Language Fluidity, or, Don’t Be Such a Nazi

Geoffrey Pullum recently wrote about “faith-based grammar”, railing against those who believe that “there are rules that we should follow even if native-speaking grammarians and fine playwrights and novelists disregard them”.

His point was that, if famous and excellent writers such as Lord Byron and E.B. White (no less the average speaker) use a certain grammar formation that goes against a perceived tradition, we’d be better off ditching said tradition and moving on.

In a previous post, Pullum quoted a correspondent saying “No way shall I ever be convinced to change this in my writing or listening”.

I concede that it’s tricky balancing following rules that are important for clarity and precision with flexibility in one’s perceptions and opinions and a healthy acknowledgment of the importance of context. I believe traditions should be followed only if they are useful. Language is fluid.

Linguistic fluidity also applies to words themselves. Even those that have negative connotations.

One example is the word “nazi”. Although its literal meaning is specific to the fascist, nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist German political party of the World War II era, the term is used today in a variety of colloquial usages. How is this acceptable?

I believe people are using the term “nazi” for the most part in a humorous way, such as with a charactonym.

The man who inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s creation, the Soup Nazi, wasn’t too pleased, but then he’s still profiting from the association over 15 years later. Obviously meant to play on the character’s overly strict regulations for his restaurant customers, the name highlights the absurdity of the situation.

“Grammar nazi” is a more widespread example (over 3 million search results on Google), again playing on the tendency of some to overemphasize the importance of correct grammar at the expense of others’ feelings or to constantly point out errors. In this case, the use of nazi in the phrase is also humorous, emphasizing the disproportion of the topic, grammar, with the vehemence of the person. There’s even a silly video exemplifying this phrase:

A third usage of this term is the pejorative “feminazi“, popularized by radio host Rush Limbaugh. Linking “militant” feminism, in particular abortion-rights activists,  with fascist nazism, this usage is not so much humorous as a dysphemism meant to disparage.

A less humorous example, but one that still reveals the change in meaning of words over time, is the use of “czar” for political appointees. Like “mogul”, “sultan”, or “kaiser”, the term originally applied to autocratic, totalitarian heads of state. The modern political usage is clearly metaphorical; drug and cybersecurity czars are civil servants, more advisors and overseers having nothing close to dictatorial powers.

Language flows over time. Sometimes, we apply rules that are antiquated (how many native English speakers use the supposedly proper construction “It is I” rather than “It’s me”?). Sometimes, we create neologisms that play on contrasts between historical atrocity and relatively benign obsessions. In the end, I think, common usage tends to triumph.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Language Fluidity, or, Don’t Be Such a Nazi

  1. Nana

    There is an interesting difference between how the Brits differ from Americans when referring to a cllective noun. The word family is a perfect example. Americans us the phrase “The family is having a party”, using the singular verb. While the Brits would say “The family are having a party”, using the plural verb.

  2. Exactly. Usage over rules… or at least, different rules for different contexts.

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