Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Etymology. It's a cool thing. Linguistics and the study of the evolution of languages is something that has fascinated me for quite some time now.

In the interest of "full-disclosure," I am an anti-perscriptionist when it comes to language. I believe that it is "stupid" on many levels to say things like "that isn't a word" or "you can't have sentences that end with prepositions" or whatever. If a speaker's intent is conveyed through their utterance, then language has done its job and the utterance was "correct." The only time that language is used "incorrectly" is when the listener does not understand what the speaker meant.

Given my worldposition, the construction of new words always entertains me. This weekend, I was fortunate enough to learn about an American word that I have been using since my time at Drexel University.

The word in question is "borked." I first encountered the word from a man named Jonathan Sevy. He worked in my lab, and sat right next to me. We spoke often about the things that tickled our fancy throughout the day. Technology, sociology, history, religion, etc. We were a good match. One day, John uttered the word "borked." I thought he meant "broke" but somehow, he simply misconjugated the word. I was amused, but I let it pass. He said it again shortly thereafter. I had to bring it to his attention, and tell him that I liked his word!

Either I assumed, or he told me, that the word was a corruption of the word "broke." It was poetic to me. The word represented the concept in its entirety. "Broke." To destroy. Its speaker stops not only at telling us that something has been destroyed --- the speaker actually breaks the verb itself to emphasize just how broken it is. It is a primordial example of meta-language: a meaning embedded in how well the speaker is effecting the "correct" language. It is beatiful and poetic. It is borked.

If you search online, you will find that many dictionaries simply list the definition of the word bork as being broken. Some list the etymology as being from our favorite muppet, the Swedish Chef, who throws "borks" into all his utterances. Over the weekend, I learned a new, deeper etymology for my lovely linguistic candy. My unlikely source was NPR, which was discussing the battle for supreme court nominations that our country is now suffering through.

The story starts, as many good stories do start, with Watergate. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox requested Nixon's Oval Office Tapes, and Nixon ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Elliot resigned, rather than carry out the order, leaving Bork as the acting Attorney General. Bork was then ordered to fire Cox. Bork wanted to resign as well, but Elliot told him not to (Odd, I know. Presumably, it was for fear of ensuing chaos).

During this time, "borked" became known as firing somebody (like Archibald Cox) for doing what they were hired to do (like investigate Nixon's criminal activities).

Then, in 1987, Ronald Reagan nominated a man named Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Mr. Bork, he was fairly conservative in his views, and it was believed that he would reverse critical Supreme Court decisions, such as Roe v. Wade. The pro-choice groups ate him for breakfast, and eventually the Senate rejected Bork.

During this time, "borked" became known as having one's presidential appointment defeated by the US Senate.

This story is fantabulous. I am amazed that Mr. Robert Bork has had such influence on the American linguistic playing field so that his name would become verbized twice, and no less, and with two completely different meanings.

I should note that much of the facts for this story come from, which is one of the most profound sites on the web, not to mention a source for the nouveau verb "to wiki."

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