Category Archives: Guest Posts

Language Changes?

James Lincoln Warren.
Photo: Reinhard Kargl

By James Lincoln Warren

I will rarely engage with people who want to argue with me about grammar and diction. They almost always open their salvoes with, “Language changes!”, as if I were utterly ignorant of this. Of course language changes. That is not the point.

Change is not a value, in and of itself.

The question people need to ask when they indulge in adopting certain changes is, “What value is in the change?”

If it is a constructive value, then well and good. If it is a destructive value, then bad.

Which naturally leads to the question, what values are we talking about, anyway?

The first and most obvious value of language is semantic clarity, but that isn’t its only function. It’s also used to promote or suppress emotions, for example. And it’s a very significant contributor to establishing group identity.

The way you talk and write is a lot like what you choose to wear. It projects your self-image. There is a distinct difference between long-lived styles and short-lived fads. It announces your sense of class. It may announce a desired impression: “I am refined”, “I am beautiful”, “I am rich”, “I am a rebel”, and so on. Image is also a value.

The forensic linguistic term for language used to establish a particular group identity is called its “register”. This includes slang, professional lingo, bureaucratese, regional dialect, and so forth. (When I was a student at the Mannes College of Music in New York back in the 70s, there was a student there named Arthur Wood or Woodley or something similar, who was a singer with a rich, sonorous baritone voice. He was from the Virgin Islands. When he talked to the other students, he spoke with a perfectly indistinguishable American accent—but when he talked to the school’s janitor, Wendell, also from the VI, he switched into a mellifluous Caribbean accent and a different syntax. It was like he was two different people—both of them very pleasant, I might add.)

Police are famous for having an international register that may not let you know where they’re from, but will definitely tell you the speaker is a cop. An example of this is the postposed “then”, meaning that “then” follows a noun instead of preceding it as is usually the case, viz., “I then proceeded to the station,” in lieu of “Then I went to the station.” (“Proceeded” is also a register marker, of course.)

This is not standard usage, but I have no problem with it, other than the fact that it lacks grace. It has value to its users.

Likewise with slang, although sometimes it fails when it pretends to be standard—I recently read a short phrase online wherein someone described himself as a “sapiophile”. I had never run across that word before, and couldn’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s because it’s actually slang. It’s supposed to mean “a person who likes intelligent people.” I think it’s highfalutin nonsense, used to try to make the speaker sound smart by using a word that seems sophisticated, with the connotation being, “if you don’t know what this words means, it’s because you aren’t as smart as I am, so I won’t like you.”

How is that adding value to the language?

The worst offenses, though, are those that reduce the meanings of words, like the ubiquitous “awesome”. It is now impossible to use that word to describe something that inspires awe. It used to be an age identifier, but that has long since evaporated, too. Now it’s just insipid.

But I’m not going to argue with anybody about it, one on one. Use of language absolutely is tied in with identity, and confronting someone with a consistent misusage is like rapping their knuckles everytime they make a mistake, punishing them for being stupid or slow.

Margaret corrects me everytime I make an error, but since part of MY identity is wrapped up in ensuring standard usage, I am grateful for the corrections. Plus, I usually know better than to argue with my wife.

So—please don’t justify using a barbarism on the grounds that language changes. I know it does. I am not trying to arrest changes. I’m only trying to weed out the bad ones.

[Guest post courtesy of James Lincoln Warren]

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A New Year’s Toast To Pope Gregory XIII

by Tim Thompson

Today, most of the world celebrates New Year. But that has been the case only since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which began to replace the older Julian calendar in 1582. The process lasted from 1582 until 1929, when the Soviet Union became the last country to abandon the Julian calendar (Greece switched in 1923). Most of the Catholic countries reformed their calendars quickly, in 1582-1583, while the non-Catholic countries followed rather slowly.

The British Empire and its colonies did not switch until 1752, well after most of the Founding Fathers of the USA were born, so it is necessary to distinguish between “old style” (Julian) and “new style” (Gregorian) dates in American history. For instance, we recognize George Washington’s birthday as 22 February 1732, but he was born on 11 February 1732, when the Julian calendar was in place; 22 February is the translation of the Julian date into the Gregorian date, pretending that the Gregorian calendar had been in force even in 1732.


The Gregorian calendar was adopted on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII [1502-1585], in order to fix the date for Easter, and return it to a date near the spring equinox (northern hemisphere), as it had been set in the First Council of Nicaea (20 May – 19 June, 325). The need to move Easter back to the right place in the calendar meant that when the new Gregorian calendar was adopted, 11 days were dropped, so that the day after Julian Thursday 4 October 1582 was Gregorian 15 october 1582 (5-14 October vanished).

Another big change was that the beginning of the new year moved from 1 March to 1 January. Leap day at the end of February was the last day of the year on the Julian calendar; leap day remained at the end of February, but now it seems incongruous, since there is nothing otherwise special about the end of February in the Gregorian calendar.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

The old Julian calendar had been established in 46 BC under the authority of legendary Roman Emperor Julius Caesar [100-44 BC]. It was a modification of the older (and already many times reformed) Roman calendar. In even older, ancient civil calendars, the seasons were not fixed (i.e., the equinox and solstice dates drifted from year to year). The Roman calendar had already fixed that problem, but in a very cumbersome way. The old Roman calendar had 12 months, but only 355 days, so the Romans adopted leap months instead of leap days, and some years were as long as 378 days, just to keep the seasons in line. The Julian calendar fixed that, and fixed the length of the average year at 365.25 days.

But the real year is about 365.2425 days (a fact already known to ancient Greeks, but ignored by Caesar). So the seasons slowly slipped, and by 1582, had drifted about 11 days out of sync. Hence, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar included slipping the calendar back to compensate. Also, the Gregorian calendar changes the rule for leap years, so that century years are leap years only if they are evenly divisible by 400. So, 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years, but 2000 is (and 2100 will not be). This small difference is enough to keep the civil calendar in sync with the seasons for about 10,000 years.

The Julian calendar and the older Roman calendars all started the new year in 1 January beginning about 153 BC. But in post-Roman Europe, the new year was usually moved to a date of Christian importance, such as Easter, the date of Annunciation (25 March) or the Nativity (25 December).

In post-Roman Anglo-Saxon England, the new year commonly began on 25 December, to align with both the pagan Winter Solstice and the Christian Nativity. When the Normans took over, they moved the new year to 1 January (1087-1155), then moved it to 25 March (1155-1751). In 1752, when the British Empire finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year once again moved to 1 January.

So you can thank Pope Gregory XIII (and the British Empire) for today being New Year.

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