Yesterday I was reading a short story written by John Cheever when a malapropism—the wrong word used instead of the correct word—popped out at me. Cheever was a Pulitzer-Prize winning author. But in his story “Marito in Citta” the author described a person getting tangled in a “trout line.”
“Trotline,” I corrected Cheever reflexively, mumbling as I read. “It’s called a trotline.”
Writers can’t help but edit the words they see, even if the words they’re editing aren’t their own. It’s what writers do. We fix typographical misfits, revising and polishing until each sentence is technically flawless, if nothing else.
In his defense, Cheever truly was a superb writer, a literary giant of the 20th century and a master American storyteller. But Cheever—and his editors—committed a technical error when they printed the words “trout line.” The trotline is a catfishing device. There is no such thing as a trout line.
The thing is, some of you might actually call a trotline a trout line yourself if that’s what you’ve always called it. So be it. Let the trotline be called a trout line in your world, just as in Cheever’s world, even if the dictionary disagrees. You all know what you’re talking about.
As for the word itself, I do not know where trotline originated. Look it up. The dictionary concedes blank etymology. Perhaps there are French roots to the word. We simply do not know. Trotline is just that common word we all use when we mention that hook-filled line fishermen tie between two points.
Some of you are probably disinterested by this mincing of words already. When it comes to annoying human habits, correcting the word choices of others is one of the most annoying things we humans can do. People who interrupt, palm raised, to say things like, “It’s pronounced sherbet, not sherbert,” are people nobody likes. Nobody likes to have somebody else claim that they—not we—know what we meant to say.
I do not take lightly this capacity to irritate people. In fact, I cheerfully defend anyone’s right to speak whatever words they choose, even as I correct the written language of John Cheever.
The fact is, the world is filled with different languages and dialects and colloquialisms and all of them have a place in our discourse. But the printed word, by its nature, would appear to require a few rules if there is to be a common understanding. The printed text cannot succeed when inaccurate word choices are put before the reader. Readers need to know the word sycamore, for example, is a word that describes a particular tree and not a basketball. Words have accepted definitions. It’s why, long ago, we compiled dictionaries of our language, those books of literal authority we consult to prove the word we have chosen to write is the word we should have written.
But I still defend anyone’s right to say “trout line” if that’s what they choose to say, and here’s why. We all speak the local language of our people wherever we live (perhaps everyone in your community says “trout line”), and there are billions of us worldwide speaking a different, common language we share and understand among ourselves. We cannot change the spoken discourse of all people everywhere. We must accept local dialects for the same reason we must accept the fact people in Brazil speak Portugese and people in Denmark speak Danish.
As we travel, people say words to us that people elsewhere might not recognize. It happens right here in Illinois. The same fish we call a grinnel along the Ohio River is called a dogfish in northern Illinois. Some people call it a bowfin. A muskrat in central Illinois might be called a marsh rat elsewhere. The woodchuck—also known as a groundhog—is named a whistle pig by some people, and it’s called an Ozark koala by others.
What’s the correct name? Nobody can say. As for those woodchucks (also called land beavers), scientists have a specific, biological name for this animal, a name they’ve all agreed upon. But I’ll take up the defense of scientific names in a moment. First we must come to terms with the fact there is no official common name for the woodchuck.
And the reason why there is no official common name for a woodchuck is because there are so many local vocabularies that have given this rotund rodent a different name. Local dialects and expressions within our language belong to the people who speak them. Nobody can declare this or that common name as the official common name we all must speak, no more than someone can declare an official way to laugh. None of us has the right to insist all people speak with the words somebody else happens to use.
Despite this ancient and natural division of languages among people worldwide, biological scientists are trying to have it otherwise. We often hear of those “official” names for plants and animals. Well enough. The language of biological science—those Latinized, tongue-twisting, names most of us cannot pronounce—has done a great service to biological science by coordinating the worldwide discourse among scientists.
Thanks to scientific names, a scientist in Finland knows perfectly well what is being described when a scientist in Argentina mentions Balaenoptera acuturostrata. (It’s a species of whale.) And it’s perfectly acceptable, by the way, for anyone else to call it a whale.
Despite my absolute devotion to the natural sciences, I live in both worlds of biological languages. For those of you who hate those fancy, complicated words scientists use, I am happy to report I do not include myself in that annoying sect of scientists who demand the entire world speak the official language of science. For my part, I say it’s perfectly OK to call a pignut hickory tree a pignut hickory tree if that’s what you’ve always called it. Or if you want to go frog hunting with me one humid night this summer, it’s perfectly OK if you call the fresh legs we drop into a skillet at 1 a.m. bullfrogs instead of Lithobates catesbeianus.
I say let the scientists have their language. We’ll keep ours.
I now sense hairs being raised on the necks of scientists. I am their traitor. The mere suggestion we accept the diversity of our languages implies treasonous anarchy to some of my colleagues. Those scientists who speak of Lithobates catesbeianus long ago assembled a unified front of condemnation against anyone who speaks of biological life in common terms. Who hasn’t been upbraided by a biologist, especially a biologist working within academia, who bristles whenever the various local languages intermingle with the language of science?
“The correct name is Meleagris gallopavo,” scientists love to rattle off with calm superiority, twisting a mustache if they have one. Feeling helplessly dumb suddenly, we accept their classist tongue-lashing because we assume that anyone who can pronounce those complicated names must be so much smarter than anyone else.
The thing is, on both sides, scientists and non-scientists have been waging a simmering war of words for more than 200 years. Scientists love the trustworthy order such a uniquely precise vocabulary brings to their universe. Non-scientists everywhere mock those weird scientific names because they sound as if someone is choking on fish bones in a foreign language. The fact is, the hard-to-pronounce names invented by a scientist named Cal von Linné in the 1700s has been all-but snubbed by the mainstream language of locals because this inharmonious repulsiveness.
I am with the common man, in most instances. Who wants to apply for a permit to hunt Meleagris gallopavo when we can simply apply for a wild turkey permit instead? Those of us who enjoy the phosphorescent streaks of fireflies over a summer prairie have no interest in telling our children about the magic of seeing Photuris lucicrescens. The language of biological science functions quite well within scientific discourse. But when it comes to the music of language, it cannot carry a tune in a dump truck.
So where did this unpopular scientific language originate?
It all began in the 1700s when that Swedish botanist named Carl von Linné made up an artificial, Latinized word system to name all species of life on Earth. His excellent contribution has been a great asset to biological science. But ever since, scientists have been speaking in what sounds like gibberish.
Something scientists rarely tell us: Those goofy names scientists use to describe a particular species of life are just made-up words scientists all agreed to use, originally, for scientific purposes. The overwhelming majority of these “official” names did not exist as recently as 100 years ago. Human language dates back millions of years. Long before there was the scientific name Photuris lucicrescens, the firefly was called a firefly—or whatever local people called it.
Another secret: Despite the impression we get from scientists, most of the species names they recite aren’t even legitimate, Latin words. For example, until relatively recent times, nobody had ever uttered the name Meleagris gallopavo. Ancient populations in Rome—people who actually spoke Latin—would have stared blankly at the person who uttered this new, made-up name for a species of life the rest of us commonly call the wild turkey.
So why does the modern language of scientists sound like legitimately ancient Latin? That’s because Latin was chosen by von Linné as the template and style to imitate for his made-up scientific language. As made-up languages go, it’s not quite as silly (or understandable) as children’s Pig Latin, for scientific Latin has bits of real Latin included. And I defend the choice to use Latin as the parent language for scientific names as a reasonable choice, especially to those of us who like foolproof organizational systems.
I realize all of this nomenclature history is of fading interest to readers. But stay with me, common-English speakers, in case a scientist should ever pounce on your choice of words.
Why is scientific Latin the modern language of biological science? Since Latin is a “dead” language no population speaks anymore, von Linné realized that all biologists everywhere could use descriptive words plucked from Latin as the template for his invented system of naming species. Under the Linnaean system, as we now call it, each species of life on Earth gets precisely one name, and that one, “official” name becomes the name all scientists everywhere use. Thanks to Carl von Linné, the world of biology was finally organized—and finally rid of those annoyingly variable common names.
It’s perfectly sensible that we should want to organize the sometimes-confusing, mismatched names we commoners use to describe plants and animals so that nobody in science makes a mistake. If one is to properly study the biology of life on Earth, it makes sense that a biologist in Argentina should be able to communicate with a biologist in Finland and use exactly the same name to describe the same species.
Conversely, if scientists accepted our locally common terms for plants or animals, such as “shy-poke” or “shell-cracker,” biologists around the globe would have to maintain long lists of potential, alternate names for each species—and hope there are no duplicates.
Thus, Carl von Linné was actually a very good man, a good scientist anyway, for proposing that all biologists everywhere use the same name when describing any one species. Good science requires exactness. Error among scientific terminology leads to misidentified viruses and failed rockets.
And that should be the end of our need to use those scientific names.
But it’s not. It turns out, those mustache-twirling scientists who enjoy taunting us with “official” names for all life on Earth must be feeling their oats these days. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Scientists are now intruding into the common language of ordinary, regular people by proposing “official” common names for all life on Earth.
