Where did the derogatory epithet ‘grammar nazi’ come from? And what the hell does ‘Nazi’ have to do with those who correct other people’s grammar and spelling mistakes?
Let’s clear the air and know what a ‘grammar nazi’ is exactly:—
“Someone who is extremely obsessed with criticizing or correcting other people’s grammar. The person’s tendency is irritating and often unnecessary, such as in casual conversation.”
(via Rice University Neologisms Database, 4 Dec. 2011)
In other words, one who insists on correcting other people’s usage (or frankly, “incorrecting” it).
In short, someone who’s serious about X in an unfriendly way
There’s no question the term is unlovely — but not taboo (the Internet has seen to that years ago).
Not a self-identifier, please
Hilariously, those who use grammar nazi/Nazi as a self-identifying term are naff. They don’t realise it isn’t something to brag about. It displays their historical insensitivity as well as linguistic illiteracy — insensitive about one of the most shameful times in our history, and illiterate because their approach to language shows they know little about it too.
The Rise of the Third Write
(via Know Your Meme, artist unknown)
The word nazi (originally capitalised and still is among grammar nazis) functions as a hyperbole, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:—
Nazi n. 2.b. hyperbolically. A person who is perceived to be authoritarian, autocratic, or inflexible; one who seeks to impose his or her views upon others. Usu. derogatory.
First use in 1982 (sort of)
The first citation of Nazi not in the sense of Nazism is usually credited to American satirist and journalist P.J. O’Rourke in 1982:—
“The Safety Nazis advocate gun control, vigorous exercise, and health foods.”
— P.J. O’Rourke, ‘Safety Nazis,’ The Therapeutic State in Inquiry, 15 March 1982, pages 7–8 (PDF, 368 kB)
Not close, no cigar
Maybe in writing that was from P.J. O’Rourke. The usage was helluva lot earlier — the 1950s:—
“The term ‘surf nazi’ has been in use since the fifties to describe someone who was unconditionally devoted to surfing. […] They cared less about things like getting a good job and making a lot of money, and more about getting to the beach and riding waves. […] giving the whole thing the finger going ‘I don’t give a shit about that, I wanna go surfing’. It was this same attitude and devotion to riding waves from which the term ‘surf nazi’ was born. […] By the time the seventies rolled around, the term ‘surf nazi’ took on a new meaning: an aggressive, territorial surfer.“
(text and image via Surf Nazi History)
Interestingly, that territorial state of mind pretty much describes the grammar nazi to a T too.
And we’ve got Mark Liberman of Language Log backing this up:—
“I first heard this usage in the form of ‘surf nazis’, in California in the mid-1960s. According to the wikipedia entry for the band Surf Punks [1976–88],
“The term ‘surf punk’ was a generational adaptation of the term ‘surf nazi” which was in wide use in the early days of the sport in the 60s and 70s also used tongue-in-cheek to describe people who were fanatically dedicated to their sport.
“I recall some inconclusive arguments among teenagers about whether any of the ‘surf nazis’ actually had any political or cultural affinities with the ideology of the Third Reich. My impression at the time was that the term was mostly a culturally-empty evocation of an available epitome of fanaticism.”
(via Mark Liberman, Language Log, 10 Feb. 2007 | image via covershut)
We’ll buy that for a dollar — we actually remember “surf nazis” firsthand.
First online use in 1991 (sort of)
If you’ve been on the Usenet (established 1980), chances are you’ll have seen grammar Nazi being bandied about in the newsgroups since the 1980s.
Considering P.J. O’Rourke, considering the surf nazis, considering the band Surf Punks — hardly a mental jump for Usenet users not to use “nazi” namecalling.
Unfortunately not all Usenet stuff are archived.
