The OED Word of the Day is ‘eady’, an obsolete term meaning ‘fortunate’.

Random observation about the OED—the word is spelled ‘eady’ in the headword, but there are no examples in the quotes that use that spelling. The actual texts chosen use the following: eadig, eadigne, edi, eadi, æidi, eadge, eadiȝ, eædi and eddi. Under forms, the OED lists 33 spellings, none of which are the one in the headword. There are no examples of the word ‘eady’ spelled with those letters before the word drops out of use altogether, but the word is still spelled ‘eady’. I believe the intent is to indicate that if the word had survived until Early Modern English and the age of modern standardized orthography, it would probably have been spelled eady. I mean, what do you do in a modern dictionary with words that never had standard spelling?

I was just going to leave it at that random observation, but it occurs to me that it’s a decent hook to talk a little bit about my philosophy of the English language. I have described myself as a recovering stickler, which is as accurate as it might be—I grew up a prescriptivist and indeed a stickler, of the kind that gets cross about speaker-modifying ‘hopefully’ and split infinitives and so forth. At some point in my early 20s I abandoned that position and called myself a descriptivist, meaning (I think I recall) that I rejected the notion that the correct writing was inherently superior to the vernacular, and that the now-obviously-to-me-arbitrary rules dictated Good Writing. Since then, my attitude has changed a few times, mostly as I’ve learned that many of the rules I had been a stickler about were not merely arbitrary but essentially fictional—invented by people who just wanted them to be rules, and were not evident in Good Writing before or after.

And then there’s orthography. Spelling particularly, but also punctuation and capitalization and so forth. The notion of orthography meaning correct writing is of course ahistorical nonsense—we’ve decided that the word should be spelled horse, but we could have decided on hors and the graph wouldn’t have been any less ortho. Words should be spelled correctly because we’ve decided that they should be, and part of that is so that dictionaries can have a single headword and put it in alphabetical order. And that’s awesome. But it isn’t in some arbitrary sense correct.

What it is, is it’s a social norm. It’s like… oh, it’s like wearing shoes. It’s not necessarily wrong to go barefoot in the US these days, but it’s going to make some people upset, and it’s going to make your life more difficult because of that. And I think perhaps I should call my attitude toward English a norm-based attitude. I believe we should adapt to the social norms of English because they are norms, not because they are logical rules, or historically rooted, or simply correct. It’s less accurate to say that we should spell words correctly and more accurate to say that it’s helpful to use the standard spelling of words. And the advantage, I think, in having a mindset that considers these things norms, is that it makes sense to follow social norms, even if the norm itself doesn’t make sense.

And, of course, sometimes it makes more sense to break that norm. And sometimes the norms change—there was for a while a norm that speaker-modifying hopefully was bad, and now there really isn’t. Except among people who loathe it! Because norms are not global, nor even really regional. Subcultures have norms that are entirely legit, and maneuvering between them is tricky, not because one is correct and another inferior, but because they are different, and you need to pay attention to them. And also, often enough people will claim that things are social norms which indeed are not, and sometimes never have been.

So, having a norm-based attitude toward the English language isn’t any simpler than being a descriptivist or a prescriptivist. Ah,well. The only advantage, really, is that when I tell myself to follow rules that seem like nonsense to me, I can say: this is building community! I’m contributing to a web of interconnectedness by replacing restrictive which with that! At the same time, it provides me with a context for deprecating the use of less where I might use fewer or nauseous where I might use nauseated. By not being a stickler, I am adhering to social norms, and again, contributing to a web of interconnectedness! Now, about the grocers’ apostrophe…


One Response to “eady”

  1. Jed

    Well said. I especially like the part about building community.

    (…Another topic that I think is related to the general kind of thing you’re talking about: Money is a cultural construct, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to the way we live our daily lives. Cultural constructs aren’t quite the same thing as the kinds of norms you’re talking about, but I think the general idea is related.)


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