The State of the Language: 'For the Ear Trieth Words, as the Mouth Tasteth Meat'


THE editors of Fortune, in their famous survey entitled Youth in College, began a paragraph: ‘If one queries the average undergraduate about his chances for the future . . .’ Their use of queries is absolutely defensible, in the sense that it is ratified by dictionaries ('query . . . 2. To address questions to.’ — Webster’s Collegiate). Is it, then, a good use? I think not. My reasons: It falls oddly on the inner ear; it detracts attention from what is being said to itself; it suggests a deliberate effort to use a common word in a fresh, striking way; and it so palpably squirms away from the natural word for the place, questions, that the unused word becomes pointlessly obtrusive, as it would not have been in the least if used.

What we have in this oddly correct, uncomfortably allowable use of query is an affront to the universal feeling about the word —a breach of idiom. The fact is that there is ‘authority’ for the usage; but the feeling, more important than fact, is that we query assertions, conclusions, details, data, but not persons. Dictionary or no, I find the locution cited as seriously objectionable as, in the same trenchant article, I find Chinamen for Chinese (it too has some dictionary support, though it infuriates the educated Chinese), or ‘a different sort of college man than,’ or definitely as a mere slangy intensive, or the singular tactic, or ‘neither Smith nor Radcliffe . . . offer.'

This officially approved, but still bad, use of queries makes as handy an approach as another to the truism that the dictionary, most indispensable and admirable of tools, is not much of a weapon, especially for defensive purposes. There are, in fact, no potent defensive weapons in the matter of style, for good writing does not exist in the same universe with the need of extenuation. It is simply not preoccupied with the good enough, unless by good enough we mean the best there is. One may as well say outright that uses of words that are no better than defensible are, ipso facto, indefensible. The meanings of words are like manuscripts under consideration by a publisher: if they do not compel acceptance, they compel rejection. Those who would write well are perpetually committed to discriminations, and hence to exclusions. And in that they are at the opposite pole from the dictionary, which is committed by its very nature and purpose to inclusion, comprehensiveness, exhaustiveness. It tells us primarily, not what is best, but simply what is; not what is desirable, but what is done. It is a collector first, a critic last. In short, most of its substance deals with mere permissions, not recommendations; and for that reason it is generally a poor and dubious service that we render to the cause of better diction when we set out to belabor or brain one another with the handiest unabridged lexicon.

A word has a spinal centre of essential meaning — often, though by no means always, its original meaning. But it is the nature of living words to spawn secondary meanings, and of each new one to lead to another until the newest has perhaps actually contradicted the original. (Cf. notorious, cynic, and resent, which once meant to respond cordially to.) Synonyms develop away from each other (liberty, license); antonyms grow toward each other until they have an overlapping area in common (stout, obese); and lexicography is inevitably as much concerned with the derived, marginal uses as with the central, nuclear ones. Good writing may be concerned with both, too — but for strikingly different reasons. For the remote, acquired, secondary meanings of words tend on the whole toward subtlety, suggestion, richness of effect — the secondary or more ornamental qualities of style — whereas the primary meanings tend on the whole toward accuracy, clearness, and strength, the primary or more useful qualities of style. And what follows? Why, that one of the open secrets of telling language is to make the most of the central, nuclear functions of our words — the functions that really distinguish them from each other — and to resort to their marginal, penumbral, merely permissive functions only when the context irresistibly supplies the definition.

Excellent diction, or at any rate the conveyable, describable aspect of it, aims at bull’s-eyes with a rifle. The dutiful lexicographer is trying to bracket a general area with a scatter-gun. For him who would use language truly well the first law is that there are no synonyms. And the second law is that he had better direct at least a goodly proportion of his words, not at what they may mean allowably and by occasional extension, but at what they mean spontaneously and unmistakably.


A passing remark of mine on the prevalent confusion between apparent (= seemingly true) and evident (=manifestly true) brought forth by the earliest possible mail the following demur: —

I have always regarded the dictionary as fairly reliable. ... It states:
Apparent. Plain, evident; distinguished from, but not necessarily opposed to, actual, true, or real.
Evident. Clear to the vision or understanding, and satisfactory to the judgment.
If evident means true absolutely instead of subjectively, why is this not stated?
— H. E. GHOLSON,Clarksville, Tennessee

See above. The spinal core of apparent is the idea of seeming fact; that of evident, perceived fact. As a practical matter, how is anybody going to keep apparent ‘distinguished from’ without being ‘opposed to’ evident? The dictionary cited by my correspondent virtually throws up its hands when, for synonyms of the latter word, it tosses together plain, obvious, manifest, visible, apparent, conclusive, indubitable, palpable, notorious. Make the most, not the least, of what opposition there is between the words, and you don’t have to bother about keeping them ‘ distinguished from’ each other.

ONLY. The president of the Capital (not Capitol) City Spelling Club would like this department to pay its respects to his, and others’, pet aversion, the chronic misplacement of only. He illustrates: —

Once in Washington I saw a car card advertisement of a school for secretaries. The closing statement: ‘You can only afford the best.’ An editorial in Today states: ‘But the securities can only be sold once to pay for bread,’ and ‘One of the English answers to our requests for payment was that the debt could only be paid in goods.’ — ELMER C. HELM, Brentwood, Maryland

Mr. Helm seems to have covered the ground, and the natural law that modifiers generally go with what they modify remains unrepealed.