Date: Mon, 6 Jun 1994 13:35:37 EDT


Subject: Words of the Year

Thanks for noticing the notice, Dennis! [Note: Dennis *B.*, that is.] Just

shows how little I've been reading my New Yorker. They've practically given

up on their column-ending fillers (they have a special name for them, which

I've forgotten), but we made it.

Of course the honor is really due to our friend Danny Pearl at the Wall St

Journal. He could have put it more gracefully. I told him, as I have told

others, that it's *word or phrase* of the year.

And those are my two favorite publications!

It is interesting that while the NY is no longer squeamish about 4-letter

words, it retains the linguistic priggishness typified by Dwight MacDonald's

savage review of Webster's 3rd in 1961, or by that bizarre bible of writing

instruction Strunk & White, or by the memoirs of NY writers arguing with copy

editors word by word but never questioning the latters' authority.

The most extreme example that this attitude is alive and well is in the 10

January 1994 New Yorker, a cartoon by Justin Green showing a person carving a

word or phrase for each year on what looks like the Washington Monument: 87

spin control, 86 downsizing, 89 wildin' . . . , 93 policy wonks - and on the

ground below, a downcast weeping female figure in robe and sandals holding a

US shield, wearing a crown and the label "proper usage", beneath her an open

book labeled Webster's upside down on the grass.

In an ADS publication, or in your book, Dennis, I'd take that as a satire

on usageasters, but in the NY I read it as a heart-rending defense of the

besmirched purity of our language.

It would be interesting to study the staunch symbiotic connection between

literati (and for that matter, literary criticati) and extreme linguistic

prescriptivism. Dr Johnson is the archetype. We rejoice in his conversion, as

literary figure becomes lexicographer and recognizes verities of language

change, but has anyone figured out why literary figures are so fussy to begin


You, Dennis, have provided in your books much evidence of prescriptivism

past and present; I think also of Dick Bailey. But do we yet have a fully

satisfying explanation of the touching faith in one logical ideal language

held by intelligent, skilled professional writers & editors? It's as if

Nobel-prize-winning scientists were all creationists.

- Allan Metcalf