Edwin Newman has written another book about the way we Americans abuse our language, and James J. Kilpatrick gave it a favorable review in his Washington Star column a few days ago.
Like Newman, Kilpatrick is a craftsman - a skillful word carpenter. For good measure, Kilpatrick has a sense of humor. In his television appearances, he plays the role of professional eurmudgeon, but that's just show biz. The twinkle in his eye gives him away.
People who abuse the English language irk Kilpatrick, and he goes after them with vigor.Sometimes too much vigor. Language criticism is, after all, a tricky business. The critic is in constant danger of alienating his audience if he goes too far.
A critic is reasonably safe so long as he limits himself to attacks upon obvious redundancies and malapropisms. "Old cliche," "past experience," "fatal slaying" and "future prospects" are all good targets because it is rather generally accepted that all slaying are fatal and all prospects lie in the future.
However, one can hardly fill a newspaper column, let alone a book, with examples such as these, so the critic must venture into more controversial facets of usgae to fill his space. And each new word or expression he attacks increases the likelihood that some in his audience will stop reading and mutter, "Now what the hell is wrong with that expression? I use it myself."
One of the thinks Kilpatrick complains about seeing in The Washington Post is the statement that something "remains to be seen." He also dislikes "ground rules," but doesn't specify in what context he deems the term improper.
Criticizing the jargon used in trades and professions is easy. Kilpatrick disapproves of the educationist who speaks of "instructional modules" when he means classrooms. Bureaucrats "finalize" and "prioritize" their obfuscatory pronouncment in shameless disregard of the sensibilities of purists. And just the other day, Arena Stage announced that it is looking for "socially activistic men and women who can act, sing, and date to physicalize their feeling."
Most critics and authorities on usage will probably disapprove of "physicalize." Not being an authority, I don't have to waste time being irate. I pass it off with a lifted eyebrow and a shrug. I am not going to argue that "physicalize" enriches the language or fills a real need, but I am not going to get very worked up over it, either.
I would rather save my ammunition for a category of cliches that Kilpatrick didn't mention. His attack was directed at "old cliches," but it seems to me that the older they are the less objectionable they are. It's the new ones - the fad words and phrases - that give me an earache.
Before "I couldn't care less" really had a chance to become a cliche, most Americans turned it upside down, and it is now almost always heard as, "I could care less." At about the same time, we began saying things like, "Hopefully, the plane will arrive on time," which, if it means anything, means the plane is hopeful.
And then we have the expression "y'know?," which can be used as a period, a comma or a signal for a brief time-out. An athlete can say, "The game was very physical, y'know?" That's a period. He can use it as a comma first and then a period by saying, "The game was very physical, y'know, but we just followed out game plan, y'know?" Or he can put his listener on hold with "y'know?" until he thinks of the right word: "The game was very y'know, physical."
Only by following the rules of usage can we achieve precision in communication. Good and useful things inside inarticulate people never really get a chance to come out. Personal relations suffer; career oppotunities are lost; the potential for stimulating and being stimulated by another mind is never fully realized. It's like a crying shame, y'know what I mean?