Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

From his quarantine at Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury my friend, Ted Munns, the native plant guru who has an affinity for horticulture akin to that of a fish to water, has sent me a comment in response to last week’s column on the changing course of the English language. His reference was to the term, “hot spot,” which, when he and I were growing up, was the place to be, on the order of a disco, which actually I never have visited, or as in the title of Roger Mudd’s memoir about CBS News, a place where all the action was happening.

As the decades elapsed, it became the location in one’s yard where the cell phone signal was best, clearly a usage well understood by many of us here in the Northern Neck. Now the current meaning makes it a place to avoid, as being a center of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. I wrote Ted that in my experience a fourth meaning exists, namely a small spot in the fur of a dog in which the hair disappears, then magically returns a short time later.

The triumphs and pitfalls of the English language always amuse and entertain. Once when a stenographer corrected Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill for dictating a sentence to her that ended in a preposition, the Great Man replied, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put.” Who won that argument?

Churchill explained his mastery of the English language by noting that in school he had not been selected for the classical curriculum of Latin and Greek, and instead had been placed in the standard English courses. He said that decision had been the basis of his lifelong study of English and his mastery thereof.

In my years of teaching I found continual entertainment in the students’ understanding of language. In a lecture I had referred to the French writer of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s classic work, Emile. On a test shortly thereafter, a student remembered the sound of the word, but not the meaning, specifically the name of a child, and wrote, “In his brilliant book, A Meal, Rousseau etc. etc.” All these years hence, I still laugh when I think of his answer. For the rest of my career in the classroom, when I came to Rousseau, I always spelled the word Emile out loud and wrote it on the blackboard. Another student confused Plato with Pluto; perhaps he was merging the two into a philosophical planet?

The most memorable malaprop from my academic years came when the president of the university where I was teaching spoke at the beginning of one of the graduation ceremonies. He welcomed the audience, congratulated the graduates, and then said, “When the ceremony concludes, we shall have a reception in the library to honor the graduates and their parents. It will begin as soon as we all disrobe.” The resulting explosion of laughter led him to comment, “Did I say something?”

As I noted in passing last week, President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind the reform of English usage, simplifying the spelling of words to make them phonetic and revising the accepted forms of grammar. He never was able to garner sufficient popular support for his scheme, and the project died.

As Ted’s observation with which I began this item recognizes, language is a fluid subject, not a static fossil devoid of change. The nuances and complexities of style and grammar provide the fun in studying English, even if occasionally the headaches as well. In conclusion I only can say, “On to the next hot spot.” May it revolve like a disco ball, have good cell service and be free of COVID-19 with all of the fur in place!