GETTING THE LEAD OUT. It may have been the writers' faulty grammar or a proofreader's oversight that admitted lead as the past participle of the verb to lead, at least four times in two articles by different authors in a single issue of the Idler. Perhaps the red-faced editor might be led, with apology to Hilaire Belloc, into hoping that although his typographical sins are scarlet the magazine is read.
PLAIN WORDS. Misspellings and the erroneous use of "classy" words are among Victoria Branden's pet peeves. In Defence of Plain English: The Decline and Fall of Literacy in Canada (Hounslow, 156 pages, $15.95 paper) provides numerous examples of how our language suffers from sloppy usage. Radio announcers, television commentators, newspaper columnists, and even her fellow English teachers receive the scorn and fury of the author's relentless attack. No prissy schoolmarm, Branden leavens her criticism with humour and classroom anecdote, to the point of admitting that she, too, makes the occasional slip. Why, even loathsome and Gerard Manley Hopkins are misspelled in the book. Nor can orientate (a word in common use for 150 years) still be considered as one of those "errors, in which verbs are mistakenly derived from nouns." Arguments that English is a practical means of communication, with no need for pedantic constraints on acceptability, may offer a convenient refuge for the lazy, the ignorant, or the unconcerned. Yet a language without rules could degenerate into a Humpty-Dumptyish anarchy where the meaning of a word became simply a matter of individual freedom of choice. A great strength of current English is that, despite its flexibility and accommodating nature, it allows us to remain in touch with classical literature.
Shakespeare, for example, can be understood by today's intelligent reader without heavy dependence on a glossary. Meanings and spellings do change over time, but the process should not be forced or indiscriminate. Branden's lively, provocative opinions will appeal to those who love the English language and want to see it well treated.
DURHAM, DURUM. "You mean Doorum," said the British Rail agent in New York a few years ago, in irritable response to my careful pronunciation of the name of the English city 1 wanted to visit. The Financial Post must have experienced similar confusion when it reported that Canada and the United States remain in dispute over the trade in "Durham wheat." Durum wheat, or just plain durum, which has nothing to do with Durham, gets the name because it is a hard variety of that grain. The French equivalent of the word's first three letters provides a clue to its origin.
DRAWING AND QUARTERING. Beverley Daurio, writing in the Australian magazine Meanjin about an execution in Tudor England, referred to "the drawing out of the bloody entrails" and described how the onlookers "watched in horror as [the victim] was drawn and quartered." Drawing, the first of several stages of barbaric punishment for offenders convicted of high treason under the old common law, did not originally mean their evisceration; it signified that the condemned felon was to be ignominiously drawn or dragged, either fastened to a hurdle or tied by the heels to a horse's
tail, to the place of execution. At the gallows, the prisoner was hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, disembowelled, forced to watch while the entrails were burned, and then beheaded. Quartering was the division of the body into four parts that, together with the severed head, remained at the monarch's disposal.
AS THE CROW FLIES. In a reference to unusually warm summer weather in the Yukon, Maclean's described the community of Old Crow as being "near the Beaufort Sea." Although geographical proximity is relative, especially in a large country such as Canada, it surely implies convenient accessibility. A statement that one lives near the sea, for example, suggests the possibility of going there for a day's outing. Old Crow is about 100 miles from the Arctic coast, with no road or direct river connection to it.
DEMEAN. Arguments about whether or not women in Canada should be allowed to go topless in public have produced charges that the practice is demeaning. Demean, in its earlier and now uncommon sense, stemmed from the Old French demener, and refers to the act of leading a life or operating a business. It survives today mainly in demeanour, for good or bad behaviour, and in misdemeanour, for wrongful conduct. Demean, a frequently reflexive verb to describe the lowering of status or reputation, arose from mean, as a synonym for inferior or humble. Yet demean, a popular equivalent of debase for the past three centuries, is disdained by Fowler's Modem English Usage as lying "commonest on the lips of the uneducated or in imitations of them." How would that austere authority have reacted to the words I once saw on a T-shirt in Jamaica? - "Sex is a misdemeanour: De more I miss, de meaner I get."