In a word

I'm not, by nature, a suspicious person. But I've always been cautious about people who tell you that they pride themselves on their use of language. I see what they're getting at. I, too, have a list of words that I try hard not to use. And, in a utopian world --the sort one finds only in Oscar Wilde's plays, where characters regularly deliver themselves of spontaneous witticisms without apparent thought -- I wouldn't.

I confess, though, that in the offstage world of real words I tend to stumble. I remember being chastised severely by the chairman of a philosophy department for having once, drugged by the influence of nearby bureaucrats, let slip the phrase "at this point in time." "Either one will do," he growled, explaining that "at this point" and "at this time" were synonymous.

And I remember a tirade by my brother-in-law about the phrase "in terms of." Fellow faculty members at his school, it seems, are addicted to it. "What does this course mean in terms of enrollments?" appears to mean, he says, something like "How many students will sign up?" And "What is happening in terms of lunch? means nothing more than "When do we eat?" His outburst, as I recall, was as vehement as it was hilarious -- and, I more than suspect, was brought on by my own quite innocent use of the phrase. I was both chastened and impressed. Fancy, I thought, holding opinions of that vibrancy on subjects of that caliber. In fact, priding myself on my moderation, I worried about his fervor. Surely he was in peril, when so small a thing as a three-word phrase could ruffle his equanimity. Fortunately, I reasoned, nothing like that would ever trouble me.

But pride (as the author of Pogom once quipped) goeth over the falls. After our conversation, I had rather piously decided that (saving a long-cherished aversion to such words as "opt" and "paranoid") I really had no deep-seated linguistic peeves at all. At least, not such dramatic ones. I felt altogether smug in my benevolent tolerance --until, that is, I got a phone call recently.

Now, there was nothing earth shaking about the call. It was all very amicable. It's just that, in the middle of it, I found myself so suddenly amazed by a single word -- in fact, by a mere suffix -- that my train of concentration was wholly derailed. How, i gasped to myself, could an otherwise intelligent person say such a thing? The caller was, to be sure, talking about bureaucrats, and maybe he was consciously adopting their jargon for effect -- the way your diction begins to shift when you hang around Southerners or down-east Yankees for a long time. He was observing that a certain government department had run into criticism for a forthright stand in an early report. So in later editions it had made the same point in more general terms. But what blew me off course -- indeed, it nearly scuttled the entire ship of conversation -- was his way of putting it. The later report, he said, "nebulized" the issue.

Nebulized. "Has it really come to that?" I thought. Has that abhorrent suffix "-ize" clawed its way out from under the awful words it has already made -- like "prioritize" -- and attacked even such lovely, rare, and unbureaucratic words as "nebulous"? Are even the adjectives no longer safe? I found myself agreeing (such is the power of lost concentration) with the old school vice-principals I used to despise, who refused requests on the logic that "If we let you do it, we'll have to let everyone do it." But really -- the prospect of all those adjectives running like tin ducks across the linguistic shooting gallery, with everyone and his brother shooting "ize's" at them. It was a consummation most devoutly to be resisted: the result would be hideously predictable.

"Looka that, George, got one: 'happyize!'"

"Great shot, Sam. Oh, hey, three in one blow: 'miserabilize,' 'flexibilize,' 'noblize.'"

"Yeah, and look over there: Bang!m 'yellowize,' Bang!m 'warmize,' Bang!m 'quickize.'"

"Watch it, though, here come the gerunds. This'll geddum: 'interestingize,' 'enlightenize,' 'lovingize.'"

"OK, George, now for 'superabundantize', those great big 'fireresistantize' compounds, 'overstuffedize'!"

All this, you must appreciate, was coursing through my thoughts while the caller was innocently going on about the government report. Well, i thought, I'll just have to get him to repeat it. But what if (I asked myself, quaking in my newly discovered vulnerability) he commits something even more excruciatingizing? I was, you'll appreciate, in a dilemma. Should I terminatize the call, explaining to him that I would telephonize him back, or should I simply admit that I had been distractedized and ask for a repetization?

Suddenly we had finished, and I hung up, still quivering. Here I was, after all, so sure that I had mastered my peeves -- only to find myself ambushed by one I didn't even know I had. I rather envied my brother-in-law. At least he knew in advance how he would feel about his bete noir.m I was evidently susceptible to the merest whim of verbal fancy.

Not, I mused as I turned back to my desk, a healthy position. Which is when a friend stopped by.

"This week's column about ready?" he said.

"Five minutes," I shot back, suddenly professional again. "I'm just finaliz ing it."

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