Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I talk gibe

The recent auto-industry goings-on have put my friend David Shepardson (auto-industry reporter for The Detroit News) in the spotlight in all sorts of fun and impressive venues.1 He's a regular on the Diane Rehm show. He's almost got his own folding chair in Jim Lehrer's NewsHour studio. And until The Detroit News recently updated their photo file, his high school yearbook picture was a regular feature on Washington Journal during phone interviews with Peter Slen.

In the meantime... my Facebook page is booming!

This is one of those wonderful opportunities to tease Dave about something that I really don't think is embarrassing.

I recently received a copy of the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage. It's a hefty text. Each entry striving to provide both informative observation, and helpful advice. A snippet of Dave's writing is included as an example of benign but better-avoided alternate usage. He used jibes when he should have used gibes.

The argument is reasonable that, for the sake of simplicity, language should adopt only one form per sense. There's no reason to strive for two spellings if nothing but variety is accomplished by the alternation. But the argument that language should only accept one form is unrealistic. Language will always have some sort of redundancy. When studying language, and defending this fact from my descriptivist stance, I'm not saying that it should be this way or that language is better this way. I'm just saying that it is this way and it seems to work fine. And in language, acceptance is determined by what happens in that language. Language is as language does2

True -- Garner's advice is more concerned with the general confusion surrounding jibe/gibe/jive. I have no problem with that concern. But I don't really see how the example from Dave's writing could be confusing.

It's hard to say how representative the OED citations are on details like spelling. In citations for the verb "gibe/jibe" 15 of 16 examples are spelled with initial <g>; for the noun 6 of 9 in <g>, 2 in <j> and 1 in <i>. Of course we can't just take those numbers as representative of current spelling conventions because the earliest is from 1567 and the most recent is from 1893. So at least historically <gibe> looks to be the clear dominant form. But now?

A Google™ search runs into problems because we want to compare relevant forms only. We have to make sure that we're not counting instances of <jibe> meaning agree: read jive.

Garners Third Edition has introduced a Language-Change Index with such issues in mind. It's a wonderful contribution to the purposes of the text. In a coming post I'll take a look at the feature as well the work's other treatments of the prescriptivist/descriptivist dialogue.

1. Previously I've mentioned Dave's appearance in the America Heritage® Dictionary. Tho access to the AHD is no longer offered through Bartleby.com it looks like you can get to it through Yahoo Education. The entry for Mace is there intact with the citation of Dave's use of the word as a verb.

2. The terms of this claim deserve to be revisited and clarified.


  1. Boy, I'm glad you added there at the end what the "jibe" spelling was meaning to Garner, because for the life of me I couldn't see what he was getting at. "Jibe" for "jive" is new to me, though I can see how it would happen.

    But when one is 'a taunt' and the other is 'to agree' I'm not sure they can really be confused.

  2. I like your observation that "language is as language does". I used to think that in many ways language is perhaps the only truly democratic aspect of human life - words and their uses apparently being arrived at and agreed on by common consensus.

    But to what extent do the dominant elements of a society influence the way language is used? Businesses and governments can have a huge influence on the language at the very times when they are manipulating it for their own ends. Frank Luntz, for example, promoted the use of 'climate change' over 'global warming'. And in the UK, 'efficiencies' now means 'redundancies' and 'challenge' is used instead of 'problem.

    I should be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this when you revisit and clarify your claim. But I suppose, what I have iterated here still falls into the category of language being as it does.


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