• Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Glossary of Useful Words 13: Vexatious

October 20, 2019

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines the word ‘vexatious’ as follows:

1a:causing or likely to cause vexation: distressing, afflictive <a vexatious child> <nothing is more vexatious than to find that one is wrong> b: lacking justification and intended to harass <the company’s vexatious refusal to pay a patently valid claim> <a vexatious suit at law>

2:lacking in peace or calm:full of disorder or stress:unquiet, disordered, troubled <a vexatious period in his life> <a very vexatious interview>

So much of what goes on these days is so highly vexatious that one wonders why this very useful word is not heard at all in the media nor in ordinary speech. Tant pis!


How Languages Change

Y-H-B was ordering his evening meal at one of his favorite restaurants in Manchester, Vermont, the Marsh Tavern at the Equinox Resort, when the waitress taking his order, a young woman––and evidently a native speaker of American English––used the form “teached” instead of the correct past tense form “taught.” From the rest of her utterances I gathered that she was at least a high-school graduate, so the use of a completely wrong past tense was totally unexpected.

Theorists of language change (with the notable exception of Henning Andersen, Roman Jakobson’s most outstanding Harvard student) barely if ever mention speech errors as drivers of change, although such errors must to be taken into account, especially when they are the product of imperfect learning and false analogy. The waitress clearly applied the normal rule for the formation of the past tense of typical weak verbs (like “cover/covered”) to a strong verb, which is what yielded the incorrect “teached” instead of the correct “taught.” But that is exactly how languages change, i. e., when errors are made and then propagated by other speakers equally inclined to violate the rules of grammar as was the initiator.

Language change is not always predictable or regular. It may be the product of individual propensities, including the creation and propagation of errors.


The Contemporary Prevalence of Syntactic Dross (“to be honest with you,” etc.)

October 6, 2019

In an earlier post (“The Decline of Straight Talk and the Rise of Linguistic Dross,” December 28, 2012) the tendency in contemporary English of all stripes to interlard meaningless syntactic units was discussed and analyzed for what it is, essentially a linguistic apotropaism. Listening seven years later to the BBC on a regular basis impels me to return to this topic.

Because English is now the world’s lingua franca, the BBC World Service is a very good source for the derivation of linguistic data of all kinds, including how people actually speak when interviewed and not reading from a script. One thing that is notable is the incidence of superfluous syntactic material such as the phrase “to be honest with you” (and variations on this model). Another such piece of linguistic dross is the high-frequency phrase “having said that.” Such phrases add nothing to the communicative efficiency of any given utterance and are to be avoided as much as possible. The only possible reason for their constant intercalation must be the speaker’s psycholinguistic lack of confidence in what is being said. Again, it falls under the purview of apotropaism. Such is the temper of the times that speakers are constantly wary of being caught out when it comes to the validity of their utterances.