AMERICAN USAGE: THE CONSENSUS by Van Nostrand Reinhold, $7.95
In this age, when five well-known businesses, some of which own one another, can consolidate and all be owned by a sixth, it’s not surprising that a number of writers and books concerned with the ways of language should be consolidated, as so many jurors, into a single volume. Again, in an age of democratic procedures, of multiple opinions, and of majority rule, it’s not surprising that the volume’s governing principle should be a majority vote among its judges. Consensus is, indeed, a title-word of Mr. Copperud’s book, and the presumed key to its efficacy. Thus, if four of Mr. Copperud’s judges approve of a disputed construction, and three disapprove, the uncertain reader, who would rather be right than hesitant, can confidently go along with the four. If six judges approve and only one or two do not, the consensus is “overwhelming,” and the matter, it would seem, has been settled forever.
Mr. Copperud, a professor of journalism and the author of A Dictionary of Usage and Style, has undertaken a large and arduous task, which encompasses almost everything that is open to challenge or protest in the American use of language. In doing this he has established a primary panel of authorities, while fairly often citing additional ones. The panelists are H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers) , Wilson Follett (Modern American Usage), Bergen and Cornelia Evans (A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage), Theodore M. Bernstein (The Careful Writer), Margaret Bryant (Current American Usage), Rudolf Flesch (The ABC of Style), Mr. Copperud, and three dictionaries: Merriam-Webster’s Third, Random House, and American Heritage. These are among the best regarded handbooks and the most up-to-date dictionaries—a rather formidable assemblage; indeed, a small army of generals. The reader will very early discover that some authorities are more authoritative than others, and some are more authoritarian, and that the dictionaries, with rare exceptions, are less exacting and much less explanatory than the handbooks. The consensus principle clearly has its points, not only in making classical use of a panel of jurors but also in providing a spectrum of jurors who acquaint the reader with almost all shades of opinion and almost all schools of thought. From these he may obtain an exhaustive presentation of the possible placings of adverbs, or what is nothing less than a panoramic view of punctuation.
And this expert or that may provide a sharp attack on what seemed unassailable, or a shrewd defense of what seemed quite impossible, or a convincing answer to what looked dubious in the extreme. And in many cases, of course, the consensus will without question be right.
But in how many cases? And, again, on what terms?—which is to ask whether today’s already heterogeneous and always innovating culture, and today’s already vertiginous and always accelerating pace, can make possible for American usage a steadied norm and a sane rate of development and change. Doubtless the grand old criminals—infer for imply, disinterested for uninterested, flaunt for flout, allude for refer, extremely unique, the hoi polloi, and all the others—still raise their heads and are expeditiously beheaded. But such traditional defendants, though not to be acquitted, have come to seem merely carried on the books, like small, long-standing bad debts, with many more recent entries creating greater controversy or concern. In the twenty-five years since the end of World War II, American life has drastically altered; it is hard to believe that something culturally so revolutionizing as television had just got going in 1945, and that half the vocabulary it created or broadcast is much younger. Yet television is a pale fraction of what technology has done, within twenty-five years, to language, not to speak of the changes wrought on language elsewhere, whether by hippies and beats, by the lingo of the campus, the lingo of the arts, the jargon of the scientists, the vogue words of the quarterlies, the crass inspirations of Madison Avenue, the christening parties for all sorts of new objects, new procedures, new techniques. Almost anybody with any education today—be he taxi driver or traffic cop—uses all kinds of technical, scientific, even psychiatric words; yet, simultaneously, people with far better educations go in for a Laocoon-group syntax and a startling perversion of idiom. Who today can be relied on to hold the line?
The first obstacle to holding it, and my strongest objection to Mr. Copperud’s choice of jurors, is the dictionaries. Dictionaries primarily record rather than judge: if a word is in common use, or has clearly taken on an altered meaning, most dictionaries will allow either thing respectable standing. In Mr. Copperud’s citations, Webster’s Third is so often and injudiciously indulgent that it seems as cooperative about neologisms as Nevada is about divorces. Random House is better, though also much too indulgent; only American Heritage, which drew, in consensus fashion, on a large panel of professional writers, refuses to regard mere currency as a criterion. Dictionaries, to be fair to them, exist to give the meanings, the origins, and the unarguable existence of words far more than to pass on their status; and just so, where handbooks can really help the unsure, dictionaries tend to console (yes, that’s a recognized word) the none-too-particular.
If the line is to be held, it will be in spite of most dictionaries, and if a consensus plan is to prove of value, it must be a consensus of superior judges who, among themselves, are virtually equal. Mr. Copperud’s present judges seem to me to vary considerably in both their qualifications and their attitudes. Wilson Follett is an aristocratic reactionary, Mr. Bernstein is an informed, at times relenting, strict constructionist, Fowler a sometimes crotchety but most times mellow conservative, the Evanses rather liberal, and so on. Fowler still seems to me the most erudite, the most enjoyable, and on fine points the most trustworthy judge, though he is proof of how much language and usage can change in forty-odd years. And how much harder it has become, after forty-odd years, to pass judgment on usage, for if there has been a gain in what might be called educated speech and writing, there has been a loss in what might be called cultivated. Grown fairly rare is a prose that was once fairly common, a prose that is simple, supple, often urbane, and instinctively idiomatic. Such writing embodied what might today be named highbred usage—such niceties as oblivious of, aim at, infuse into, retort on, knack of, much different, hamstringed, he is one of the statesmen who are . . . , those of us who assert themselves, Shall you go to the party? and so on.
