The deepest sort of evil manifests itself (almost by definition) at the oddest, most unexpected times; as when the sweet little girl’s gently spinning top turns out on closer examination to be her head rotating as she projectile-vomits both verbally and ectoplasmically; or again as when evil rears its (in this instance not necessarily rotational) head on an internet mailing list devoted to that loveliest, most dulcet and least devilish of musical instruments, the recorder.
The recorder list is the most international of gatherings and, though its dealings are generally in English, a good number of its goodly folk have a language other than English as their mamaloschen; why only the other day someone (who may well have had nothing but English as their mamaloschen) asked for a translation of the title of a piece of music, to which they were helped (I did mention the goodliness and lack of evil didn’t I). Then, in the way of mailing lists everywhere, sides were tracked, and in one of these side tracks, one that got us shunted onto ‘correct English usage’ with a touch of ‘the decline of English’ for good measure, someone (whose mamaloschen obviously wasn’t English) asked about the distinction between “less” and “fewer”. And several of us explained kindly (I did mention the goodliness and lack of evil didn’t I).
Then Gary S. replied.
Gary replied---and the Prince of Darkness moved a bit closer to the fire and warmed his bum and smiled, as the sibilant Gary hissed his reply:
“The purpose of language is communication.”1 he wrote, and so far so well, but then added
“If you can get your point across then you have succeeded. It doesn't matter if you used 'fewer' or 'less.'” and here the PoD pokes the fire and perhaps tosses another orphan on to roast,
“And yes, I'm an American. However, I have been to England three times and have never heard anyone speak the language of Chaucer so don't tell me that language doesn't change on the British Isles.” the which telling to him I don’t believe anyone was attempting, the furthest they went in that direction being to suggest that one should try to use language carefully---And the PoD chuckles and the heads start a-spinning on their necks, and those who love language start a-spinning in their graves (many of them having just killed themselves in order to do so), as our Gary finishes with the flourish
“Can we all just get off our high horses and go back to talking about the subject of this group?”High Horses!? That’s the evil and up-nose-getty end, and I’ve a good mind to reach down and give him a good sharp thwack on his nose with my riding crop!
And I was just about to do so and reply in ringing tones on the list when I thought “Nah! this thread really is too OT” (as we say in the lists) “and anyway why not make lemonade of this lemon-sour attack, while at the same time saving myself the agony of thinking up yet another essay subject, by gently abusing Gary to the world at large”---so here goes:
Yes, Gary, speech and its cousin writing are both about communication; and, no, it probably doesn’t decrease the gettability of your point by much to use ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’, largely and distressingly because that distinction is now pretty-well moribund; however humans live in a world of language and we need, and we thrive on, other things than the basic “Give Mongo food!”, “Give Mongo woman!” or the ever popular “Look out! Runaway 16-wheeler barrelling down road behind Mongo!”
Compare language with eating, as Mongo just did inadvertently: Gary is castigating us for preferring to dine on a fine meal in elegant surroundings (with maybe a recorder consort playing some taffelmusic in the background), rather than cramming down some vile and lardaceous junk food in a greasy spoon while the asbestos removal team works on the ceiling above us with jackhammers.
Not only that, but it seems obvious that when good folk don’t care about language, then it is so much easier for the evil folk to triumph: those vile creatures who lie and conceal and cheat with what they say, or worse spin it and doctor it.
Cheerio for now
1 For the broadcast the American elements were voiced over by Ron-the-Landlord . R-t-L can be found here too.
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