People who love words are perfectly nice people, sanguine and frequently civilized, mostly gallant in the face of crimes agains God, nature and the American language.
They have their vendettas, though, against the "like-wow-reallys" of the laid-back legions. Or the U.S. government's making nouns into verbs like "to liaison" or "to liaise." Or against split infinitives.
Some word people are less quixotic than others, which is probably why they get to write dictionaries.William Morris and Mary Morris, for example, are realists.For their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage - the latest sale figures available show i sold 35,000 copies in the three months following its publication last October - they read and listened to what was being said in America - a language pungent with "aint's" and "Mses." and "FORTRANS" - for five years.
The Morrises tried to get rulings on the language as it is spoken, not as it is dreamed or hoarded, from a panel of 136 word lovers, all of whom had their prejudices.
They ranged from the ultra-conservative Francis Robinson, vice president of the Metropolitan Opera, to the ain't-using Isaac Asimov, scholar and science-fiction writer, to W.H. Auden, who before his death in 1973 turned a poet's ear to the music of words others disdained.
The Morrises sent ballots to each of the 136 with a list of selected words and phrases. The panelists voted on whether they'd used them in speech and in writing.
So, one question went, "In 1934 the Merriam-Webster Second International Dictionary entered the verb "to fund " and defined it (in part) as 'to finance, as to fund an enterprise.' This definition is then labeled 'obsolete.' Yet newspapers today carry many stories about measures to 'fund the space program' is again entirely acceptable in speech and writing?"Sixty-one per cent of the panelists said "yes" and 39 per cent said "no." And in one of the closest votes - 51 per cent to 49 per cent - they agreed that "fund" was enjoying merely a voguish revival and say nothing that 'finance' does not say quite as well."
The real juicy stuff is in the comment that follows.
Auden says, "'Fund' sounds better because it is shorter." Critic Elizabeth Janeway (who admits to "an eerie fascination" for the use of "wise,") writes, "Times have changed economics-wise. (Ha!) A pension plan that is 'funded' will pay fully all that is guaranteed. One that is merely 'financed' may not. In this special sense, the word is needed."
TV commentator Heywood Hale Broun says "fund" is the sort of verb "rarely used among gentlefolk."
What kind of a standard is that, one might ask? If W. H. Auden says "fund" is okay, that's good enough.But there is a subtle class warfare going on in the dictionary - as it does much as the words you use are part of the uniform you wear. Isaac Asimov's use of "ain't" is just as class-conscious as Broun's disdain of "fund"
Perhaps the best thing about being one of the panelists was that you could solicit 135 other people for their opinions on your own "pet crtochet," as William Morris put it. British journalist Alex Faulkner, who covered America for The Daily Telegraph for 35 years, was trounced for wondering plaintively if "prestigious" should be reserved "for something involving conjuring," as befits its Latin root, prestigia (juggler's tricks).
"Evidently I am less a purist than I thought," sniffed poet Phyllis McGinley. But the panel deplored the widespread use (newspapers, as usual, were to blame) of "prestigious" to mean reputable, admirable or illustrious, and voted 67 per cent to 33 per cent to strike you dumb if you use it that way. "Bah!" said poet Judith Viorst.
Isasc Asimov, of course, said, "I use it myself and like it."
Other panelists posed questions, too. Kansas City Star editor Bill Vaughn asked if a style-book distinction should be preserved between "admittance" (to the theater) and "admission" (of guilt). Editor Leonard Sanders deplored the use of an unmodified "chauvinist" to mean sexist male pig. Naturalist Hal Borland faulted those who use "convince" to mean "persuade." Abe Burrows, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, said, "The word 'decimate' is being ruined. I am not saying that we have to stick to the original 'every tenth man' definition, but it still should only be used when it deals with the destruction of a part of a group." He says he even heard of one person's being "decimated" on television.
The Morrises used a peculiar work in one of their questions: "nonnative," as in nonnative speakers of American. You say "nah-nah-tive," right? And peevishly wonder if it is some new California philosophical method, as panelist Dwight McDonald did. Or does it mean grandfatherly? Or does it have to do with being dressed to the nines?
"For God's sake, restore the hyphen!" wrote historian Barbara Tuchman. "No advantage is gained by its elimination and the results, as in this case, frequently come out as unreadable and ridiculous." She raved on with such passion that the Morrises put the hyphen question to the panel. The vote was 100 per cent in favor of relaxing style manual rules and resurrecting the hyphen.
George Wald, a Harvard professor, Nobel Laureate, biologist and physiologist, ranges through a dark world alone, wondering in the night precisely why people say "chaise lounge " when they mean "chaise longue ") long chair.
And Jean Stafford, who demanded of the Morrises that several unnamed slouches by "de-panelized" for having unforgiveably loose lips, hired a calligrapher to inscribe a sign for her back door. It has the tone of he one over Dante's Inferno: THE WORD "HOPEFULLY" MUST NOT BE MISUSED ON THESE PREMISES. VIOLATERS WILL BE HUMILIATED.