Language Must Change, but Must It Change This Way?

IT'S no news that any spoken language changes. Very few of us go around saying, ''Thou hast cleft my heart in twain,'' as was said in Shakespeare's time. Hardly anyone would say, ''Whan that Aprille with his shoures soot,'' as was spoken in Chaucer's day. And if we want to read Old English, we must first study it and learn it as we would a foreign language.

To complain about language changing would be foolhardy. There's nothing that the most determined pedants on earth can do to stop a language from changing.

My complaint is about the way it's changing. Why do we have to sound either pompous, pretentious and unclear, or just plain ugly during the process?

A headline in the newspaper this morning quoted a homicide detective who said, ''There is no connection to Cal State in terms of the victim.'' Why couldn't he have said, ''There is no connection between Cal State and the victim''? This would be simple and clear. No, he had to get that ''in terms of'' in, which has become one of the most pervasive of useless, pretentious phrases.

James Kilpatrick once called such words and phrases ''turkey'' words, that is, they are used by people who want to wiggle their wattles and strut their stuff.

There are those who are so enamored of ''in terms of'' that they manage to work it in two or three times in a sentence. A fellow on a news show the other night said, ''In terms of traveling, I fly, but I prefer the train in terms of comfort and in terms of safety.'' He made sure that we didn't miss one single wiggle of his several wattles.

Did you ever make a casual remark to someone and have him say, ''I understand where you're coming from''? What does this mean? We haven't been discussing my place of habitation or national origin. We haven't been talking about any form of locomotion. I have made a totally sedentary statement, requiring no movement on my part whatsoever. I always want to answer him in his own idiom and say, ''But, thank the Lord, you don't know where I'm going to,'' (or should I say ''going at''?) and quietly slip away.

Another wattle wiggler is, ''He gifted her with a new car for her birthday,'' or ''He skillfully crafted her a letter.'' These use two words when one would not only suffice but would sound a lot less insipid and affected. Would this person also say, ''He poeted a book of verse,'' or ''He surgeoned two patients today''?

There are some changes that, rather than being wattle wigglers, are just plain ugly ear offenders. It seems to be the vogue today to say, ''He is taller than me,'' or ''He went earlier than me.'' Is someone who says this trying to be folksy and down-to-earth, or does he simply not know that if he finished the sentence it would be, ''He is taller than me am,'' or ''he went earlier than me did''? Would it enlighten him to say, ''Oh no, you is taller than him is''? Who knows?

Another one that has a folksy, friendly feeling to it is the habit of calling everything ''guys.'' At one time only people were referred to this way. It could be a two-day-old female, called a ''cute little guy,'' or there could be two 80-year-old grandmothers out to lunch, and the waitress would say, ''How are you guys today?'' Now, however, inanimate objects are also ''guys.''

A shoe salesman said to me the other day, ''Say, how do you like these little guys?'' showing me a pair of size 8 1/2 wide hiking boots. When I wasn't taken with them, he said, ''Well, I have plenty of other guys that are even more comfortable than these guys.''

I had figured that this usage was an idiosyncrasy peculiar to shoe salesmen, but when I was selecting plums at a farmer's market, a young woman said, ''These guys are much sweeter than those guys.'' Apparently anything, alive or inert, can be called a ''guy.'' I suppose it's easier than having to think up the names of everything.

You can say, ''I want a new guy to drive, but those new guys are too expensive, and I can't get anything for the old guy I've been driving.'' If people don't know whether you're talking about your car or your spouse, just point to the one you mean.

Most of us have become fairly hardened to the mangling of nouns and verbs. Horrors such as ''finalize'' and ''it's a good read'' have wormed their way into the language so firmly that nothing short of striking the perpetrators mute will stop them. A couple of examples enjoying current popularity are: ''That movie really impacts me,'' and ''I've been obsessing on him all year.'' How the wattles can waggle with those two. Turning the noun ''impact'' into a verb makes it sound as though the person ''impacted'' is being felled by a giant oak uprooted in a hurricane. As for ''obsessing on'' someone, this sounds plain nasty. It's one thing to suffer from an obsession, but when we start ''obsessing on,'' I only hope the foul act will be done in private.

To sum up this hash of illiteracy, let's just finalize all wattle waggler guys in terms of impacting them with their own speech, which they have crafted in terms of obsessing on some innocent bystander who isn't as quick on his feet as him - him is, that is.

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