The Ecphorizer

The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage
John Cumming

Issue #41 (January 1985)

Even democracy can't decide how English she ought to be spoke

In his introduction to the Arno Press edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, Chief Editor of the OED Robert W. Burchfield, CBE, pointed out that the only dictionary to be compiled by a writer of the first rank was that of

Clark Kinnard, historian, said simply, 'I'm generally confused.'

Samuel Johnson. He then speculated that if Dryden or Macaulay or T.S. Eliot had been able to spend the time to compile a dictionary, [quoteright]"the result would very likely have been as beguiling, and as influential [as Johnson's]." Three years before Burchfield wrote his introduction, an answer, of sorts, to his speculation was published by William Morris, editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, and his wife and coauthor on many works, Mary Morris, as the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.

This time there was no opinionated literary genius and his ragged amanuenses scribbling away in some disheveled study, but in modern, 20th century fashion, the Harper deliberations were done by committee. Specifically, a panel of 136 writers and editors were chosen and their opinions on various troubling usages recorded for the delectation of the reader. This effort may be as close as we will ever come to the continental practice of creating an "academy" of authorities to lay down the law on the language, and as close as we may want to. The result is more interesting than conclusive and should be a stimulant to argument.

The panel included such literary lights as W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Willard R. Espy, S.I. Hayakawa, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Plimpton, Leo Rosten, Lionel Trilling, Rex Stout, Gay Talese, Herman Wouk, Lowell Thomas, Howard Taubman, Charles Kuralt, Anthony Burgess, and Walt (Pogo) Kelly. In 1938 a similar effort was published as Facts About Current English Usage, employing a panel made up chiefly of educators. This time a different composition was used, on the assumption that "the general user of the language would be better served by a panel with many fewer teachers . . . and relatively more writers and editors."

Considering the composition of the panel, some common sense could be expected in the use of the language. A refreshing example of this is the panel's response to the rule against "preposition at end of sentence." A remnant of Latinate grammar, this "rule" was grafted onto English by classically trained grammaticasters of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eighty percent of the "Harper" panelists approved of the practice of postfixing prepositions.

Among the opinions recorded, Anthony Burgess pointed out that putting prepositions at the end of sentences is natural in Germanic languages. Panelist Peter S. Prescott commented that "teachers generally don't try to write, but anyone who does knows that occasionally sentences will be ruined if terminal prepositions are forcibly bused to another neighborhood." (This sounds like a polite restatement of the cruel witticism, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach.")

Though none of the panel's responses is recorded, (if even solicited), a favorite nit of punctuation is nicely dealt with under the title "comma, series or serial." The so-called serial comma is the one put before the "and" in a series, or list of items (for example, "red, white, and blue"). The Morrises point out that the distinction created by either using or not using the serial comma exists only in the minds of editors and that newspaper copyeditors have dropped it, while textbook and reference book editors retain it. If they had known, they could add the U.S. Government Style Manual and the editor of The Ecphorizer as adherents to this antique and redundant usage of the coma.

Although English seems to be clogged with obscure "learned borrowings" (words made up from Latin or Greek elements), yet another is accepted herein with little comment: turofile. Attributed to Clifton Fadiman, this word means "a connoisseur or fancier of cheese," literally a "cheese lover." "Cheese maven" would be unacceptable except in an informal context, as are all such "Yiddishisms" (so it says in this work). Apparently scholarly obscurity is still valued by authorities on the language. One wonders what Gerard Paul would think of this.

A favorite technique for generating hot argument over usage is to bring up the practice of "verbalizing" nouns. One example discussed herein is "to defenestrate," from the old Latinism "defenestration" (throwing something out of a window, especially Habsburg agents in Prague as a way of starting the Thirty Years War). The issue was raised by panelist Stanley Peckham, who pointed out that the noun form is in standard dictionaries but no corresponding verb is indicated. Sixty-three percent of the panelists approved of recognition of the verb form, and 37 percent did not. Among criticisms of use of this form were that it is "cutesy" (Shana Alexander) or "fancy and evasive" (Walter Kerr). Shana Alexander added that if this verb is acceptable, then jumping off of bridges should be "depontification."

To add to the confusion, as Davidson Taylor observed, "fenestration" is a medical procedure (the making of an artificial opening in the labyrinth of the ear). Exclaimed panelist George Weld, "What in hell is this about?" Jessica Mitford came out for using the word only in its familiar historical context, probably the best conclusion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan approved the verb form, in the context of political assassination (presumably a memorial to the Czech leader Jan Masaryk, who was fatally defenestrated in 1948, a suicide according to the Communist politicians who helped him).

Vietnam veterans have had to put up with a lot of unfair abuse from the general public, and now from the editors of this book, who state that the derogatory term "gook" originated during the Vietnam War and was applied to any Vietnamese national. If any one of these experts was a reader of comic books in the 1950s, specifically those dealing with the Korean War or World War II, this misbegotten etymology would never have made it into print. The Dictionary of American Slang puts this expression firmly in the mouths of an older generation of soldiers. I guess the East Coast literati had deferments of some sort. Vietnam troopers actually called the locals "slopes."

