Those who think English is in decline fondly imagine that there is something about English in their own lifetime that spells the end of the language as we know it. The Queen’s English Society, for example, speak of ‘the decline in standards in its use’ (and, incidentally, believe they are the people to put things right).
Well, I have news for them. In 1946 George Orwell wrote ‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.’ Almost a century before that we find August Schleicher saying that English only showed ‘how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink’ and it was improbable that from such language-ruins the whole edifice will be raised anew.’ Instead, ‘the whole language is likely to ‘sink into mon-syllabicity’. In 1712 Swift complained ‘that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Imrovements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions . . .’ Similar things have been said over the centuries about French and German. Had these remarks had any truth in them we might have expected these languages to have all but disappeared by now. There is no reason to suppose that the lamentations of contemporary Jeremiahs will prove to be any more reliable.
I am prompted to post this by a reminder in Henry Hitchings’s ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English’ that words that we now use without hesitation were once considered unacceptable. Thomas de Quincey was appalled by ‘unreliable’, thinking that ‘unrelyuponable’ would be more correct. Swift detested ‘mob’ and ‘banter’. Benjamin Franklin was offended by the use of ‘progress’ and ‘advocate’ as verbs. Coleridge loathed ‘talented’. Fowler condemned ‘electrocution’ and ‘gullible’. One editor of the ‘New York Evening Post’ would not allow ‘artiste’, ‘pants’ or ‘standpoint’. In the eighteenth century one Edward Phillips, the author of ‘The New World of English Words’ disliked ‘autograph’, ‘ferocious’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘repatriation’. The tradition continues.