Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Rant about Wrongly Used Words, and What Shakespeare Says

About twenty years ago I wrote a book about Shakespeare and his biggest theatrical rival, a (mostly) comic playwright named Ben Jonson, seven years younger than William S., who was astoundingly popular in the London theater of the late 1590s and the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Jonson and Shakespeare knew each other well. Shakespeare's company staged some of Jonson's plays, and Shakespeare acted in at least one of them. They appear to have been friends, but had different temperaments. Jonson's humor was way more satirical and biting than Shakespeare's -- though Shakespeare has his moments -- and a comparison not only of the men's plays but of their lives suggests Jonson was a lot less tolerant of popular innovations in language. He mercilessly ridiculed fads, especially speech fads. Language affectation infuriated him, while Shakespeare poked more gentle fun at verbal follies, or deepened even his ridiculously word-mad characters by giving them a few lines of dialogue calculated to create pathos and generate audience sympathy. I wasn't even halfway through the writing of my book when I recognized that I was way more like Jonson than I was like Shakespeare. I really don't like it
when the language changes. That means I never like it. My whole family's this way. Like Jonson, who ridiculed neologisms (new words and phrases), we feel our hair stand on end when someone takes a word that used to mean one thing and uses it to mean something else, or when a newscaster mispronounces a word, or even when a particular word becomes the word du jour, ubiquitous in public discourse. For years I've written reviews of literary scholarship, poking fun at those incomprehensible academics whom journalist Ron Rosenbaum calls "the jargonistas," but it isn't just lit-crit jargon I eschew. I am seriously cranky about all forms of verbal innovation. It's a losing side to be on, because language is something that naturally always changes. (Ben Jonson would have hated my writing, and would have especially sneered at du jour.) Correctness in language is only a consensus on what words mean and how they are pronounced, and a consensus can change. I admit that. But I still hate it.

So I enjoy reading the passages in Shakespeare and Jonson which mock Elizabethan language trends. One such trend, strong in the late sixteenth century, was writers' inventions of "aureate" or "golden" words, fancy Latin-sounding terms they simply made up. In one play, Jonson punishes a character (a thinly disguised representation of another rival playwright) with a scene wherein he's forced to cough up some of his personal made-up words. "Lubrical . . . defunct . . . magnificate!," he gasps as he gags. (Yes, that second word actually made it into the dictionary.) A character in another Jonson play spouts fake Greek: "chrysopoeia, spagyric, pamphysic!" Shakespeare's touch, as I said, is gentler than Jonson's, but some of his silliest characters, like Hamlet's Osric and Love's Labor's Lost's Don Armado, are men of "fire new words," distinguished by their affected speech.Twelfth Night's foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek follows an educated youth around with a notebook, writing down his polysyllabic words for future use impressing the ladies. "'Odors,' 'pregnant,' and 'vouchsafed'; I'll get 'em all three ready," he says excitedly. And All's Well that Ends Well contains an extended riff on the various uses of one phrase, "O Lord, sir!," to serve in any possible situation in the world of the court.

I love these scenes, because trendy language and popular mispronunciations get under my skin. They inspire me to compile this list of modern word uses that drive me nuts.

1. The word of the hour: "robust." If I hear this word one more time on an NPR interview (and I will), I may have to drive my car into a wall. It was once a semi-scientific word used to describe strong data. Before that, it referred to healthy people's health. Now it means anything there's a lot of. Trump's Tweets are robust responses to criticism. Jack Nicholson has a robust number of Oscars. Let's retire "robust." Why? Because I hate it.

2. When you're asked a question in an interview, the right casual word to use to introduce your response is "Well," as in "Well, that's an interesting question." It is not "So," as in, "So, we found that robust data indicate smarmy, sneering actors get a disproportionate number of Oscar nominations." Why is "So" so bad? Because it is. Why isn't it just the new "Well"? Because I don't like it.

3. Hey, young academics, you're not "docTORal candidates." You're "DOCtoral candidates." Just sayin.'

 4. To branch out into the related field of punctuation, here's another pet peeve: the creation of emphasis by falsely ending sentences, as in:  Hamlet. BEST. REVENGE TRAGEDY. EVER. Sometimes the three periods aren't enough and we also need total capitalization, apparently. STOP. THIS. NOW.

5. Why hasn't anyone but me figured out that the "i" in the compound word "short-lived" is a long "i"? And while we're on that subject, the second "i" in "divisive" is also long, contrary to increasingly popular opinion. That's only if you like to "divide" things instead of to "divid" them.

6. OK, this one's been around for decades and never gets fixed. "Nuclear" is supposed to be pronounced like it's spelled. That would not be "nucular." Back in the 70s, even Jimmy Carter, despite his general eloquence, mispronounced this word. I remember my dad asking my mom, "Do you think it's bad that the president of the United States pronounces the word 'nuclear' 'nucular'?" He knew the answer.

7. "Narrative." What's wrong with "story"? I intend to see Hamilton as soon as I can mortgage my house to buy a ticket, but I'm going to have to brace myself for the moment late in the play when Mrs. Hamilton sings, "I'm putting myself back in the narrative." Back in the what? "Narrative" is not a word for musical theater. It's not a word for any theater. Shakespeare did better with Mark Antony's friend Enobarbus, who says, "He that can endure / To follow with allegiance a fallen lord . . . / . . . earns a place in the story." In general, three syllables are not better than two, and jargon borrowed from literary criticism is not better than a beloved old English word, hallowed by all of our childhoods. ("Susie, should I tell you a bedtime narrative?") It should be "story" on Broadway, on the news, and everywhere. 

