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Tongue Twist : Our Language Is Full of Words Wrested From Webster's Intentions

May 01, 1988|JACK SMITH

THOUGH IT is surely of little moment in the long view of things, Victor Rosen deplores the common misuse of the word moment .

How many times, he asks, have we been told "I'll be with you in a moment," only to be kept waiting for several minutes? Or asked to "Please hold one moment," and then been subjected to three minutes or more of canned music.

Rosen suggests that moment is the "most misused, abused word in the language."

When it is meant to suggest a very brief, indefinite period, as it does in Rosen's examples, moment indeed is commonly abused in our society.

In romantic literature and poetry, moment is but the flicker of an eyelash, the time it takes to fall in love: "the moment that my heart stood still."

Moment may also mean "a brief time of being important or outstanding"--a time that may cover months or even years, but which, in the long sweep of history, is poignantly short. Thus, John F. Kennedy's days in the White House are often defined by one of his favorite lines (from "Camelot"):

Don't let it be forgot That once there was a spot For one brief shining moment That was known as Camelot....

Moment may also mean importance , or consequence , which is how I used it at the outset of this essay.

Oddly, some novelists use the word minute when they mean moment .

Thus, we are asked to believe that the hero and heroine "looked into each other's eyes for several minutes," an exercise that may be possible but which would strain one's nerves to the point of exhaustion and certainly discourage any thought of romance.

Rosen has also noticed that television announcers almost invariably say momento , which is Spanish for "at once," when they mean memento , a remembrance or souvenir.

He is right. In fact, the use of momento for memento seems to be universal among television announcers. (Football announcers like to say, when a cornerback booms into a wide receiver from behind, "He just gave him a little momento ."

Meanwhile, Fred Johnston of San Gabriel asks what the word well means when used as an interjection or to introduce a statement.

He says his 12-year-old grandson wrote him a thank-you letter that began, "Well, it is getting late." When he asked his wife about it, she said, "Well, Fred, everybody uses that expression."

"It is often noticeable in a group that gathers together to shoot the breeze; someone will eventually say 'Well . . . .' when they think of leaving or wish to get a word in. . . . Will you please help me understand the true meanings of the word well . . . .?"

Among the many definitions of well in the dictionary, the appropriate one is "interjection: an exclamation used to express surprise ('Well, what are you two doing here?'), acquiescence ('Well, if you insist'), agreement ('Well, yes'), resignation, ('Well, let's get it over with'), expostulation ('Well, you're wrong') or merely to preface or resume one's remarks ('Well, as I was saying . . .')"

The examples are mine.

That seems to cover the uses Johnston had in mind. Well as an interjection seems to be an absolutely indispensable crutch in contemporary discourse. No one who is asked a question on TV talk shows ever answers without a preliminary "Well . . . ."

Some years ago I was the subject of a half-hour television interview by KABC's highly literate Michael Jackson. I had made up my mind that I would not precede my answers with the word well , and I didn't; not once. Afterward I had the feeling that Jackson was somehow disappointed. I suspect that was because, in eliminating well , I gave the impression that my answers were memorized, that I wasn't thinking , that I wasn't being properly philosophical and spontaneous.

Lately, well has become a cliche among journalists. It is used as a cute way of apologizing for a word that one considers vulgar or too frank, but inescapable. "Ms. Bennington is intelligent, articulate, au courant and, well, sexy."

Well, Rosen and Johnston, I hope I've helped you.

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