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Jack Smith

Word For Word : The Evolution of Our Language Apparently Owes as Much to Common Misusage as to Common Usage

November 22, 1987|Jack Smith

HAVING BEEN APPOINTED recently to the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, I have been struggling with my first ballot, which doubtless gave my distinguished colleagues little trouble.

As I understand it, American Heritage uses the consensus of the panel to suggest which usages are acceptable and which are unacceptable among literate Americans.

The ballot consisted of several pages of test sentences containing words used in controversial ways. Panelists were to indicate whether they considered the usages acceptable or unacceptable.

A few examples will show how meanings are constantly changing. Here are two sentences containing forms of the word irony .

(1) "In 1967, she moved from Ithaca to California, where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically , also came from Upstate New York."

(2) "The Germans must wonder at their capacity for such ironic violence; Germans killing Germans trying to flee from Germany to Germany."

Obviously, these are meant to clarify usages of irony , which has become almost a vogue word in the erroneous sense of coincidental. I said the first sentence was unacceptable, because the chance meeting of two persons from upper New York in California is merely coincidental, not ironical.

I said the second usage was acceptable, since the circumstances were dramatically the opposite of what one would expect them to be.

What about that word unique , which almost everyone now uses as if it had degrees, such as more or less?

"The American Constitution is still nearly unique in that it lacks any self-destruct mechanism."

That's tricky. A thing cannot be more or less unique than something else; but why can't something be nearly unique, being unique in all its elements except for one touch of commonality?

"Los Angeles is no less unique a city than New York or Paris."

New York, Paris and Los Angeles are all unique. If each is unique, is one no less unique than the other? You figure it out.

Here's a tricky one: "The pool is deceptively shallow."

Does that mean the pool is shallower than it appears to be? The pool is deeper than it appears to be? Or can it mean either?

If someone warns you that a pool is deceptively shallow, does he mean that you are likely to find yourself in deeper water than you expect, or that you are likely to break your neck diving into shallower water than you expect?

If it means either, why say it? Why not say, "That pool is shallower than it looks," or "That pool is deeper than it looks."

Is it har- ass or har -ass? Har -ass used to be preferred, I believe, but since the proliferation of lawsuits based on alleged sexual harassment, the accent seems to have shifted to the second syllable. Somehow this seems poetically irreproachable.

Several sentences reflect the effect of feminism on pronouns. Do we say his , his or her or their , or do we stoop to the abhorrent his/her , an abomination to any conscientious writer of prose? Sanely, the questionnaire does not even offer his/her as a choice.

There is no perfect answer for these questions.

"A parent who feels (blank) child has been unfairly treated should bring the matter up with the principal."

We used to settle for the generic his . But that is now disfavored because it seems to exclude girls.

An obvious answer would be to go plural: "Parents who feel their child . . . ." At least that avoids the self-conscious his or her .

But what if it's a single parent? Then his is right, or her , while his or her avoids the proper sexual definition.

The next one is not so easy: "A child who develops this sort of rash on (blank) hands should probably be kept at home for a couple of days."

I voted for the generic his in this case on the grounds that I didn't see why girls should resent being denied rashes.

This one is more obvious: "A child who wants to become a doctor should be encouraged by (blank) parents and teachers." Out of respect for the aspirations of both girls and boys, this must be his or her .

The answer is the same on this one: "A patient who doesn't accurately report (blank) sexual history to the physician runs a risk of misdiagnosis."

Females as well as males have sex histories, so it must be either his or her , or "Patients who don't accurately report their sexual histories . . . ."

If you disagree, contact me. I have an alibi.

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