'The Story of English' -- Pioneers! O Pioneers!

'The Story of English' -- Pioneers! O Pioneers!

In Chapter 7 of "The Story of English," authors Robert McCrum, William Cram and Robert MacNeil report that "Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia lawyer, who... was chiefly responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, was fascinated by words." (Ah, I knew I liked him.) Among the words he invented, "belittle was one of his more famous, much ridiculed in London at the time. He also lent his approval to the new currency terms like cent and dollar."

Jefferson understood the process of changes in language, writing that "judicious neology" -- the careful coining of new words, or neologisms -- "alone can give strength and copiousness to language, and enable it to be the vehicle of new ideas."

Benjamin Franklin, the authors note, who was a printer at heart as the authors describe him, "became intrigued by the chaotic spelling conventions of the English language and, typically enough, proposed its reform. In 1768, he published a paper entitled 'A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling,' and went so far as to have a special type cut to put his ideas into effect." According to McCrum, Cran and MacNeil, "Franklin was the godfather, if not the midwife, of such spelling differences as honor for 'honour,' theater for 'theatre,' plow for 'plough' and curb for 'kerb,' a familiar cause of Anglo-American linguistic friction."

(Sorry, cousins.)

The chapter goes into more detail than I can indulge here about the differences between the U.K. and U.S. and their growth over time, and the additional influences of Canada -- which they describe ably as being under two large influences, but loyal rather than rebellious as we are in this country.

But meanwhile, it helps to know several different dialects of English. At home and away, I've had many recent adventures with troublesome lifts -- so many that I find myself preferring the shorter British word to the U.S. synonym, elevator. Every time I talk about a lift, I save three syllables compared to talking about a four-syllable elevator -- and I've been talking about them all so often lately that I am beginning to be conscious of the novelty of saying "elevator."

Perhaps that's part of being a pioneer in the language, even if I am going backwards from the way the developments in the chapter are described: I have a new word, and I'm not afraid to use it!

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  • A certain irony is ""belittle was one of his more famous, much ridiculed."

    Noah Webster appears to have received much of the credit for which this author attributes to Franklin. But elevator or lift came about 100 years after them.

  • I can always count on you to find the irony, Jack -- thank you. Also, yes, these authors give Franklin a great deal of credit. I suppose that with so many things going on in his life, he needed to coin some new words from time to time in order to explain them.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    P.S. No, the chapter didn't mention Franklin's new words -- it was the spelling and printing of what we had that seemed to intrigue him most, as I noticed when I re-read the post. It is never too early in the day to do that.

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