Friday, September 14, 2012

I have issues with that ... no problem!

"In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis remarks on our 'responsibility to the language,' and adds that 'it is unnecessary defeatism to believe that we can do nothing' about language change. Lewis affirms that 'language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best.' The question for Lewis is always does a new word add to the richness of the language or does it diminish it. He also cautions his readers to be on the qui vive for words that suggest 'a promise to pay which is never going to be kept,' which applies to three-quarters of the language of psychology and fully half that of contemporary social science.

"Inspired by Lewis, I am for putting a 20-year moratorium on the use of the inflationary word icon to describe anything other than a small religious painting. Nothing to be done about it, I realize, but it is worth noting that the perhaps perfunctory phrase 'You are welcome' has now been replaced with 'No problem,' which does not seem a notable advance in elegance or manners. I'm for banishing the word workshop—which is also available as a verb—to describe what is little more than a classroom discussion of undergraduate poems or stories; 'workshop' used in this sense, Kingsley Amis once remarked, implies all that has gone wrong with the world since World War II.

"Allowing the word issue to stand in for problem—'I have issues with that—is as pure a case of verbicide as I know: a useful word, issue, distinctly different in meaning from problem, describing a matter still in the flux of controversy in a way that no other word does.Impact and focus deserve a long rest from overuse, and process is surely one of those words that never keeps its promise. Perhaps, too, the time has come to call a halt to people describing people as 'highly literate,' given that literate means no more than that one can read and write; what they really mean, presumably, when they say literate is 'literary' or possibly "cultivated," which is not at all near the same thing. 

"Or consider the word disinterested, with its core meaning of impartiality or above personal interest, which has now all but melted into the condition of a pathetic synonym for uninterested. If we lose disinterested do we not also lose the grand ideal that it represents? I fear we may already have done so, at least insofar as I find it impossible at present to name a single disinterested figure on the stage of world politics. Ideas Have Consequences is the title of a once famous book, but words, being the substance out of which ideas are composed, turn out to have even greater consequences."

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