Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sherlock, Shakespeare and Saxons

office shot hours

I am a word nerd. I love words. I love grammar. I love etymology. I love vocabulary.

I know the difference between nauseous and nauseated, fewer and less, affect and effect. I know when to use who and whom. I cringe when I see apostrophes used to make plurals. And while I collect egregious examples of bad grammar and spelling, mostly just to share with my daughter, I really do try not to correct or make fun of people who use language incorrectly in public or use proper English as a weapon.

I absolutely adore Shakespeare, even though I must admit I have not read all his plays.

I get a kick out of, and actually have an opinion on, the argument over the Oxford comma, and the singular “they” question. I understand both sides of the adverb debate. 

The History of the English Language was one of my favorite classes in college. I love that although English is indeed heavily influenced by Latin, most Latin vocabulary is in the scientific and technical areas. Our everyday words are actually Germanic, Anglo-Saxon. About a quarter of our vocabulary is Germanic. 83% of the most common 1000 words in today's English are of Anglo-Saxon origin: concepts like heaven and earth, love and hate, life and death, beginning and end, day and night, month and year, heat and cold. Words like path, meadow, stream, house, mother, father, cow, God, gold, work, land, winter. Words that make up the bedrock of life.

When I watch TV or movies at home, I turn on the closed captioning, a habit which drives most of my family nuts. In a lot of shows, the actors speak very quickly, or on top of each other, or there’s an accent, or background noise or music, and sometimes I miss some words. I hate that. I figure that the writers worked very hard on those scripts, and I want to catch every single word. I wouldn’t want readers missing some of my words, after all.

Even before the birth of Christ, English become a ravenous borrower of words. We borrowed from the Vikings, the Normans, the French. This is the reason we have such a rich and varied vocabulary, chock full of synonyms. From the earliest eras, we have Anglos-Saxon vs Norman: sick/ill, wrath/anger, rear/raise, hide/skin. A person sitting atop a horse can be called a rider (from the Anglo-Saxon ritter), a horseman (from the Vikings' Old Norse hross), a knight (originally Old English cniht), a cavalier (from French chevalier), or an equestrian (Latin).

A while ago a video from the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, made the rounds on Facebook among my writer friends.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnlhKWeDWMA]
The scene depicts Sherlock interviewing a prisoner in jail, trying to explain why repeatedly stabbing his girlfriend was just an accident. His English is abominable. “My father was a butcher and he learnt me to handle knives.” The inimitable Mr. Holmes first sighs loudly at every error, then corrects him each time. In the end he simply cannot deal with a client who doesn't speak English properly and walks away.

Now I realize others may find this a bit harsh, but I find that a completely acceptable reason to let someone be hanged.

He should have paid closer attention in school.

Or not stabbed his girlfriend.

His choice.


  1. Great post, Carole! Loved the ending. :)

  2. Thanks, Carole, for your witty and informational post. It made me smile a few times. I too am a word lover (logophile) who chooses to leave the closed captioning on, gets a kick out of some of the blotched signs that make it out in public and can't stand the common misuse of apostrophes. Not that my spelling, grammar, etc. is perfect every time, but I agree... some of what we see is inexcusable! I host a blog, "WORDLY WAYS - A Getaway Place for Word Lovers" that covers several topics relating to the amusing aspects of the English language, as well as occasional helpful tips.