The earliest online use of grammar Nazi we could locate is from 18 Jan. 1991 in the thread “Extended graphics on the IIg” on the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.apple2. It was in a reply from “The Unknown User” correcting another user’s spelling:—
(Screencap of “Extended graphics on the IIg” at comp.sys.apple2)
Another early online example dates from 19 Jan. 1995 in a thread on alt.gothic titled “Grammar Nazis on the Rampage!”:—
(Screencap of “Grammar Nazis on the Rampage!” at alt.gothic)
The OP started the thread, so presumably he titled it with “Grammar Nazis” but didn’t actually use the term to call out another poster for correcting someone else’s use of thusly. It was the poster in the above screen who did. The other posters followed suit trying to outcorrect everyone else’s usage. The stupidness has been archived for 20 years already.
The first REAL recorded use of the hyperbolic ‘Nazi’
If you’re as old as we are, you’ll remember 1974. This immortal line was uttered in a kitchen sketch on The Bob Newhart Show (CBS, 1972–78):—
“What are you, a Nazi?”
— Emily (played by Suzanne Pleshette), The Bob Newhart Show, Season 2, ca. February 1974.
(via Facilitate Proceedings)
While grammar nazi is derogatory (in a humorous sort of way), it isn’t considered taboo generally.
For starters it isn’t banned on TV. For another, it’s a lot more vulgar (and probably more accurate) calling someone an “asshole” who forced you correct some minor spelling mistake than branding the asshole a “Nazi.”
(Calling a Jewish person a Nazi usually gets unhealthy results, so we don’t recommend. Self-explanatory, srly.)
The fact is, the word Nazi is commonly a historical word, so it’s difficult for it to become taboo like motherfucker is or can. The claim in motherfucker is disturbing enough, but the word itself isn’t taboo. In our modern, Internet-driven life, using Nazi in the form of grammar nazi doesn’t trivialise one of the most shameful events in history.
‘Reach out and touch someone’: 1981 (via The Phone Booth)
Grammar nazi isn’t the only kind of “[X] nazi” construction. It’s just a stronger form of what used to be “[X] Police” — another humorous derogatory term about a too-high interest in keeping others in line in something that nobody cares about. (See “X Nazi,” Language Log, 7 April 2004)
It just gets the point across. The word nazi has additionally become associated with fanaticism in general and has spawned various “nazi” forms to depict bloodymindedness (deliberately uncooperative behaviour). (See “Birth of a Sentence,” Language Log, 10 Feb. 2007)
In the heyday of the Usenet (ca. 1995 to 2005), posters branded each other a grammar nazi for harsh treatment of other people’s spelling and grammar. See these threads in:—
Meanwhile, some airheads actually bragged about being grammar nazis (among other things), all the while not realising the meaning isn’t what they think it means. See these famous threads in:—
plus the famous thread on 4chan from 7 Feb. 2008 where it’s a self-identifying term used by some random idiot upset over someone’s language
Notable diseases — sorry, derivatives
All sorts of “nazi” names exist for people who have some deep-seated psychological dislike about others violating The Rules — typically resulting in throwing fits, namecalling, fingerpointing, and generally going ballistic over any ‘violation’ in an ass-tronomical way.
Here’s a kind of physiological and mental reaction we can expect — a self-description here.
Some forms developed over the years:—
(From Urban Dictionary unless stated differently)
Some lowlife who’s a school faculty member in control of the computer lab who sets strict limits on what can be used or brought into the lab. This one’s a control freak.
An employee in a retail outlet who insists on checking everyone’s receipts upon leaving the store. The Cantonese have the unlovely but highly accurate phrase 門口狗 (moon hau gau: literally ‘doorway dog‘) to describe these people. This one operates on imagined omnipotence.
environazi, enviro nazi
An environmentalist who shames others for their lack of environmental awareness or dedication to the cause. This one operates on superior complex.
Someone who has no life (a nolife as the Italians say) who behaves like a member of the Morality Police and continually reports material posted on Facebook that only he/she thinks is offensive or suggestive. This one’s a moralfag.
