Eons ago, when the earth was young, the great continents were combined in one undifferentiated landmass called Pannacotta. Over time this supercontinent underwent incontinence and split up. Among the fragments was an island thrown off into cold northern waters, which would someday comprise the land known as England. Nobody knew it at the time—nobody knew much of anything back then—but this tiny crumb of real estate would eventually be the home of a language that would dominate the world, and would be called ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). People would ultimately come to worship the great ELF and its acolytes...but I get ahead of myself.
Millennia passed. Civilizations rose, traffic signals went up, wars raged, Walmarts opened, and the dinosaurs disappeared. Meanwhile on the tiny, cold island of Great Britain, the locals began speaking in a distinctive tongue uniquely allowing them to express the same sentiment in an almost infinite number of ways—that sentiment being, “How do I get off this rock?” Britons’ efforts to answer this question led directly to the worldwide spread of English, like marmite on toast.
There are three main ways in which the historical Britons promulgated and diversified their language: global exploration, linguistic creativity, and the venting of suppressed resentment. Their exploratory spirit took them to every remote, dank corner of the earth, in the firm belief that, if it’s a corner, it ought to have a corner pub. Their creative, almost daily modifications of their language (e.g., latinizations, vowel shifts, rhyming slang, and nuanced variations in sincerity; see below) made it easier for them to continually renegotiate their influence with the local residents in these outlying areas. (“‘Colony’... er, ‘protectorate’... how does ‘commonwealth’ sound?”) And their penchant for veiled disgruntlement prompted them to tweak their language further, giving it its special ability to both praise and condemn at the same time, as in “I always feel more intelligent after reading your column.”
Let’s look at three banner carriers in the global onslaught of the English language: Sir Francis Drake, William Shakespeare, and Basil Fawlty.
Drake was famous for prowling the oceans, stealing hoards of vocabulary words from the Spanish and claiming them for Queen Elizabeth. Examples include tobacco, daiquiri, conquistador, and cacafuego. His modus operandi was to heave to alongside his quarry and allow all the tildes (˜) on board to go free before commencing his assault. Drake’s ruthlessness at sea was supposedly due to childhood trauma he suffered when acquaintances continued calling him “Francis” although he wanted to be called “El Rufián.” Legend has it that, as a demonstration of the range of his influence, Drake hid a batch of toad-in-the-hole somewhere along the coast of California and offered a 20,000-peso reward to whoever could find it.
Shakespeare was notable for creating the most English words and phrases with naughty double meanings. Imagine—since I’m not going to explain them to you—what vile private practices the following phrases hint at: gild the lily, hoist one’s petard, laughing stock, hobnob, hurly-burly, gnarled, blushing, seamy...all of them contrived within the smutty globe of Shakespeare’s brain. English literature students the world over have seen that little glint in the eyes of teachers trying to explain what Hamlet meant to do with that “bare bodkin.”
Basil Fawlty (a fictional character) is purported by one linguist (also fictional) to have used the phrase I beg your pardon with 37 pragmatic variations, ranging from the deferential “I, with my coarse, untrained ears that might as well be stuffed with corn husks, was unable to articulate the cathedral-like sonorities of your mellifluous, regal voice” (i.e., “I didn’t hear what you said”), to far more abusive sentiments not printable here. (He could also throw out a mean “Is everything to your satisfaction?”) Compare this vast tonal spectrum—subtle but still discernable to many British English speakers—to the trifling two pragmatic shadings of the phrase Excuse me found in American usage: patently sincere and full-on sarcastic. (Think 1970s-era Steve Martin.) Perhaps the world-dominating language of the future will be the one that best conveys this original British subtlety via written online text. Yeah right.