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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2000-09-3)

What is correct English? There isn’t such a thing, of course, if your time-scale is extensive enough. What Shakespeare wrote quite often requires some scholarship to make its meaning clear and he lived only 400 years ago. Chaucer, who deserves much of the credit for Modern English, died just six centuries ago and people who can read Chaucerian English at sight are few indeed.

Even in the four centuries since Shakespeare, some words have not just changed their meanings but appear to have reversed them. In his tragedy Hamlet, the characters Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio are on the battlements of Elsinore; the Ghost beckons to Hamlet to follow him. The others try to restrain him, and Hamlet shouts: “Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen. By Heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.”

In other words, “I’ll kill anyone who hinders me”. So “let” here means “hinder” or “prevent”, but in our time nearly always means the opposite, “allow (to go or come), permit.” How did this come about? Well, as it turns out, the word has two derivations, both from Old English (Anglo-Saxon): “letan” with a long “e” or “ae” meant to permit; “lettan” with a short “e” meant to hinder.

This obstructive meaning of “let” has almost disappeared, but there are two instances at least where it survives. One of them is in our passports, which (we hope) will allow us “to pass freely without let or hindrance”. The other is much more familiar, in the Wimbledon net-judge’s squawk of “Let!” when the server’s ball touches the net-cord and his game is hindered by having to take the service again.

Yes, languages change and English is no exception. But if we employ a time-frame shorter than centuries, such as one lifetime, it is worth while - and within our power - to ensure that it changes as slowly as possible and to preserve its subtleties for their own sake.

But what is correct English? What defines it? One of the participants in SAfm’s Sunday morning programme Word of Mouth put it rather neatly: it is the “consensus eruditorum” – the agreed opinion of learned men. And where, pray, is that to be found? Well, let’s try a good dictionary for a start. Just for fun, write down your definition – as long as you like - of the word “pristine”. Then look it up in a decent dictionary and see how close you came and how much you missed.

Ulysses Online

”Pristine” means “original, former, belonging to the earliest time”. If you restore something to its pristine condition, you simply restore it to its original state. Of course, over time, it came to mean “pure, unspoilt”, but it now means a lot more besides.




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