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Secrets of the peevers

Ammon Shea performed a feat of nerdish athleticism, reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and then wrote a charming book about the experience

He has written other books on language as well. It's a dangerous thing to publish a book, particularly about language; it attracts attention. And Mr. Shea got some. We'll let him explain: "I began to receive a large number of letters from concerned citizens who felt that I was contributing to the decline of the English language. These letters ranged in tone from the mildly disapproving to the apopleptic, and I regret to say that none of them had the desired effect of improving the way I use English."  

Having drawn the attention of the peeververein, he set out to examine the peeververein, and the result is Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (Penguin Perigee, 272 pages, $24, forthcoming in June). He has known them all already, known them all. His subtitle tweaks those who insist that aggravate cannot mean irritate, but must mean "make worse."

In the "Semantics" chapter he takes us through the old favorites, hopefully, literally, disinterested, decimate, enormity, and more. He demolishes the etymological fallacy and the belief that a word must be restricted to a single meaning. "There are plenty of words that know how to chew gum and walk at the same time," he says. 

"Word That Are Not Words" gives us irregardless and others; "Verbing Nouns" brings us to impact, finalize, and contact. (Some of this will baffle younger readers, since God in his mercy has taken to himself most of those who object to contact as a verb. More on this later.) "Sins of Grammar" focuses on the work of grammarians "who were frequently armed with nothing more than a decent classical education and an abiding desire to correct the language of others." Here you will find the split infinitives, stranded prepositions, that/which bugaboo, and more. I believe that he has catalogued all the major peeves. 

"The Continuing Deterioration of the Language" looks into the illusion that there was a previous era of proper usage from which we have declined, and "Defending English" looks at the recurring crackpot schemes for an English Academy and the inutility of attempting to embarrass people into using "better" English, while taking a moment to examine how seldom George Orwell follows the principles he lays out in "Politics and the English Language." 

But perhaps even more illustrative of the hollowness of peevery is the chapter "221 Words That Were Once Frowned On." 

Here you will find ample examples of the Because I Said So approach: "Don't use mad for angry," Oliver Bell Bunce in the aptly titled Don't (1884). And debut: "A good noun, a lousy verb," John Bremner in Words on Words (1980). 

The Extinct Distinction: "Luncheon is the preferred form of the noun, lunch being properly restricted to express action," Josephone Turck Baker, The Correct Word, 1899. And by the same author, "A woman, when she marries, is married to a man, but a clergyman or magistrate marries her." 

Albion's Cocked Snook: "The easiest and silliest way in which to impoverish the language is to misuse a good existing word that conveys a clear and precise meaning and thereby to destroy that meaning and render the word useless. That is what Americans have done by using 'alibi' when they mean 'excuse,'" Lord Conesford, "You Americans Are Murdering the Language," Saturday Evening Post, 1957. 

What is illustrative with this list, as with Jan Freeman's examination of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right, is that in many cases the language has progressed so far beyond these confident assertions that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what the original distinction of meaning was. 

Mr. Shea appears faintly puzzled by the vehemence with which the peevers make their assertions and go after those who violate their prescriptions, but if I may take the platform from him, I can offer an explanation. 

What is back of language peeving is affectation. 

I say this with a confidence of a reformed and fumigated peever myself. As an undergraduate English major and graduate student in English, I was as scornful of other people's English usage as any peever alive. And thus I understand that the peeververein is a closed circle. 

Language peevers write for one another. The are not really writing for the larger public; they do not expect to be heeded by the larger public, and it would not be desirable if they were. Their identities are predicated on the belief that they are an elect, purists holding up the flickering candle of civilization amid the rabble. They write for one another to reinforce this status. If everyone wrote as they prescribe, their distinction would vanish.

Actually, there is a small additional audience of aspirants to the club: English majors, journalists, teacher's pets in whose minds a handful of shibboleths lodge, to be applied mechanically and unintelligently thereafter. But the great unwashed public pays no attention and does not care, except to the extent that they have been schooled to feel vaguely uneasy about the way they speak and write. ("You're a copy editor? I'd better watch my language, heh-heh.") 

What stimulates the peevers' anger is their awareness that the larger world does not share their values, does not go in much for reading books, prizes credentials but scorns learning. This defensiveness, like that of the bookworm among jocks in elementary school, reinforces itself. 

And thus we come to understand the hyperbole distinctive to language peeving. It is a sub-genre of the jeremiad. Mr. Shea quotes a couple of writers on hopefully from Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975). Hal Borland, a journalist, writes, "I have fought this for some years, will fight it until I die. it is barbaric, illiterate, offensive, damnable, and inexcusable." Phyllis McGinley, the poet, writes, "'Hopefully' so used is an abomination and its adherents should be lynched."

I no longer look about for rope myself, limiting my still-abundant reserves of scorn for soi-disant language experts parading ignorance and for journalists and other professional writers who betray laziness and carelessness about their craft. 

Have a look at Mr. Shea's taxonomy of peeving, and then examine your own conscience. 

 


Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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