I had cause to call an electrician last week. I’d attempted to reposition security lights outside my house, but my knowledge of electrical circuits and power loads wasn’t up to scratch.
When the electrician saw what I’d done, he enthusiastically agreed that calling in a professional had been the right thing to do. He reckoned I’d been in imminent danger of electrocution, and shorting the electrical supply to my entire street.
This was serious stuff. The neighbours might have tholed my death, but interrupting Love Island wouldn’t have been tolerated.
I accepted the electrician’s assessment of my wiring, but not his terminology. He said it was “a dog’s breakfast”. The idiom has always been “a dog’s dinner” hasn’t it?
Well, no. It depends on the individual.
I’d describe a verbose person as, “talking nineteen to the dozen”. But some insist it is “ten to the dozen”. Yet others believe it to be “Twenty to the dozen”.
In all cases — dogs, dinners, nineteens and twenties — it is difficult to decide whose wording is best if the intended meaning is correct.
Other idiom abuses are clearly wrong. “Mute point” when “moot point” is intended, or a spelling of “slight of hand” when “sleight of hand” is the true version.
Others inhabit a grey area. I have a friend who insists “birds of a feather stick together”, when, clearly, “birds of a feather flock together” is the true version. Our meanings are the same, but we get into circular arguments over that stick/flock distinction.
The point I’m trying to get to here is that sometimes English usage depends on opinion.
I don’t like that.
I like rules. Well-defined, logical rules we can all stick to. I am firmly of the opinion that the English language should have a properly constituted body of scholars who consider usage problems and decide rights and wrongs.
Almost every other major language has a regulatory body. French has the Academie Francais, German has the Rat fur Deutsch Rechtschreibung. The Academie has ruled that the word “email” will not be used, replacing it with the French term “courriel”.
English has never had such a body.
However, on reflection creating a language/grammar/punctuation/spelling regulator would probably be a pointless exercise. I reckon 99.9% of our population would ignore, or be blissfully unaware of, any direction it issued. We don’t have rules at the moment — and no one sticks to them.
Word of the week
To put, or set forth. EG: “I will propone my opinions on language regulation. You may not agree.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org