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


THE advertising that is concocted, or confected, to sell miscellaneous goods and services to the consumer has long had rather more than its fair share of attention from the literary and linguistic critic. It has had, indeed, so much attention that hardly any has been left over for that special and esoteric activity of the profession, the advertisement of advertising to advertisers. While most of us have been hypnotized by the advertiser’s potent public exhibitions of his various (and vagarious) art, he has been quietly at work behind our backs to formulate the dogmatic theology underlying it. This theology, with its weird undercurrents and overtones of æsthetics, religion, and applied psychology, he has now got pretty well codified in a brand-new lingo devised for the purpose. It begins to look certain that this lingo will presently have added more new coinages to English speech and writing than have ever come out of our more general advertising, which as a rule has simply exploited and popularized the existing resources of language.

At least two scraps of the elaborate new jargon have achieved, against protest, so wide a circulation that even those who detest them no longer stop to wonder where on earth they came from. Both are verbs: to contact (in the sense of ‘make overtures to’ or ‘sound out’) and to sell, as a synonym for ‘persuade’ or ‘win over to.’ Contact, if I may judge by the volume of denunciation in the newspapers and in my own correspondence, strikes many discriminating persons as uniquely loathsome. I doubt, alas, that anything under heaven can keep it from establishing itself; and as soon as it has done so no one will bother to cry alas, for it will have become as natural as to house, to board, or to book. Sell, as in ‘This idea was easily sold to the public,’ would pass for a boldly suggestive metaphor if we met it but once or twice. Unfortunately it is now used in the heedless and witless way of all mere cant, to the nullification of better words. Also, it has led to the chronic ugliness of the expression sell on (‘I am sold on this plan’) and, as Mr. Gaylord Laue has pointed out (Contributors’ Column, December Atlantic), to the grotesque negative unsell . . . on (an idea or what not). In the pure advertising canon it is always a person who is sold, never a thing. You sell management executives, sell the richest spot (i.e., concentration of persons) in northern Jersey, sell a prospect (person or concern to be sold). An advertised commodity is not sold, but merchandised, and the periodical that prints the advertisement is the author of a merchandising service.

As a literate and informed layman you doubtless read mere magazines and newspapers, and some of them probably have many interested readers and subscribers, or, more vaguely, a large following or wide influence. But if you are a votary of the tenth muse, Advertas, any such periodical is to you a medium (in the plural, classically, media, never mediums), and its subscribers constitute its readership. If they pounce upon it devouringly the moment it comes into the house, they have reader heat — another way of saying that it has reader interest and that makes it a hot buy for the advertiser. If his advertisement pulls, this reader heat is proved. He has not, however, simply inserted an ad, as you or I might do: he has placed linage or lineage. (The profession has not made up its collective mind which spelling fills the bill.) In short, some talk-able solicitor or agency executive has contacted him and at last convinced him that the given medium has the lowest milline rate for the readership that it delivers (sinister word!), and that the individual components of this group are ready-moneyed, or able-to-buy heads of families, or, latterly, buy-able. Such coverage is especially valuable to the advertiser when concentrated in productive areas — not, you understand, the areas where manufacture is prolific, but those that yield the most filled-in coupons at the smallest inquiry cost. If the coupon constitutes an actual order for goods, it is part of a cash-register campaign. Some media are naturally geared to such rapid-fire campaigns; others excel in the presentation of educational material — i.e., propaganda for newly invented uses of familiar commodities — or of things whose sale peaks at long intervals. The content of our lin(e)age, by the way, is invariably a message, and its function is to dramatize a line (of products) to every possible volume buyer, or member of the upper income brackets. Such persons are supposed to be constant when once sold; in other words, they are brand addicts. The dramatization is enhanced if the printed message can be synchronized with some dealer help, such as a striking lithograph, or some sort of tie-in, as window demonstrations in important stores or concerted plugging by radio.

There is perhaps no better brief characterization of this new patter than that celebrated advertising slogan, As contemporary as to-morrow.


-ABLE. In the foregoing — which hardly scratches the surface of the topic — you will possibly have detected a hint that a very curious process is now overtaking the passive suffix -able (capable of being) and its substantive form -ability. We constantly read, for instance, of motorcars that have roadability. The word is evidently manufactured on the principle of buy-able and talk-able above; it denotes simple road ability, ability to perform on the road. By form and analogy it ought to signify that the vehicle having it is readable or capable of being roaded, which of course is nonsense. (Dean Briggs used to hold up two fingers blackened to the middle joint and explain that he used a -’s Non-Leakable pen — ‘meaning, I suppose,’ he would add, ‘a pen that can’t be leaked.') Yes, I know that there are exceptions, chiefly colloquial or archaic: knowledgeable, tunable (‘made tunable [i.e., melodious] by every sweetest vow’), and others. But that curious collection of euphemisms, the jargon of the modern advertiser, seems to be doing what it can to eliminate the rule in favor of the exceptions; and it has so far succeeded that the very poultry farms now regularly advertise week-old chicks that have superior livability.

SAVE . . . UNDER. A form letter by the circulation manager of Time advertises, in a locution now met rather frequently: ‘This special trial offer saves you $2.53 under the newsstand price.’ Is not this an attempt to say a simple thing in two contradictory ways, with the usual result of complicating it? The special offer is $2.53 under the newsstand price; it saves one $2.53 of the newsstand price.

EACH OTHER. Says a Duluth correspondent with all force and felicity: —

In spite of the uneuphonic ch in each I prefer to have (two) young people fall in love with each other, and it irritates me when married couples divorce one another (suggesting three or more concerned). — H. H. ROGERS

Each other is clearly elliptical for ‘each the other,’ one another as clearly committed by its an to more than two. Good writing often answers the question ‘Two or more?’ solely by using one or the other (not one or another) of these expressions. Thus the distinction is a useful economy as well as a logical and historical necessity.