August 18, 2004

Poor, Old English Language, He Hardly Knew You

Did anyone happen to catch the portion of the Olympics television coverage last night when they did the story about the ancient Olympics site where the shot put and some other events will be held? It was actually not bad. And then, Bob Costas (is that his name?) got to speak and he showed that the English language is probably close to being on its last legs. This is what he said as the other correspondent signed off:

Props to you Dan for a fine report.

My wife looked at each other in stunned disbelief. Did we just hear him say, "props"? In the land which gave us the word, "kudos"? He said it so matter of factly, in that faux-gravitas newscaster's voice, the one that makes everything sound so important and so significant. There was no hint of mockery or self-doubt. No sense that he was being forced to use this term by an ever increasingly youth conscious marketing department trying to reel in the younger viewers. Nope. He used it like it was a perfectly acceptable synonym for the eminently serviceable word, "congratulations". I admit that hoary old thing as 5 syllables to the 1 in "props", but still. Not a reasonable excuse.

Normally, I don't look to sportscasters for examples of good English. In fact, the opposite is true. My favorite sportscaster malaprop was in the Fall of 1985 when, while watching the pre-game to some college football game, the announcer said:

It's very unusual to have these two teams meet so early in the season. This game could have national championship implifications

That one is so good that I have to think sometimes, almost 20 years later, before I use the word implication because implication doesn't sound as important as implification.

But I digress.

The reason Mr. Costas has me so heated up is that there is no good reason to reject many of the excellent words English has put at our disposal to signify congratulations or approval in order to replace them with the darling of the rapper set: "props". In my head, a prop is something you find on a set. Kind of like Mr. Costas, come to think of it.

We may not speak the King's English anymore, but we ought to draw the line somewhere. The way you speak in this country, while not as serious a matter as it is in England, will still serve to either limit or expand your opportunities. Many first generation immigrants will tell you that they learned to speak English here from the television. Teaching them that "props" is an acceptable way to convey congratulations is a dis-service to these people and to anyone else who might be led to think it's now appropriate to walk into the CEO's office and say, "Ms. Smith, props to you on that fine presentation you gave to the analyst community on our new cost accounting recognition system." Can you see that happening?

There are standards and we have them for a reason. Even if mine is the lone voice in the wilderness crying out for rigor and adherence to these standards, so be it. I know my wife will keep me company, at least, and English isn't even among her first two or three languages.

Here endeth the rant. Please resume your normal activities. I think sometimes that if it weren't for this blog, I'd be that guy in the corner. You know the one, the guy muttering to himself who makes you think, did he take his meds?


I just read the following article about the value of memorization in teaching children proper English and I extract the following paragraph for your consideration (in which the author does a much better job than I have done in expressing why the dumbing down of our language is such a problem with real consequences for those cheated out of an education):

All these benefits are especially important for inner-city kids. Bill Cosby recently pointed to the tragedy of the black kids he sees “standing on the corner” who “can’t speak English.” “I can’t even talk the way these people talk,” Cosby said: “ ‘Why you ain’t. Where you is.’ ” To kids who have never known anything but demotic English, literary English is bound to seem an alien, all but incomprehensible dialect. Kids who haven’t been exposed to the King’s English in primary school or at home will have a hard time, if they get to college, with works like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. In too many cases, they will give up entirely, unable to enter the community of literate citizens—and as a result will live in a world of constricted opportunity.

It's like I posited above, if you think props is a real word, you constrict your opportunities.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 18, 2004 08:25 AM

I will join the fight. It is very sad to see the continuing degradation of the English language. It is somewhat ironic that I came into a love of the language at about the same time my generation started subverting it.

Posted by: Jim at August 18, 2004 09:02 AM

Welcome! I'm happy to go from lone voice to merry band.

Posted by: rp at August 18, 2004 09:05 AM

I, too, join in the fight! (please see my comment yesterday on this very topic) The beauty and elegance, nuance and richness of the language are slowly (inexorably?) being eroded by sportscasters, computer programmers, copy-writers, and many others. It saddens me tremendously.

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 18, 2004 09:26 AM

Yup, Queen, I figured you'd want in on this one, too. Welcome to our merry band of quixotic brothers (and sisters)!

