Are you ever jocular in your use of words?
Well, you are, if you ever speak in a joking, humorous, playful manner.
Till recently, I divided words and their usages into two categories: formal and colloquial.
Formal speech follows the strictest rules and conventions. It’s conservative, prim, and proper. Colloquial speech is more relaxed. It’s more accepting of slang, new words, trendy expressions, and eggcorns.
Now I guess I have to add jocular speech to those categories.
Jocular word usage is whimsical or facetious. It’s speech that isn’t taking itself too seriously.
Dictionaries sometimes will say certain words are acceptable in jocular speech, though they’re frowned upon in formal or “standard” speech.
I recently wrote that something “snuck up on” me. Alert reader Janelle Ramsey wondered in response whether “snuck” is a real word?
Well, yes and no. The formally correct past tense of “sneak” is “sneaked”. Had I been giving a TED talk, or writing for a literary or medical journal, that might have been a better choice.
But I wasn’t. The tone I was shooting for was light and bantery. According to Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries, “snuck” is acceptable as a “jocular” alternative to “sneaked”.
The word “snuck” has been rattling around in English since the late 1800s. For most of that time it’s been considered flatly wrong – a mistake, a sign of illiteracy.
During the past 20 years or so, however, it has gained enough traction to appear respectable. Mostly, though, still in jocular usage.
But I have a question: Is there any word or phrase that would not be “correct” when used with sufficient jocularity?
Probably not! The impression I get is that lexical authorities hesitate, with good reason, nowadays to condemn anything as out-and-out “wrong”.
The certainly could say, “Such-and-such is incorrect – but of course you’re always free to use incorrect speech jokingly, to make folks smile.”
But it’s easier simply to say something is correct in a jocular context. At least that’s the current lexical fashion.
Be that as it may, I’ve also noticed plenty of competent writers and speakers, in quite respectable venues, using “snuck” when they weren’t trying to be funny. Colloquial and informal, perhaps, but not funny.
I therefore surmise that it’s still sneaking deeper and deeper into everyday usage. One day “snuck” may be the preferred past tense of “sneak”. Then “sneaked” will be considered archaic.
Or maybe not. Predicting language trends is a lot like predicting politics or the stock market!
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)