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Enjoy & Learn

English Rules
Of Mouses and Men

Like it or not, English is on the front line. Of change, that is. It invades languages insolently, ignoring weak attempts at resistance. The French make it illegal to display English signs but at the same time have a quiz show on public television that is called “Le Big Deal”. Recent Polish dictionaries list words like “deweloper” and “diler” (note the spelling) but resist English-type constructions like “test mecz”. As if the English language didn’t have its own dilemmas!

Buzzwords: Reloaded

Certain fashionable phrases of the 1990s are now funnily outmoded. They are sometimes adjusted to fit the changing times. New words for the New Millennium have included blamestorming–a more realistic replacement for brainstorming. It means sitting around in a group, discussing, e.g., why a deadline was missed and who was responsible. Sound familiar? The couch potatoes of the previous century, spending aeons glued to TV screens, have now turned into mouse potatoes, a term more appropriate now when zapping (another ex-buzzword) has been replaced by clicking. Yuppies, Young Upwardly-mobile Professionals, are difficult to come by these days and so have been substituted by their 21st-century brothers–Sitcoms (from Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage). Once a fashionable term, osmosis also seems to have lost its appeal. Originally meaning ideas absorbed freely, it may be a thing of the past. Who would be daft enough to share ideas at work today, anyway? In the New Times people absorb success by kissing up to the boss. It’s called assmosis.


The exciting moment of the turn of the millennia a few years ago didn’t only mark an end to a certain type of mentality. It was also, it appears, a bit of a language problem. At least for those who have nothing better to do but wonder what to call each passing decade by a neat-sounding name. Let’s see –we had the 1980s and called them the eighties, then 1990s to logically dub them the nineties, then… Well, exactly! What’s the proper English name for the first decade of the 21st century? No, not “the tens”. These will come in several years’ time, after 2010. Do people need a short, crisp term like this at all? Apparently, specialists (or “specialists”) have already discussed this vital linguistic issue. Don’t expect anything breathtakingly brilliant, though. The suggestions were shortlisted to the zeroes and–my favourite –the oh-ohs. Seriously. You may start using them, of course, but I wouldn’t count on the remaining billion speakers of English to follow your example right away. The good thing about language is that people in the street decide how it evolves, not linguists.

What if there’s more than one?

Few grammar points are easier than English plurals. What you do is add an “-s”, right? OK, granted, we do have exceptions, but they are rare and almost fun to learn (to use, e.g., goose-geese and ox-oxen in a real spoken context you have to travel to some remote village). Why would a 21st-century user of English suddenly have problems with plurals, then? Mind this. What’s the plural of mouse? Mice, of course. But in the computer sense? Well, the notice: WE SELL MICE in a computer shop window would look definitely weird. So most speakers feel regularization is OK here and tend to say computer mouses. The braver dictionaries have accepted this form! Another interesting thing: the brand name Walkman has lost its proper-noun status in English, thus gaining the “right” to plurality. What if you have more than one personal stereo? Do you have two Walkmen? You are justified to feel kind of uneasy about this irregular form, after all referring to inanimate objects rather than living creatures now. No surprise then that the form Walkmans (as well as, e.g., Discmans and Watermans) has been considered correct–if somewhat grudgingly–by serious dictionaries too.

Richard Highbrow


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