

I have been interested in the noun/adjective “West Australian”. It pops up so often and even in apparently learned sources. What is going on when the compound proper noun is “Western Australia”. How does the “ern” get snipped out? If this is done out of ignorance, then I do not want to follow suit. But serious people do it!

I thought of the convention in which an ancient language is used when making an adjective out of a proper noun:

The era of James is called the “Jacobean era”

The adjective from Newcastle is “novocastrian”

I always thought that the spelling of “melburnian” has origins in this process. Maybe there is some rule about adjective formation in Latin that gives us “West Australian”.

I corresponded with Kate Burridge about this. It was a courtesy of her to engage with me at all, but unfortunately, she immediately changed my question to “When did the construction first appear?” which interested her but not me. I still don't know whether to say “West Australian” or 'Western Australian” The Macquarie dictionary lists “West Australian” and not “Western Australian” without comment. Probably a good indication that one should say “Western Australian”.

6. Some Quirks

i before e except after c

French Influence 1. Legal Doublets

French Influence 2. "...ise" vs "...ize" words

Relevant - Pertinent

Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs.

 i before e except after c
I have found a good word list on the internet. ( 2of4brif.txt) It has 60389 words, which I imagine are the 60389 most common words in English in the view of the particular compiler. There are not quite that many words, as some words that have more than one common spellings have more than one entry. The compiler of this list has put two entries for each “ise/ize” word, for instance. I have tested it, and cannot get it to fail to have any word I can think of unless I choose a deliberately obscure or technical word. It hasn't got "allorgasmia" or "plesiochronous", so maybe I need to add words to it to bring it up to my vocab. I reckon it is a good guide to words that commonly appear in English.

I wanted to test the rule “i before e except after c”, so I wrote a quick program to find the frequencies of the following letter sequences in the list









The thing is, that those occurrences of the two letter sequences include those that are preceded by “c”, so we can process the data further thus:

“ie” and “ei” without regard to proximity of a “c”





“ie” and “ei” when following a “c”





“ie” and “ei” when NOT preceded by a “c”







1. “ie” is more common than “ei”. If there is a preceding “c” then “ie” accounts for about three quarters of the cases. If there is no preceding “c” “ie” accounts for 88% of cases.

2. If you do not know how to spell a word, your best bet by a big margin is to write “ie”, but this does not give success in all cases even when there is no “c”.

(One of the audience members complained that the common form of this aphorism that I had quoted is actually a misquote. I will follow this up.)

French Influence 1. Legal Doublets
After William The Conqueror's victory at Hastings in 1066, a new Norman aristocracy was installed in Great Britain and Norman French became the language of the noble elite. This means that many transactions had to be performed on a bilingual basis. A convention arose in which many important matters were described in both languages in the one sentence. Standardized Legal Doublets arose, and many survive to this day even though the language disparity is all but forgotten.

List of common legal doublets

aid and abet

all and sundry

alter or change

appropriate and proper

art and part

bind and obligate

by and between

care and attention

cease and desist

covenant and agree

deem and consider

demise and lease

depose and say

due and payable

final and conclusive

from now and henceforth

full faith and credit

furnish and supply

goods and chattels

have and hold

heirs and successors

indemnify and hold harmless

keep and perform

kind and nature

legal and valid

let or hindrance

lewd and lascivious conduct

liens and encumbrances

make and enter into

mind and memory

null and void

over and above

part and parcel

perform and discharge

power and authority

sale or transfer

sole and exclusive

successor and assigns

to have and to hold

terms and conditions

then and in that event

true and correct

will and testament

I have had fun looking some of these up in the big dictionary. “cease and desist” is interesting. They are both French, but came to England about 200 years apart. (cease 1330: desist 1530) So for about 200 years, one of them was and English word, and the other foreign.

Much later, (that is, much later than when I gave this talk), I came to reflect on that delightfully oxymoronic expression from the Book Of Common Prayer: “sure and certain hope”. (You don't need me to explain why that is oxymoronic.) Maybe, I muse, there were simiar influences in the Church to those in the courts. Maybe the priest wanted the aristocracy to know what he was on about as well as the yobbos.

French Influence 2. "...ise" vs "...ize" words
At one time, when Cambridge and Oxford universities could regard themselves as the centres of learning for the whole planet on matters of English, they honoured the distinction between those words in which the Greek trick of placing Iota Zeta Omicron on the end of a noun makes it into a verb, and on the other hand, verbs that end in an "ize" sound but which have not arisen in that way and for which an "ise" spelling is a correct honouring of the origins. ("Advertise" starts out as a verb and needs the suffix "ment" to make a noun. “Televise” is a shortening from television. The “ise” in “televise” is by no stretch of the imagination, the Greek ending.)

