Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On looking well

A correspondent writes to say that she has found such sentences as these on the internet:

Keeping these things in mind, you can look well in black dresses.
Peasant tops look well on small busted girls.

She goes on: 'I was always taught that to look good is to be attractive, while to look well is to appear healthy. According to that rule, this use of well would be incorrect. Is there any time when this use of well is acceptable? Is it a regional usage?'

The examples - and there are indeed quite a few of them - suggest that this is an area where usage is changing. I share my correspondent's intuitive preference for good (or great, smart, etc.), and so do three female informants (in their 30s, 50s, and 80s) who happened to be in my house when the email came in. The interesting question is why the change is happening.

I think that well is shifting because of a change in the usage of good. In the early 20th century, look good and listen good emerged in American English in the sense of 'look/sound promising'. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1914. This developed into a general sense of good to mean 'in a satisfactory frame of mind', 'coping well with life', and suchlike. It's most often heard these days in response to a How are you? type of question. I'm well means 'well in health'. I'm good means something like 'things are OK right now'. It's a new semantic distinction in English.

However, it's colloquial, youthful, and originally American, so many older people, especially in Britain, don't like it. (Ironically, pedants who are the first to complain when a semantic distinction is lost - such as the distinction between uninterested and disinterested - are the first to complain when a fresh semantic distinction appears in the language.) And because good has taken on this colloquial resonance when used adverbially, it has made some people sensitive about its use. They may even sense a parallel with such criticized expressions as go slow, where more formal usage requires go slowly. So they look for a more formal alternative expression, and find well available and already being used in a general sense of 'successful'. Indeed, locutions such as go well and do well date from Anglo-Saxon times, actually predating the 'sound in health' sense by a few centuries. So I don't find it at all surprising that people are beginning to say and write It looks well on you, and so on, and would expect it to become more common as time goes by.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

On insulting Brits

Radio 4's 'PM' programme get in touch today to ask for a comment about insult language. Apparently an Iranian minister has described the British as 'not human' and 'a bunch of thick people', eliciting an angry response from our ambassador out there. What did I think about it?

My first thought was that the minister wasn't trying. What an unimaginative pair of insults! The English language has an excellent insult record. He would have done better to look up some Early Scots examples of flyting (insult exchanges) or taken some lines from Shakespeare. He could have used one of those online Shakespeare insult generators which combine real examples into new strings, such as 'villainous reeling-ripe deformed clapper-clawed hornbeasts'. That would have been much more impressive.

I find political insults interesting as an illustration of language change. They invariably reflect situations of conflict or unequal power relations between peoples (as when colonial masters describe those they have subjugated or indigenous majorities talk about immigrant minorities). What intrigues me is their longevity, or lack of it. Most are likely to be temporary, going out of use when political relations change, but some gain a permanent place in the language. Many of the following examples are either unknown today or have lost their sting. A few are still with us, with usage wavering depending on the sensitivities of the users to political correctness.

The 17th-century conflicts with the Dutch were the original stimulus for dozens of expressions, such as a Dutch widow (a prostitute), a Dutch auction (where the prices are initially high), a Dutch reckoning (a lump sum without a detailed breakdown), a Dutch concert (several tunes played together), a Dutch bargain (made in drink), and a Dutch feast (where the host gets drunk before the guests do). I could go on - Dutch courage, double Dutch, Dutch comfort... Similar lists could be compiled about the Germans, the French, and so on, depending on the point in history when they were enemies. Analogous expressions circulated about the English in the other languages, of course.

But one generations's insults can be the next generation's orthodoxy. In the 17th century, a Tory was a really offensive term - a type of Irish bandit or outlaw. The name came to be applied to those who in 1679-80 supported the exclusion of a Catholic James to the English throne. And gradually it entered the political mainstream. Of course, depending on your political allegiance, you might still consider it an insult.

(If you're thinking of listening to the item, don't bother. It was dropped, as a dead donkey. That's often the way, with newsy language topics. They tend to be placed at the very end of a programme, viewed as light-hearted pieces whose role is to fill a minute or two after the 'serious' items are over. They are therefore prime candidates for being cut, when other items over-run or something more important crops up. For every one piece I've done on the radio, another has been dropped in this way.)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

On the distant future

A correspondent writes to ask if the English present progressive with future meaning can be used to talk about the distant future. As an example, he cites his father getting retired ten years from now. Can he say: 'I’m setting up my own business when I get retired'?

All the standard accounts stress the imminence of the future event, when using this tense form. Quirk et al (§4.44) do give a non-imminent example:

I'm leaving the university in two years' time.

They stress the need to have the more distant time explained in the context (e.g. when I've finished my studies). But the notion of imminence applies here too. To say I'll be leaving the university in two years' time is a straightforward statement about a future event. To turn this into the present suggests that the speaker sees this event as having some sort of current relevance. The notion of 'current relevance' is usually found with reference to the meaning of the present perfect; but it applies here too.

How to define this relevance? The critical point is that the use of the present progressive implies an element of forward planning. Quirk et al describe it thus: 'future arising from present arrangement, plan, or programme'. It refers to actions brough about by human endeavour. So it isn't possible to say The grass is growing next week. And to say He's dying next week could only refer to an execution. Rodney Huddleston makes a similar point about this form, in the Cambridge Grammar (§4.2.4): 'the future is determinable from the state of the world now'. In other words, there's always an element of scheduling.

So, with these considerations in mind, there's nothing at all wrong with my correspondent's example. The planning element is very much in the forefront of his father's mind.