English is fantastic

I am a closet pedant. Yes, I admit it.

When I hear people say something like “I’ll try and do it better”, I inwardly wince.

When I hear people use a word like ironical (instead of ironic), I die a little death.

However, in the latter case at least, it turns out that my annoyance could be misplaced, and in fact, the “-ic” versus “-ical” question is a bit of an unresolved mystery. In fact, it seems like it points to some weirdness going on in the English language.

The problem arises because you can turn many nouns into adjectives by adding a various suffixes. Some common ones are the “-ic” suffix (e.g. history becomes historic), the “-ish” suffix (e.g. book becomes bookish), the “-al” suffix (e.g. nation becomes national), and the “-y” suffix (e.g. box becomes boxy). However, suffixes can be added to other suffixes, and you can easily end up with abominations.

Why do we need words like ironical, symmetrical, or problematical, when ironic, symmetric and problematic are already doing a fine job?

I admit that there are a few places where the “-ic” and “-ical” adjectives have different meanings, such as historic(al) or economic(al). However, it seems that solid differences are the exception, rather than the rule.

I recently came across this study by Stefan Th Gries, which takes a deep look into the literature on this matter and also draws new conclusions based on a statistical investigation of a large corpus of English texts. The conclusion that I came to, after reading it, was that differences between the “-ic” and “-ical” adjectives seem to vary between regions and across time. Sometimes the variants of an adjective move further apart and then move closer together again. They are words that are pegged to the meaning of the underlying noun, but by dint of being separate words, have separate lives.

It reminded me of the theory of genetic drift. At least, to the extent that as difference in utility between using the “-ic” or “-ical” variant is so slight, it may be essentially random population effects that could be driving the frequency of using a particular variant for a particular purpose. Some variants happen to become sufficiently popular for a particular use, and that meaning becomes stuck.

I have now realised that here in Melbourne, we have two old gardens that are relevant to this discussion. The Royal Botanic Gardens were founded in 1846, while the Royal Zoological Gardens were opened in 1862. (In fact, animals were kept in the Botanic Gardens until the Zoo opened.) Even though these places were named around the same time, one has an “-ic” style name and the other has an “-ical”. The word “zoologic” seemed to have by then (and still today), for whatever reason, fallen out of fashion, while its companion word, “botanic”, continued to be popular.

I am going to continue to despair for those people that use “ironical” but I think I’ll cut the others a bit of slack.

4 thoughts on “English is fantastic”

  1. Another interesting article. My pet hate is people using ironic when they mean coincidence.
    Coincidentally (or is that ironically?), a new series of Stephen Fry’s English Delight started this morning.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lv1ln

    I don’t know if the link will work outside the UK.
    Oh & I didn’t realise it is the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, I’ve been calling them the Botanical Gardens all these years!

  2. @Mrs T, thanks for the link to the Stephen Fry radio show. I do love Stephen Fry. There’s a travel program of his showing on TV here at the moment, and it’s a delight to see him driving around the United States but not being recognised by anyone.

  3. The Stephen Fry in America programme is very interesting. I don’t know how he managed to find some of the things he did…..

  4. Dear Andrew

    Please forgive me emailing you in such a seemingly cold fashion. I wondered if you might like a mutual link to both my Foreign word site and my English word website or press release details of my ensuing book with Penguin Press on amusing and interesting English vocabulary?

    http://www.thewonderofwhiffling.com

    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)

    (www.themeaningoftingo.com)

    adamjacot@fastmail.co.uk

    or wish to include:

    1) THE MEANING OF TINGO
    When photographers attempt to bring out our smiling faces by asking us
    to “Say Cheese”, many countries appear to follow suit with English
    equivalents. In Spanish however they say patata (potato), in Argentinian Spanish whisky, in French steak frites, in Serbia ptica (bird) and in
    Danish appelsin (orange). Do you know of any other varieties from around the world’s languages? See more on http://www.themeaningoftingo.com

    2) THE WONDER OF WHIFFLING

    The Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine
    coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under
    and elsewhere).
    Discover all sorts of words you’ve always wished existed but never knew,
    such as fornale, to spend one’s money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and
    petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a
    dry spell.
    Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it
    is you wouldn’t want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow
    seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and
    why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else. See
    more on http://www.thewonderofwhiffling.com

    with best wishes

    Adam

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