I have been rereading  the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (Second Edition) by William and Mary Morris. I am not sure when I first read it, but it was probably a few years after the book was published in 1985. I recognized the authors, a married couple both born in 1913 (she died in 1986, he in 1994) from their syndicated column “Word, Wit, and Wisdom.” I read it regularly as a kid in the Milwaukee Journal. I remember only one specific lesson from that column: They informed me that slow is both properly used as an adjective and an adverb. Therefore, “I drove slow” is as correct as is “I drove slowly,” something that my editor, the spouse, still refuses to accept.

Contemporary Usage gives advice that I wish I would follow, such as “die should be followed by the preposition ‘of’ rather than ‘from.’” Or: “Care should be taken not to confuse bemused with amused. A person bemused is deep in thought, sometimes to the point of stupefaction. He is most definitely not laughing.” [Editor’s note from the spouse: I knew that.] I’m pretty sure that I will not remember all that I should from the book.

The authors’ writing is clear, informative, and amusing. And frequently adamant: “The nonstandard thusly must have been coined by someone who thought that all adverbs have to end in ‘-ly’ or thought thusly was a little more ‘elegant’ than just ‘thus.’ In any event it is an abomination. ‘Thus’ is stuffy enough for all normal purposes. See also FIRSTLY/THUSLY.

The authors, however, did not just rely on their own knowledge. They also submitted questions of disputed usage to a panel of 165 authors and editors and reported the results citing specific comments from some of them. For example, the authors wrote to the panel:

“In recent years the verb ‘to burgeon’ has been, in opinion of purists, widely misused. Its primary sense is simply ‘to bud,’ yet it has been widely used as synonymous with ‘to mushroom.’ Would you accept ‘the rapidly burgeoning city of Dallas’?”

In writing, 39% said yes, and for speech , 46%. Michael J. Arlen commented: “It’s bad enough that people use words such as burgeon because they’re sexier than ‘grow.’ At least let them use an accurate word.” Stewart Beach: “I’m afraid the incorrect meaning has gained so much acceptance it will be hard to stop.” Walter Cronkite: “I would not use it now that the definition has been called to my attention.” A.B.C. Whipple: “It’s probably better than the ‘mushrooming city of Dallas.’ In fact, it’s probably better than Dallas.”

Besides giving sound advice on words and pronunciations, Contemporary Usage also documents the fast-changing nature of what is considered to be good English. The book’s first edition was published only ten years before the second edition, and most of the earlier content appears in the later version. However, sometimes the authors recognized that the language was so rapidly changing that some questions of the first panel should be asked again of the second. For example, 42% of the first panel said hopefully in the sense of “we hope” was acceptable in conversational speech but only 24% accepted it in writing. A decade later, the panel was less tolerant, with 30% accepting it in speech and only 17% in writing.

Sometimes the changing nature of the language can be seen from a single query as new words become more widely accepted. For example: “Would you regard underclass as still another euphemism for ‘poor,’ like ‘underprivileged’ and ‘disadvantaged’? Yes: 49%. No: 51%.” Is the term underclass “a valuable addition to the lexicon of words dealing with society’s problems? Yes: 41%.”

All language stylebooks want to save distinctions between words: “A student does not pour over his books; he pores over them.” A value to me in such books is to learn distinctions that I did not know or only vaguely know, such as “practicable/practical” or “glimpse/glance.” Sometimes there is a distinction or standard that I know and I try to keep, but reading about it makes me wonder if I should care. For example, 90% of the usage panel would maintain a distinction between precipitous and precipitate, a distinction I learned late in life and long after such a distinction was necessary to my existence.

Sometimes, however, the authors tried to maintain standards that were better buried. For example, the Morrises maintained that kudos is singular and “there is no such thing as a ‘kudo.’” They go on to say that while some dictionaries list kudos as both singular and plural, “if it is more than one high honor you are talking about, make it kudoses.” William and Mary have lost out. At least one online dictionary lists kudo as the singular and kudos as a plural. I, for one, have never seen or heard kudoses used, and I am not about to start using it now.

 On a few occasions in the book, the authors seemed to promote a word’s usage, but failed. For example: “With the return of beards to fashion and with barbers becoming ‘hair stylists,’ the term pogonotomy may come back into use. It is made up of two Greek word, ‘pogon,’ meaning ‘beard’ and ‘-tomos,’ meaning ‘cutting.’” And: “Turophile is a word which has recently made it into the pages of unabridged dictionaries and one which Clifton Fadiman is credited with coining. It means ‘a connoisseur or fancier of cheese,’ and comes quite logically from two Greek words: ‘tyros’ for ‘cheese’ and ‘philos’ for ‘loving’.”  Both these words are in modern dictionaries but are not much used, or thankfully (or perhaps, “I am thankful”), not much used in my presence. I might find the use of oenophile pretentious, but progonotomy and turophile are just plain silly.

(concluded October 13)

One thought on “Words, Words, and More Words

  1. I assume you acquiesce IN rather than TO. I feel sure that people die of a broken heart. But my heart says they die from diseases. In is intimate; from, invasive.

    I loved this column!


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