In the days when dictionaries were each written by one person, The Reverand Thomas Davidson wrote Chambers's dictionary. He chose to use "ise" for everything, apparently as a way of choosing a French influence over an English one, and that is how the spelling goes in the Chambers's Dictionary.

Later, the British government schools provided each pupil with a dictionary, and Chambers' got the contract. This gave rise to an English class distinction. The working class learned to spell those words the French way, and in so far as they observed their upper class brethren, they probably thought that "ize" was being used in all cases, BUT IT WASN'T.

I chose "aggrandize" as the first "ize" word that I found in my word list 2of4brif.txt that I expected to find in the old dictionaries.

Thus we have:

Reid's Dictionary of the English Language 1844



WM. Odell Elwell's New and Complete Dictionary 1874



Word as spelled in the Oxford English Dictionary



Shorter Oxford Dictionary

1933 - 1992



Spelling used in Chambers' (my old one is 1902 edition) and adopted by the British working class and by Australian yobbos.



Concise Oxford Dictionary 1911


offers -ise as alternative

COD 5th Edition


offers -ise as alternative

Spelling used by Webster
(1900 printing of 1864 edition)



American Heritage Dict.



Macquarie Dictionary for Yobbos



I just made up this table to round out the argument for you. I had expected to find that Noah Webster had "advertize", but he didn't. In 1900, Webster spelled “ize” and “ise” words exactly as the big Oxford English Dictionary does.

The OED justifies the inclusion of each word with quotations from the earliest use down to the present day. Often the spelling of a word varies over the years. OED has quotations for aggrandize dating from 1634, 1656, 1748, 1855 and 1868. They all have the same spelling. I have searched, but I haven't found evidence of an “ize” word spelled “ise” before The Reverand Thomas Davidson did his mischief.

The oldest Dictionary I own is the 1844 Reid's (first entry in the table above) which is from Edinburgh. It has "aggrandize", so this French spelling business was not a general Scottish malaise.

It is too early in the research process to say, but I reckon that the “ise” ending on “ize” words was not found in English, except, perhaps by a few isolated bad spellers, until Chambers's dictionary appeared in 1901, although the lexicographer, one Reverand Thomas Davidson compiled a previous dictionary in 1898.

During my school years (1954 to 1965) here in Australia, we were taught that " ...ize" was an "Americanism", although this seems to be entirely wrong.

Henry Fowler in "Modern English Usage" lists some words which should be spelled with "ise":

advertise, apprise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise,
demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, disguise, enfranchise, enterprise,
excise, exercise, improvise, incise, premise, supervise, surmise, surprise.

...but, he doesn't claim that this list is exhaustive! (I don't know how to find the others.)

For many years, and this is probably still the case, this became a matter of class in Great Britain. If you went to a government run secondary school, you were issued with a Scottish dictionary and were taught to spell these words in French. If you went to any other school, you learned the English way of spelling them.

Inspector Morse is a fictional character in the eponymous series of detective novels by British author Colin Dexter, as well as the 33-episode 1987–2000 television adaptation of the same name, in which the character was portrayed by John Thaw. Morse is a senior CID (Criminal Investigation Department) officer with the fictional Oxford City Police force in Oxford, England. Colin Dexter went to Stamford School (independent) and Cambridge.

Some years later “The Gil Mayo Mysteries” TV series was written By Marjorie Eccles. The series was broadcast on the BBC in 2006 and on the ABC in 2008. I have no record of the education of Marjorie Eccles. She is from Yorkshire.

Both Inspector Morse and Gil Mayo were language pedants. Both solved crimes by being very particular in their observation of language use. During the talk, I played video exerpts from both TV shows. Inspector Morse solved a murder by identifying a letter that was supposed to have been written by an Oxford professor as the work of an imposter, because it used (what he identified as) ignoriant “ise” spelling.

Inspector Mayo identified his crook because he was handed a letter that spelled “ize” words exactly as Inspector Morse would have. That is, these two fictional pedants solved their case with the help of observing ignorant spelling, yet the principles applied in each case were exact opposites.

Inspector Morse identifies incorrect spelling of an “ize” word.
View the video here.

Inspector Mao identifies the incorrect spelling of an “ise” word.
View the video here.

Even in Australia, I find that people who went to a government school spell “ise” and reckon that “ize” is an Americanism, whilst some who went to private schools spell as in Oxford or Cambridge. I believe that the notion that there is something “proper” in spelling all “ize” words, “ise” and that “ize” is an Americanism is just plain wrong. Its origin appears to be in the mischievous act of a person who played loose with the truth. To use the metaphor that I created earlier, I class the Reverand Thomas Davidson as an ASBESTOS DUMPER.

