Tuesday, 7 February 2017
NOTHING ELSE BUT WORDS
"So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with."
Certain words or phrases induce in me an instantaneous apocalyptic rage. Partly this is because I’m a choleric old bastard but it is also the case that words are important. Kipling said: “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” and he was dead right. He went on to say “Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain. . . “ So it seems uncontroversial to say that the correct use of words ought to be a matter of public concern, though whether this is still the case in a world where pharmacists’ shelves are overflowing with quack remedies might be debated. There are fashionable linguistic quackeries as well and here are a few examples.
It is what it is. What sort of conversation includes such nonsense? How can one respond to it? “Oh, really? I thought it was something else.”
…...gate (referring to a scandal). Like so many of these abominations this has its origins in the United States of America. It’s a good example of how slavishly non-Americans imitate the worst aspects of that unhappy country. In the 1970s one of its previous criminal presidents hired some fifth-rate stooges to burglarize an office building named Watergate. Since then every scandal has been named “xgate” by newspapers and broadcasters. Journalists, when they are being more than usually pretentious, boast that they speak truth to power. In fact they are more likely to be speaking cliches to mediocrity, as in this example. Of course you can understand why they do it. It’s a signal, common to author and reader, which enables them to communicate information without either of them having to know what they’re talking about.
Gift as a verb. Quite inexcusable. I can only guess at the motivation behind it. Probably “give” sounds a bit too commonplace when the speaker has delusions of literacy. Incidentally I’d like a beer for every time I’ve tried to explain this to someone only to elicit the response “What’s a verb?”
Alternate when you mean alternative. Two things are alternate if they happen one after the other. Night and day are alternate. Two things are alternative if the occurrence of one excludes the other. You can call either heads or tails - they are alternatives.
Quantum does not mean “amount”. It just doesn’t. Stop using it in that sense unless you want everybody to know you’re a wanker.
Likely as an adverb, as in “The Atlanta Falcons will likely win the Superbowl” or “Kevin Rudd will likely be remembered for something other than eating his ear wax in Parliament.” This is one horror that I can actually remember encountering for the first time ( the usage, not Kevin). I have a lot of respect for the mystery novels of Elizabeth George. They are well plotted and, most of the time, well written. I was reading one of them a few years ago and came across this abomination (“Something will likely happen”.) Fortunately the ambulance arrived within the day and I wasn’t on life support for long. I would like to tell you which of her many novels was the offending one, but unfortunately all her books have complicated titles that I can never link to any aspect of the plot so I can’t remember which ones I’ve read and which I have not. Many a weary minute have I spent looking at a row of them on a library shelf, scratching my head until forced to turn away from G for George and trudge back to the dependable S for Spillane.
There are several current idioms - again, mostly copied from US sources - which mean, as far as I can tell, exactly the opposite of what they say. Thus “I could care less” means “I couldn’t care less” and “double down” replaces the perfectly adequate locution “double up”. “Entitled”apparently means “not entitled, but thinks he should be”.
The annoying expressions I have listed here are merely stupid. There is another category that are sinister and deliberately aim to deceive. They will be dealt with in a later post.