[Note: The first paragraph of the Slate article referenced here contains potentially offensive language, but we feel the remainder is worthy of exploration. Ed.]
Ever wondered why you or others say amongst instead of among, or amidst instead of amid? Wonder no longer! The preference for these words is an example of a strange phenomenon in which Millennials, a generation of increasingly tech- and abbreviation-savvy individuals, are using erroneous or antiquated forms of words used by others every day.
Is there a name for this phenomenon? You bet—it dates back to 1922, when linguist and grammarian Otto Jespersen coined the term hypercorrect in his book Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin; the term was published in that year’s Oxford English Dictionary. The modern OED defines hypercorrection as “the erroneous use of a word form or pronunciation based on a false analogy with a correct or prestigious form.”
Some of the most common hypercorrections in modern English include replacing like with as or who with whom, refusing to defiantly split infinitives or compound verbs, substituting the pronoun I for the object me, or using double adverbs or incorrectly formed Latin plurals. Hypercorrections often occur because we have an unfounded belief about proper form or a misunderstanding about descriptive and prescriptive grammar. Not all grammatical rules are created equal, and in fact adhering to some of them can make our language clunky or even incomprehensible to the average English speaker.
How does amongst fit in here? In American English, amongst was nearly as popular as among in 1720, but the former largely fell from use until the new millennium. Ben Yagoda at Slate suggests a humorous but unlikely inspiration for the comeback was Mike Myers’s Saturday Night Live character Linda Richman, known in the 1990s as the host of “Coffee Talk” and for her exaggerated New York accent and her catchphrase “Talk amongst yourselves.”
While it is oddly formal, amongst is not technically a hypercorrection because it is not erroneous. Well, then, what is it? Yagoda offers the term “‘Runyon-correction,’ in homage to the Guys and Dolls gangsters who, putting on airs, are discordantly proper when referring to ‘an individual with whom I’m acquainted.’” The grammar faux pas can also be seen as the result of Millenials and modern Americans becoming so used to the informal style of blog, email or text message composition. As Yagoda puts it, “Amongst and other formulations represent a kind of better-safe-than-sorry strategy. That amongst has moved well past the Millennials suggests many of us now lack footing on the formal-informal landscape. Sometimes you just want a word that sounds official.”
So, are hypercorrections and Runyon-corrections paradoxical or indicative of a new strategy of writing and speaking? Talk amongst yourselves.
Did You Know?
How do words make it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the way hypercorrect did in 1922? According to OxfordDictionaries.com, the team at Oxford University Press is constantly trying to keep track of new words that should be considered for the dictionary. Their most important resources for doing this include the Oxford English Corpus, entire documents from the web, and the Oxford Reading Programme, an “electronic collection of sentences or short extracts drawn from a huge variety of writing”—everything from song lyrics to scientific journals. Once there’s evidence that a word has been used in a variety of sources (print and web only; it doesn’t include broadcasts), it becomes a candidate for one of the Oxford dictionaries—meaning it doesn’t necessarily make it into print. In addition, the word has to be used for at least a period of two to three years for it to be officially considered for a printed dictionary. Lexicographers have to test whether or not the word will be “ephemeral or . . . a permanent feature of the language.”
The list of words that don’t make it into the print version but are added to Oxford Dictionaries Online can be, as some may argue, heavily cultural or colloquial. For example, the word selfie was named the word of 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries, adding it to the online database. It hasn’t yet been added to the OED but is being considered. Research shows the word’s popularity has increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. The word is traced back to 2002 when it was used in an Australian online forum, but the hashtag (e.g., #selfie) promoted its popularity, helping it to become widespread in mainstream media by 2012.