Saturday, 21 April 2018

Et in arcadia Lego

What people say and the way they say it often grates with me. This is my problem rather than theirs, but as I've said elsewhere, I'm a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing, Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if I didn't have a gnome brandishing a red pen sitting on my shoulder  muttering 'That's wrong' all the time. Meanwhile, on my other shoulder, the Good Fairy of Descriptivism says 'No it's not. Take a chill pill. That's how language works.'

Politicians are frequent offenders, because of the need to produce verbiage at the drop of a hat (or maybe that should be at the thrust of a microphone). As it happens – with no particular political axe to grind – my latest irritant has come from the mouth of Theresa May, who in a Commons debate accused Jeremy Corbyn of letting anti-Semitism run rife in the Labour Party.

"Run RIFE"? The British National Corpus (hereafter "BNC")  has no instances of run rife, and 1 of ran rife. [With this and other BNC searches, click on the link and sit back while the search engine does its stuff – which might take a second or two, depending on the usual computicle variables: Your BIT-RATE May Vary] .

On the other hand, in BNC, with the searchstring * riot, run riot is 3rd most common with 44 instances, running riot is 11th most common with 16 instances, ran riot is 12th most common with 15 instances, and runs riot is 20th most common with 7 instances. Running is what happens in the vicinity of the word riot: or, as a bean-counter might say "run is the most common verb to appear in collocation with riot"; this search (for any verb preceding riot) confirms it; (the figures don't match; I don't know why [e.g. 44 instances of run riot according to the first search, but 36 in the second],  but they're in the same ball-park).

But whenever the prescriptivist gnome says "That's wrong" I risk coming a cropper. Another Corbyn-related word supplies an example, only this time he was the speaker; the word was ram-packed. When he used it I thought "Well, he means jam-packed, doesn't he, he just made up this new word to emphasize how people were crammed in [to a Virgin train, if you must know]."

BNC  is too small to have a statistically convincing number of examples of jam-packed, so I've turned to the less authoritative but much more populous {if that's the word – one populates a database, so no one can say people have to be involved} Google. Given the Google treatment,  jam-packed has more than nine million hits  – more than a match, I thought, for the arriviste "ram-packed" (which of course the Good Fairy says is fine, but...).

However, ram-packed is more than a match for jam-packed, as this search shows; 22.5 million, rather than a piffling 9.27 million. It was an arriviste to my limited ken, but not to English.  Wiktionary says it was formed from ram and packed (natch)
... originally (since at least the 1940s) literal, referring to something packed with a ram. (Possibly reinforced by the rhyming synonym jam-packed.)
So he who hesitates has a chance of getting things right.


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