Monday, November 19, 2012

Two or Few - language and its sniffgarishness

Recently at a gathering the topic came up about whether the host's use of the word "couple" to mean more than two was okay. At a later gathering he used "unique" to mean "special, but more than one." Was he wrong both times? Some people thought so. I did with respect to "couple" but not "unique." But, later on, I realized in the first instance I was violating my own understanding of language and I agree it was okay to say what he did, though I would not use "couple" in that way myself.

A "few" weeks later I was researching the debate about "few" and "couple" online. After reading the other comments, I made mine (At least, I tried. I am very bad at posting comments and sometimes it doesn't take). This was it:

"In short, it usually means 'two,' but used as an idiom it can mean 'a few.'

Longer -- like all words, it means what the maker intended OR the receiver understands. While this is painful for those who want a prescribed language, it is always true in the unrestricted parts of a real language (so, it might not be true when a term of art, like a legally defined word, or in a fantasy glossary, such as Tolkien's Sindarin or Star Trek's Klingon, but is in normal written or oral conversation between actual people).
Whether it is standard or not is a different question. We can ask -- what do most people in some selected time and place mean when they use it? For 'couple,' it would seem that for more people who post here, and I believe in my age and peer group in New York, it usually means 'two.' Thus, someone is a cute 'couple,' two mechanical parts fitting together are a 'coupling,' and it has even been made into a verb -- they 'coupled' (never it seems for a ménage a trois, though).
But, as some have shown, it is often used by people to mean 'a few,' such as in the phrase 'I have a couple of things to do first.' They know what they mean and we do as well. Who would not understand them (though some would pretend not to have)? I would be surprised if even those who commented here that it means 'two' would not understand that and probably have even have used it that way themselves.

A similar question comes up with 'all' and 'everyone.' A friend of mine who argues that 'couple' means 'a few' also, ironically, has argued with me that those two words must mean every single person. But, it is very common to say, 'They all do that,' or 'Everyone goes there.' We know what the word 'technically' means, but we use it comfortably to mean a lot of people or mostly everyone, without specifying. In fact, I have, of course, heard him use it the same way.
And, of course, this is very topical with the word 'marriage.' It seems that even a few years ago for almost everyone it could be used only to mean one man and one woman. Some people insist that is still the case. But, rapidly, many people use it to mean the solemnization of a relationship between two people, regardless of sex."

I have known some people to get agitated and others quite smug about the proper use of language.  So, I created my own awkward word for them - sniffgarish.  It has probably never been used before (I just googled to make sure and to my surprise, no hits) and you can say it is not a word. But, I use it to mean someone who turns his nose up and sniffs at what he thinks is a garish use of language. Now, at least for the rest of this post, you will understand what I mean.

Is it a word? I say it is. I'll use my comment above as my starting point and aim my argument at imaginary others who would say it is not a word, because I am sure they exist.

We use an alphabet to make words (it's not the only way) and have a spoken language very similar, though idiomatically and practically speaking, not exactly the same. Certainly "sniffgarish" fits into the category of a group of letters or sounds forming a symbol for something.  Not every combination is. Suppose I just type in "jkht" here, without thought or meaning. No one would suggest it is an English word. Why? It uses the alphabet? Still, I would agree it is not a word, because it is not assigned a meaning by me or anyone else. It also has no vowel, which the unwritten rules of our language insist upon - and has all the way back to ancient Greek. Even adding a vowel - say a final "e" in "jkhte," we are still unsatisfied because the vowel does not come between two consonants in the way we are used to vowels doing.  If I write "jekht," we feel a little better about it but, the ". . . kht" part still doesn't sit right. Finally, if I write "jekhot," we might say, okay, that is a foreign or imaginary word, because it works as two syllables, but has no meaning in the English language.

But, what do we mean when we say something has meaning in the English language? Here's my definition: To say a word has meaning in the English language means that enough people who believe they can recognize "English" can communicate a thought using that combination of letters or sounds and agree that is English. 

Let me break that statement down:

What do I mean by "enough people?" I mean that for a word to be accepted as having meaning as English, it cannot be used by just one person. It might still be a word. Suppose I never wrote "sniffgarish" here, but kept it to myself. It might be a word to me because when I think someone is sniffgarish, I know what I mean and can communicate a thought to myself in my head or by speaking it outloud or writing it down somewhere. If I write it today about Bear, and, seven years later come back, not even remembering that I wrote it, I can read it and say, oh yeah, I thought he was sniffgarish in those days.  

But, if a word, sniffgarish is not a word in the English language because no one else would agree. But, if you and the seven people or so who will read this now all understand it, then it has some standing - it is a word that is understood by some English readers. But, would we say it is English? No. How many people have to use it for it to be English? There is no number. Of course, we know that if all English speakers accept it as so - it's enough. We know if most accept it - it's enough. We know if half accept it - it's enough. Below that - what's enough? It can't be further defined. The word "enough," meant as a "tipping point," must suffice. Enough is enough when it satisfies enough people it is enough. It's both subjective and a tautology, but that's often what you come down to eventually when you try and get to the bottom of something. If that sounds like an excuse, it's not.  

Suppose the editor of Merriam-Webster reads my post because he googled his dictionary and this popped up. He is tickled by sniffgarish, puts it in his dictionary and publicizes the fact that he is including it. Then, Conan uses it on tv and Will Smith uses it in his next blockbuster movie. Lady Gaga uses it as the title of her next album. People all over America use sniffgarish to mean someone who is uppity about calling certain words English. That would certainly be enough to qualify as English. Suppose though along the way, the reference to the English language is dropped. It would still be a word, but now it might mean someone who is a snob regardless of what its creator would like.

