English -- plain and fancy

The seventh annual Dishonor List of Words Banished from the Queen's English has just been published by a society of language purists at Lake Superior State College in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

The ritual rather catches the imagination. At the beginning of each year the Unicorn Hunters, as they call themselves, review the horrendous cases brought to their attention by about 1,500 letters from all over the land. Then, we may fantasize, Lake Superior heralds blow a neat little fanfare, and the robed court pronounces the sentence of exile -- from Sault Ste. Marie to Buckingham Palace and back -- on the most outrageous offenders of the Mother Tongue.

This year Charlotte Kratt of Birmingham, Ala., Won support for her complaint against "deplane." "Why can't just say 'leave the plane'?" she asked in quite agony, and the Unicorn Hunters agreed.

They also went along with the argument of Michael Moloney of Lexington, Ky., who requested that the phrase "moral majority" be banned. I'm not sure how moral they are," Mr. Moloney wrote, "but I'm convinced they're not a majority.

When the mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, hoped that an investigation would prove "fruitworthy," she earned herself sponsorship on the never-let-this-word- pass-my-lips list.

The common crime of redundancy did not go unnoticed by Louise Knaak of Sharon , Wis., who pointed her best banishing finger at "past history."

Their whimsical name suggests that the Unicorn Hunters are modest about their fruitworthy chances of getting the world to deplane from the flight toward functional illiteracy. Still, we envy people who can deplore the decline of the English language, either with elegant disdain or with moral indignation, as if civilization or maybe the universe is coming to an end if we don't haul back on those dangling participles. The fact is, we've never quite finished studying Fowler's "Modern English Usage," or even Strunk and White, and we have this justifiable suspicion that, just as we really get thundering, we'll split an infinitive or call a "whom" a "who."

The other thing is, when it comes to words themselves, we find our deepest likes and dislikes too irrational to recommend. For a long time we couldn't touch "much" or "such" -- just abhorred the sound. "However" has always been a taboo word -- equally inexplicable.

If we were appointed language arbiter, we'd certainly hate to live under us as we made up rules to support our crochets and whims.

Actually, the cases that bother us most are not the much cited -- make that, often cited -- errors, like the use of "disinterested" when "uninterested" is meant. The purest agitation overcomes us when a perfectly grammatical phrase like "Have a nice day!" is heard too many times to allow the day to be nice all by itself.

But even the worst of these problems tend to solve themselves, exile or no exile. All the waiters and waitresses who used to say "Have a nice day!" as they handed you the check are now saying "Enjoy!" as they serve you the meal. And this too shall pass away -- and probably did, at the moment Rosalynn handed Nancy the keys and said: "Enjoy!"

When we really think about it we realize that we yearn less for correct English than for a certain word- music, a high style that most of the defenders of the Queen's English lack as much as the offenders. We miss the language that sings.

It's as if everybody wants a kind of concrete-and- glass English, and the only quarrel is about sloppy engineering. What we long for are words like hewn granite, phrases like flying buttresses, thrusting eloquence like Gothic spires.

We sense that the people who invent words like "deplane" or roll the sound of "moral majority" off their tongues are thirsting for a little grandeur too, no matter how misplaced.

Sometimes we don't know whose side we are on. The risk is to end up pretentious. But the wager is to be majestic. And on the whole, a bit of highfalutin jargon from the Bad Guys may be worth it if, now and then , the Good Guys speak with the tongues of angels.

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