Word Court

By Barbara Wallraff

Paul Wolfson, of Washington, D.C., writes, "I have always thought that first-generation American referred to someone who was the first person in a family line to be born in the United States. But a friend insists that first-generation American may refer to someone who immigrates here and becomes a U.S. citizen. Who is right? Have I suddenly changed from a third-generation to a fourth-generation American?"

Dictionaries define, and newspaper and magazine citations use, the term both ways. Strangely enough, first-generation seems never to have had one unmistakable meaning. At least, the earliest dictionary entry I've been able to find, in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), reads like this: "1: born in the U.S.—used of an American of immigrant parentage 2: FOREIGN-BORN—used of a naturalized American." So the term is useless, I'm afraid, except where context clarifies which of its meanings is intended. And that's not much of an exception, because if other words make the point, why make it again?

Lee Sechrest, of Tucson, Arizona, writes, "What on earth has befallen the poor word traditional? It is now so widely used to mean 'typical; usual; common' that it appears in danger of losing its, well, traditional meaning. This morning I read in the paper that the use of prescription drugs is growing faster among children than it is among 'senior citizens and baby boomers, the two traditionally high consumer groups.' What is that tradition? Is it like Nativity scenes at Christmas, the Easter bunny, the display of the flag on the Fourth of July? Recently I have encountered the notions that traditionally males outnumber females in certain occupations, that traditionally high school dropout rates are higher among Hispanic students, that traditionally the stock market goes down under certain circumstances, and on and on. Is there nothing that can be done?"

The adverb traditionally, more than the adjective traditional, does indeed often stray from the usual meaning of tradition: a custom or practice intentionally handed down through the generations. That is, traditionally is often pressed into service to characterize things that were, simply, typical or common in the past. Drift like this isn't particularly unusual in English though. Particular, for instance, has at least one familiar sense, "choosy," that isn't reflected in particularly, and the idea of an exception doesn't necessarily come to mind when one reads exceptionally, which for the most part is a fancy substitute for very. In any case, I think there is nothing that can, or should, be done to drag traditionally back to its roots.

Stanley Bonczek, of Edison, New Jersey, writes, "Recently a friend of mine referred to the phrase to be in the same boat with (someone) as 'inherently denigrating.' I guess this person figured the phrase has its roots in the slave trade, but I disagree. Can you settle this dispute?"

If people don't stop assuming the worst of every word and phrase, I'm going to scream. Here's a 1584 citation from the Oxford English Dictionary, penned by one Thomas Hudson: "Haue ye pain? so likewise pain haue we; For in one boat we both imbarked be." In the same boat has nothing to do with slavery and is not at all derogatory.

Dave Faris, of Los Angeles, California, writes, "In contemporary fiction one can encounter dialogue like this: '"There is one certain thing about your personality: it is deficient," John said to Fred.' The use of the colon seems inappropriate for dialogue; characters simply do not speak this way. What is your opinion?"

I can't work up much indignation about the colon in your example. The reason that sentence reads badly, I'd say, is just that you've concocted an awfully clunky line of dialogue. Intonation affords us many more nuances in speech than we have in writing, so generally I don't see the point of narrowing our options for rendering the spoken word in writing. Ask me about using colons or semicolons in dialogue attributed to small children, though, and I'll change my tune. It doesn't seem right to me to put colons and semicolons in the mouth of any character who can't be expected to know what they are.

Edward Dermon, of Roslyn Heights, New York, writes, "I heard an announcer say, 'Jackie Robinson had his number retired by all major-league clubs, and rightfully so.' I distinguish between rightfully and rightly. Am I right to do so?"

Yes, you are. The distinctions that dictionaries draw between the two words are at best blurry and confusing, but in good usage rightly is the opposite of wrongly, and rightfully means much the same as by rights. In saying rightfully, that announcer used the wrong word.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/01/word-court/302677/