Betwixt and between

I've often been intrigued by phrases like "between the devil and the deep blue sea" or "between a rock and a hard place" as picturesque versions of decisions we all must make from time to time where there is no correct choice.

Occasionally, you will hear people talk about Scylla and Charybdis in the same sort of way. Scylla and Charybdis are the monsters on straits of Messina in Sicily, and it's very important to steer a patch between them. You don't hear this so often these days, possibly because the level of classical knowledge is less than it used to be, but possibly because the people who still could use this phrase have switched to one of the simpler ones above, because they were fed up with not being understood.

However, what I wanted to take about was the misuse of "between" when there are more than two recipients of an offering. The money was shared between Ian and Viv, the food was shared among David, Matthew and Christopher.

Finally, we have the old question about the old man who died and left $30,000 to be shared between his sons. How much did they receive? As a grammatical question, we know that he must have had two sons, so the answer is $15,000 each. It's a test of English, not mathematics!

Betwixt and between uses an archaic form and a modern form of the same word to mean "neither one thing nor the other.

The scourge of political correctness

More than any other, the use of the word "man" in compound words is a cause of controversy, because it is misunderstood. I find it like steering a course between Scylla and Charybdis to balance the usage of inclusive language with the usage of correct language.

I will not use phrases such as "chairwoman" * to address a female person chairing a meeting, as the term "chairman" is not telling us that someone is a man, but that they are using their hand ("manus") to control the meeting.

Only today, a letter was published in The Dominion which questioned the spelling womyn* and pointed to the irony of using the letter that represents the male chromosome to obscure the terrible word from use.

Apart from this, there is the obsessive use of they/them to represent a single person, even though these words are clearly plural. Apparently these words are deemed appropriate substitutes for he/she/him/her, though I disagree. Ideally, we need to find neutral third person words to use in place of them. If you don't mind sounding like Prince Charles, you could always use "one", but I'm not sure that this will find favour everywhere.

There are, however, problems even with this approach. This usage is more popular in French, where the word is on and even in German, where the equivalent word is man... maybe it's not a perfect solution in every language.

Just as strange is the usage for an advisor/conciliator/arbitrator. English didn't have a word for it, so we adopted the fine foreign word ombudsman. If we have more than one of these, they are probably omudsmans because the word does not end with the English -man suffix. They certainly are not ombudspersons* or anything like it. To use a word like ombudsperson* is to leave yourself wide open to accusations that you are using ridiculous phrases like calling the city in northern England Personchester*. I think this, and so does my friend Guy Chapman, also known as Person Personperson....

English is fortunate in that it doesn't have to deal with gender in its words, so that we don't have "masculine" and "feminine" words, or try to figure out why a railway station is feminine. Douglas Hofstadter notes in one of his books that a dictionary compiler of recent years refused to follow the usual convention of referring to words as (m.) and (f.), choosing instead to indicate the gender of the words by + and - signs. Unfortunately, the worthy aim of gender neutrality in the dictionary was not achieved.

Should I continue talking about this next time? Please let me know what you would like me to talk about here.

Finally, for those New Zealanders who were following the article about tautology, I was in New Plymouth recently when I came across Waiwaka Street. As opposed to what other sort of waka?

Well, this particular page has, not surprisingly, stirred up more comment than most. One correspondent fairly points out that if chairman comes from manus, then the plural should be chairmans. I'll look into this. I've not yet been able to track down a comprehensive etymology of the word. Is this claim true? "It must be true, I read it on the internet." I'll go and check it.

The feedback I have received so far is enough for me to rant on for at least another five articles without thinking of anything new myself. Excellent!

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