“Tarry not, I pray you, Madam,” Walter Raleigh is supposed to have cautioned Queen Elizabeth, “for the wings of time are tipped with the feathers of death.” As Harold Macmillan observed a few years ago: “Civil servants don’t write memos like that anymore.” Some have trouble just speaking the language. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, said at a recent press conference that Madeleine Albright’s religion was “a personal matter for she and her family.” Ouch!
Burns is not alone, of course, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, infinite is the debt owed to those who want to speak strongly but do not know how. “Literally” is a case in point. Stephanie Fawcett of the National Archives said that thanks to the recently declassified material on the Cuban missile crisis, “You are literally a fly on the wall in the White House.” Ohio Representative Jim Traficant said by dumping tomatoes on the American market, “Mexico is literally throwing tomatoes at Uncle Sam.” We know what they mean, of course, but literally turns us into real flies, like Jeff Goldblum, and Mexico into a giant Fernando Valenzuela bouncing real tomatoes off a real Uncle Sam.
Washington lawyer/writer Bruce Fein reported that no one could read Armando Valladares’ book about life in Cuban prisons “without feeling nauseous.” Valladares’ jailer, Fidel, may be nauseous (i.e., causing nausea), but Valladares’ readers were nauseated, made ill.
A recent episode of television’s The Simpsons makes a point Washington insiders should note: “Proactive and paradigm; aren’t they words dumb people use to sound smart?” George Orwell could not have said it better. New words occur when the old ones have become too vague: e-mail, voice mail, as distinguished from snail mail, for example. But has leftist jargon so infiltrated our language that even the staunchly conservative Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen must use “proactive,” as she did in a recent article, just to show that she is not a reactionary? I hope not. “Paradigm,” on the other hand, is a real word to describe things like the conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns. Thomas Kuhn appropriated the term to describe the state of scientific knowledge at a given time, until a new paradigm replaces it. Nevertheless, it is what Westbrook Pegler called an “out-of-town word,” and paradigm-users, like sociologists who use mathematical-looking formulas with Greek letters to conceal simplistic notions, should raise eyebrows.
“Parameter” is another suspect word. When my computer advises me: “No such parameter, Humanoid,” it is using the word correctly to say that I have given the wrong characteristics of whatever I am looking for. Even the late Malcolm Baldridge, the formidable former Secretary of Commerce, nodded on this one. In the wonderful little memo he sent around Washington pleading for plain English, he excommunicated parameter and suggested that boundary or limit be used instead. Oh, the horror!
“Begging the question” is becoming the highfalutin equivalent of “prompts” or “raises the question.” Washington talking-head Jim Glassman always misuses it in this way on his Sunday Capital Gang show. “Begging the question” is a literal translation from Latin of a lawyer’s trick; pretending something that has to be proved has already been proved. When former Secretary of State James Baker, writing in the New York Times, defended the Chemical Weapons Treaty against charges that it would undermine national security, Baker argued that “the idea that Ronald Reagan and George Bush would negotiate a treaty detrimental to this nation’s security was grotesque.” Baker was “begging the question” whether the treaty was safe to ratify by recasting it as whether presidents Reagan and Bush would sell out the country, as if the answer to that question resolved all doubts about the treaty itself.
Archaic expressions are especially attractive to the chattering class and potential “petards.” In opposing various religious groups who were calling for federal intervention to protect a church from a Texas zoning law, Washington public television personality Bonnie Erbe wrote: “This legal claim hoists the religious conservatives by their own fatuous petard.” “Petard” is an old French word for a bomb. “Hoist” in this context means being blown up by a bomb you yourself set, as happened when sappers dallied. “Fatuous” means silly or foolish. If I ever have to defuse a petard, I hope it is a fatuous one.
The Spanish writer Ortega y Gasset observed that it is a characteristic of our time that the commonplace has the assurance to impose itself wherever it will, crushing traditions of excellence and professionalism. He might have added that it’s good for a few yuks, too. The Associated Press announced that a 1997 New Hampshire law imposes jail terms “for hunters who shoot someone while drunk.” Sober people are apparently still fair game. Even the Writer’s Digest School, which is in the business of knowing better, entices new students with “free gifts.” A gift by definition is free. A British journalist reported that the Oxford and Cambridge Club was admitting women because the student bodies of both universities were now “almost entirely bi-sexual.” (I suspected as much when I was at Cambridge, but now the secret is out.)
For most of this century, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, written by H.W. Fowler and later edited by Sir Ernest Cowers, has been a conspicuous exception to the mediocrity Ortega y Gasset lamented. Fowler’s was the arbiter elegantiae of English usage and the bane of ugly and barbarous language. No more. Under the new editor, Robert Burchfield, Fowler’s passion for proper English, like Fowler himself, has been eliminated from all but the title. As is appropriate for a politically correct age, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage: Third Edition does not concern itself with how English should be spoken but rather how it is spoken, by everybody from comic strip characters to rappers. It is not a guide. It is a Sears word catalogue. Just pick out what you want.
Dizzy Dean—who used to say things like, “He slud into third,” when he was broadcasting games for the St. Louis Cardinals—got in hot water with local English teachers. Dizzy had the grace to say, “I’ll have to quit broadcasting if 1 have to talk proper.” Today it is just the reverse. If Dizzy had stuck around a little longer, he might have been the spokesman for the State Department.