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Mind your language

Lichen

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

On an article in the Times about eating oak moss I saw the headline: ‘I’m lichen it!’ Since I pronounce lichen to rhyme with kitchen, this meant little to me.

You may think that I have no business pronouncing lichen in this way. That is the strong opinion of my husband. But to him lichen is Latin (lichen planus, lichen simplex, denoting skin diseases). The Oxford English Dictionary says that the kitchen pronunciation is ‘now rare in educated use’. But by ‘now’ it means 1902. I suspect that readers who would otherwise understand the play on words in the Times headline are given to my ‘uneducated’ version.


It is in any case not so simple. The word is in origin Greek, not in use in English before the 18th century, although Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny, of 1601, rather charmingly mentions that there is ‘a certain skinny gum, in Greek called Lichen, which hath a wonderfull operation to cure the rhagadies or chaps’. But in Benjamin Smart’s Grammar of English Pronunciation (1810), my kitchen pronunciation is the only one given. Smart (1787-1872) supported his wife and five children by teaching elocution and writing on grammar. He was known for precision and was put up for the Athenaeum by Michael Faraday on the strength of his writing. So I feel justified in persisting in my ‘uneducated’ pronunciation.

Readers of the Times headline were meant to see a reference to an advertisement for McDonald’s in use since 2003: ‘I’m lovin’ it.’ This slogan was used internationally, introducing millions of non-native English speakers to a construction that is scarcely grammatical. It is just possible to think of contexts in which ‘I’m loving it’ is correct. The normal construction would be along these lines: ‘I’m eating it, but I don’t like it, let alone love it.’

The McDonald’s construction was complicated by a song by Justin Timberlake with the lyrics: ‘I’m lovin’ it. / Don’t you love it too?’ If ‘I’m loving it’ were correctly formed, the accompanying question, if it expected the answer Yes, would be ‘Are you loving it too?’ In ordinary English the question ‘Don’t you like it?’ expects the answer No. In the case of oak moss, my response might be: ‘Me no lichen.’


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