Today much good prose is in tone understandably rather journalistic, and very much academic and critical prose is littered with fashionable words and loaded with jargon. Campuses across the country have become so many chain stores featuring pretentious wares that are immoderately overvalued, slavishly overused, and often quite threadbare: life-style, value judgment, the human condition, charismatic, polarization, paraàigm, elitist, ecumenical, ambiance, graffiti, symbiosis, epiphany, extrapolate, archetype, analogue, concept, subsume, autonomy, dichotomy, viable. I open one of our weightiest quarterlies, and confining myself to the particular literary essay I open at, I encounter—along with many of the words just listed— rebarbarize, ephebic, totemic, semeiotics, theriomorphic, biomorphic, developmental, authorial, theophany, catena, authentification, anamnesis, pseudocausality, eld, ludic, logoi, liminal, opsis, topos, sooth, psychotheology, and liberative. What most enchants me is that the author, having inserted quotations from Emerson and Matthew Arnold in which every word and phrase is an easily understood and established one, must himself straightway refer to Emerson as a “comparatist” and to the “racial calculus” that Arnold is practicing. The great disease of the moment is not a wrong use of ordinary words and phrases, but the ostentatious deadening of the language with pretentious clichés, newfangled abstract nouns, dreary jargon phrases, archaisms like eld and sooth, chic hideosities, and—to borrow from the offenders’ stockpile— the worst kind of academic Ersatz and of linguistic Kitsch. Simultaneously—I quote once more from the essay in the quarterly—we are offered such a turn for elegance as “the absence of methodological thinking in that area,” such devotion to English undefiled as inobviously, and such talent for phrase-making as social-participatory. Silence may still be gold, but speech is more lead than silver.
At an earthier level there has, of course, been a real need for many new words. Some, like countdown and Xerox, won overnight acceptance; many, from TV to SDS, function fully as abbreviations; others, like hangup, input, uptight, turned on, putdown, right on, fill a passing, and sometimes protesting, need to be blunt, rough, scornful, and are often, in their fashion, putdowns of Establishment pomposities and Modern Lingo Association polysyllables. Words get corrupted almost beyond correction: when millions of people say welsh rarebit, the effort to save welsh rabbit seems doomed (who would attack Jerusalem artichoke— from girasole, a sunflower— as equally corrupt?). Words, again, lose their original meaning; but surely to insist on retaining that meaning and no other, as Mr. Bernstein does with climax, is wastefully pedantic; as well insist that fond should still mean foolish, or meat any kind of food.
At a popular as opposed to a professional level, education, in enlarging vocabularies, has been debasing usage. America’s being a huge population composed of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and regional differences, whatever may once have approached a truly American vernacular has been unendingly spattered and discolored with local turns of speech, alien syntax, mangled idioms, and, in our own age, a degraded form of “educated” language. Today’s educated language derives not just from people going to school or college, but from their going to the movies, from their drawing on the vast curriculum offered by television, from the long words spawned by science, the stylish words of urban life, the scented words of advertising. A populace with so mixed a background, so mongrel a culture, so faddish an utterance will in picking up words misuse or distort them, will in picking up words make mincemeat of phrases, will in fawning on polysyllables assault prepositions, so that today the great lurking menace is not illiteracy but adulteration. For every crudity, every don’t for doesn’t, that gets whacked, a barbarism, a “he graduated high school,” gets welcomed; for every grammatical lapse, an “If you come, I would too,” that is tossed out, an idiomatic absurdity, an “in the bargain,” is taken in. Moreover, it is this side of language that is most infectious and proves most damaging, for though people delight in enlarging their vocabularies, and may have a certain anxiety about their grammar, they almost never give a damn about the staples, let alone the subtleties, of usage.
Well, in a culture where so many of common humanity’s great needs have become polysyllabic ones—obstetrician and psychiatrist, pediatrician and hysterectomy, amortization and condominium, even carburetor and refrigerator—any return to the simple life of language would seem hopeless; and just how far we should try, or would be able, to map out a simplified life of usage, I don’t know. Just as one man’s swear word is another man’s euphemism, so, in Mr. Copperud’s consensus, one expert’s parking ticket is another expert’s penitentiary offense. Much time and effort has gone into American Usage, but unless the reader arbitrarily decides to enroll with the majority, he will constantly find himself at the crossroads rather than in the clear. For, since Mr. Copperud’s judges are of unequal standing, his principle of majorities must seem of questionable value. When, in any case, have majorities ever come to mean sureties? “Minorities,” said Sydney Smith, “are almost always in the right”; and Ibsen omitted the almost. Schiller bears closest on our problem: “Majority? What does that mean? Votes should be weighed, not counted.” And, though very reasonable in his approach, Mr. Copperud counts oftener than he weighs. “Consensus,” he will tell us, “is heavily on the side of data as a singular.” Indeed, there is very little in the book that is without a champion, and may not be well on its way to consensus: two authorities rally
round “chaise lounge,” and one authority calls “I did not notice but three umbrellas” standard usage.
