I spend quite a bit of time teetering on the fence between a hard-core preservation of our beautiful English language and a more laid-back acknowledgment that change is what language is all about, and that fighting that change is like trying told back the sea. Regardless of the occasional appeal of the the latter, I usually fall on the side of the former, rushing at the sea with my pen and my keyboard and my diatribes to my children (Oh really, John Caleb? It's only like five hours away? How long is LIKE five hours? Four hours? Five and a half hours? Be precise, please, and if you don't know, say "approximately.")
Accordingly, I was pleased while surfing this morning (uh-oh, there's a case in point) to run across this article
by Joseph Epstein in the WSJ Opinion Journal.
If there is a better losing cause than the fight against slovenly language, I am unaware of it. The first rule of language is change, but why, those of us who have signed up for the fight never cease wondering, does 80 or so percent of this change seem to be for the worse?
Why, for example, do we need the word "icon" to describe hugely successful performers in show business, sports and elsewhere? We began with "star," which was replaced with "superstar"; and when it was discovered that too many superstars were floating around, icon was called in. After icon is used up, we shall, no doubt, have to go straight to "god."
I am myself writing a little book on Fred Astaire for a series of books called American Icons. When I reported this to a witty friend, adding that "icon" was of course a vastly inflated word, itself part of the vocabulary of hype, he, without losing a stroke, replied: "Whaddya mean? What about Ike and Tina Turner?"
In recent years I have written brief essays attacking the overuse and dopey imprecision of the words "icon," "multitasking" and "focus." The success of my attacks can be measured by the vastly increased use over the years of all three words. Cleaning up the language is a herculean job; unlike Hercules' assignment of cleaning up the Augean Stables, here it must be done with the animals still in them. It's a full-time job.
Then Mr. Epstein introduces us to a delightful web site, an online journal called The Vocabula Review
. Said publication is a compendium of essays on the language and carries the tagline and working thesis, "A society is generally as lax as its language." Perhaps simplistic, but it's nevertheless inspiring to those of us who disdain laxity :-)
Alas, the Review is available by subscription only.
(If anyone wants to get Granny a gift subscription
for Christmas, she would be most appreciative.)