Relevant - Pertinent
One interesting phenomenon is the way when one word drifts in meaning, it forced its neighbours to move sideways as well, either to make way ahead, or to fill in the gap in the wake. Sometimes it isn't obvious which word is doing the pushing or pulling, and which is being pushed about. I suspect that sometimes they foxtrot along together with no obvious leader. A pair of words that is a lovely example of this is “pertinent”/”relevant”.

During our lifetimes, (these words were chosen for my audience who were all, or so I reckoned, over fifty.) these words have been moving on through “meaning space”. When we look at where they appear to have been coming from, we see “pertinent” meaning having the property of bearing on the subject at hand, and “relevant” meaning having the property of exposing some point that provides relief to the problem at hand. “Relevant” has tended to shed its associations with the notion of providing relief, and has moved pretty well into the territory that used to belong to “pertinent”.

Younger people, who have only had the chance to observe the last vestiges of this big shift must find words such as “appertaining” pretty confusing as they retain the older meaning of “pertinent”. A few years ago, the Building Code used to carry the words “A building of Class 9 occupancy can only be built appurtenant to a building of Class 1 or Class 2 occupancy.” (I might have remembered the class numbers wrongly.) What this means is that you can only build a shed on a block of land if it has a house or housing units on it.

(Hey! I noticed that “pertinent” has an “e” and “appurtenant” is spelled with a “u”. They are closely related variants of the same root word none-the-less. See OED2)

Although it has been “relevant” that has moved over to occupy “pertinent's” rightful territory, one of the forces at work has been a shift in “pertinent” that has been driven by its negative form.

It is not all that many years ago when members of the upper crust expected the members of the working class to only speak to them when spoken to, and more than that, it was expected that the working classes response should be pertinent to the question or direction put to them.

“Footman, put the luggage in the car, would you?”
“Yes Sir!”

“Jeeves, have you seen Aunt Agatha?”
“I believe I saw her lurking behind the aspidistra, sir”

If the servant made an utterance on a subject that was not related to a matter that he was addressed on, then this was seen as a severe transgression of protocol indeed. The transgression was the transgression of impertinence. It did not matter whether or not the words spoken were impudent in their meaning: his Lordship wasn't focussing on the meaning of them.

In this context, then, an impertinence is a cheeky transgression from protocol. To the servant, it would have appeared to be a pompous person's word for “impudence”: and this is a meaning that it has acquired in general conversation.

If when expressed in the negative, then “pertinence” means “impudence” spoken with a pompous air, then its connection with the notion of bearing on the subject in hand is weakened, and “relevance” has largely taken that ground.

We can use both of these words in what we might see as their old meanings, and we will not be understood by the young. If we use them in a way that suggests that we are unaware of their recent meanderings, we will appear shallow. However true mastery of these words is to use them in a way that takes into account the whole of their character.

Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs.
Ordinary speech and writing depend on an intuitive understanding of this distinction by both speaker (writer) and listener (reader). Yet in a small number of examples, this distinction collapses, particularly when we get a case of homophonia. One common example in recent times is to confuse the meaning of “grow” (transitive) and “grow” (intransitive).
“I know that the longer we knew each other, the more our friendship would grow.”
“The farmer was growing wheat in the southern paddock.”

The meanings of “grow” are quite different.

Here is a form of words that is quite common in which the intransitive meaning is given to the transitive verb.

“I will help you grow your business!”

Lay - Lie

On Thursday 9th of May, I was to attend my local medical practice to have blood taken and to have an electro-cardiogram. I sat in the high chair for the blood letting. I choose to dwell on other things when my vein wall is being breeched, so I looked at the ceiling, and my thoughts drifted off.

Suddenly the nurse had finished being a vampire and was ready for the next stage. To move from the high chair to the cardiographic work bench was not intellectually demanding, and my thoughts were entitled to proceed with minimum interruption.

Lay down there.” she said.

I might have been composing a sonnet, or inventing a solution to the problem of global warming, but my thoughts were rudely interrupted.

Doot Doot Doot Doot!” a hooter went off inside my head.

Exception! Exception!” (It sounded as if a Darlek had been speaking)

This person has just used a transitive verb without an object. Perhaps she means to ask me to lie down there. Yes, that's it. Maybe she doesn't know the difference. How embarrassing for her. Should I explain her error to her? No. How embarrassing for the medical practice – to have one of their “front line” people drop an error like that. Perhaps I should discuss it at the counter. No. Let it drop.

Me sonnet has turned into a limerick. My invention has turned into a mouse trap.

Beside me lies the ecg machine. It has a cable running from it to pass data on to other equipment in the building. Just as well the electronic engineers who designed it were more fastidious about their communication protocol than the nurse! The other equipment would not provide the sympathetic error handling service that I have provided. The communication would just not work.

I wrote the above words describing the goings on on Thursday 9th of May whilst sitting in the waiting room of a radiologist several days later. When admitted for my ultrasound, the radiographer pointed to her work bench. “Lay down there, please” she said.