Rooting out bad language with a unicorn
I've never been much of a joiner, but who could pass up the chance to join the Unicorn Hunters? In 1980 I set out to find Peter Thomas, the poet who taught my college freshman English class. I wanted to thank him for encouraging me to write and inspiring me to teach.
The letter I wrote to him was forwarded to the college that is now Lake Superior State University (LSSU) in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. When Mr. Thomas wrote back, I learned that he was a professor of English, the editor of a literary magazine, and a Unicorn Hunter.
The Unicorn Hunters were founded in 1971 by W.T. Rabe, Thomas, and other LSSU faculty and staff to encourage and regulate the hunting of unicorns. The regulations define the unicorn hunting season – "All days of the year except St. Agnes' Eve" – and list the "Approved Questing Devices: Unicorns may be taken with: (1) Serious Intent (2) Iambic Pentameter (3) General levity (4) Sweet talk."
The Unicorn Hunters disbanded in 1987, but the events they created – and their spirit – live on. The LSSU community still celebrates the first day of spring by burning a snowman. The International Stone-Skipping Tournament takes place each year on nearby Mackinac Island.
World Sauntering Day is June 19 on the calendar. Well, it is on my calendar, which hangs next to my "Unicorn Questing License" signed by "Peter Thomas, Director, Dept. of Natural Unicorns."
The group's best-known tradition is the posting of the annual "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness." Along with each word or phrase is the nominator's rationale for banishment.
The first list, in 1976, banned "input" ("Has unfortunately replaced 'contribution.' ") and "at this point in time." ("Why not just say 'now'?")
The 2006 list included "git-er-done" and its variants. ("It's overdone.")
This year's list bans the fused names of celebrity couples, such as "Brangelina" (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) and "TomKat" (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes). The nominator said that such melded names are "lamethetic."
My nominees for banishment are two verbed nouns – nouns turned into verbs. I'm tolerant of most nerbs (as writer Nancy Allison calls them), such as "I like to journal" or "I Googled for articles on scrapbooking." But as Calvin in Bill Watterson's comic strip Calvin and Hobbes says, "Verbing weirds language." We must draw the weirding line somewhere.
I nominate for banishment the verbed nouns "dialogue" and "language," as in, "Let's dialogue on this project and then do some languaging about our proposal." Any proposal that requires languaging should be shot down with an F-14 TomKat at this point in time, or any other time.
Guarding our English language, like hunting for unicorns, requires vigilance and hope. But as Thomas, chief herald of the Unicorn Hunters, once said, "The pursuit of the unicorn is a lonely quest, but many more embark upon that journey than teachers or publishers may recognize."
• Dale Roberts, a college career counselor, lives in Asheville, N.C.