Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella

By William Safire

The English language is bread upon the water. In becoming the first truly global language of diplomacy, business and culture, it has lost its old rigidity. The most recent force of dissolution is the Internet, where a virtually grammarless “Netspeak” threatens to further erode all of the once hallowed rules. Already the rear-guard efforts of language mavens like William Safire, author of the popular New York Times “On Language” column, seem pedantic and behind the times.

Given that language is a living system, evolving by incorporating new elements while shedding skin that has grown obsolete, is the fight to maintain standards a mistake?

There are times reading Safire when you might think so, especially given his own tendency to fall into error. Luckily, the members of the Gotcha! Gang are always ready to let the maven know when he is wrong. In addition to the “On Language” pieces reprinted here there are plenty of letters from concerned word nerds and professional lexicographers arguing obscure points of etymology or usage.

Some may find Safire’s nit-picking a little much. Certainly anyone insisting on a distinction between “purposely” and “purposefully” is walking a very fine line. But if you shrug your shoulders over whether “momentarily” means “in a moment” or “for a moment” then you’re in error – not because of the meaning of momentarily, which Safire confesses is in flux, but because “shrug your shoulders” is a redundancy. By strict definition only the shoulders can be shrugged.

As one correspondent who takes him to task puts it, most arguments over grammar boil down to a “conflict between old-time rules and a gut feeling of what sounds right and sensible.” This is the voice of reason. Written English should sound right and have a clear meaning. Those are its only essential rules.

But some bulwark has to be maintained against the forces of chaos. Words lose their meaning when used improperly. Safire is fighting the good fight against advertisers who use “penultimate” to mean something more than the ultimate (it means “next to last”). If he hasn’t done so already, I hope he gets a chance to address one of my own pet peeves, which is the now widespread use of the word “travesty” to mean something worse than a “tragedy.” They are two very different things.

Unfortunately, the battle line is not always as clear as it should be. A good example of the way sloppy usage can erode the language is seen in the argument over “flout” and “flaunt.” It begins with a piece in the The New Yorker describing Oscar Wilde’s “flaunting” of sexual convention. An angry reader wrote a letter complaining about the substitution of flaunting for flouting, which is what the piece clearly intended. The editors at the The New Yorker, however, could point to Webster’s, where “flaunt” may mean “to treat contemptuously.” As a usage note goes on to point out, although the use of “flaunt” in this manner “undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout, the contexts in which it appears cannot be called substandard.”

When Newsweek defended their misleading use of “prone” as a synonym for “supine” they found a similar justification in Webster’s sanctioning of a semantic shift. So is it OK? “When,” Safire asks, “does the frequency of error reach critical mass and transform the mistake into a ‘new sense’?”

His answer is a clear “Not on my watch.” At the end of the prone vs. supine column he informs us of The New Yorker’s decision to never again confuse flaunt with flout. “The good usage fight,” Safire concludes, “is always worth fighting.”

Review first published January 12, 2002.

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