It’s much more fun to say ‘raining cats and dogs’

From’ Time to improve standard of English here’, 2 Oct 2017, ST Forum

(Joe Teo Kok Seah): In my interactions with my fellow Singaporeans, I have come to realise that, by and large, people are adamant about using Singlish and are not accustomed to conversing in proper standard English.

They feel that Singlish is far more intimate and effective.

It is not uncommon to find people confusing expressions like the “first floor” with the second storey. The first floor or the first storey is the ground floor.

I have also been met with stunned and perplexed countenances when I use phrases like “a quarter to five” or “a quarter past five” instead of 4.45pm and 5.15pm.

Singaporeans have been exposed to crude English for decades. It is time for us to start speaking proper English. One way to do this is by tuning in to BBC news programmes.

I also learnt many useful English phrases from the British sitcom Mind Your Language, which was telecast in Singapore in the 1980s.

One can learn much better when the process is intermingled with humour and is stress-free. We should endeavour to use more English idioms as part of our daily interactions.

Idioms add life and verve to speech and writing. Without them, the English language would be very bland. For example, describing the weather as “raining cats and dogs” is much more fun than saying that it is “raining heavily”.

Having a good working knowledge of the more common English idioms is essential and critical for effective communication.

Blimey, this old chap thinks our English is ‘half-past six’. One can imagine him ‘running for the hills’ when conversation with the lay Singaporean isn’t as hoity-toity as he’d hoped. Or perchance he’s just making ‘a mountain out of a molehill’.

There is a fine line between idiom and cliche, and saying raining cats and dogs doesn’t make you a more vivacious speaker of the language than someone who says it’s raining heavily, or better still – The rain outside is heavy AF. English Idioms are as old as the bible and dotards. Modern slang is hip, dynamic and gets you connected.

I, too, grew up on Mind Your Language, though what most people remember it by is not Mr Brown’s essential lessons on nouns, verbs and prepositions, but the racist stereotypes that would draw uncomfortable laughs by today’s standards. A thousand apologies (head bobbing) comes to mind. Sleazy Italian? Flirty French? Commie Chinese? Check.

As for first floor vs ground floor, this is a case of Singaporeans switching unwittingly between American and British English. This phenomenon was observed by English professors even way back in the early eighties, when admittedly it is ‘impossible to maintain a British standard of lexicon and syntax’ because of the influence of American pop culture. People still say sidewalk instead of pavement. Eggplant Aubergine. Ass vs arse. And don’t get me started on the pronunciation of words such as ‘lieutenant’. Even Brits and getting corrupted by their American counterparts as we speak, and vice versa.

What English needs to be is clear, simple and concise. Why use ‘stunned and perplexed countenance’ when you could say ‘confused faces’. Or waste mental arithmetic deciding if it’s quarter to 4 or ten to 7? Or ‘by and large’ instead of ‘generally’?

To each his own. Not every nail that sticks up must be hammered down. Let’s not push the envelope but let sleeping dogs lie.





OMG and LOL are not OK

From ‘LOL, teachers won’t accept it”, 27 March 2011, article by Heather Marie Lee in Sunday Times

Just because the Oxford English Dictionary has accepted abbreviations such as OMG, LOL and BFF and usage of ‘heart’ as a verb to mean ‘to love’, it does not mean that English language and literature teachers are prepared to accept them in students’ schoolwork and essays.

(Shamini Rajandran, St Margaret’s Secondary):Any writing piece is a formal piece of work, and these words are raher informal, the sort you would use in an e-mail or SMS. They’re definitely not acceptable in national exams, so why allow the use of them at school level? Regardless, I’m personally quite traditional and particular about these sorts of things, and wouldn’t allow them.

The reason why English teachers have such strong reservations against the new ‘words’ is that they’re all derived from bimbotic teenspeak and were born out of a digital shorthand age, which is taboo in a system which considers the shortcircuiting of proper words as plain laziness. As English teachers, however, they of all people should be aware of how the language evolves. It’s not simply about a bunch of old craggy Englishmen in cloaks sitting around a table constructing words and sounds out of thin air before penning them down on sacred parchment. It’s a dynamic ecosystem of competing species, words created out of the murky recesses of slang , colloquialism, onomatopoeia, even a foreign language, and pitted against each other in a ‘survival of the hippest’ battle, their eventual fate dependent on their propagation through the harsh medium of human speech, with the more successful ones, like OMG and LOL, spreading virally across nations like wildfire (No thanks to Facebook and Twitter). It’s also essential for the OED to keep up with the times and do away with its image as a despotic, dusty old patriarch, otherwise  it would lag dismally behind the less official, far cooler phenomenon known as the ‘Urban Dictionary’.

