My family arrived in Canberra at the beginning of 1943, and we lived in Reid, already well-developed as a suburb, full of trees and hedges. I started school a few blocks away, at Ainslie Infants. Not far from our house was a large building that we sometimes went to as spectators. It was full of tanks, cannon, landing craft and dioramas. It was something called a ‘morial’ — and this one was a ‘warmy’ one. It was not for a year or two that I understood that the building was in fact the ‘War Memorial’. Well, children hear sounds and try to make sense of them.
My mother sang and played the piano, and I quickly learned the words. One went like this:
‘Dressed in your gown of blue brocade, a rose upon each dainty shoe,
Lady in lovely nesserade, I’d love to dance with you…’
For years I thought that ‘nesserade’, like ‘brocade’, was some kind of fabric. One day I asked Mum what ‘nesserade’ actually was. There was confusion until she realised. ‘Oh dear, no, the words are “loveliness arrayed”!’ There’s still a lot of this about. I wrote some time ago about the way we elide names, such as that of the ABC Classic FM broadcaster Grey Mabbott, or of the woman who is apparently the leader of the Opposition, Ms Trabett.
My little brother came home from Sunday School, and Dad asked him what he had learned today. ‘Dare to be a Daniel, dare to have a purple tool!’ was the reply. My father was convulsed: ‘dare to have a purpose true’ was what my brother had heard. The same brother, asked to name one of the Kings of Israel, offered ‘King Born’. ‘Who was he?’ asked the Sunday School teacher. ‘I don’t know’ said my brother confidently, ‘but he’s in the song — “Born is the King of Israel”!’ He wasn’t being cheeky at all. He was just trying to make sense of what he had heard, and build on it.
When I was young, to say ‘youse’ as the plural of ‘you’ was completely frowned upon, yet it is a perfectly sensible construction for a child to make. After all, we form plurals by adding an ‘s’ to a noun, so why not add one to ‘you’? It is an error, because pronouns are not nouns, and because there are collective nouns which do not require an ‘s’ in the plural, like ‘sheep’. While that construction demonstrates a fine reasoning process, if the error is not corrected it will become a speech form, and I certainly encountered it later on in adults, notably in the army.
Then there are words that you read and rarely hear, and you guess at their pronunciation, getting it wrong. One of mine was ‘misled’. I did not realise that it was the past participle of the verb to ‘mislead’, thought it meant doing something tricky, and pronounced it — in my head — ‘myzled’. I would have been well into high school when I discovered that mistake, and I’m not the only one who went down that path.
I learned languages, English and history at high school, went off to university to be an English/History teacher, but became an academic instead —and a writer who became fascinated with the loopy, inefficient, treacherous and lovely language we use. And I went through the obvious phases, grammar policeman, death-to-the-passive-construction revolutionary, then someone tolerant to and accepting of the fact that language changes, all the time, a shrugger at the new meanings for ‘misogynist’, and finally a writer who has his own rules, and tries to be clear and accessible. If I can’t explain it simply, I don’t understand it myself. I learned that in my first year of teaching undergraduates.
I’ve just about given up the struggle on language. I like the subjunctive, and if you do Latin you learn a lot if it. But the subjunctive is passing from our use, and we’ll be left only with archaic constructions like ‘Be that as it may’, and ‘Lest we forget’. Eric Partridge wrote forty years ago (in Usage and Abusage) that the subjunctive had been in a ‘state of decay’ since the middle of the 17th century!
Before long ‘disinterested’ will lose its useful meaning of having no (financial or other) interest in the matter and just mean uninterested — ‘indifferent to’. ‘Stakeholder’ used to be the person who held the bets that two or more others had wagered on an outcome, the stakeholder being disinterested. Now it means someone who has a real interest in the matter. When I was with the National Capital Authority I held the informal title of ‘Chief Pedant’. They should have seen me when I was young.
But I still care about it all. As constant readers will know, I am the President-elect of the Australian Society for the Extirpation of the Apostrophe. We can do without the inverted comma, and it bugs me more to see it badly used, which is most of the time, than to see its absence. Now let me tell you about that …