I was surprised to recently read in David Crystal’s book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that fetish – which I pronounce “feh-tesh” – was once pronounced “feetish.” In fact, in the 1920s, Crystal writes, the BBC had that pronunciation in its guide for radio broadcasters.*
It makes sense, of course, when you think about it. Usually when there is a single consonant before a vowel, that vowel is pronounced long. It usually takes two consonants to shorten it. For example:
- Holy and holly;
- Mater and matter;
- Scared and scarred;
- Hater and hatter;
- Pater and patter;
- Diner and dinner;
- Coping and copping;
- Caning and canning, and so on.
So logically, it should be written as “fettish” or pronounced “feetish.” One or the other. But it isn’t. And who would ever say “feetish” today? It sounds rather prurient.
English is a wonderfully exceptional language – in that it has so many exceptions to the rules. Fetish-as-fettish is just one of too many to list. Part of the joy of learning and mastering English resides in these exceptions. And part of the frustration.
Locally we have a similar example: Paterson Street. Some folk pronounce that name “Pay-terson” – others “Pah-terson.” Which is correct? Both will be found in pronunciation guides. What’s right is whatever the locals call it, I suppose. To me, it’s logical to make it a long “a” because of the single consonant: Pay-terson. But the city of Paterson, New Jersey makes it short.
Flaccid is another word that is rapidly and irretrievably losing its proper pronunciation. By rights it should be pronounced “flak-sid.” Like access, eccentric and success: double ‘c’ is a ‘ks’ or ‘x’ sound. But more and more I hear it pronounced “flassid.”
I blame American TV for this reprehensible lapse. There simply is no grammatical precedent for a double ‘c’ to be pronounced as an ‘s’. It’s a limp, floppy choice of pronunciation, an act of linguistic laziness; something up with which I shall not put (okay, old joke…).
But language is not logical, or rather English is not (Latin is very logical for most of it). It is vital, growing, changing, morphing and motile.
Language is learned in a memetic way: by imitation. Language is the first and the most important, and most powerful meme engine for humans. So when someone starts pronouncing or using a word a certain way, it gets spread like any other meme. But unlike many other memes, in language it gets ingrained, stuck in the skin of our language like a tick. Sometimes it stays there forever, like a regional accent or an altered word use.
English is more memetic than many other languages: it is eclectic. Like tofu (another borrowed word), it absorbs the flavours around it. So much so that the majority of the words in an English dictionary are not native English (i.e.of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic/Briton origin) but rather of foreign extraction. Many come from French, Greek or Latin, but English will take any word, if it gets enough common currency. Sushi, sauna, borscht, chutzpah, falafel, spaghetti, couscous, sabra, curry, guru, pundit, catsup, chopsticks… we will use any word that we deem appropriate, or interesting, cool or hip, despite its origin.
How long they remain in the language is another story. Dictionaries are full of words no longer in common parlance; words that were once tossed about in everyday speech, sprinkled around conversations like Parmesan cheese on pasta.
Take glasnost and perestroika, for example. Both are Russian words that got heavy play in the media when Communism collapsed in the late 1980s and the Russians floundered around trying to develop a democratic state under Boris Yeltsin (a failure that later turned back into a dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, but that’s another post…). The media was full of glasnost and perestroika, and the words became a meme that spread into all aspects of Western vocabulary.
I remember business books from the 1990s that rambled on about about perestroika in the boardroom and glasnost in the CEO’s corporate office. But like many such memes based on contemporary issues or events, these words didn’t last very long. Hardly anyone uses those words today and anyone born after 1990 probably won’t even know what they meant. They’ve become linguistic anachronisms like “23-skidoo.” **
Words change in unexpected ways, too. Awful, for example, used to mean full of awe or awe-inspiring, like joyful means full of joy. Artificial used to mean “designed with art.” (q.v. The Quote Investigator). Kids today say “sick” when they mean the opposite. A fat chance means a thin chance. Words and their usage are always in flux thanks to the power of memes.
The term meme was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his ground-breaking work, The Selfish Gene (1976). His theory is that information transmission follows the same evolutionary model as genetic material.
Memes build in our minds, like blocks of computer programming, and thus form building blocks for our personalities, our social interactions, our communities and circles of friends.
Memes are endlessly fascinating. They affect and infect everything we do, say, think, feel, or act upon. In her 1999 book, The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore writes that memes are more than just imitation: they are part of our genetic makeup. I imitate, therefore I am, Spinoza might have said.
A good example – even a textbook case – of a recent meme is the Gangnam Style video. It spread virally, and rapidly spawned several sub-species of meme that mimicked or satirized it. For a while it was all the rage, then in the Darwinian competition for our rather short attention, it disappeared. The biological parallels are obvious.
Conspiracy theories also have memetic qualities in that they get shared around online with the same ardour lavished on photos of cute kittens and puppies. They are also indicative of the artificial (in both the archaic and modern senses) of memes: they can be constructed from whole cloth, without reference to fact or reality, and develop a life of their own as they get shared. But that leads to a discussion of the lack of critical thinking in today’s society, and that’s grist for another post.
* Crystal’s book is a wonderful, entertaining collection of delightful information and fun tales about our language. Well worth reading.
** Another post for another day: what lessons we should have learned from the Cold War and why it’s important not to forget them.