–What do you read, my lord?

        –Words, words, words.

 

It is now widely acknowledged–by others than merely radical reactionaries such as myself—that the state of English usage has reached an all-time low. If English were a person, he would be sipping his dinner through a straw in the palliative care unit of the state hospital.

The current generation’s inability to speak or write is usually ascribed to its addiction to technology; but the abbreviations and neologisms of techno-babble are merely the late-born symptoms of a disease whose gestation and aetiology hearken back to a time well before the advent of personal computers and video games. Its incubation began in the Sixties, with the pedagogical and ideological assault on grammar, syntax, spelling, usage, and diction prosecuted by savants who regarded these conventions as fascistic impositions on the autonomy and spontaneous creativity of youth. Little Johnny is a flower, it was said; do not step on him, and do not fence him in. Since then, we have reaped a weedy harvest of creativity; my undergraduates are so creative that they are severally the inventors of their own proprietary systems of syntax and orthography, and use words with less relation to any standard dictionary meaning than to their own subjective and varying moods.

Until now, words have tended to acquire fixed meanings through a tacit consensus arrived at freely over the centuries by the users of a language for their mutual benefit: i.e., so that interlocutors might understand one another. But unitary and universally agreed-upon meanings are now as passé as heterosexual marriage. “Alternative lifestyles” and alternative definitions of words go together like a horse and carriage.

In spite of the flexibility of their diction, however, it is interesting that today’s linguistic free spirits have an alarmingly meager vocabulary, and seem to depend, en masse and by default, upon a very small number of locutions. Every generation has its clichés, of course, but clichés become shopworn and ubiquitous only because they express some universally comprehensible idea or truth.   (I.e., they communicate more or less fixed universally accepted meanings.) Today’s reflexive usages are probably too faddish to ever achieve the venerable dignity of clichés, and in any case, are too creative to signify.

 

Beginning with this post, and sporadically in the future, I will exorcise my indignation against some of the more irritating barbarisms in current parlance. I know there is nothing original in what follows; but then, originality (as per the above) is one of the plagues of contemporary culture.

Today’s list:

     Quote, as in “I love this quote…It goes something like this…”. No, what you love (and remember vaguely) is a passage, a verse, a sentence, a phrase, a maxim, a proverb, an aphorism, a dictum, a logion. Such loci, if memorable, might be collected in a book of quotations. Or, hearing someone recite “To be or not to be…”, one might observe cleverly that “That is a quotation from Hamlet.” A “quote” is an estimate, or bid on a job.

     Issue, as in “Fred can’t make lunch; he has an issue at home.” Now, if Fred is having an issue at home, he ought to forget about lunch entirely and go straight to the hospital to have it staunched. An “issue” is an effluence of liquid (cf. “the woman with an issue of blood”). Or it can mean a subject or topic of policy, discussion, debate, or controversy. What Fred has is a “problem”.

     Speak to, as in “The President will speak to the issue of health care during his press conference tomorrow.” No, one cannot speak to an impersonal noun; the President might “speak to” the members of the press; he might “speak about” health care; but but he can’t speak to it. What our speaker meant was that the President will “address” or “discuss” health care tomorrow.

     Fulsome, as in “President Obama offered a fulsome apology for misleading the American people when he promised that they could keep their health care.” Well, if the speaker meant that Obama’s apology was “offensive because of insincerity”, “fulsome” is the mot juste. But I take my quotation (see above) from the Associated Press, a regular apologist for Obama and his apologies. What the AP writer intended to convey was that the President’s apology was “total”, “without reservation” (cf. “full”). Out of the mouths of babes…

     Very unique, as in “Her golf swing is very unique.” Unique, maybe; but not very unique. Something that is “unique” (from unus, “one”) is the only one of its kind in the whole wide world. You can’t get more unique than that.   “Unique”, like other superlatives, is an absolute that does not admit of degrees, and therefore cannot be modified by an intensifier such as “very”.

     Perfect, as in you walk into a restaurant with your spouse, and your hostess inquires, “Where would you guys like to sit.” Your wife has by now gotten used to being addressed in masculine casual, and she indicates the table in the corner. To which your hostess replies approvingly, “Perfect”. An eternity later, your server arrives to take your order. “Have you guys decided.” (Yes, you’ve had enough time to decide on every leg of your upcoming European vacation.)  “I’ll have the rabbit”, says your wife. “Perfect”. “And I’ll have the octopus”, say you.  Also “Perfect”.   “And bring us a bottle of your cheapest house plonk.”  “Perfect”.

Freddy Couples’ golf swing is perfect; Handel’s Amen chorus is perfect; God is perfect. Our word is the capstone of an escalating hyperbole in which “good” or “fine” became “excellent”, then “amazing”, then “awesome”. Now everything is “perfect”. Next year, look out for “very perfect”; the year after, “totally perfect”.

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