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M A Y  1 9 9 8

A Greece to Be Discovered

by Barbara Wallraff

A very common usage emanating from radio and television has me baffled. I hear the following from the weather reporter: "Get out a warm jacket, because tomorrow we will have cold temperatures in our area."

I have always thought of
temperature as a dimension, with the word modifiable only by high or low. I believe that cold and hot are adjectives defining the reactions that animals or plants manifest to low or high temperatures. Warm coatHow can a temperature be cold? Am I all wet here, or are we seeing a mass misuse of the language?

Julio Burroughs
San Bruno, Calif.

You're quite right that hot or cold -- or warm or cool -- temperatures may not always be the best way to put it. Recently, for example, I came across "he employed humor as a way of reducing tension often caused by the hot temperature and humidity." How about heat?

And yet if the problem were just as you say, how could the recommended jacket be warm? The conceptual relationships of English adjectives to their nouns are multifarious, and it will be a sad day, a sorry state of affairs, an unhappy turn of events, and so forth if our language ever loses this characteristic. Hot and the rest of them as modifiers for temperature fall well within the acceptable bounds. Indeed, these examples convey something subtler than what could be conveyed with high or low: "Gardenia augusta ... demands a sunny south window, warm temperatures (above 65 degrees day and night), high humidity and an acid soil underfoot"; "Cheesemaking in the Cheddar Valley, where the famous caves were used to store cheese at a constant cool temperature, can be traced back more than 800 years."
Discuss this feature in the Language forum of Post & Riposte.
In the January Word Court, Molly Huddleston was concerned about the plural of beer. She closed her letter by saying "Please respond, so that (hopefully) I can rub it in ..."

I was surprised and disappointed that your response did not chastise Ms. Huddleston for the incorrect use of
hopefully. I'm sure that you will agree that hopefully means "full of hope" and not "I hope." Did she mean "... so that (full of hope) I can rub it in ..."? I doubt it.

Ms. Huddleston is obviously interested in Hopefullycorrect English usage. Let's help her out. The use of
hopefully to mean "I hope" is wrong, wrong, wrong!

R. L. Gallawa
Boulder, Colo.

I wish it were as simple as that.

As you know, the problem with hopefully in a sentence like "Hopefully, this explanation will be clear" is that it is an adverb modifying no word that appears in the sentence. In the example I just gave, in fact, there isn't even anything present that is capable of hoping.

But is that a problem? Other adverbs are often used in much the same way:" Presumably, my best efforts have gone into making this explanation clear"; "Mercifully, this explanation will be finished soon"; "Frankly, this explanation may not be clear." These are known as sentence adverbs, and no one calls them incorrect.

But the problem with considering hopefully a sentence adverb like any other is that many people, like you, who care about language happen to loathe this usage. And yet using the word in the old-fashioned, modifying-the-verb way ("Hopefully, I began writing about this topic, eager to share what I know") often seems either bizarre or supercilious. It's too bad, but the word just isn't very serviceable anymore.

Though I do share your preference, I'm afraid we are going to lose this argument one day. I only hope I won't have to concede until I'm an old, old woman.


Reading a recent book by Noam Chomsky, I discovered that he had no problem using the word niggardly (stingy). Although I always knew that etymologically the word has no racist overtone whatsoever, I was reluctant to use it, because I felt that it could be misinterpreted. But N-wordlately, after some thought -- and after seeing that Chomsky (no slouch when it comes to matters of our language) uses the word freely -- I decided, Forget all these uneducated self-righteous PC word-police types; I have grown to like the word, and will use it as I please. I feel that to do otherwise is to acquiesce in the degeneration of our common English language. Am I justified?

John Gutman
Forest Knolls, Calif.

Whether or not you should use the word (whose origin is in an ancient Scandinavian word meaning "stingy") depends on your audience. If you hope to be persuasive to a group of "uneducated self-righteous PC word-police types," then perhaps niggardly isn't your best word choice. If, though, you are addressing a learned convention of etymologists ...
Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? 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.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthlymagazine.

Illustrations by Melinda Beck

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Word Court; Volume 281, No. 5; page 132.

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