'The Story of English' -- Next year's words

'The Story of English' -- Next year's words

Here, as the last installment of our look at "The Story of English," is a look at the book's Epilogue, "Next Year's Words."

Life has butted its way into my plans for this instalment; other words and expressions appeared that were easier to write about, so I went ahead with those. But I don't feel alone when I look at this chapter of the book I've been perusing... or sometimes pursuing, I admit. English has ways of changing... or, as even the British House of Lords put it during a 1978 debate, deteriorating.

In the epilogue's mention of the debate, the authors mention that to their lordships, "English was going to the dogs, witness the misapplication of words like parameter and hopefully."

(Evidently, use of semicolons or colons had gone to the dogs already; I'd have used either instead of the comma after "dogs.")

I had to smile at the "sallies against American usage." I'm a proud U.S. citizen, but I'm fond of particular words in British English when they're more effective. When I'm speaking about "the elevator" all day long, I appreciate the chance to use the shorter British synonym, "the lift," saving three syllables every time it's mentioned. Also, when it's urgently needed, it's much faster to say "the bin" than "the wastebasket."

(Of course, using either one of those words requires your audience to have at least some familiarity with the transatlantic words. Know your audience!)

Jargon -- whether "science-inspired" or "euphemistic" -- comes in for a good discussion in the epilogue. The authors note, "In a permissive age we have also generated euphemistic jargon: words and phrases that (in an effort to please) obfuscate, circumnavigate and ameloriate."

(That's the kind of sentence I read for fun: three rarely seen Words Worth Defending in one sentence.)

I'm all for the science-related jargon that helps educated people use concepts efficiently, but I'm deeply against the euphemistic jargon. I have even been known to stop someone and tell them, "If you're trying not to offend anyone, it didn't work. You offended me by trying too hard. Just say what you mean."

"Pop grammarians" Edwin Newman, John Simon and William Safire," all delightful and Serious writers, are praised by "The Story of English" as "the high priests of correct English usage."

If you're not quite ready for "The Story of English" itself, I commend to your attention the works of Newman, Simon and Safire.

If you're not quite ready for them, either, stick with me, dear readers. I'm here to help.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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  • I'm ready, but I'm still sticking with you, my friend.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Aw, shucks! Thanks, my friend!

  • Your author certainly did not believe in conservation of syllables in the excerpt cited in paragraph 5.

    With regard to trends, there is a split between Internet jargon and corporate speak. It looks as though use of corporate speak to obfuscate or say noting has declined a bit from its peak in the oughts.One could, for instance, compare Matt Nagy to Lovie Smith.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you, Jack. Since the authors wrote the book in the late 1980s, the Internet was not old enough to influence anyone's language. That is one of the reasons I enjoy the book.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Corporate speak started n the late 80s, too. But I was reacting to the "scientific or euphemistic," which your authors recognized even then, but maybe in the ensuing 30 years, both got more extensive, if not worse.

    For instance, in the authors' time, "the numbers are not good" meant that the company was losing money; in the early 90s, it meant "our margin is under the budgeted 90%." Similarly in the 90s. "we'll make the company more family friendly, but we have to eliminate x number of positions," which, in the old days meant "x number of you are going to be laid off." "Creating value" had nothing to do with for the customers; lit meant milking them. One winner in response to a company employee satisfaction survey was "some temp deleted the F drive," which either was a dig at the Microsoft networking system at the time, or was a euphemism for what the employee really meant.

    You won't find any of these real life examples in fine literary works.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for the extra perspective, Jack. This was a hard chapter to sum up, with its look forward to what is now the past, but it was worth doing. I will continue to seek a balance between the fine literary works and real life -- which, just about everyone will admit, could use the help.

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