Acronyms that have become proper English words popularized through war and technology include laser and radar, and if you’re thinking ‘Hey at least those SOUND like words. OMG, LOL and BFF are intended to be pronounced letter by letter’, you’re missing the most universal ‘abbreviation/word’ being used today. ‘O.K’.  Also note the irony when Ms Rajandran above mentions ‘E-MAIL’ and ‘SMS’. Centuries ago, teachers probably frowned on the use of OK in their students’ essays, just like how uptight teachers abhor the use of OMG! today. I personally wouldn’t use it out of the SMS context, neither would children in essays unless they’re using it in character speech to convey emotion, which I think is fine to a certain extent. I mean they wouldn’t go ‘Once upon a time, there were two BFF princesses and OMG, how they HEARTED each other’, neither would GP essays go ‘WTF! Companies should be fair to working mothers!’ Seriously, our kids are smart enough to know when it’s appropriate to use the passive voice, and when to act like an excited gossip queen who just heard the latest scandal in school. Otherwise they’d really CMI.

I guess it’s only a matter of time when OMG becomes as commonplace as OK, and ‘hearted’ becomes the next ‘googled’. Having nouns transformed into verbs and other forms is nothing new, you could call it a ‘random mutation’ to increase the versatility of the original root word hence extending the shelf life of the species, like UNPUTDOWNABLE for example (See below, 13 Jan 1988, ST Forum), not surprisingly gone today, not least because it’s completely UNPRONOUNCEABLE. Even OK has it variants, extending into ‘okay’, ‘okayed’ and ‘okie-dokie’, which went on to deceive most of us into believing that OK, the original form,  was a shortform for the much later OKAY.

Here’s a list of what were once thought to be weird additions to the OED, and complaining English teachers can rest assured that landing a place in the lexicographer’s bible may not guarantee its survival, which depends very much on the cultural and technological (Walkman, anyone?) climate in which they’re used. Va-va-voom, for example, is quite dead locally and has traditionally been associated with 80’s American frat boys peeking over their sunglasses as comely ladies walking by. To put it in simpler terms, it’s all about being ‘catchy’.

OK (1847) – Origin still fuzzy, generally accepted to be an abbreviation of ‘All Correct’

Strafe, Stunt (1920) – From war, American college slang respectively

Jazz, Whizzbang, Whoopee (1933), Jazz and Whoopee from the Jazz age, Whizzbang is onomatopoeia from war

Bonk (1987) – Slang

Rambo, diskette, laptop (1989) – From pop culture and technology (Diskette dead from obsolescence, laptop faces similar threat from ‘notebook’ or ‘Ipad’)

Full Monty (1998) – Pop culture (Brit movie about stripteasing men)

Lah (2000) – Local colloquaialism

D’oh! (2001) – Pop culture (The Simpsons)

Muggle, Bling-bling (2003) – Pop culture (Harry Potter, hip hop)

Va-va voom (2004) – Slang

Bada-bing, Looky-loo (2006) – Pop culture (Sopranos), Slang

Unfriend (2009) – Technology (Social networking)

Kampong/Kampung, Orang-utan, Amok (unknown) – From Malay words

Even if a word is found in the OED, it also doesn’t mean that people will use it the way it was inscribed. Like ‘enormity’ for example (See below, 23 Oct 1916, ST), which adds a fascinating dynamic to the language, when misinterpretation and mistakes have the power to change the meaning of a word such that the survival benefit of being used more often but incorrectly, overrides the OED context in which it’s meant to be used, to the point that even different dictionaries can’t agree on the true definition.  It still works though, IRREGARDLESS of what OED says.

Kewl ways of spelling

From I hope we can correct this trend..7 July 1980 Letters to ST

Of late, manufacturers of sundry items have taken liberties with the spelling of certain English words.

We have drinks called “Kwench”, “Instanjus” and “Fulfrute Cordial”, functions taking place “to-nite” at ‘mid-nite’, cleaning fluids called ‘Fantastik” and “Kleen Bowl”, and so on, ad nauseam

It is quite disturbing to see such mutations occurring right before our very eyes.

Kewl it, i c yr pt. u hvnt seen how bad its become with sms shorthand. tomorrow has become 2moro, tmr and tomolo. Yesterday has become ytd. get over it, its aredi happenin.