No, it wasn't me

The Baltimore Sun

A colleague on Twitter links to an episode of The Wire on YouTube and asks, "Is that you" thirty-one seconds in? It's the bit in which a couple of editors berate a young reporter for having written that people were being evacuated. You can evacuate a city but not people, they tell her, with accompanying head-shaking over the ignorance of the young.

As a teacher, I have ample experience with the ignorance of the young; as a journalist, I have daily experience of the ignorance of the old. Here is part of the entry on evacuate in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

"The use of evacuate to mean 'to remove (people) especially from a military zone or dangerous area' was once controversial. It is not new by any means (its roots go back to the 17th century), but its widespread occurrence is a fairly recent development, dating back only to the first World War. ... Early critics of evacuate in this sense believed that only the place from which the people were removed could properly serve as the object of the verb. ... The argument was based on etymology —evacuate is derived from the Latin evacuare, "to make empty." To speak of evacuating people, in the view of the critics, was to speak of making them empty. ...

"The issue was taken up by a few commentators upto and through the period of World War II, but the 'remove' sense of evacuate had by then proved to be so useful and popular that any criticism of it had the hollow ring of pure pedantry, and the controversy quickly died out. The respectability of this sense is no longer subject to question. ..."

No longer in question, indeed. There is no entry on evacuate in Garner's Modern American Usage. I found none in four of Theodore Bernstein's book on usage from 1958 to 1979 or in John Bremner's 1980 Words on Words. For that matter, I myself never heard this stricture while coming up through the ranks.

What this little vignette illustrates is the means by which superstitions about language are perpetuated. Some editor sixty or seventy years ago imposed this stricture on a young writer. What we were told as tyros is always true. So the young writer, aging, passed the stricture unexamined on to another young writer, and so unto the ages. By the same method the zombie rules are passed from generation to generation in schoolrooms, in saecula saeculorum.

Newbies, be advised: Not everything that crusty old editor (myself included) tells you should be taken to the bank.


One more thing: If your were thinking about reproaching me for writing "it wasn't me" rather than "it wasn't I," give it a rest, for Fowler's sake.



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