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We must never confuse elegance with snobbery...


By Miranda

... as Yves Saint Laurent announced when expanding his production from the atelier to ready-to-wear. I think he was right. It's so easy to codify snobbery in language as the 'right' way of doing things, without thinking about the function of language. Anything that obstructs a language's capacity to communicate is naturally eroded away over the generations, though some epic rearguard actions have been fought to defend pet usages.

In particular, although linguists can observe the development of our language and its vocabulary by the tricks of grammar and spelling we've preserved (or abandoned) over the years, we don't have to petrify our language into a museum of philology.

Which brings me (deep breath) to the ise/ize debate.

The only way, in my early schooling, to get the spelling of 'ise/ize' words right was to commit lists of 'exceptions' to memory. And a good secretary was distinguished by knowing these lists without reference to a dictionary.

But why were we doing this?

Well, apparently we did it to show how clever we were, based on no-longer current studies of long-dead Ancient Greek. It seems that in the spelling conventions of English English, as opposed to US English, the 'ize' was retained to show that the word had entered English directly from the Greek, where the 'ise' was used where the word had been rendered into French on its way from the Aegean, whether or not it dropped into Rome on the way.

What the...?

If we don't allow everyone to study Ancient Greek and Latin then it's a bit rich to expect people to make distinctions in their daily use of written language based on knowledge from which they’ve been excluded. And expecting everyone to memorise them is, to me, a complete waste of brain space.

Current BBC usage (but not the OED) says 'ise' while US English went for a uniform 'ize' over a century ago.

Where to from here?



12 Responses to

We must never confuse elegance with snobbery...

bika said:
October 14, 2010 at 1:32 PM

You say tom-ay-to, I say tom-ah-to :D. Don't think it will matter much in the years to come. Written English will be reduced to the bare minimum of keystrokes. And sentence structure, what's that?

kragzy said:
October 14, 2010 at 4:47 PM

Hi Bika, you’re right of course, it’s just a matter of personal taste. For mine, I prefer to describe my darling wife in terms of Byron’s poem (She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that's best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes) than as “BUTful chk”. Long live eloquence!!

October 14, 2010 at 7:30 PM

As I said in one of the previous discussions regarding spelling, and even grammar, the computer kids are changing it drastically. And why not? The language has been developing and changing since its inception. As each raiding party came to England, they changed the language just a little bit. Most people nowadays would not even be able to understand the literature of about 400 years ago. In fact, I believe there are special studies at university for that.

bika said:
October 15, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Language is culture, and culture is dynamic - but not for the individual. I personally don't cope well with change (my list of pet hates is looooooooooong). P.S. How lucky is Mrs kragzy! :D

mommyscat said:
October 16, 2010 at 11:46 AM

Language like everything else is constantly evolving. I remember a teacher berating us for using the word kids to refer to other children. A couple of years later the dictionary was changed to have an alternative meaning for kids other than baby goats. You guessed it, it also meant children. Think of all the new words that have come into usage in the last decade or two thanks to computers. Words also die out. With maybe a couple of exceptions do you ever hear thee or thou in conversational usage anymore? "That which does not change to suit its environment has no other choice than to die out."

wattsd said:
October 16, 2010 at 5:07 PM

How can you possibly confuse elegance with snobbery. Elegance is a physical presence, snobbery is an abnormal attitude, usually shown by females these days

October 17, 2010 at 5:08 PM

wattsd, consider yourself smacked over the head. Snobbery is an attitude practised by both males and females equally, as far as I have seen in my considerable life.

greenpeas said:
October 20, 2010 at 10:41 PM

Snobbery is where someone who feels inferior tries to convince others he is superior by adopting false standards, symbols or, as wattsd demonstrates, false assumptions. Thank-you wattsd for your classic example of snobbery.

greenpeas said:
October 20, 2010 at 11:57 PM

Elegance, however, is where something is done with style or class in a manner that appears completely natural, not rehearsed. Two men may wear the same suit. On one it makes him look like mutton dressed up as lamb & he's uncomfortable (he'd be more at home in blue singlet & shorts), whereas the other man will look elegant & refined as if he was born to it. Or two people may write the same words on paper. One produces an untidy scrawl, sweating over each and every letter, while the other writes with an elegance that impresses the reader with its beauty & ease of penmanship (or should that be penpersonship?). The same furniture in a house may look like a jumble sale despite hours & hours struggling to find the "right" spots to place it all & still could use a lot more work or impress the visitor with the decor's simple elegance giving the impression it just "happened" naturally. A inelegant spartsperson leaves the onlooker exhausted as he/she struggles & battles with great show of effort on their way to the finish line, while an elegant sportsperson makes the same event look soooo easy, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, no hint of the years of intensive training needed to produce such an easy-seeming elegant display.

kragzy said:
October 21, 2010 at 8:49 AM

Well said greenpeas; elegantly expressed!

greenpeas said:
October 23, 2010 at 7:04 PM

Thank-you kragzy

Xrosie said:
November 15, 2010 at 7:52 AM

Elegance can never be learnt, it is an inherent facter in our personalty. The roughest diamond may be elegant in its appearance, but the best Cartier diamond may be not to taste.