Language, an elusive beast, decays when left to the lazy


This newspaper has more icons than a Russian Orthodox church. A recent issue of Publish and Be Damned, The Sun's in-house editing newsletter, listed 21 uses of the irritating vogue word icon within a span of three weeks. Among the icons were Betty Ford, John Waters, Pearl Harbor, William Donald Schaefer, Huey Newton, Muddy Waters and the Domino Sugars sign.

Icon once bore a precise sense: an image that suggests a larger meaning, a window into a larger world. Huey Newton is a person, not an icon. But the photograph of Huey Newton in a wicker chair, with Black Panther beret and gun, is iconic, an image that evokes a period and a cultural attitude. The vogue usage flattens the precise sense.

Language does not move in a straight line or predictable pattern. Lexicographers follow its tracks, but the beast itself remains elusive. Personal, psychological and cultural forces work to bring certain words into vogue, and these same forces either embed the words (or their new senses) in the language or allow it to fade away.

Icon, for one, may have come into vogue because the insatiable public appetite for the creation of celebrities had already squeezed dry the previous vogue words legend and idol.

The process by which words rise, flower, mutate and pass on is more subtle than a mere monkey-see, monkey-write explanation can encompass, though that is the likeliest place to start.

Words follow the dictates of fashion. A new expression, like a new style, looks bold and original when introduced. If it catches on -- and not many do -- it is taken up by a select group and becomes a mark that they are in the know. Criminal argot and gay camp expressions are prominent examples of this stage.

If the expression passes on to a mass audience, it becomes first commonplace and finally banal. Those who introduced it will no longer touch it with a bargepole, because it no longer satisfies the needs of exclusivity; those who continue to use it do so in happy ignorance.

The rise and fall of many expressions over the past hundred years can be traced in Twentieth Century Words by John Ayto (Oxford University Press, 626 pages, $25). A century ago, addict came into English as a noun for a person addicted to the use of drugs, along with coke for cocaine. Addict as a noun is a formation from the verb addict; it has been common throughout the history of the language for nouns and verbs to trade places.

Brassiere came in at about the same time (1909), though bra did not arrive in popular usage until the mid-1930s. Wump (1908) gave way to wimp (1920), roentgenoscopy (1904) to X-ray. Cerialist (1905, an advocate of a cereal diet) is gone altogether by whatever Darwinian process of selection drops words from usage.

To use floozie (1902), goo-goo eyes (1900) or humdinger (1905) carries the smell of age as badly as groovy, go-go girl and granny glasses reek of the 1960s. a writer might as well use sockdolager (a decisive blow or answer or an exceptional person) and mark himself as a fossil from the 19th century.

One wants to sound current rather than dated, sophisticated rather than fatuous. The trick, as always, is one of judgment.

In 1710, Jonathan Swift published an essay in The Tatler on "the deplorable ignorance that for some years hath reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style." The essay, which can be found in Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings (Houghton Mifflin, 564 pages, $15), presents what purports to be a letter from a fashionable young gentleman. It is, of course, ludicrous:

"I coud'dn't get the things you sent for all about Town. -- I thot to ha' come down myself, and then I'd ha' bro't 'um; but I ha'n't don't, and I believe I can't do't -- that's pozz. -- Tom begins to gi'mself airs because he's going with the plenipo's. ... The mob's very quiet with us now. -- I believe you tho't I banter'd you in my last like a country put. ..."

This mannered prose, brimming with affectation, looked as silly in 1710 as it does now, but Swift, while demolishing pretentiousness, also complains about a vulgar word that he despises because it is a contemptible truncation of a good Latin term. The word is mob, from the Latin mobile vulgus, or movable or excitable crowd. Pozz is gone, but mob has lodged in the language. And if a writer with an ear for English as reliable as Jonathan Swift's can't tell what is going to stay and what is going to go, what chance do contemporary writers have to outguess him?

One place to start is an acknowledgement that the language grows, shifts and develops. Nouns become verbs, and verbs nouns, and neologisms arrive and depart. Ranting about the supposed decay of the language, merely because usage changes as it always has, is not profitable.

Another caution is to remain aware of the psychology of writers, who entertain contradictory impulses to be original and to be part of the crowd. To be too original risks misunderstanding and attack; to be too slavishly imitative is to be a hack. Therefore a writer strives to look original by imitating the vocabulary, imagery and cadences of whatever group appears to be "in" at the moment.

But writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work. A colleague at this paper, when told that an expression had been excised from an article because it was stale, said, "It wasn't a cliche when I used it."

There are authorities, and consulting them intelligently is perhaps the best tactic of all.

One writer at The Sun, protesting the strictures against icon, cited the dictionary as permitting the vogue usage. But dictionaries merely describe what lexicographers find in the language. Most, with the exception of the excellent The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, fourth edition, 2,074 pages, $60) offer little or no advice about what the writer should do.

For that there are excellent manuals of usage: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 978 pages, $24.95), A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner (Oxford University Press, 723 pages, $37.95) and The New Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield (Oxford University Press, 864 pages, $29.95). They do not agree, but they provide occasions for the exercise of judgment. Look up their citations, examine their reasoning, balance one authority against another, consult your own ear for the language, and make your own decision.

For unfiltered judgments, look up the "Banned for Life" compilation of aromatic cliches that Tom Mangan, a California journalist, has assembled from contributors at / banned.htm. One of his sources quotes George Orwell's enduring advice: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

Weigh the advice on that Web site, and you will never use the phrase " 'Tis the season" ever again.

John McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, producer of the paper's editing newsletter, a teacher of copy editing at Loyola College and president of the American Copy Editors Society, but he is not, and does not aspire to become, an icon.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad