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verbal hygiene


verbal hygiene

Verbal Hygiene, by Deborah Cameron (Routledge, 1995)


A phrase coined by British linguist Deborah Cameron to describe "the urge to meddle in matters of language": the inclination to improve or correct speech and writing or to arrest change in a language.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Edward Koch . . . as mayor of New York City once compiled a list of vulgar New Yorkisms he wanted city teachers to eliminate from children's speech, including the use of 'really good' as an adverbial. Practices like these, born of the urge to improve or 'clean up' language, exemplify the phenomenon I call verbal hygiene. . . .

    "'[D]escription' and 'prescription' turn out to be aspects of a single (and normative) activity: a struggle to control language by defining its nature. My use of the term 'verbal hygiene' is intended to capture this idea, whereas to use the term 'prescription' would just recycle the opposition I am trying to deconstruct. . . .

    "We are all of us closet prescriptivists--or, a I prefer to put it, verbal hygienists."
    (Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, 1995)

  • "According to Cameron, a sense of linguistic values makes verbal hygiene part of every speaker's linguistic competence, as basic to language as vowels and consonants. . . . [Verbal hygienists] are the people found in those language associations formed to promote causes as diverse as Plain English, simplified spelling, Esperanto, Klingon, assertiveness and effective communication . . .. Verbal hygienists also enjoy thinking and arguing about words, correcting the writing of others and looking things up in dictionaries and usage guides. These activities are born of the urge to improve and clean up the language."
    (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

  • "With reference to both speech and writing, most of us practise linguistic hygiene, brushing or swabbing away what we see as pollutants--jargon, vulgarisms, profanity, bad grammar and mispronunciations--and sometimes in the process replacing one kind of evil with another. Alarmists are apt to vilify the types of people they think most culpable: they have in the past condemned travellers, shopkeepers, journalists, university students, nurses, hairdressers, people who live in cities, homosexuals, the authors of translations, and women. All of us, besides using language, comment on it, and we complain about others' usage far more often than we applaud it. Where language is concerned, some are engineers, but more of us are doctors."
    (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. John Murray, 2011)
Also Known As: prescriptivism, language purism
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