How language evolves

Like many older people, I tend to find some new ways of speaking grating. I still wince at the increasingly common use of the response “I am doing good” when someone is asked how they are. The same with “I could care less”. And the word ‘nucular’ drives me up the wall. I am not enough of a rude pedant to actually correct people when they speak like that, taking such liberties only with my own children when they pick up these ways of speaking from their friends.

At one time I did notice several people pronouncing that word ‘mischievous’ as ‘michievious’ and when a close friend of mine did so, I knew her well enough to ask her where she had picked it up. She had not even been aware that there was an alternative pronunciation and that her use was not the most common.

And that is really the issue. The written word can often be ambiguous as to how it should be spoken. Take for example the word ‘awry’. For the longest time, I used to think it was ‘aw-ree’ until I heard someone say it and it dawned on me that the strange word he was using was one that I knew. There are many other words that I knew from reading that I did not know how to pronounce because I had never heard anyone use them. In Sri Lanka, the word ‘robot’ used to be widely spoken as if the ‘t’ were silent and it took me a while to get used to hitting the ‘t’ after I came to the US.

But I have to also remind myself that what we now consider the ‘correct’ way of speaking may have once been considered wrong, and what we now seek to rectify may have been the standard. This is particularly so when it comes to pronunciation, as David Shariatmadari writes. For example:

Wasp used to be waps; bird used to be brid and horse used to be hros. Remember this when the next time you hear someone complaining about aks for ask or nucular for nuclear, or even prescription. It’s called metathesis, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process.

There will always be a tension between those who want to preserve the usage they are familiar with and those who break the rules. That’s what makes living languages so much fun.


  1. says

    If you haven’t read John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, I highly recommend it as a layperson’s guide to the processes of language change.

  2. machintelligence says

    Wasp used to be waps; bird used to be brid and horse used to be hros.

    Good. I intend to have a bowl of pasghetti for lunch.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I agree that McWhorter’s book is great and I discussed it here. If you search on his name on my blog, you will find that I mention him several times.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the word I heard as ‘epitomy’ was in fact the same as the written ‘epitome’ I came across now and then, which I assumed rhymed with ‘tome’.

    I still get annoyed by ‘nucular’, and people who seem to drop the first ‘l’ in ‘fulfil’. Most grating, though, is the pronunciation of ‘coup de grâce’ as ‘coo de graw’. Finishing someone off with a slab of bacon fat?

  5. Jockaira says

    Eisenhower was more famous for “nuculer” and was never corrected in public. Even in a conversation when another was saying “nuclear” he always said “nuculer. I think it’s a really good idea not to argue with the guy who was credited with the command responsibility of winning WWII.
    Mano, I am taking your language critiques with boxcars of salt. You split so many infinitives that one would think that you had an endless supply of them. Is the universe large enough to contain all your split infinitives?

  6. says

    What drives me up the wall around the Baltimore area is “Geeze La Wiz”

    Not “Geeze Louise”. Which rhymes and makes sense. “Geeze La Wiz”. Pronounced as three words.

    I…just don’t understand it.

  7. Scr... Archivist says

    There will always be a tension between those who want to preserve the usage they are familiar with….

    I believe that you mean “the usage with which they are familiar…”.

  8. colnago80 says

    Re #9

    The denizens of Baltimore also pronounce the name of their town Balimore, leaving the t silent.

  9. says

    Haven’t heard “Balimore”.

    I have heard “Balmer” tho. Sometimes it even sounds like “Bomber”. As in, “take a left on bomber street”.

  10. says

    I am not enough of a rude pedant to actually correct people when they speak like that, taking such liberties only with my own children when they pick up these ways of speaking from their friends.

    Most people don’t like to be corrected, even when they know they are wrong. I sometimes get Americans trying to correct me when I use Britishisms (e.g. “I haven’t any” instead of “I don’t have any”) or valid spellings (e.g. centre, cheque).

    In social circles and online, I don’t correct or mock people who can’t write, but I don’t have to take them seriously either. A person’s ability to write is generally indicative of the value of their opinions. When it comes to students or the workplace, however, the same applies as you say about your kids: if they say it or spell it wrong, they have to do it again. Who wants their work negatively affected by others who can’t or won’t write properly?

    The change of language over time is fascinating, how languages came to be as they are. Verbs are a great indicator of change in English (especially influences of the Norman conquest and vikings), from most recent to oldest:

    -ed endings (play, played)
    -t endings (learn, learnt)
    vowel changes and participles (take-took-taken)
    unchanging (cut)

    There’s also the Great Vowel Shift, which makes for interesting reading and listening. The meat of the presentation begins at the 2:00 mark, showing the sound of vowels about 700 years ago, before the shift.

    It’s amusing to note that a presentation on English was given by a German referring to the work of a Dane.

  11. says


    hros for “horse” doesn’t appear to have really been a thing in Old English. In Old Norse, yes, where the normal word for an equine was hross and I’m sure there was some bleedover during the Viking Age in England, but I don’t know if that usage was ever really widespread.

    I’m all against prescriptivism, like any good linguist, but I will fight “nucular” until the day I die. Drives me insane, probably because of G.W. Bush.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    nkrishna @14:

    I will fight “nucular” until the day I die

    Me too, but it’s hard to combat the vernaclear.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    I often wondered if George W. thought that the center of an atom was the nuculus. Of course, he probably skipped that lecture, or was high and drawing hilarious little cartoons of people being waterboarded while the subject was discussed.

  14. Timothy says

    Interesting discussion. And what are people’s thoughts on the pronunciation of foreign words introduced in the English world?

    For example:

    Fajitas: “Fah-jee-tas” or “Fah-hee-tas”?

    Gyros: “Yee-ros” or “Jiy-rose”?

    Quebec: “Kay-bec” or “Qwee-beck”?

  15. Holms says

    “I could care less” may as well read “I care somewhat”.
    “It’s cold out” …outside. It’s cold outside, dammit.
    “I’ll write you” …a letter? An email? An essay?

    Curse you, american speech mannerisms! Curse yooooouuuuu!

    Also, misuse of ‘literally’ will earn my immediate scorn. “I used the new Ab Cruncher 5,000 [or whatever], and my weight literlly melted away!” RAAAAAAAGE!

  16. Mano Singham says

    I tend to go with what I sense the locals say, so I say Fah-hee-tas and Qwee-beck with a shorter first syllabus, like ‘qwe’. I have real problems with gyros. I have no idea which way to say it so I just mumble.

  17. estraven says

    This all amuses me so much, because I was a double major in English and linguistics as an undergrad–and believe me, the two were at loggerheads sometimes. Not that I don’t have my pet peeves–I most certainly do! : )

  18. Mary Jo says

    What drives me up the wall: the acronyms SCOTUS, POTUS, FLOTUS. They sound like bacterial infections. I wish they would go away.

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