Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Verbal Hygienists R Us

Soon after starting Tongue-Tied, I was excited to discover a book called Verbal Hygiene, by Deborah Cameron, a British linguist. Verbal hygiene is Cameron's term for the myridad ways in which people try to control language, ranging from school children making fun of the way other kids on the playground talk to usage "mavens" writing books about the atrocious state of English. Toward the latter end of that range are copy editors, who not only get to complain about others' use of language but also get to force them to use it differently (though some might say we are located on the other end of the range, with the schoolyard bullies).

Cameron says all users of language practice verbal hygiene, and thus everyone, including descriptive linguists, engages in prescriptivism. (Note that she takes pains to say that classic prescriptivism of the stern, finger-wagging-grammarian sort--the kind that descriptive linguists find most offensive--is only one example of what she means by verbal hygiene.) In fact, she argues, the dogmatic insistence among some descriptive linguists that tampering with language is forbidden is, in its own, topsy-turvy way, a form of language prescriptivism.

This book represents a new twist in the usage wars, for me at least. I've seen traditionalist prescriptivists attack descriptivist dogma (the right vs the left), and I've seen descriptive linguists attack prescriptivist dogma (the left vs. the right), but this is the first time I've come across a linguist attacking the dogmas of her own field (the far left (?) vs. the not-so-far left).

If that's not enough to provide fodder for Tongue-Tied, Cameron devotes a whole, dense, 40-page chapter to us copy editors, professional verbal hygienists par excellence. And I'm afraid the portrait she paints is not all that flattering. The question is, does she have a point or is she just another writer who didn't like having her prose put under an editor's microscope? I'll get to that in my next post.

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