STRICTLY SPEAKING , Edwin Newman's lament for the clarity and vigor of the English language, opened with the rhetorical question, "Will America be the death of English?" Now comes Philip Howard's Weasel Words with an answer: Only if England isn't. Like Strictly Speaking , it is a book for anyone who is not yet too jaded to wince at word abuse.
A graduate of Eton and Oxford, where he studied the classics, currently a reporter for The London Times , Howard has a properly British sense of verbal lineage. "After four centuries of blameless and boring life with a precise denotation," he writes, "the respectable abstract noun credibility has recently been picked up as a shameless vogue word." It's as though a scion of the House of Credo had been arrested for hustling at Piccadilly Circus.
Some words, according to Howard, were stripped of their titles long ago. Take environment , for example, once a precise word meaning "the state of being environed, in the way that the heavens environ the earth." It fell into the hands of Thomas Carlyle, "that fitfully fuliginous and atrabilious tripudiator on short Anglo-Saxon words when he could invent a frenchified polysyllable...." (But then what else would one expect of a writer born in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire?) Bu the time Carlyle had finished with the word, it meant about what it means today -- that all-encompassing whatchamacallit that envelops and profoundly affects us all. Howard thus animadverts on the loss of precision: "In this sense of the word John Florio might have written, 'We are the creatures of our environment,' if the word had been around in the early seventeenth century, and if he had not been such a lively writer. Instead he wrote, more pungently: 'Who sleepeth with dogs shall rise with fleas.'"
The propensity to use a sesquipedalian word where a shorty will do is neither outmoded nor confined to Britain. In this country, for example, we must suffer through the habit of bureaucrats to pronounce individual when all they mean is person .
Howard relishes exposing a related class of language-muggers, the pseudo-learned, who in trying to elevate English, end up outsmarting themselves. Of the pompous use of scientific terms like matrix and parameter , he writes: "The user's intention is to clothe his discourse with spurious learning, and blind his readers and audotors with fashionable science. His achievement is to hang out banners on the outward walls of his prose to warn all who read or listen to waste no more time reading or listening." Though Howard odes not make the extension, the same kind of miscalculation leads to grammatical errors. The speaker who says "between she and I" or "i feel badly" supposes he is being oh-so correct. But "between her and me" is more so than oh-so, and to feel badly is to have trouble with the fingers.
Though he is always good, it is when he turns to etymology that Howard is most impressive. He has a knack for sketching the whole history of a word in a few sentences. For instance, in an essay on session , which he would restrict to activities which entail its root meaning of sitting , he observes: "Obsession originally meant the action of sitting down before a fortress to besiege it. Thence by metaphor it came to be used of an evil spirit or incubus besetting somebody; and thence came the transferred modern use in Freudian English of a fixed idea that persistently besieges somebody's mind."
The cynical interpretation of Weasel Words would be that Howard is out to preserve the minute verbal rules that he mastered at Eton and Oxford in furtherance of old-boy control over Britain. The book contains little evidence for this veiw. In virtually every case, Howard shows that mistakes foster confusion, not merely losses in elegance.
Howard does not advocate fixing the King's English in aspic. Nor does he recommend that its adepts withdrawto a Wincer Castle of pedantry. In a tolerant essay on the ebbing distinctions between the singular and plural of certain words borrowed from Latin and Greek, he remarks: "English belongs to all of us, to change it as we want." Thus, Howard will not be mounting a compaign to keep data, media , and criteria forever plural. As he points out, stamina was once just such a plural -- a punctilio that English long ago discarded. Contrariwise, though not contrarily, this reviewer has given up correcting people who use the Greek-derived singular noun kudos as if it were plural.
Rather, Howard simply seeks accuracy and punch, qualities that are evidently as scarce in British English as in American. On neither side of the Atlantic is the weasel word an endangered species.