Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Dr. Language Guy Returneth

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The English language is rich, complex and idiosyncratic, filled with nearly a million words.  Yet, most of us – me – constrain ourselves to three to four thousand at most.  Although we should attempt to broaden our base of words, there are some words and phrases that we should just not use.

No, I don’t mean George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television.  A number of you drop f-bombs left and right.  Even I do occasionally, just not as effectively.

No, I mean those archaic forms or trite phrases that we don’t ever get right.  Ever.

Whence and Thence

Whence means from what place; from where.  Thence means from that place or therefrom.  Since the ‘from’ is already included, there is no need to add it in a sentence but we invariably do.  If noted authorities like the English legal system and author Jane Austen can’t get these words correct, what chance do we have?

“You shall be taken to the place from whence you came, and then hence to a place of lawful execution, and there you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and afterwards your body shall be buried in a common grave within the precincts of the prison wherein you were last confined before your execution, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

–The formal death sentence of the English legal system

“Away ran the girls, too eager to get in to have time for speech.  They ran from the vestibule into the breakfast-room, from thence to the library …”

–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

From whence translates literally as ‘from from where’ and from thence as ‘from from that place.’  It’s nonsensical and redundant.  So, unless you are giving a formal death sentence (appropriate in certain circumstances) or speaking in literary circles like Jane Austen’s World, don’t use these words.  You’ll get them wrong.

Whilst and Amongst

Okay, you can use these words.  Whilst means while; amongst means among.  I just prefer while and among.  However, amongst friends, you may use these words whilst writing.

They control their own destiny.

How many times do I have to hear this phrase from ex-jock commentators?  “This team controls its own destiny.”  Even commencement speakers, like Dr. Oz, tell students “to control their destiny.”  Oh, yeah?  Destiny is defined as ‘the seemingly inevitable or necessary succession of events.’  If it’s inevitable, how can you control it?  You can’t.  Maybe you can affect your future but you cannot control your destiny.

It fell between the cracks.

“This legislation fell between the cracks” says some late night political pundit.  The space between the cracks is filled.  Between is defined as ‘in or through the space that separate two things.’  The space that separates two cracks in the floor is the solid area of the floor.  If something falls and is lost, it falls into the cracks, not between them.

Whilst you ponder on these words of wisdom before they fall between the cracks, Dr. Language Guy, in control of his own destiny, returneth from whence he came.

Your Letter of the Twelfth Inst

[With apologies to all Victorian letter writers.]

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Great Balderdash, Falls-on-Potomac

November 22, 1871

My Dearest Friend:

In re your letter of the twelfth inst, I am shocked to realize that a great misfortune has occurred wherein my last post has somehow conveyed to you unnecessary hardship in its reading, the poorly administered cause of which is entirely my fault.  Believe me when I say that such an unfortunate and distressful outcome is the last emotion I wish to express and even now as I write these words causes me great distress to think that there has been a misunderstanding whose result may break that mutual bond so lengthily constructed and for which I have the most sincere and foursquare concern.

No scurrilous knave, unspeakable cur, enterprising rogue or devious scoundrel could have erected such a formidable barrier to our friendship as has occurred by a simple whim, a mere fancy, a jot so insignificant as to be inconveniently overlooked and misplaced within my last missive and by whose existence has the modest incivility of this slight action been overshadowed with the enormous barbarity of my inadvertent words, the resulting outcome of which has placed our relationship in such precarious jeopardy and confers upon it a deed most foul.

I do hope that the undertakers for the incomparable and advantageous design of the speedy and safe conveyance of letters and packets (under a pound weight) to all parts of the cities, high roads, streets and suburbs thereof will have ordered their messengers, who collect such letters at any of the places aforesaid, to promptly discharge their duties and rapidly transport my reply of deepest regret to you. 1

Lest I be remiss, let me redress my words.  When I stated that you have the capacity for drawing liquid out with your mouth, I was only admiring your demonstrative skills to pull on something irresistibly, like the pull of the Sun on the planets or the Moon on the tides.  When I wrote of you in a way that implied irritation or annoyance, I dare say I only meant to call attention to your unerring ability to discomfort others by your incomparable talent in presenting indisputable and irrefutable facts in excruciating detail.  And, of course, my reference to your origins was not to cast aspersions on your genealogy but was by way of comparison a measure of your originality and uniqueness.

If, after all my aforementioned efforts to postulate my remonstrance and articulate my deepest remorse, you remain steadfast in your resentment and cannot be mellowed by the earnestness of my words nor by the long-standing nature of our relationship, I must then, with all due respect, retract my apology and repeat my original contention that you still suck, you insufferable bastard!

These words notwithstanding, I have in this, as always, the honor to be, very respectfully, your most humble and very ob’t. serv’t.,

 

1 From William Dockwra’s 18th century advertisement in the Mercurius Civicus as presented in JaneAustensWorld.