Date: Mon, 6 Jun 1994 13:35:37 EDT
From: AAllan[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]AOL.COM
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