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Into the fryer


As the Society considers the agents of climate change, Ted Nield contemplates agent nouns, and finds himself in denial.

Geoscientist 20.4 April 2010

Needing to be right is a personality trait that shows up strongly among scientists. But when their hypotheses must always be tested for “rightness” against nature, this is no handicap – even if it may look to others as little more than the point-scoring pedantry of an eight year-old. Most people’s experience of everyday life is rarely so black and white.

As editors struggle in the web of words, some will tend to adopt a more absolutist approach. One such was the late Professor Anders Martinsson (1930-83), founder of the journal Lethaia and of Uppsala University’s Department of Palaeobiology. White space in his fine publication was rarely left so for long, as Anders delivered yet another pronouncement on the proper spelling of scientific terms. With a scholarly certainty that rivalled the pronouncements of A E Housman, Anders would make it clear that (to take my personal favourite example) the terms “planktonic”, “nektonic” and “benthonic” were illiterate, and that the correct formations from their Attic roots were “planktic”, “nektic” and “benthic”.

While such etymology is amenable to a scientific “right or wrong” approach, living languages are as they are spoken like innit, and this creates a perpetual tension between advocates of correctness and those of popular will, exemplified by editors of Collins Cobuild, the first dictionary to use computers to analyse English usage statistically. Both approaches have merit for editors, practical souls all, who recognise, as they strive for consistency in house style, that while etymology may be dictated by near absolutes, much usage is mere convention. Take prepositions. Are you “bored with” this editorial, or “bored of” it? If the former, you are probably middle aged. If the latter, you are probably under 35. Neither, though, is “right”. So what are we to do about that vilified group known as “climate change deniers”?

“Denier”, in the sense of “one who denies”, is an “agent noun”, and there is a horrid inconsistency about agent nouns formed from verbs in “-y” (like cry, dry, fly, fry - and deny). A machine that makes your hair dry is a “dryer”. One that fries chips is a “fryer”. An aviator is a “flyer” (and a handbill a “flier”). However it is more common to hear a “town crier” than a “town cryer”. In 1926, H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage urged Anglophones to standardise on the “-ier” form; but that was before we had very many dryers, fryers - and frequent flyers.

Moreover, like “drier” and “flier”, the “-ier” form “denier” already has another distinct meaning – as a unit of thread weight, amounting to one gram per nine thousand metres. We cannot distinguish between those who deny climate change and those who don’t by the thickness of their stockings. So, although nearly everyone currently writes “denier” for a denyer of climate change (or of Christ, its other common usage), and although Mr Gates’s pernicious spellchecker wishes me to go along with them, I won’t - and neither will this magazine.

The history of science is littered with examples of ideas that were not made right just because everybody agreed over the same mistake for centuries. But preferring “denyer” over “denier” is not about right or wrong. It merely embodies a wish not to introduce further irregularity into a language that already has far too much of it.

Deny that, if you dare.
  • If you wish to contribute views to the Society's statement on Climate Change, currently in preparation by an expert drafting group, please email Sarah Day