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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

When I was in school, many years ago, we were taught that usage changes according to what is acceptable among people whose taste and training qualify them to make judgments. While acknowledging that language is dynamic, and necessarily adds new words and alters the meanings of others, I wonder whether such a group of judges still exists. A grating example of usage that troubles me is snuck for the past tense of the verb to sneak. The way things are going, I think one could write "When the burglar snuck into the room, a floorboard cruck, and the mouse squuck in alarm.

snuk Seriously, for many years I understood the word snuck to be a rustic illiteracy of the sort used for dialogue in old westerns. Now I find it as part of the standard vocabulary in books and even on radio. Perhaps I should just admit that I'm getting old and stodgy -- that I puck years ago and have been going downhill ever since.

Ruth Richardson
Akron, Ohio

As I was transcribing another correspondent's letter recently, my computer's spell-checker picked up a snuck. I was delighted. But then I clicked the mouse button to see what correction the computer would suggest and was offered this list to choose from: snack, snick,suck, shuck, and stuck. There was no sneaked in sight. People are still better than computers -- but we'd all better keep working at it if we want to stay a step ahead.

The American Heritage Dictionary has in fact assembled a usage panel of the kind of people you have in mind as judges of our language. And almost exactly two thirds of them, according to the current edition of the dictionary, disapprove of snuck. Although the word is quite common in informal use, sneaked remains the standard past tense of sneak.

In the past few years I have seen many reporters use the term déjà vu. Not once, however, have I seen it used correctly. It is used to mean that one has been here before or done this before. (A recent example from The Denver Post reads, "Some voters may feel a sense of déjà vu when they spot his name on the U.S. Senate ballot this fall. . . . The 90-year-old Heckman has unsuccessfully run for a slew of elected offices since retiring from the corporate world in the 1960s.") The reporters seem unaware of the second part of the definition: that one feels this way when one has not been here before or done this before. Don't these people own dictionaries?

John T. Lacy
Denver, Colo.

deja vu They probably do, but I suspect that their dictionaries are newer than yours. You are quite right about what déjà vu traditionally means, and what it means to psychologists. (From a 1941 article in the journal Mind: "However strong the feeling that this has all happened before, it may turn out that one is not remembering, but suffering from paramnesia, a feeling of déjà vu.") Regardless, dictionaries now also admit the broader sense you mention, even going so far as to let déjà vu mean "dull familiarity; monotony." Isn't it ironic that the expression itself has entered new territory in which it already seems all too familiar?

Journalists have begun using the word arguably in describing an artist, a writer, an actor, and so forth, who has achieved outstanding success. I have seen this word used in other contexts as well. My dictionary, which confirms my understanding from early school days, defines argue as "to give reasons for or against something."

The current use of the word arguably is arguable. For instance, "He is arguably one of the most talented musicians to reach the stage in years." This indicates to me that the talent of this musician could be disputed, although the article does not argue the point or compare the musician with other musicians.

If you could resolve this use of the word without too much argument, I would be grateful.

Mary N. Hanks
Falls Church, Va.

arguably You are not the only person to have written me about arguably. It isn't much loved. And it is newer than many other words, having been part of our language for merely a century or so. It has a niche to occupy, however, if we'll let it. Although arguably concedes that others might argue against a point, it tends to emphasize that an argument can be made in something's favor. Disputably (which is not a common word) gives the impression of taking the contrary point of view; debatably shows no preference for either side; and possibly, probably, and so on fail to bring to mind argument at all. Arguably is a valuable word, be- cause arguably its meaning is unique.

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 Monthly magazine.

Illustrations by Michel Rabagliati.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Word Court - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 100.