A disparaging term for an extreme, militant or radical feminist. In use since the 1990s and popularised by American radio talkshow host Rush Limbaugh. (Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster online dictionary)
A person who’s either rail thin or whale-like obesed who insists on telling others what they should call themselves based on their diets. This one’s just stupid.
forum nazi (a.k.a. safety nazi)
An moderator (‘mod’) on an Internet discussion thre who takes it upon oneself to remove posts without any forewarning or explanation. This one actually believes Internet power counts.
A health nut who constantly provides his/her own (unsolicited) opinions on dieting, exercise and weight loss in a pushy and condescending manner. (See “The Health Nazi,” Language Log, 31 Jan. 2010)
heat nazi (a.k.a. thermosat nazi)
A person who micromanages the room’s thermostat to maintain some stupid temperature in the name of being ‘budget-friendly.’ This one’s a control freak.
Basically a grammar nazi who additionally is culturally intolerant and complains when someone speaks in a language other than his own. This one is usually bilingually illiterate.
A busybody who believes his/her music is better than anyone else’s and feels entitled to decide who is a poseur and who isn’t. This lowlife is also a nolife.
Someone (usually a ‘he’) who runs the office IT in a ruthless fashion. Brother of the computer nazi. Another control freak.
This one’s from an episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld from the mid-1990s. A soup vendor makes the world’s best soup but puts unreasonable restrictions on how to eat it. Too hard to explain; see the Wikipedia article The Soup Nazi. Control freak.
A Wikipedia editor who habitually removes well-written articles submitted by others because he (usually a he) subscribes to a ridiculously strict set of standards. Superiority complex based on not getting laid.
How to react
There are ways that don’t end in a criminal conviction.
Here are some methods we’ve culled from the very best of the Internet:—
1. Don’t make
grammar grammatical errors
Many people think a grammar
nazi Nazi loses his his or her nerve at the sight of lots a lot of grammar grammatical errors. It doesn’t work. Grammar nazis Nazis don’t loose lose their nerve because they have lots a lot of internal reserves to keep correcting until Thy Kingdom Come. It must makes them more angry angrier but they’ll they will keep correcting.
2. Tell them you have more sex
Remind them that you have a significant other and have had more sex (or better sex more times)
then than they have read Strunk & White. Keep a straight face saying that.
3. Switch to chatspeak
grammar nazi Grammar Nazi could stand a barrage of chatspeak for very long. Nearly all of them know chatspeak very well (or else they wouldn’t be able to correct others for using it). But Yet it’s not in their makeup to tolerate it for long.
4. Use obscure interpretations
Obscure or less common interpretations, not meanings. For instance, effect as a noun is a change and as a verb to bring about. So mess with them with a sentence like “The government has effected major changes” and show them they’re wrong, preferably with the help of a dictionary. (See “Shooting down ‘amateur grammar nazis’,” Language Log, 8 Oct. 2007)
5. Bait them with alternative but correct spellings
Start a row with them on alternative but correct spellings, such as whiny as whiney or whinging as whingeing.
6. Excuse yourself on your brand of English
Just switch the variety of English. If the grammar nazi is American, say it’s correct in British English, and vice versa. Simple as cake, easy as pie.
7. No pro works for free
Yeah, they’ll tell you they’re teachers or some spiel like that. They’ll say they just want to “maintain standards” as a public service. Tell them this in return:—
“Simple: If you were a grammar teacher, you probably wouldn’t be correcting other people on the Internet because you’re smart enough not to work for free.”
Are grammar nazis ruining the English language?
Renowned linguist Geoffrey Pullam has a message for all grammar pedants here. Decide for yourself.
Grammar nazis are the ones who couldn’t tell a “grammar war” from a “competence war”: “Grasshoppers and women on horseback as frogs,” (Language Log, 15 June 2008).
For now, all grammar nazis are repeatedly undone by their solo acts: 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes.
Enough said, thankyouverymuch.
Featured image via Know Your Meme. All images by author unless stated otherwise.
© Learn English or Starve, 2015. (B15126)