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Who’s in charge of the English language?

‘Watson’, says Holmes, ‘when you lie here and see all those stars what do you think?’

‘Well, Holmes,’ says Watson. ‘All that grandeur and majesty. I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t someone in charge. How about you?’

‘Me?’ says Holmes, ‘I think: Who’s pinched the tent?’

Venus and Jupiter have been extra-bright recently and I told this joke to my daughter as we stood looking at them. When she didn’t respond I rattled off, as I always do when I look at the planets, ‘My very excellent Moriarty joke seriously upsets neurotic people’.

(It should be ‘mammoth’ but I wanted a Holmesian spin.)

‘If you can’t say something sensible, I’m off.’

‘It’s a mnemonic: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. Helps you remember the planets.’

‘Why would anyone want to do that?’

‘Well. You know. It might be useful.’

If, and it’s a Jupiter-sized if, I ever wanted to know, I’d google it.’

‘What if you didn’t have reception?’

Since I told her Homer Simpson’s doh was OED’s word of the day she won’t say it but is still able to convey with a glance pretty much the full force of that damning syllable and the unlikelihood of her ever venturing into such a remote location.

‘There are two M’s in your mnemonic, how do you know which is Mars and which is Mercury?’

‘I’ve got a mnemonic for that too: “Never put a Mars bar ’gainst the sun.”’

‘Anyway, Pluto’s not a planet.’

Who makes the decisions?

Watson’s response to the stars raises my favourite question about language: who’s in charge? In France they famously have the Académie française to tell them how to speak. It is the supreme authority of the French language. The Académie française has ruled, for example, that the French for email is courriel and for weekend it’s fin de semaine.

We don’t have a corresponding body for English but the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reckon they can tell us how to speak about astronomy. In 2006 they told us to stop calling Pluto a planet. Like President Snow from The Hunger Games they can’t stand underdogs. Every schoolchild and journalist has accepted it unquestioningly: looking though the newspapers for the last couple of years it seems that only the people who write the horoscopes have failed to catch on.

You can lead a horse to water

Meanwhile the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), on the face of it a similarly authoritative body, have been trying since 1990 to get Britons to spell sulfur, with an F. Scientists writing in their own journals, together with school exam boards and text books, have all taken IUPAC’s shilling but newspapers don’t take a blind bit of notice. It’s still a smell of sulphur that surrounds anything devilish in British newspapers.

This is normal. The French ignore their Académie and write about le email, and le weekend. The British ignore IUPAC and write about sulphur.

But everyone’s taken notice of the IAU. They really have been able to tell us what planet means even though it’s been around a lot longer than they have.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy not that far, far away

Planet has been an English word since at least 1300. It comes from the Ancient Greek, planētēs, meaning wanderer, because the planets wander among the fixed pattern of the stars, and Pluto, bless it, wanders more than most; sometimes it even wanders inside the orbit of Neptune, which no other planet can do.

Of course the Ancient Greeks didn’t call Pluto a planētēs. Nobody called it anything until 1930 when it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh. Pluto is a rock one five-hundredth the size of Earth which is far too faint to see with the naked eye. It really is an underdog.

Dogs, schoolgirls, and Greek gods

The name, Pluto, was suggested by an 11 year-old schoolgirl from Oxford, Venetia Burney. She, being a clever sausage, was thinking of the Greek god of the underworld. The Disney dog was named a few months later yet when I hear the word in my head it is Micky Mouse who speaks it. I must confess that its association with the canine cartoon character increases my sympathy for the rock. But sympathy doesn’t count in the world of astronomy and Pluto is a planet no more.

So that’s Watson’s question dealt with: nobody is in overall charge but the IAU do seem to be exceptionally powerful in their own area.

Holmes’s question is beyond me, but my sympathies are with him for his stolen tent, and with Pluto for its stolen status. My own problem remains; what to do with an outdated mnemonic.