Posted by: RP at August 18, 2004 09:36 AM

Sorry, I meant our quixotic band of merry brothers, of course.

Posted by: RP at August 18, 2004 09:38 AM

Dyslexics of the world, untie!

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 18, 2004 10:26 AM

I like this plan. I'm excited to be a part of it. I certainly want to do something that has real-world implifications.

But, seriously. There is a professor at the local university here who suggests that everyone learn ebonics, because she believes it is as valuable as any other language. What's happening is that instead of recognizing that "languages" such as these are bastardizations of proper English, they are being legitimized by people who have been convinced that they have value. Thank God people like Bill Cosby are speaking out.

Posted by: Linda at August 18, 2004 03:19 PM

<pedant>You dropped a syllable from the lovely word malapropism.</pedant>

Either that, or you made a brilliant pun on the [non]word "props." Nice essay.

Posted by: JohnL at August 18, 2004 03:51 PM

I wish I could take credit for a brilliant pun, because no one likes a good pun more than I do. I read somewhere that a good pun was like ordering a steak: it's a rare medium well done.

No, malaprop is a humble noun and, looking at the dictionary definition, I actually (Saints preserve us!) used it correctly:

n : the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar

This may have been the high point of my day right here!

Posted by: RP at August 18, 2004 05:01 PM

The best part was what followed what the Update quoted: "'Why you ain't; Where you is.' You can't be a DOCTOR with CRAP like that coming out of your mouth!!"

Walter Williams wrote a few excellent (though short} columns on the topic HERE, HERE and HERE. Good reading!

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 18, 2004 08:15 PM

And Bob Costas lost me as a fan when he hosted the openning cerimonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

There was a minute of silence scheduled to remember the victims of 9/11. So, there I was, settled in to absorb the minute of silence and, not five seconds into it, Costas utters "The current temperature is 31 degrees..."

He interupted the silence to talk about the f&#%#$n weather. I was watching alone and actually said out loud "SHUT UP!!!!!" What a dork.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 18, 2004 08:22 PM

Heh. That teaches me never to tangle with a litigator on the use of language.

I concede that malaprop is, in fact, a word. It doesn't appear in my American Heritage dictionary (don't have the OED handy). lists the following as the definition of malaprop: "a malapropism."

So, as a transactional (i.e., deal-making) attorney, we both win!

('Twould be a brilliant pun!)

Posted by: JohnL at August 18, 2004 11:00 PM

D'oh! I should have previewed before posting. That last sentence should read:

"So, as a transactional (i.e., deal-making) attorney, I say we both win!"

Posted by: JohnL at August 18, 2004 11:02 PM

RP, props to you for finding such implifications here.

I am fully with you on this one. In Australia teaching grammar was banned from schools when I was about 9 but I was grateful for the lessons I had until then. It seems cunning linguists confuse evolving language, pidgin dialects and the end of civilisation as we know it. It's an easy mistake to make.

Posted by: Simon at August 19, 2004 05:00 AM

I agree, TS, I have really come to dislike Bob Costas a lot. And now that you mention it, I also remember his interrupting the moment of silence and how angry I was.

John, I understood your comment even without the clarification, although I also understand and sympathize with your need to come back and correct the record. I do that all the time. I mark it down as a professional hazard.

Simon, have they really stopped teaching the rules of grammar or are you joking?

Posted by: RP at August 19, 2004 09:32 AM

I actually have a presentation almost completed on bad English in business. I put it together partly to maintain my own sanity (e.g., impact cannot be used as a verb unless one is referring to dental matters) and partly because people occasionally ask me to proof-read things. But I don't think I could get anyone to attend a full presentation on the topic, so I haven't offered my services to my company's communications or learning teams after all. They might think I'm weird... or worse, irrelevant. Often the comment I receive to a grammatical correction is "well, they knew what I meant".

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 19, 2004 02:51 PM

As a translator I often think about English language, i.e. about what I write at work and what I say in everyday conversations... It's like two different languages. The simplicity is often good but I really feel bad about it as we're loosing a significant part of the culture.

Posted by: Mary at October 25, 2004 12:56 PM
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