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


To Mr. Donald Moffat, creator of that delightful acquaintance of all Atlantic readers, Mr. Pennyfeather, I owe jottings that it would be a shame not to share: —

I feel moved to pass on to you a handful of my own hoarded jewels, of which one, taken from a leaflet advertising a newly decorated hotel dancing-and-dining room, is, I think, almost beyond price: ‘You are invited to inspect this sparkling new function room.

I was particularly touched by your [March] tribute to the new business jargon, because not long ago I received a letter from an advertising manager who described himself as a media executive. . . .

Does house guest make you shiver as it does me? Has your electrician elegantly suggested that you need more convenience outlets in your house? That’s bose plugs, in English.

It is doubtless natural enough that, in sales promotion and retail trade, elegant circumlocution should flourish and riot like jungle lianas. Our loftier metropolitan stores — which shudder delicately when called anything but shops — are proudly Anglomaniac (‘as British as Bond Street’ or ‘as swagger as Piccadilly’ is the highest praise they can bestow upon American-made shoes or suits), and they would transplant to this alien soil the snobbery that looks down on tradesmen and trade. The exquisite synthetic pearls of language in which they describe the lowly articles of commerce are meant to say to the customer: ‘You are of the aristocracy, the Best People, and we, who know our place, understand that you could never think of stockings or bedsteads or haircuts in the crass, vulgarly literal terms that such as we might use among ourselves.’ Here is the clue to the ineffable diction of the advertisements. It is a subtle way of holding the customer up to the standard of superrefinement that the advertiser wishes to thrust upon him. Buyer and seller alike know it for an imaginary standard. The customer, nine times in ten, is just someone looking for a pair of shoes, not for a recipe for foot comfort or a two-way stepper or a classic companion to sports tweeds. Nevertheless, when you can sell a dime’s worth of rouge to a typist for $2.50 by calling it a flower-drenched make-up shade brought to a world breathlessly awaiting spring, it is impossible to sneer at the hypnotic power of supercilious language glowingly applied. Small wonder that the formulas of this bogus servility have spread from city to hamlet and from the luxury trades to plumbers and undertakers — who, by the way, are now funerary engineers or mortuary specialists when they are not mere humdrum morticians.

In one particular the linguistic inventiveness of commerce certainly overreaches itself, and that is in the widespread application of trade names so monstrous to the ear as to be virtually unspeakable. Do Americans actually exist who could step into a temple of trade with an audible demand for a dyna-flash ride or an outfit of underthins or a pound of Chew-wee peanut butter? If so, they must be vastly outnumbered by those who cannot hear or read such labels without wincing for shame. Thus the revolting name positively hinders identification, which is its purpose, and must dispose many to look up some rival brand with a more mentionable trade name or none.

Where these too utterly utter expressions continue to infest the language of ordinary intercourse, despite the general revival of blunt unsqueamish diction, there is usually some odd special reason for it. May not Mr. Moffat’s house guest owe part of its survival to the simple fact that so many, having cramped quarters or servant problems, put up their visitors in hotels and clubs? The language obviously needs an explicit term for the person whom one is entertaining overnight without the facilities to offer him sleeping quarters. (A lady I know, catching at a clue in Mr. Ratcliffe’s notes of last January, proposes semi-detached guest.) If we had such a term — and this year of the New York fair should produce one if anything can — the unadorned word guest might shed the encumbrance that annoys us.


LIP-STICKED or LIP-STUCK? A commentator on ‘the Englishman Ratcliffe’s nice new participle’ (see January) goes on to say: —

It reminds me of two other verbs recently added to our language by men who needed them in their work; and it has interested me to notice that they have formed the past participles for them by the strong or irregular method. . . . When an automobile is provided with adequate springs it is said to be, not wellspringed, but well-sprung. Again, new-sawed (or sawn) lumber is piled in stacks for drying, and slats called merely sticks are laid between the tiers to let air circulate; and when this has been properly done the stacks are said to be, not well sticked, but well stuck.

In Mr. Ratcliffe’s problem it will have to be lip-sticked. To be lip-stuck would be to have the lips obstructed by some adhesive substance (certain candies of our youth called ‘stick-jaw’ would do it) in such a manner as to impede speech.

— A. T. RICHARDSON, Long Beach, California

All of which reminds me that when we cite the tendency to weak or regular verb formation as illustrating the progressive simplification of English we are perhaps overlooking some counter-tendencies that are quite as deep-rooted. The three-yearold who makes the principal parts of his favorite verb, give, gave, goven is entirely unconscious of having complicated something already complex.

REALISTIC. Many have observed that this has become one of the most longsuffering of the overworked words, but I doubt if anyone has said so more pungently than the president of the Moore-Cottrell Subscription Agencies: —

I was employed in the Curtis magazine organization while Edward W. Bok was editing the Ladies’ Home Journal. Mr. Bok voiced a pet aversion with a phrase that always stuck in my mind: ‘words that pester the ear.’ He held that there were silly fads in words just as there are in manners and dress, and that these word fads, through overwork, soon die a natural death.

Take realism. This seems to have been popularized by jejune textbooks having to do with the rising cult of the ‘social sciences.’ Some college graduate gets a job at writing editorials for a newspaper and proceeds to pepper them with the various forms of the word. They seem to have one on the New York Herald Tribune. Any time he can’t build an editorial around realism it’s just too bad. A couple of days ago he ended one on the current European crisis with (believe it or not) ‘ What we now need is realism that is more realistic.’ . . . Everybody who lines up with the writer’s own political beliefs is a realist. while anyone that differs with him is, to use one of Walter Lippmann’s favorites, unrealistic.

ROSCOE PEACOCK, North Cohocton, New York

I myself recently overheard snatches of a conversation that yielded this exchange: But would you say that he has a realistic mind?’ and the answer, ‘Oh, definitely