Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Words, Words, Words

I suppose my Grandpa Bollinger's pool table was made by a company called Brunswick. In any case, the earliest mental association I had with the word "Brunswick" was with big, solidly-made, new-looking pool tables, like the one in Grandpa's basement. We went to Grandpa's house in Fort Wayne every year around Christmastime, and that pool table was there as many Christmases back as I can remember; it was put there either before I was born or within a couple of years after, because I have vivid memories going back to age 3, and I cannot remember a Christmas when Grandpa did not live in that house, nor that house without that pool table.

Later, I learned that "Brunswick" was an area in Germany, and I imagined a place that looked like Grandpa's pool table, clean and solid, dark green everywhere like the felt on the table, dark green cleanly trimmed lawns, dark green tile roofs, all structures indoors and out trimmed with polished wood, with here and there gleaming enamel in colors like those of the pool balls. I assumed, too, the the major industry there was the manufacture of big, high-quality pool tables. By the age of 5 or 6 I had seen a few other pool tables, enough to know that Grandpa's was unusually fancy.

Sometime after I was fully grown and had long realized that my original conception of Brunswick was quite unrealistic -- although I still couldn't completely replace it with a realistic mental picture, and I probably never will -- I learned that "Brunswick" was the English form of "Braunschweig." Braunschweig was not an unfamiliar word: I was familiar with braunschweiger, a spreadable pork liver sausage, a poor man's pate, if you will. "Braunschweig" is always more or less associated in my mind with this sort of liver sausage, although not as intensely as "Brunswick" with the colors and textures of Grandpa's pool table, presumably because I learned the waord "braunschweiger" later in life -- perhaps also because I dislike braunschweiger as a child, whereas that pool table made a remarkably deep and very pleasant impression on me, pleasant in part probably because of the association with Christmas at Grandpa Bollinger's, which was a very good time. Just as I thought of Brunswick as a place of dark green and polished wood and gleaming enamel, so I thought of Braunschweig as a rather coarse and dirty place, where the people could not afford good food. I knew of course that Brunswick and Braunschweig were one and the same place, which probably looked nothing like either my imagined Brunswick nor my imagined Braunschweig -- still, the mind makes associations, even when one knows that the associations are inaccurate.

There's probably a widespread, conscious, if involuntary association among English-speaking people, between Hamburg, the German city, and the hamburger, the ground beef patty on a bun. Relatively few English speakers know that the residents of Hamburg are called Hamburgers; I imagine that that many tourists from the US involuntarily giggle when they learn this; and that the city named Frankfurt, and its residents the Frankfurters, are even more comical to them. Most native speakers of English do not realize that the German name for Vienna is Wien, and that a resident of Vienna is referred to in German as a Wiener.

It seems that the word is getting around, among the Gringos in Los Angeles, that "Los Angeles" means "the angels." But I have to wonder how many people have lived their whole lives in Sn Francisco without realizing that San Francisco is just another way of saying St. Francis. Or in San Antonio with knowing that their town is named after St. Anthony. Does the fact that so many people, completely ignorant of Spanish, have heard of San Francisco, the city, and of St, Francis, of Assisi, but do not associate the city with the saint, mean that "San Francisco" has acquired a new definition, through trans-linguistic ignorance? i suppose it does. I suppose that many, if not most words acquire new definitions through precisely such ignorance. For years I've been complaining that the name of Notre Dame, the university in northern Indiana, is mispronounced by everyone. Maybe I'm wrong to insist that this Notre Dame be associated with the French phrase "notre dame," "our lady," that is, of couse, the Virgin Mary, from whom it originally derived its name. The university was founded by French priests in the 1840's. Despite the derivation of its name, Notre Dame, in the US, as it is usually pronounced in the US, means, in the first place, college football and other college athletics, and in the second place, academics, with a strong emphasis on Catholicism, especially Irish-American Catholicism, with anything French coming in third at best. Detroit and Illinois still have their French names, long after the French pronounciations "day-TWAH" and "ee-yi-NWAH" have faded from the consciousness of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Words mean what people think they mean. A "correct" definition apart and different from conventional usage is an abstraction, a vain conceit of etymologists. Now, etymology is a fine and useful pursuit. But it can have pitfalls. To insist upon some past usage of a word as "correct" is every bit as wrong as ignoring all usages but the most recent. As with definitions, so with pronunciations: there is no "correct" usage existing as an absolute, as there are correct solutions to certain arithmetical problems. One can think of the relatively few English speaker who insist upon an absolutely "correct" English as the speakers of one of the many dialects of English.

Presumably this dialect is based upon one dictionary or another. But even the dictionaries do not always agree with each other; and the best ones, like the OED, tend to allow a much greater flexibility than do some of those people who insist upon "Correctness." (The OED, as its fans often call The Oxford English Dictionary, is a wonderful thing, a mighty achievement, and not all all stuffy, rigid or blind to the flow and change inherent in all language.) The apostles of "correct" language are of course wrong to think that language correctly follows the rules set forth in dictionaries. The truth is exactly the opposite: any dictionary which is intelligently made attempts to follow the language as it is actually spoken and written in the larger world, and freely admits, in the case of English, spoken by several hundred million people in all part of the world, that it is utterly impossible to fully follow the entire language in all of its complexity and diversity. It seems to me that those who insist upon "correctness" in English usage cannot possibly hava a very profound appreciation of all the varieties of Scottish, Irish, American, Indian, Caribbean, Australian and English English, to name but a few. The pedants of "correctness" are correct in pointing out that a firm command of grammar and syntax lends flexibility and grace to one's language. One can learn some things from such people. The problem is that the pedagogy tends to flow in one direction. Relatively few of the language police are themselves eager to learn, and language is an ever-changing, ever-growing phenomenon. No-one ever completely masters it, and and those who think that they already have, and shut themselves off from the new, therefore only fall ever farther behind.

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