8. "Based off of." As an English teacher, who grades papers, I have a limited tolerance for "based in," since it makes sense that someone could be "based" (that is, maintain a home or professional base) "in" a particular city. But to read that one idea is "based off of" another idea -- No, no, no, no, hell to the no. You cannot be based off something.  You are on it, or at least, you are in it, if you have anything to do with it at all. Still less can you be based off of it. Respect the preposition. One is usually enough. And use the correct one.

9 Speaking of prepositions, folks these days are way too enthusiastic about "around." Why are so many things "around" other things? Why is there a lot of discontent "around" the issue of police violence? Why is there discussion "around" gay rights? Why can't there be discontent regarding police brutality, and discussion of gay rights? There can! Enough with "around."

10. Guess what? "Reference" is a noun.

Okay, lest I let negativity run away with me, I will say one good thing about one popular word. It's a word that's gotten some bad press. It's the word "Amazing." People like me often complain that this word has taken over our language and rendered itself meaningless. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. So runs their logic. But I disagree. I think in every generation, or perhaps half-generation, there needs to be an all-purpose word that everyone uses and that signifies a general stamp of approval for the thing being discussed. Yes, "amazing" is way overused. Yes, its use is completely predictable and it makes compliments banal. Linguists have suggested a variety of alternatives: "stupendous," "magnificent," "breath-taking," and so on. But just try to substitute one of those words when what you really want to say is "Amazing!" You'll sound like a linguist, not a regular person. It's better just to say "amazing." It's more organic.

On the other hand, please stop calling "incredible" things that aren't. You girlfriend does not look "incredible" tonight (I hope). If your score was "incredible," you probably cheated. To make it easier to stop saying "incredible," I here supply some Shakespearean substitutions.

armipotent (this is one of Don Armado's "fire-new words")
rare (or, "Most rare!")

And there are so many more where those came from! In truth, it's

                                           "amazing"! -- Richard II, Act I, scene iii, line 81


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks, but you forgot the punctuation.

  3. Thanks for sharing this list. Could you explain the rationale for short-lived with a long i? I always think of it as the past participle of the verb "to live," and I assume "short" to be correct, rather than 'shortly,' because I've assumed, rather than thinking of "live" as an active verb regarding choices: "living bravely; living lustfully," that "live" is a "be" verb when it refers to the character or nature of the life lived: a short-lived fad=a fad that had a short life; a fad that exists/is experienced as 'short.' I guess, from the opposite perspective, "shortly-lived" doesn't make sense to me because "living shortly" doesn't make sense. Again, the nature of/the character of the life described as short is adjectival, not adverbial. If short-lived means 'having had a short life,' I understand the desire to keep the i long to to suggest the original noun (life-> lived), but when it becomes a compound adjective, it makes sense to me to use 'lived' as a past participle. I guess maybe the question is finally philosophical. Can 'living' (gerund, present participle, etc.) be both a 'doing' and a 'being' verb in different contexts? Okay, now I have a headache.

    1. Despite its controversial beginnings, I'm glad "defunct" made it this long, for e. e. cummings' sake:

      [Buffalo Bill 's]

      Buffalo Bill ’s
      who used to
      ride a watersmooth-silver
      and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


      he was a handsome man
      and what i want to know is
      how do you like your blue-eyed boy
      Mister Death

  4. Thank you for reminding me of that poem and the glorious afterlife of "defunct"! On "short-lived": you are much more educated in grammatical rules than I am, but I think with this one the truth is simple. "Short-lived" is always used to mean (as you note) "having had a short life," which means the "i" should be long and it's just spelled with a "v" because that's what happened to the noun "life" when it acquires a suffix (like "wife" becomes "wived," and a married man is "wived," not "wiffed"). And people just pronounce it with the short "i" because it looks like the word "lived," even though it's actually a different word. This at any rate is my view!

  5. Or, to slightly correct the above (I don't know how to edit it without deleting the whole thing), when a man is "happily wived" he is not "happily wifed." Similarly, when something has a short or a long life it seems like it should be long i "short-lived" or "long-lived."

  6. You're probably right, Grace. The wife->wived example supports that in a way (though I've never heard 'happily wived' before). I think I was just compelled by the idea of thinking of "live" as an existential verb and that short-lived with a long i gave it short shrift. When I think of long-lived with a long i, I think of it along the lines of a "yellow-bellied sapsucker"--probably not a real bird name, but something that is descriptive of a physical property, not an existential one. I guess I think of short-lived with a long i as meaning "with a short life" and with a short i as "having lived a short life." I'm an atrocious over-thinker when it comes to grammar and can often think my way into something wrong. The amnesia didn't help matters.

  7. I think for you it is correct to say it with a short "i" because you actually have a reason for it. I think most people aren't thinking about it and are just reading it as the past tense of "live," so they don't get to be right!

  8. But wouldn't the sense you mean be expressed as "shortly-lived"?
    "Wived" is somewhat Elizabethan.