When "enough people" say it is English, then it is "enough people," vague though that might be. Enough is the key concept, but it can't be pinned down any further.

What do I mean by "people who think they can recognize English." Why don't I just say English speakers? For a couple of reasons. First, those English speakers from London and those from Philly can pretty much understand each other, but there are other English speakers who have difficulty doing so. For example, one day, standing waiting for my car at a lot, I asked two young attendants who looked like they were from the same country what language they were always speaking together. They laughed. "You'd never know it, but it's English." How could it possibly be English without me understanding it? Most people who heard it - the vast majority - would not call it English. The speakers were from Guyana and they spoke a form of English that is very hard for North Americans to understand. But, they assured me -- it is the same langauge and they can, thanks to television, understand us without a problem without ever really learning a new language.

What we call English, others might not. For some people, all that matters is what dialect or language they use -- that's official to them. But, it's not. There is no official.

What does can "communicate a thought using that combination of letters or sounds and agree that it is English" mean? 
You might be thinking - why does that even need be part of the explanation? I think it does because otherwise all kinds of sounds or even a head nod would be English.  
Take the the letters or related sound "ummm." We can mean by it -- "I agree," "I disagree," "I like that," "I don't like that," or use it as a nonsense word (that we can use deliberately or unconsciously) or time killer while we think, or, to inject humor into a comment. It may be a word, because enough people say it is. But, is it English? I would say no, it's not. We are communicating a thought using sounds, or, if we write it, letters, but we would not agree that it is English, even if it is found in books or plays.  In fact it may be a word, but not in any language for that matter.
So . . .

This does not mean that any word means anything.  If I use a word different than everyone else it means that only to me.  And, two people or more can use a word to mean anything they understand it to mean. It is probably arguable whether a code used for a limited purpose can be a language. We don't normally call it so but it is hard to differentiate. Suppose two people spoke only in a code. What would be the difference. I'd say only that everything they say, for a while anyway, would be translated it into something else by them -- a real language. But, eventually, they'd start thinking about it in code without translation, and then, what's the difference?
My "sniffgarish" is certainly not an English word today and planned words don't usually catch on so well. But "muggle," a word invented by the author of Harry Potter novels, is an English word now. What's the main difference? -- muggle is used enough to qualify.
A last word on dictionaries. I love them. People consider them authoritative for lots of reasons.  They are invaluable to help us preserve our language. For games like Scrabble you need something like them and for that purpose, they can be authoritative. Many people consider dictionaries the "end all" just to end discussions about words. To me they are one more tool we can use, and since they are often the product of scholars, mostly better than the rest of us can do. But they aren't the Holy Grail either; just somebody's opinion. When it comes to language and real communication -- not games, there's no such thing as authoritative.


  1. So the meaning of many words varies based on the context and the colloquial standard? Wow. Thank you for that linguistic revelation. I feel like Columbus on the shores of an uncharted country. Almost breathless....
    And sometimes people invent words and they become accepted as standard English? Really? Wow, again.
    Though I do like sniffgarish, which I am, proudly. Best example of an invented word now in common usage - vainglory. I love that word. It was first used in a Thomas Hardy poem about the wreck of the Titanic wherein a fish says, "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" No one has found it used previous to that, and just this week I heard the Preaident and a military guy both use the word. It be in the dictionary for quite some time. Great made up word. That is all.

  2. I suppose if I didn't have these arguments with people about language, I'd agree with you, you sarcastic pithwhistle. Yeah, I just made that up. A pithwhistle is someone who reads a long article and tries to destroy it in a sentence or so without really understanding it. I like it.

  3. What form censorship this???? Posting your reply without my original comment herr Stalin???? At-tica! At-tica! At-tica! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!

  4. Ah, good point. I did hit publish for it but it didn't take. Okay, relax, fenigant (a bully who whines about a triviality). I'll do it again. It will just come out of sequence. As if the whole world cares.

  5. Conchis emailed me (which is what most people do instead of commenting, which I can't understand at all) the following:

    "I was reading your blog and saw Bear's remarks about the word "vainglorious" and his attribution to Thomas Hardy. I few seconds on Google revealed that the words "vainglory" or "vainglorious" have been used since the 16th Century. Bacon, Shakespeare and others. Vainglorious appears in the 1838 edition of Webster's dictionary. Now, I have no quarrel with Bear but the attachment (a copy of the King James Bible from 1611) may be useful to you at some time. Please look at Chap 2, verse 3."

    Unfortunately, I do not know how to use the software that came with my computer and couldn't read the tiny attachment (nor enlarge it).

  6. Not Bear2:28 PM

    Obviously, Conchis is someone the author put up in a shameless attempt to discredit the wondrous Bear. Google-shmoogle. And as the author himself points out, dictionarys aren't authorities, just guides.

    1. Conchis5:59 AM

      Conchis lives (as, apparently, does Frodo). I have no quarrell with Bear who, at times, demonstrates here that he is, in fact, both brilliant and wondrous. In this particular instance, however, he was neither -- he was just mistaken. To err is human (and, apparently, ursine as well).

  7. Huh. Interesting that Not Bear used the phrase "Google-shmoogle," much like Bear's own "googledy-moogledy," which I am so fond of and occasionally borrow. It almost makes me wonder . . . Nah!


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .