On Being A Linguistic Canute | Vol. 3 / No. 43.3

“Addictive” is to “addicting” as “explosive” is to “exploding” | Image: This Week In Tomorrow, CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of King Cnut (often written as “King Canute”). The gist of it is, he put his throne into the rising surf on a beach, commanded the tide not to come in, and lo and behold it came in regardless. Often, this is misinterpreted as people saying Cnut was foolish enough to think he could stop the waves, but really the story is all about a man demonstrating to his flatterers that kingly power is meaningless in the face of things like the tides (Cnut being a Christian king, usually the story is about divine power, but if he’d been a modern-day freethinker I like to think he’d have gone with “the power of nature,” but I digress).

Remaining stalwart in the face of change, the story illustrates, is all well and good until it becomes apparent that the change is going to happen no matter what you do. This is the problem I find myself facing in my day job, as a graduate student and instructor of college-level English classes.

Because my students say things like:

  • That’s so addicting
  • Irregardless of that
  • A whole nother
  • I could care less

And so on.

These are unambiguously wrong from a grammatical (and honestly, sense-based) standpoint. “Addicting” should be “addictive” (see above); “irregardless” means the opposite of “regardless” (i.e. “not without regard to” or more simply, “with regard to”); “nother” isn’t even a word; and the expression should be “I couldn’t care less,” expressing that one cares so little, one could not care less — being able to care less would mean one does, in fact, care.

[Note however that the third example, “a whole nother” could arguably be an example of the rhetorical device tmesis, wherein one inserts words into other words between syllables for emphasis, for example “un-f***ing-believable,” in which case this would be better written “a-whole-nother.” I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s possible.*]

But frustrating though it may be, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that it literally does not matter what’s “right” or even what I think is right. Because in the English language the tide of change is forever coming in, and by the time my generation has grandkids we’ll not only have to deal with teenagers who can’t believe they used to let humans drive cars and that we used to kill living animals for food, but ones who also speak a version of English so far removed from ours today that we find ourselves saying “you know, when I was your age that word meant the opposite of that.”

Take the word “edgy.” In a recent discussion on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (a podcast you really ought to give a listen to) one of the hosts mentioned that his daughter thinks the word “edgy” means “uncool.” This had grown out of a discussion of the changing meaning of the word “cool,” which at first meant even-tempered even in adversity (cool-headed, Cool Hand Luke) and then shifted to a kind of nonchalance in the face of authority, then became a marker of noncomformity so removed from its earlier meaning that someone distinctly hot-headed could now be “cool.” The earlier meaning hasn’t gone away, but its meanings have multiplied and shifted over time. In a similar way, “edgy” came to be used sarcastically — “oh that’s sooooo edgy” — until it became synonymous with its opposite.

And it’s the same with grammar. Oh, I’ll keep telling my students that irregardless literally means the opposite of the thing they’re using it to mean, but in a language where “inflammable” can also mean “flammable” I really don’t hold out a whole lot of hope. So even if I make a comic like the one above, and rail against the names of websites like “addicting info,” I’m not going to let it push up my blood pressure.

Because the sea doesn’t listen to reason, and I’m not even a king.

[*Update: For the peculiar case of a-whole-nother, reader Linda points us in the direction of a two-part post over at Grammar Girl that suggests it may be neither tmesis nor infixing, but actually an example of a phenomenon called rebracketing — check it out!]


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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