Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Word Snobbery

Whilst away, I read many a fine piece (some on the Opinionator pages of the New York Times) addressing the use of language, and the ceaseless development and evolution [or devolution] of language.  I enjoyed them immensely.

One piece, to which I cannot link because I am cheap and do not pay for NYTimes web edition, addressed the changes inherent in language.  I liked it a lot.

Hey; I told you folks I was comin' back!
Notwithstanding my lengthy exchanges with proponents of proactive and the like, I've never had a rigid dislike of the change of language; indeed, I find scoping it out fly as I chill solo rather than hanging with my peeps.

But the article, which encouraged people to embrace evolution of English, opined that there were at least three reasons people bristle at the changes.  I forget one.

The other two hit home, though.  One's good, one's bad.

Reason No. 1 - the loss of words that are uniquely capable of providing information, or evoking mood.
This is the good reason to object.   The author chose as his example one o' m' pet peeves -- the elimination of infer by the misuse of imply.  Other than the circular substitute draw an inference (and look at all the wasted syllables!), what dislodges infer?  "Imply"?  Fuck that -- to imply can only go one way.  Otherwise, it conveys no information and requires enormous contextual clues to understand. "Draw a conclusion"?  Get a pad o' paper and scrawl The End. . . .

I have others, of course.  The verb to impact is a personal fave.  Listening to radios, reading press releases, listening to spokespeople -- something "impacts" something else.  It conveys little, and is only a substitute for affects. Why not try improves? Encourages?  Or if you're "impacting negatively," why not diminished? Undercut? Saying that something impacts something else conveys next to nothing.

Moreover, the noun impact gets undermined.  The word originally described either forcibly joining two things (nature left my wisdom teeth impacted), or the forcible collision of two items.  But since we have an evolving language, the word was borrowed for its metaphorical impact -- it conveyed a striking (the impact of his infidelity led her to give up hope).

But the goddamned useless verb has insinuated itself everywhere -- to the detriment not just of artificial rules, but of meaning.  It's a lot worse than redundancy or prolixity, because the purpose of speaking or writing is impacted negatively.

I kid.

Reason No. 2 -- this one hit home: objection to evolving language as a means of obtaining a sense of superiority and distinction (I'm paraphrasing the article).  Well that's me in spades.  I love thinking I'm better than the hoi polloi. I'm special.  I'm neat -- the riff-raff can kiss my ass!

Well, this one is a bit of a problem. Much smarter, thoughtful, more observant people than yours truly don't really worry about precision in their words -- they worry about more important things.  More creative people don't worry whether someone's using a five-centuries-old word the way it was used in 1855 -- they wanna know if the change to oil-based paints will impact their output.  Nothing useful comes of my snobbery. And I commit sins against the language, unknowingly, routinely.  Of course, I don't know when, which makes me ridiculous.

So I will work hard to change.

This week, I promise not to look askance at a friend who announces that he's nauseous.

Of course, his use of the word will likely convince me that he is. . .and I'll leave.


I kid.


Mister Parker said...

I think most sins against the language occur when people feel they have to sound formal and erudite when a little plain English would convey their meaning a lot better. They wind up reaching for words that sound smart without necessarily knowing what those words mean. And after a while, if enough people pick up on that usage, it becomes the new meaning of the word.

I imagine that's where "impact" as a verb came from. Some clown writing a "formal" document thought it sounded more -- something.

When everybody knows "impactfulosityness" is the correct choice ...

Mister Parker said...

By the way, the word "nauseous" always reminds me of my old law school roommate, Melton, whom you met. His then-girlfriend announced "Melton, I'm nauseous," and before anyone could correct her grammar, or do anything else for that matter, she projectile vomited all over the room.

Nauseous, nauseated, nauseating -- all of the above, as it turned out.

Fred C. Dobbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fred C. Dobbs said...

Oops, let's try that again...

Reason No. 1 - the loss of words that are uniquely capable of providing information, or evoking mood. This is the good reason to object.

Interestingly (or perhaps not), this is why I defend the use of the word "proactive" - it has no synonym, and is therefore "uniquely capable of providing information." But it took me a while to realize that, because I'm a word snob.

mister muleboy said...

I always understand that to be your point Dobbsy, and we just differed over whether it was actually necessary to use a neologism to convey information (or whether it could really be conveyed using mestablished English. But I gave up worrying about proactive a while ago -- while active or preemptively suffice imesho, modern usage authorities I frequently cite and respect grudgingly acknowledge its utility, and I can't keep fighting.

Ultimately, I was most touched by a commenter who explained that he didn't care whether it was technically defensible, it was ugly and distracting and therefore skunked out the gate. But a continuing fight is even more pedantry than I can stomach, so I am white-flagging it.

Those same authorities counsel to search like hell for the more established words, because even a defensible one will run up against ingrained hostility owing to the Parker point. But I don't really care, as I bask in both word snobbery and word mistakery, taking equal parts of each. With each passing day, my precision wanes and my diction falters. My articulation, of course, remains pretty okie dokie. . . .

[yes, that's a bit of unabashed word snobbery. Once I learned at an early age that diction traditionally referred only to choice of words, and that its mistaken use in place of "articulation" had ascended, I knew I had a snobby word by the short hairs, and could wield it whenever I want to (mistakenly) feel superior. . . .]

And anyone who floats as many typos as I do, content to forego precision in typing in order to get shit out there, has no business genuinely looking down on folks who forego precision in speech in order to get shit out there.

Not that I won't do it anyway.

IU've been stuck on a work project for waaaaaay too long, I see. . . .

Fred C. Dobbs said...

Ultimately, I was most touched by a commenter who explained that he didn't care whether it was technically defensible, it was ugly and distracting and therefore skunked out the gate.

See, that's the interesting part. Why is it "ugly and distracting"? I think the only satisfying answer to that question is "Because I am a word snob, and I say so." Speaking as a word snob, that has the ring of truth. The other replies I get ("it's unnecessary, there are better words that convey the same idea") don't just don't cut it.

I think word snobs back in the day had it out for "proactive" and passed along their enmity to future generations. In other words, it got a bad rap and it stuck. But when I take a moment and try to figure out exactly what is objectionable about it, I always come down to "people don't like it because people don't like it."

Oh, I also hear "it's a made-up word." Well, they're all made up at some point, right?

Fred C. Dobbs said...

Oh wait - it's a "corporate buzzword", that's the other one you hear a lot. Yeah, it may be, but unlike a lot of other truly deplorable buzzwords, it's not doublespeak.

Fred C. Dobbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mister muleboy said...

Blogger has insisted that I add no more comments regarding proactive because we used up all of our Blogger space on the topic.


mister muleboy said...

That's just where I'm at