English, Language of Discombobulation

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Commentator Ruth Levy Guyer contemplates some logistical quirks of English. For example we drive on parkways and park on driveways?


Bioethicist Ruth Levy Guyer has been thinking a lot lately about words and what they fail to express. She sent us these thoughts.


I like feeling combobulated, nerved and plused. What? You don't get my meaning? How's this? I don't like feeling discombobulated, unnerved and nonplused. That should be clearer. But it's odd, isn't it, that these negative-sounding descriptors, the words with `dis' and `un' and `non,' exist but not their positive partners? And what about words that sound like inverses but turn out to be crypto twins, bone and debone?

As I was contemplating these mysteries--the lost positives, the found twins--I suddenly recalled the insidious language newspeak of George Orwell's "1984." In newspeak, every negative had its positive. No need for a word like `tall,' for example, when `unshort' would work. Newspeak's goal was to abridge the lexicon. The fewer words people had, the narrower their thoughts, the less likely they'd be to express unorthodox ideas that might subvert Big Brother's agenda, and that agenda was mind control.

Perhaps we English-speakers should feel relieved, plused, nerved and combobulated that not every English word is neatly paired with its inverse. `English is a zany, logic-defying tongue,' wrote Steven Pinker in "The Language Instinct." One drives on a parkway and parks in a driveway.

Some 250 years ago Samuel Johnson set out to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. His ambition was to collect every extant word. He intended to pierce deep into every science, inquire into the nature of every substance, catalog every idea and register every product of art and the natural world. His lexicon would, thereby, include every word in all other dictionaries and ultimately supplant them.

As the project proceeded, Johnson found that English was `copious without order, energetic without rules' and that everywhere he looked there was `perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated.' Johnson admitted that he had started his project with the outsized `dreams of a poet' but that he had been `doomed to wake a lexicographer.' He wrote that those who might imagine that a dictionary could embalm language and secure it from corruption and decay deserved derision.

Eventually Johnson understood that the chaos of English was expansive and organic like the biota. A living language evolves. Meanings blossom and wither. Words are created and die.

LYDEN: Ruth Levy Guyer is a scientist and bioethicist. She teaches at Haverford College.

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