< Mike Vuolo and the Lexicon Valley


Friday, July 08, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan Saladoff concluded by showing how skillfully PR practitioners can coin phrases to make a point. Our language is extremely malleable.

Longtime OTM producer Mike Vuolo is a language maven and hobbyist of the first order and is developing a podcast called Lexicon Valley to explore some of the lesser known byways of evolving English. We’re done with media mischief this hot summer day, so here’s a taste of Mike and Bob and Lexicon Valley.

MIKE VUOLO:  Bob, it's arguably the most significant grammatical change to occur in the English language since Shakespeare. What is it?

BOB GARFIELD:  I don’t know, the semi-colostomy.

MIKE VUOLO:  I’m not really sure what that is.

BOB GARFIELD:  It’s more of a punctuation issue more than grammar, so –

MIKE VUOLO:  It sounds more like a medical issue to me.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] But I’m still – that – that’s my answer and I’m, I’m sticking to it.

MIKE VUOLO:  Well, the actual answer is the progressive passive.


MIKE VUOLO:  Well, never mind the progressive passive, for a moment. Let's just remind ourselves what the progressive tense is. It's some form of the verb to be, plus another verb in its “ing” ending, for example: she is singing the blues. They were playing tennis.

BOB GARFIELD:  [MONOTONE] I am listening to you with diminishing interest. [LAUGHS]





BOB GARFIELD: I, I – I didn’t mean that.

MIKE VUOLO:  I'm sure you didn’t.

BOB GARFIELD:  So the progressive tense suggests ongoing-ness.

MIKE VUOLO: That's right. Whatever you're doing is in progress, so to speak. Now, up until around the mid-1800s or so there was another construction that was similar to the progressive, but it was in a kind of passive voice. So you might say, the house is building, meaning the house is in some unfinished state of builded-ness. The refreshments were preparing. This was called the passival.

BOB GARFIELD:  It imputes onto inanimate objects a kind of action.

MIKE VUOLO: Exactly.

BOB GARFIELD: It’s weird.

MIKE VUOLO:  Yeah, weird, though you’ve probably come across the passival without even realizing it. In fact, Jane Austin used it quite a bit. In her very first novel, Northanger Abbey, she writes, “The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down.” In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens writes, “The street lamps were lighting.”

To our ears it sounds really strange. Two-hundred years ago, 400 years ago, it was common. And the question is, what happened to it?

BOB GARFIELD: Excuse me, Mike?

MIKE VUOLO:  Mm-hmm?

BOB GARFIELD:  I'll ask the questions here.


BOB GARFIELD: What happened to it?

MIKE VUOLO: Well, I asked David Denison. He's an editor of A History of the English Language, and he told me that sometime in the late 1700s and early 1800s, certain people in England started saying instead of “the house was building” something else:

DAVID DENISON: The house was being built. And at first, this was only for conversation, private letters, diaries. But then it started creeping into cheap novels and newspapers.

And as soon as it reached the wider public, people went ape:  You have printed this appalling expression. It’s uncouth English, an outrage upon English idiom, to be detested, abhorred, execrated. A lot of people with very upset about it.

BOB GARFIELD: The scolds never win, do they?

MIKE VUOLO: For the most part they don’t win because the language has a mind of its own. And what's interesting is that for decades the two ways of saying the same thing kind of coexisted, the passival and the progressive passive. Dickens ended up using both.

There's a great example of an English writer of the 1800s, named Walter Savage Landor, who used both in a single sentence, probably without even thinking about it. He writes, “While the goats are being milked and such other refreshments are preparing for us, as the place affords.”

BOB GARFIELD: Now, what’s amazing to me here is not that the progressive passive would become the default way of expressing the idea of ongoing-ness a century and a half later, but that the passival just kind of disappeared from the face of the earth.

MIKE VUOLO: It got completely muscled out of the language, and history has a way of making you seem kind of fussy and pedantic when you resist changes in the language. A century earlier the passival was being attacked by none other than the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson who called it vicious. He thought it was a kind of corruption. And here’s what Denison had to say:

DAVID DENISON:  So suddenly the older construction, which had been heavily criticized in the eighteenth century by Dr. Johnson, was now being defended as pure English by Dr. Johnson’s equivalents, 50, 80 years later, because there was a new usurper coming in and people do not like change.

BOB GARFIELD:  That's interesting. So if, if Dr. Johnson took umbrage with the passival, what was stated usage before the passival?

MIKE VUOLO: I think for Dr. Johnson the correct way to say “The house is building” would be to say “The house is a-building, the book is a-printing, six geese a-laying.

BOB GARFIELD: [SINGING] Five golden rings.

And before that, assuming the language didn’t begin at six geese a-laying, where did that come from?

MIKE VUOLO: To say the book is a-printing was a kind of corruption of the book is o’printing, “o” apostrophe, itself a corruption of “the book is on printing,” “the houses is on building.” So to resist any of these changes along the way would be to really fight the tide, which is why, Bob, you shouldn't want to, as you've said before, punch me repeatedly in the face for using “impact” as a verb.

BOB GARFIELD: And yet, Mike, and yet I do.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That's OTM producer Mike Vuolo, with Bob. Oh, Mikey, Mikey - is leaving us. We took him on his first foreign trip, we saw him get married and adopt a dog. We marveled as he reported first-rate stories on crossword contests and TV pitchmen.

And we relied – oh, how we’ve relied on his flawless radio pacing and discriminating ear for tape. Everything he's produced has a kind of music.


Another thing – he’s funny - and sweet. We kinda love him. Oh well.

BOB GARFIELD: For my part, for all of the reasons Brooke elucidated, and more, I cannot tell you how much I will miss Mike Vuolo. As it turns out, he is moving right near my house in suburban Washington, though I’m not going to tell him exactly where I live.


That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help from Emily Chin and Joe Rosenberg, and edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Katya Rogers is our senior producer, Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Alison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. And if you need a personal Mike Vuolo fix, his new acrostic is posted on our website.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: No one has been able to solve it yet.


Michael Vuolo