If “official” and “common name” sound oxymoronic together, you’re right. It’s impossible to regulate the common discourse of ordinary people for the simple fact that is not how language lives. Scientists are perfectly entitled to gather in assembly halls and concur that Homo sapiens shall be the official scientific name for our species of hominid, if that’s what they want to call us. But scientists have no business telling me or my neighbor Gary that he is not a hillbilly and a good-old-boy. It’s what I call him. Gary would punch me if I called him a Homo sapiens. And I couldn’t blame him.
And that’s the beauty of our common language. We have more than one word for the same thing. We all have the right to choose whatever word we prefer to use at that moment because none of us is confined to a vocabulary limited by sanctioned conformity.
The fact is, there are more words to describe things than there are things. Our emotions can be expressed by a palette of word choices. We can be in love, or outright smitten. We might be infatuated. We can be angry and domineering or gently playful, or diabolical or we can be any of the various shades of humility we care to express. If all things familiar to us had but one, official word to describe that thing, there would be little point in expression.
Because of this imagination-fed thesaurus of word choices we all utilize, it would appear to be in opposition to our own nature to give everything in nature just one name we all are supposed to use. But those mustache-twirling scientists are nonetheless making inroads against this reason. Field guides and nature books published in recent years have sprouted peculiar-looking “common” names that scientists have agreed to impose upon us. Not only do they declare Latinized gobblety-gook as the official scientific name, they have declared one “common” name to be the official one.
But here is where they’ve fallen into quicksand.
Unlike the two-part word system of von Linné, which assigns a genus name and a species name to every living thing (Homo sapiens, for example), our common language is filled with all sorts of one, two, three and even four-word common names for life on Earth. People in Illinois might speak of a tree called the rock chestnut oak , and they speak of birches. There are yellow-bellied sap suckers and there are hawks. Nobody ever proposed we quit calling life around us what we have always called it, condensing or expanding it into uniform, two-word names.
Scientists—and I imagine more than one mustache-twirler was involved in this decision—have decided all biological common names, the names we use in our regular speech daily, must conform to the style invented by von Linné, which is to have two words to describe every species. Not one. Not three or four. Two words.
Yes, this is getting ridiculous, but stay with me. We all need to defend our own rules of language. The impossible nature of the recent notion—that we can create a new, standardized lexicon of common names—should have immediately been banished to the scrap heap of scientific proposals.
But scientists persist. Invented English words that are not real English words now appear in field guides. Once-separate words have been crammed together to create a single word while inappropriate punctuation now connects words that should not feature punctuation. Thanks to this dogmatism, scientists now give us “Eastern redcedar,” “possumhaw” and “greater prairie-chicken.”
You will not find those words in the dictionary because they do not exist. All of this is being done in an effort to create two-word common names that follow the two-word scientific naming system von Linné proposed.
Common-name choices should be left up to the individual, as long as our meaning is understood. But scientists, given their choice, leave us no choice. According to those busy-body scientific organizations, the goal of mankind is that all life on Earth shall have one, official scientific name and one, official common name.
I don’t recall any of us being asked to vote on this matter.
Of course scientists, especially those mustache-twirling, von Linné groupies, have no business or authority revising how existing words in our common language are spelled and punctuated. A scientist has no more business demanding changes to our common language than we do.
Because even common English has rules. And even as I throw rotten cabbages (Brassica oleracea) in defiance against scientists now meddling with our common English, I stand by the fact we must maintain those established rules of common English that dictate our language be written in a style that everyone can understand when they read it. The fact is, we all expect for there to be rules in our language. It’s not a free-for-all as we communicate. Without rules, words would become meaningless and literature would descend into typographical chaos.
Thus, we all accept that we need to spell words “correctly” when we write. “Cat” should not be written as “car.” We punctuate words “correctly,” as best as we can. And we abide by these sometimes-challenging rules because we all sense the need for there to be some kind of proper system that guides both formal and common language. We use it when required, but the rules are not always essential. None of us is bothered much by a misspelled word on a grocery list, or a poorly composed text message. But when we read something printed in a book, where writers and editors are expected to exemplify the properly written language, rules and consistency are required absolutely.
Thus, “baldcypress” is not a spelling that should be tolerated by anyone reading or editing our common language, no more than “baldgrandpa” or “baldjerry” fits our accepted rules of writing. Such automated spelling malfunctions cannot be forced upon readers by anyone, including a scientist.
I say nobody should ever claim the authority to reinvent our common language and demand we use it.
Yes, Cheever was clearly mistaken when he wrote the words “trout line,” a malapropism. But there’s no real harm in Cheever’s innocent typographical error. The only harm is the danger that we permit the mustache twirlers to destroy the inflexible rule that all language, like science, and nature itself, has rules we cannot ignore.