The Farce of “Good” English

Posted on Posted in The BMU Blog

(Adjective, informal.)

Definition: (of a woman) sexually attractive.
Example: “This bootylicious Texan knows what it takes to be a pop diva.”

That’s a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). If you don’t believe me, you can have a look for yourself. In the off-chance that you don’t own a copy of a dictionary like your grandfather once did, here’s the link to OED’s official page for the term “bootylicious.”

In September 2004, the fine people over at OED decided to add the word first coined by Snoop Dogg in 1992 and then popularised by Destiny Child’s hit single in 2001 to their “prestigious” annual publication. There was uproar. There was chaos. There was mayhem! Alright, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the linguistic community did have its naysayers and doubters. They furiously questioned, “How dare they tarnish the beautiful language of English in such a vile manner?!” Imagine old British men with white wigs saying this, it makes the entire scenario just that much more amusing.

This is a dilemma that’s plagued writers and linguists for decades, if not centuries. Who decides what kind of language is good, correct, or worth learning more about, and what gives them this authority? Surely, if they were going to add expressions like “bootylicious” all willy-nilly, they couldn’t be trusted. Well, whoever they were, this wasn’t the last time they committed such blasphemy.

In 2013, the OED added the verb “twerk.” In 2014, “cray.” And in 2016, “YOLO.” Each time, there was international outcry from traditionalists about the sanctity of the English language. There were Englishmen turning in their graves, they claimed. But I didn’t and still don’t quite believe them.

Most of our lexical innovation comes from minority communities and the youth, a facet of language that though widely denied by purists is irrefutably true – much to their distaste. Take Shakespeare for example: linguistic freedom gave him the ability to invent over fifteen hundred words and phrases, adding to English etymology in a way that was never before seen. We must, by all means, remember that English was absorbing terms from other lands due to colonisation when Shakespeare began writing plays. The language was rapidly transforming, but I’m sure there was a puritanical playwright lecturing him about how he can’t just haphazardly ruin the good name of English like that.

English has certainly become a contemporary global language, marked both formally and informally as the language for business, politics, and media. As of now, about twenty percent of the world speaks English, standing as the third most extensively spoken language behind Chinese in first place and Spanish in second. But it is constantly in flux, evolving into something different, and adapting to society’s ever-changing needs. Even if that need is a very specific way to say a “photograph that one has taken of oneself,” i.e.: the selfie.

This is why “good” English is a sham. Sure, writing can be grammatically flawless, punctuated perfectly, and follow all the rules that your English teacher once taught you. But that doesn’t make it good. That just makes it correct. (And the decree of correctness is always changing anyway, depending on what year, country, or institution you’re writing in.) Good English is a representation of culture; a snapshot of the most important moments and sentiments; a pattern that best communicates emotion, captivates interest, and informs collective reflection.

So the next time you listen to a rap song in which the rapper be spittin’ like this, notice a first-generation English speaking Indian talking like this only, or catch yourself creating a new word to describe a unique feeling, erase the elitist attitude you’ve been conditioned to believe in. These junctures of language are critical elements of a neologism; Remember that good English is about capturing the critical nuances of identity and lived experience. Who knows? Maybe your new word will be the next “swagger,” “hobnob,” or “twerk.”

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