Wait fifty years

The Baltimore Sun

In a recent post at Throw Grammar From the Train, Jan Freeman explores that problematic word utilize.

She is interested in whether it supports a meaningful distinction from use, either "to use to advantage" or "to use for a purpose other than the intended one." She is doubtful that the idea that use and utilize have "neatly distinct senses" is going to catch on. 

What interests me is her comments on the scorn heaped on utilize. Usage advice holds that it is a pretentious substitute for use that any sensible writer would avoid. Ms. Freeman surmises "that utilize (like other newly adopted words) only attracted the usagists' notice once it became fairly widespread" and that it "may have been migrating into general use from the scientific/technical vocabulary, a sure way for a word to attract hostile attention."

The reflexive suspicion and hostility of the mavenry is not limited to scientific and technical terms that slip their leashes. Business and commercial jargon also regularly draws condemnation,* as well as words or expressions that suddenly come into vogue. 

Contact was deplored as vulgar business language in the 1940s, though the objections have faded away. Hopefully had the peeververein exercised in the 1970s, but the fetish has less and less power today. Twenty years ago at The Sun we eschewed host as a verb and the term parenting, both of which now seem well established in the language. 

When words and expressions turn out to be useful, they stick. The multiplication of ways in which people are in contact makes the verb contact a blanket term. Hopefully is more compact and less starchy than it is to be hoped that. The verb host combines the senses of "provide a venue" and "sponsor" in the way that events are typically organized today, for which to play host to is fussy and a bad match. Parenting describes a current model of parental involvement with children's development distinct from the older, and now quaint-looking, child rearing

Someone recently wrote (I neglected to note the citation and would be grateful if someone could supply it) that it can take about fifty years for a new word or new sense of an existing word to purge usagists' stigma. 

A certain amount of caution, even suspicion, among editors is warranted. Not all imports from specialized vocabularies into the general language survive. Vogue usage can date very quickly. Parroting what everyone else happens to be saying gets tiresome. And writers' judgment tends to be unsound (viz., the frequency with which someone thinks that 'tis the season adds freshness and bounce to the text). 

That granted, it is incumbent on those of us who seek to be responsible editors to examine our several objections, prohibitions, proscriptions, taboos, censures, anathemas, and execrations, to see whether the statute of limitations may have expired while we weren't looking. 




*And sometimes rightly so. Consider that executives in American newspapers have been jabbering about growing the business for more than a decade and look at the result. 

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