Fighting words -- and a rhetorical defense initiative

THE final supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary has been published, and that's occasion enough to send the language purists into the streets, waving placards reading ``Save the English language.'' Ever since Samuel Johnson, the appearance of a new dictionary seems guaranteed to set off mass mutterings about the decline and fall of the mother tongue.

Robert Burchfield, the editor who spent 30 years bringing the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) into the 20th century, says -- right out in public -- that American-English is ``the most important branch of English today.'' That heresy alone will get him a small army of dissenters on the march -- bowlers squared and rolled umbrellas at the ready.

Certainly this last volume -- S to Z -- is full of made-in-America terms, from soap opera to Watergate to yuppie. At least yuppie is defined as ``a jocular term.'' Jocular, sir, is a word no American would ever use, even jocularly.

A lot of Americans are reluctant to be made the imperial power of the Eng lish language. They're just not that proud of taking over the world with slang -- the verbal equivalent of fast food.

Linguistic conservatives of all nationalities feel comfortable with the lexicographer's criterion that makes American-English dominant. In language and its usage, the game is currently played by majority rule. Since Americans outnumber the British by a considerable margin, Q.E.D., the O.E.D. follows.

It's a sobering thought that, once enough disc jockeys influence enough teen-agers to say, ``Like, man . . .,'' scholarly lexicographers monitoring the flow will obediently go with the flow -- though inevitably too late, as with the two examples above.

Sam Johnson, as an opinionated man of letters, put his style, his imprint, on the words in his dictionary. His successors, it sometimes appears, aspire to the tallying objectivity of a computer, as if words could be reduced to numbers, like everything else.

Well, it's great fun to growl and grumble about language pollution. There's a regular ritual the protestor goes through: One no longer has to do much more than shout the names of the villains. Madison Avenue! -- admen using words as hyperbole. Television! -- back to the pictogram. And, of course, journalism! -- you read it here.

Add an -ese, and you have a one-word description of the crimes. Bureaucratese -- the lost-in-the-labyrinth language of the civil servant. Academese -- the jargon of the specialist.

Then, to keep everything to the size of a bumper sticker -- ``Honk if you don't split infinitives!'' -- the complainer finishes with a warning quote from George (``Language is politics'') Orwell or Ludwig (``The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world'') Wittgenstein.

Nothing makes one feel quite so virtuous as playing guardian of the purity of language. A sermon now and then is doubtless necessary in a world where we're all accessing to the information that nouns are being turned into verbs, and even adjectives are getting finalized.

Still, we need to hear more about the consequences -- the wages of sin. Just one example, and this sermon is over:

At a time when we're stockpiling bigger and bigger bombs for use on smaller and smaller provocation, we seem to be using words the same way.

Every person whose wish list is not instantly filled stands among the ``victims,'' with his ``oppressors'' perceived as ``Nazis.''

``Genocide'' -- a word with the gravest, most specific meaning -- is recklessly used as a figure of speech.

``Terrorism'' has now become the latest red-letter word to be deployed metaphorically -- even by the president of Yale. (That's all right, Yalies. A Harvard professor, George Herbert Palmer, called overspecialization ``a kind of intellectual terrorism'' a century ago.)

We're talking now not just about crimes against the fastidious intellect but about crimes against meaning that can lead to violent consequences in life. Let's set up a panel to investigate that. On second thought, let's not. But let's lay down, for a start, a few elementary prohibitions.

The word ``defensive'' should never be applied to anything involving nuclear explosions.

The word ``fail-safe'' as a description of technology -- or anything else -- ought to be permanently retired.

The term ``mad dog'' should be reserved as an anachronism for gangster movies of the '30s starring James Cagney, George Raft, and Edward G. Robinson.

Other bristling Hollywood repartee, such as ``Make my day!'' or ``You've had it, pal,'' should be banned from public discourse.

As cultural exchange for these losses, we could bring back the largely forgotten word ``overkill.'' Whatever became of ``overkill,'' now that it truly applies?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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