A real oddity, and apparently recorded in a dictionary for the first time, is "pank," meaning to flatten down snow while going uphill on skis. The editors say that this word has been in use for years in Michigan and is derived from an old Cornish mining term for tamping dynamite. Apparently the counties of Houghton and Keweenaw were in need of copper miners in the late 19th century, and so imported the best miners of the time, Welshmen. Other ethnic groups still struggling with the language picked the word up from the miners. Then everyone knocked off work and went skiing.

Yet another regionalism is "nebby." According to the editors, this is a Scottish term for "meddlesome" or "nosey" and is "inappropriate for use in formal contexts." One might be reminded of the Yiddishism "nebbish," meaning a drab, insignificant person, and wonder if it would ultimately be verbalized as "nebby." Yiddish or Scottish, they are all equally inferior terms in the eyes of the editors.

Several pages of argument are recorded over the use of "Ms." One of the more interesting responses to the usage of "Ms." was that of Jean Stafford, who apparently marks all mail addressed to her in this form with the legend "Not acceptable to addressee. Return to sender"--after first making sure the envelope does not contain a check. S.I. Hayakawa cheered Miss Stafford's practice.

One of the things President Harding was accused of doing was inventing the word "normalcy." In fact the editors make it plain that "normalcy" had been in use since the mid-nineteenth century. The pedigree of this word is confirmed, the editors point out, by the Oxford Dictionary. It seems to be a perfectly normal derivation from the Latin "normalis," and is thus O.K. in the eyes of the editors.

O.K. is still not quite good form, however, at least for use in legislative documents, white papers, real-estate deeds, etc. O.K. is quite good (according to the editors) for use in business, by virtue of its clarity of meaning and conciseness. Too bad it didn't have Latinate ancestors.

The editors took time from their important deliberations to respond to a "reader" (of what? The Morrises write a newspaper column called "Words, Wit and Wisdom," but they don't say that this is where the reader came from) who was mortified to find that her Webster's New World Dictionary didn't authorize "pleasantly" as in "pleasantly surprised." They explain that the omission was due to an editorial decision to omit adverbs that were formed from adjectives by adding "-ly." They add that the Second Edition of the dictionary in question had altered its policy and was including "pleasantly." Heaven knows how much human happiness rides on the decisions of dictionary editors.

Recorded by the Morrises with no indication that it is anything but a perfectly acceptable term in English, "pogonotomy" is a learned borrowing from the Greek. A true barberism, it seems to be intended to mean "beard cutting," and formed for use by barbers and their refined cousins, the hair stylists. The editors write "With the return of beards to fashion . . . the term pogonotomy may come back into use." A decade after this was written we can say "not yet, thank heaven."

A fair amount of argument followed a panelist's questioning the value of trying to distinguish between "that" and "which" in introducing restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Sixty-two percent favored the distinction when writing, somewhat fewer in speech. Among the dissenters was linguist Charles Berlitz, who pointed out that the distinction wasn't "linguistically logical-cf. German, Dutch, the Scandinavian and other languages related to English." Elizabeth Janeway expressed surprise that such distinctions existed! Barbara Tuchman confessed that she went by sound because she couldn't understand the grammatical difference. The most practical was Alvin Beam, who would, as a copyeditor, simply strike out the "that" in the examples given ("the book that I read last night"). Clark Kinnard, historian, said simply, "I'm generally confused."

Anyone who has felt intimidated by having his foggy grasp of grammatical arcana exposed will be heartened by the discussions recorded in this book. Here's one more little item to show how much nonsense has been foisted upon the student of English as she is wrote in the U.S. Under "punctuation involving quotation marks," the editors explain the practice of placing the comma or period within the closing quote without regard to logic. Simply put, American typesetters like the way it looks when done that way. In England the arrangement of the comma or period in relation to the quote depends on the logical relationship of the quote to the sentence it occupies. The editors conclude, "American printers have been handling copy this way for many decades and they aren't likely to change now just because a few voices are raised in a plea for logic and reason." Though the editors don't mention it, the Merriam Webster company has managed to persuade its printers to do it the "logical" way. As typesetting and typesetters become a thing of the past one wonders what changes will take place in the look of the printed word.

A number of the more striking differences in usage between American and British English are discussed by the editors. One such, and a real irritant for American grammarians, is the British use of collective nouns. They follow all collective nouns with plural verbs. This perfectively logical practice results in such expressions as "Australia triumph over Swansea" and "Your press horrify me."

More than a guide to usage, or a record of the peculiar usages of modern writers, editors and others, this book is a word lover's collection of curiosities. Under "lost positives," for example, we have a genial discussion of the amusing games that arise from stripping words of their usual prefixes. A classic example is the remark by critic Clive Barnes on a performer he found less than memorable: "Few have left so colorless and delible a memory in this role." One ought to be careful, however, to avoid bad form such as that of an Australian writer who tried to reverse ineptitude by shortening it to "eptitude." The word is real, and is spelled "aptitude."

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