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In praise of verbal 'turn signals'

The Monitor's language columnist wonders whether we would ever get along without helpful words like 'albeit.'

By Ruth Walker / October 8, 2009



A friend just back from a few days in Chicago remarked that one of the pleasures of the trip was how much easier it was to drive there than in Boston.

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When she overshot a garage entrance, she just went around the block and made another try. In many parts of the United States, this is no big deal. In Boston, it is a cause of conscious delight. In Boston you can't count on the block being square or on the street going all the way through or continuing to run in the same direction.

And get this – in Chicago there were street signs. Not only signs at the streets, but signs positioned so the out-of-town visitor can anticipate what's coming. There are other cities besides Chicago that provide this, I know. But Boston is not one of them.

Small-town New England is known for its general paucity of street signs – as if directors of public works were bound and determined that no one would ever be able to get up at a town meeting to complain about reckless extravagance in the posting of signs – no sirree, not on their watch.

And in the tonier burbs, I can never quite resist feeling that keeping signs to a minimum is part of the town's overall riffraff control plan.

I mention all this because I've been thinking about how important it is, on the road and in language, to have ways to circle back, or around the block, or to change direction.

On the road this process takes place through the interaction of street signs and traffic lights, plus the turn signals and brake and backing lights on our cars. In language, it takes place through, among other means, the use of conjunctions – but, and, or. And let's not forget albeit.

Albeit?

Yes, albeit. It's a word we may see in print more than hear in conversation. It's a marvelous little folding umbrella of a word, collapsing the phrase "all though it be" into a compact six letters. It goes back to the 14th century and means roughly the same as "although" or "even though," or "notwithstanding." But, you'll note, it's shorter than any of those.

You may be surprised that a word going back to the 14th century is still in use. But conjunctions, as a part of speech, tend to be pretty stable, unlike nouns, for instance.

All it takes to get a new noun is for a new thing to be invented. Sometimes it need only be imagined. Television, the noun, predated television, the thing, by a couple of decades.

It seems I'd read a while back that albeit has been through a rough patch. But a quick check of Google News shows it in wide use, and not just by the old-fogy demographic.

A USA Today story on the frequent phenomenon of comebacks in professional tennis noted, "Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles, to name three, all took major breaks and returned to win majors, albeit for different reasons." That "albeit" signals a quick change in direction, from what "all three" did, to the way each did it differently.

The writer went on to explain a little more in the next sentence. But the "albeit" construction came in handy – like circling the block when you make your turn.

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