Doubtless, most of the people who read this book will do so from a desire to be correct, something thoroughly understandable if only because their salaries, and conceivably their social position, may in some part depend on their syntax. And by heeding the advice of Mr. Copperud’s more conservative judges, people who want to be correct will, at the very least, almost always find themselves on the safe side. There is, of course, no way of being unchallengeably correct, the less so as the best writers, who, rather than the handbook writers, constitute a final court of appeal, are very often “incorrect.” Furthermore, along with running to permissive extremes, American Usage also runs to pedantic ones. Thus, some of Mr. Copperud’s soundest judges rule out anxious in the sense of eager, as in “I’m very anxious to see you but I’m afraid I can’t”—where anxious is as firmly established in the sense of eager as is afraid (which no one challenges) in the sense of regret. How many of us have been amused and charmed by the phrasing of Prior’s
For thou art a girl as much brighter than her
As he was a poet sublimer than me
As he was a poet sublimer than me
without realizing that this construction is standard, indeed highbred, English usage, and that almost every duke and every don in present-day England would say “He is older than me” and “I am taller than him,” just as they would say “those kind of tables” and “Everyone finished their dinner”? Such expressions may be disapproved, but they can’t be discredited, and to me cultivated colloquial speech calls for gratitude and cries out for survival.
Since, in a book of more than 2000 entries, we can touch on only a handful, let them be slightly odd ones:
1. Mr. Copperud says that in and at are interchangeable with cities, and that there is “no workable rule" about them. But though at and in are interchangeable with small cities —“They’ll be at Carmel for the festival"; “We just missed him in Poughkeepsie”—in modern usage in with big cities is virtually mandatory. No one would say “I saw him at London,” or “We’ll be at Chicago next week,” or “When at Rome. . .”
2. Of Cesarean section we are told that this is now “the preferred spelling,” with Julius Caesar ousted because Cesarean comes from cadere, to cut. Doubtless it does, but Mr. Copperud seems to forget that section comes from secare, to cut; perhaps the preferred spelling should be reserved for delivering twins.
3. Mr. Copperud tells us that “as used for criticism” competent is the equivalent of adequate. It is certainly so in the opinion of Broadway producers and their kind since, as used in advertisements, neither word will sell tickets, on which reasoning competent is better called the equivalent of inadequate.
4. Mr. Copperud objects to guilt feelings, insisting that we must say guilty feelings on the ground that “no dictionary yet recognizes guilt as anything but a noun.” But no dictionary need do so: the construction involved is one of the commonest, best established, and most valuable constructions in the language. The use in English of successive nouns is limitless—horse show, parlor car, summer school, smoke screen, dog days, venison steak, Christmas tree, and more abstractly, as with guilt feelings, death watch, crime wave, Peace Corps, problem child, honor roll, success story, lunacy commission. Indeed, if we choose, we may pile noun upon noun upon noun—speak, say, of the Twin City freshman basketball championship cup.
5. Two judges, hard though it is to believe, approve of “Three personnel were fired.”
Handbooks clearly have their place, and when they put their finger in the dike rather than bid the waves stand still, have a very real value as well. But the job, considering what a handbook is called upon to do today, has gotten out of hand. Where once there was something reasonably compassable about the undertaking, today language and usage are at every level jumbled and all but reversed. Construct and structure, for one example, have virtually swapped roles: construct, once a very common verb, has become an extremely popular academic noun; structure, once a very common noun, has become an extremely popular academic verb. Again, as in one form language spreads cancerously, in another it greedily narrows: a word like escalate has just about driven four other verbs out of business; words like dialogue and rhetoric have unseated many plainer and sounder ones, while themselves becoming tarnished and trite. Indeed, the entire English language would seem to be on loan or lease equally to people who write ads and to people who write tomes; for sociologists the entire English language fails to suffice; and with new scientific words cacophony is the mother of invention. This isn’t to condemn experimental forms of writing, which can be merely capricious and stuntlike; but where they enlist real talent and judgment they can—a historic role—ventilate and revitalize.
As for the problem of usage, what is perhaps most unsettling about Mr. Copperud’s book is how constantly—and indeed, how curiously— his doctors disagree. What lies ahead? Will the more reckless dictionaries, with their shrug at culture, increasingly take the lead, and the more cautious judges find their lag in yielding means all loss of authority? Could Mr. Copperud’s consensus plan prove a first small step in the legislating of our language toward forming a kind of American Academic Franchise, official dictionary and all? Or shall each one of us become personnel, and social-participatory in the bargain, and even our four-letter words turn into four-syllable ones—as the leader in the field is already, in its exhilaratingly incestuous way?