or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, August 29, 2010

That Sucks

I was reading News of the Weird today, as I do every Sunday, and the following article caught my eye:

News of the Weird has reported on several mothers' desires to prolong breastfeeding past the culturally normal age, some continuing well after the child's sixth birthday. The issue flared again in July in Melbourne, Australia, when a 6-year-old boy's birth mother (who had relinquished the child as an infant) used breastfeeding as a strategy to try to wrest him away from the caretakers who had raised him. During sanctioned visitations with the child, the birth mother had pressured the boy to suckle, but he rebelled, and the caretaker obtained a judicial order against further breastfeeding.

I stopped not because it was such an arresting story, but because of the use of the word "suckle".

Richard Dawkins is an all-around excellent person, I think, a really good writer and science-popularizer, and his "The God Delusion" is a measured, even-handed discussion of atheism and the ramifications of widespread religious belief (in contrast to Christopher Hitchens' thrillingly splenetic "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"). But Dawkins is after all human like the rest of us, and therefore subject to the bane of every educated person, the unwitting absorption of a grammatical rule which is untrue.

On page 35 of the British (Black Swan) edition of his most recent book, "The Greatest Show on Earth", is the following pair of sentences and corresponding footnote:

The American zoologist Raymond Coppinger makes the point that puppies of different breeds are much more similar to each other than adult dogs are. Puppies can't afford to be different, because the main this they have to do is suck*, and sucking present pretty much the same challenges for all breeds.

*Not suckle: mothers suckle, babies suck.

When I read that sentence, I folded down the corner of the page to mark it--something I almost never do, because I like my books to stay in good condition, but I thought it was important, because it's wrong, and because his editor ought to have pointed this out to him. I mean, I noticed it right away; surely a British editor, who probably has a better education than I did, would have noticed it, too.

Maybe the editor did point it out, and Dawkins said, "No, this is what I was taught in school." I had English teachers who told me things that were demonstrably wrong, and those things were doubtless taught them in childhood by their teachers in turn. It was an English teacher who informed the class that "You have two choices" was wrong if you were deciding between two things, because you were only making one choice, between the two things--as if "choice" hadn't been roughly synonymous with "option" and meant "person or thing being chosen" for hundreds of years.

We all have these blind spots in our language and usage, all of us, however educated we are. Some conservative types love to point out that gay people have hijacked the word "gay", which means happy and is therefore inappropriate because gay people are all miserable, ignoring the fact that, whatever the joviality of such people individually or as a group, "gay" in that context has meant more or less what it currently means for going on a century now, so "homosexual activists" (nice term) certainly didn't steal the word out of malice.

But Dawkins' mistake is perhaps less excusable because the distinction he makes hasn't been strictly true for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary dates "suckle" from 1408 with Dawkins' transitive meaning "to cause to take milk from the breast". However, by the end of the seventeenth century, its meaning had expanded to overlap with "suck"; the OED gives 1688 as the date for intransitive "suckle" meaning "to suck at the breast", which is how it is--correctly--used in the News of the Weird story.

Ah, you may argue, but usage changes over time. "Ain't" used to be good English, and now it, well, ain't. And that is true enough, but the fact is that "suckle" continues to have its two meanings to this very day: as far as I can tell, there never has been a time since 1688 when it didn't have both meanings, distinguished by transitivity or intransitivity. Every dictionary nowadays lists both, as well they might: three hundred and twenty years is surely enough to give legitimacy to a usage, however much English teachers and their students dislike it.

One last note: although "suckle" looks for all the world like a frequentative, "suck" made quick and rapid and repeated by the addition of the usual suffix "-le", the OED says that it is not, but is instead a back-formation from "suckling", as in "suckling pig".


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