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Take My Word!

'Is That Beautiful?' Raises a Question

February 05, 1989|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

On vacation last year, my wife and I were standing on a sidewalk one bright morning leaning over a rusted iron railing. Seven or eight other people had joined us in gazing down at a sylvan glade, or a bosky dell, if you prefer, where a neat little waterfall poured into a stream that flowed between banks of feathery ferns and thence underneath the sidewalk, which bridged the stream.

The sun's rays bounced, reflecting and refracting through fluttering leaves, rippling water and morning mist to create an iridescent fairyland effect that would have made the Disney Studio drool. We gazed in silent, almost reverential admiration until a young man broke the stillness, asking his companion in a loud voice, "Izzat beautiful?" He then scurried down the bank to pluck an armful of ferns.

"Is that beautiful?" in that sense is, I think, a modern form of speech, and an unfortunate one. A few years ago, someone might have asked, probably rather quietly, "Isn't that beautiful?"--an old-fashioned form of the same rhetorical question.

"If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" "Isn't it romantic?" "Isn't it a lovely day to be caught in the rain?" All questions framed as negatives and all calling for positive, though unexpressed, responses in a venerable and comfortable idiom.

I'm not sure how long ago it started, but I know that "Isn't it . . .?" "Don't we . . . ?" "Doesn't that . . . ?" and similar phrases have been standard idiomatic expressions in the English language for all of my life and extending back at least a century or two before I was born.

I'm at ease with them, and, while I find some neologisms--some fresh ways of putting old notions--to be bright and sparkling additions to the language, the new twist on the old "Isn't it . . . ?" "Isn't he . . . ?" or "Isn't she . . . ?" to "Is it . . . ?" "Is he . . . ?" or "Is she . . . ?" is, to my mind, a lusterless dullard.

In its full, fleshed-out form, "Is that beautiful?" becomes "Is that beautiful or what?" which is even less appealing than the simple-minded "Is that beautiful?" and its variants.

I've asked myself why I object to these new forms. I seldom object to novelty per se , and I think I know what it is that bothers me about these particular figures of speech. The person who asks, "Is that beautiful?" sounds to me like one who is groping for the meaning of beautiful. He sounds as though he wanted, by establishing an accumulation of beautiful instances, to arrive at an understanding of the form of The Beautiful. "Is that beautiful?" "Yes, Lester, that is beautiful." "Is that beautiful?" "Not very," and so on until an understanding of what is and is not beautiful is implanted in Lester's mind. That, at least, is the impression I get from the question, although I feel sure that that is seldom if ever what is in the mind of the questioner himself.

"Is that beautiful or what?" opens new departments of lunacy. The "or what?" implies infinite alternatives to the implied beauty or lack thereof. "Is that beautiful or am I crazy?" is probably the first implication that comes to mind, but the possibilities are limitless, given an expression like "or what?": "Is that beautiful or do pigs have wings?"; "Is that beautiful or am I the Earl of Alhambra?" "What" in this instance suggests nothing less than an open-ended potential. "Is that beautiful, or is all the world a stage, and are all the men and women merely players?" There is madness inherent in "or what?"

How do these expressions come into being? I suspect that they are the coinage of people who not only dare to be different, but want desperately to be different. The mischief is that, while improvement always implies a certain degree of change, change doesn't necessarily mean improvement. My guess is that the first person to eschew the old-fashioned "Isn't it beautiful?" for the new, improved, "Is that beautiful or what?" did so in order not to be ordinary or trite. The untriteness caught on and succeeded in being supertrite. So, in a sort of linguistic version of Gresham's Law, those who embrace the newer fashion are driving the old "Isn't it beautiful?" offstage and into the wings.

"Isn't it . . . ?" isn't deathless prose, but I'd hate to see it put to death by the brassy mindlessness of "Is it or what?" so I wishfully think, and fervently hope, that "or what?" and its relatives are only a temporary aberration.

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