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Should we be happy that the English language is changing?

Once upon a time

‘When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned,’ C. S. Lewis once said, ‘you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find an ordinary, neutral word comparable to “hand” or “nose”’.

In the half century since Lewis wrote, things haven’t changed very much. For the most part, the alternatives he mentions still define our lexical options for unmentionable body parts and actions; the Oxford English Dictionary records bum, arse, and buttocks, but it’s hard to think up a truly ‘neutral word’. At least some of these parts, though, do get mentioned publically a lot more today than they did when Lewis and Tolkien convened over a pint of beer. And the result is that words like vagina or penis or even navel don’t shock quite as much as they used to. Lacking shock value, they might in fact be moved from the lexicon of science to the neutral category for which Lewis looked in vain.

Whether this shift in register makes our English better or worse than the Inklings’ is the issue that often garners the most attention, particularly as English has become a global language, passing into new domains and acquiring new structures among a burgeoning population of second-language learners. In these circumstances, pundits lament the dissipation of historical standards, while moralists and linguists alike sometimes argue whether words create categories, or categories require words. Does the neutralization of words for the body ‘which are not usually mentioned’ produce a more tolerant (or permissive) society, then, or does a transformed society neutralize the words? A chicken-or-egg dilemma like this is difficult, maybe impossible, to resolve, and I leave it to readers to decide for themselves.

A living language

Change itself is what interests me. Of course, not all languages change. Except in very arch ways, such as the creation of astronavis for rocket ship, Latin today gains or loses a very few words. Unlike English, Latin has no native speakers (and precious few of any kind) and is not used in commercial or political domains – or even, except very narrowly, in educational ones. As a result, Latin can’t get better or worse. It can only be.

Things are much different for English. We might praise the increase of Lewis’s neutral words, or lament the decline of schoolbook punctuation, but the mere existence of such arguments (which in one form or another have been around for 500 years) means that the language is changing.

And there’s more reason to rejoice in this than in the demise of a specific word like groovy or the spread of one like blog. Change means that our language, whether we like all or part of it, is alive. It means that we speakers of English – two-thirds of us second-language learners – are alive. And it means this for both individuals and the societies in which they live.

‘There is at the present day, especially in England’, reads the preface to the 1847 revision of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, ‘a boldness of innovation of this subject [i. e., new words], which amounts to absolute licentiousness. A hasty introduction into our dictionaries, of new terms, under such circumstances, is greatly to be deprecated’. What Webster calls licentiousness, however, also could be considered an affirmation that a living language’s lexicon is shaped by living speakers. What really would be worth deprecating is the possibility of English never changing, whether in how individuals talk about what’s ordinarily bypassed in silence or in how societies like Victorian England reinvent words and the world together. The fact of change is of far greater consequence than its specifics or the direction that it takes.

Frick and Frack

Which brings me to Werner Groebli, who passed away in April of 2008. Along with Hansruedi Mauch, whom he met in 1936 at a skating rink in Basel, Switzerland, Groebli developed a comical ice-skating act that required athleticism, timing, and stage-presence. Groebli was known in particular for his ability to mimic the rigidity of a toy soldier – even while sliding smoothly around the ice – and to skate bent backwards at his knees, his head just above the ice, and then apparently to pull himself upright by a cane hooked over some invisible support. Together, Groebli and Mauch toured the world in the 1930s and 1940s, skated with the original Ice Follies, and even appeared in several films. Together, they were known as Frick and Frack. And whether it was because their act was successful, memorable, or ubiquitous – or maybe even because their Germanic backgrounds made them easy objects of laughter in the War years – their stage names passed into general American speech as an expression for two very close friends, sometimes friends who are the slightest bit goofy. Although Mauch retired in 1953 and died in 1979, the act continued with other Fracks until 1980, when Groebli retired at the age of 65.

Frick and frack remains in currency today, probably more so than some of the gutter words current in Lewis’s day. But it’s an old-fashioned and perhaps age-restricted expression, largely localized in the United States. And so I suspect that the expression frick and frack will someday glide into oblivion with Groebli and Mauch. Like many words, it will do so having lived a modest but useful and at times exciting life – the whimsical creation of whimsical individuals in tumultuous times. The times settled, and the phrase prospered, though it never gained much currency. And when and if it does die, frick and frack will leave behind a wonderful example of how speakers’ imaginations shape the contours of the English lexicon, a wonderful reminder of just how important change is.