Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

More Phish Phat on the Phire

Cody Brimhal takes exception to my aspersive attitude toward phish and my comment that they are lacking in use or creativity. Cody argues: “The spelling changes in question apply to words with meanings distinct from (albeit derivative of) their common English counterparts. Insofar as they serve to create–rather than confuse–distinctions in meaning, how is this bad?”

The reason that these words stand out is that they violate the rules of English spelling and I am strong advocate of following the rules. I spent the majority of my life searching for those rules and writing them up when I discovered new ones. The rule in English is that F means [f] and we find PH standing for that sound only in words we borrow from Latin and Greek.

I’m not even a prescriptivist who thinks that grammatical rules are hard and fast. I love language change—etymology is based on the conclusion that historical language change is also rule-driven. I think we owe it to each other to be consistent in our creative use of language, so that we don’t lose each other in our conversations. The English spelling system is the worst of the Western European languages (click here if you don’t believe it), misspelling fat and fish makes it even worse.

I love slang. I spent half this year starting my own slang dictionary that allows you to trace slang historically, not to mention my Slang Generation Test that gives you a good idea of where your slang comes from. However, when we encode words in slang (swell, far-out, flaky, awesome) the rule seems to be: don’t mess with the spelling unless you’re making up a new word: dweeb, geezer, hissy, kooky. Just check our daily Good Word to see how much I love writing about these words.

I shudder to think that I may have Bonnie Prince Charles on my side in my effort to keep English honest. He was recently quoted as saying that Americans “. . . invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be . . . . We must act now to ensure that English, and that to my way of thinking means British English, maintains its position as the world language.”

Well, to my mind it has nothing to do with right and wrong or the position of English in the world. My issue with these words is their inconsistency and distance by which they miss wittiness.

One Response to “More Phish Phat on the Phire”

  1. Eric Indiana Says:

    One thing I find intriguing about “phat” is that is fits into the trend of urban slang reversing the connotation, if not directly the meaning, of words. So fat becomes phat for cool, “bad” means good, “dope” came to mean cool, and more recently, “pussy” is used for awesome.

    It fits into the desire of subcultures to rebel against the mainstream while defining themselves.

Leave a Reply