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News You Don't Say

Peevers never prosper

Over a span of forty-one years, from Fer-de-Lance in 1934 to A Family Affair in 1975, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe displayed himself as a purist about language as well as a detective of prodigious girth and and gifts.

You may recall that in the opening pages of Gambit (1962), he busies himself burning the pages of Webster's Third International because it indicates that people use infer and imply interchangeably. He is a peever.

This morning I direct your attention to a short passage from Please Pass the Guilt (1973), as Wolfe reacts to a remark by a suspect: "Wolfe's lips were tight. In his house, 'contact' is not a verb and never will be, and he means it." 

My grizzled readers will recognize this, but the younger ones may need the explanation that contact (v.) was the hopefully of its day, one of the tells that the speaker indiscriminately echoes anything vogueish and vulgar. Contact (v.) would have been identified with the speech of people in advertising or press agents or Hollywood types or other such fauna.

You there, you in the back row, with the furrowed brow, do you have a question? You wonder what is wrong with contact (v.)?

Absolutely nothing. As the means of getting in contact with other people have multiplied over the past forty years, the usage has shed its adolescent ungainliness and matured into a perfectly serviceable word. Bryan Garner ranks it as "fully accepted" and says that it is "fully ensconced as a verb." Anyone under seventy who still objects to it can contact me at this address

What has happened is a perfectly normal linguistic evolution. Vogue usages often invite scorn, largely because of the smug and self-satisfied classes of people associated with them. Vogue usages that serve little purpose drop out as enthusiasm wanes (I haven't heard anyone use groovy non-ironically since I was an undergraduate, and I sense that chillax may already be fading). Vogue usages that prove serviceable stick in the language, gradually shedding their raffish reputations.

Have a look at Jan Freeman's edition of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. Bierce issues his strictures as if he possessed divine authority to bind and loose, but much of the time it is difficult for the contemporary reader to figure out what the hell he is objecting to. Slang is ephemeral, and peevery follows on its heels.

Now, to forestall the objection that I am preaching "anything goes" (and you're welcome to ask the writers whose work I edit how much anything goes for them), let me make clear that you are not to abandon judgment. I am sticking with the distinction between imply and infer, and so should you, because Blessed Henry Fowler said that when a useful distinction develops in language, precise writers will maintain it.

If you are cautious about neologisms, that is perfectly OK. It is not incumbent upon you to jump on board with the early adopters. You are free to determine what usages are a good fit for your subject, your readers, your publication. But what you must do is determine when objections have exceeded their shelf life. Otherwise you may find yourself manning the Maginot Line while the new usages are already wheeling through the plains of Flanders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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