THE OTHER DAY, I gave my name to the secretary of a man who almost surely would not call me back, and she asked, "Can you spell it?"
Silently, I replied, "Of course I can. Do you think that I am, in addition to being the kind of person whose calls your boss does not return, illiterate -- or retarded?"
I like the way the airlines do it. "How are you spelling that?" they ask.
The use of the present participle gives me the feeling that I am a creature of infinite whim, likely to spell my name one way one day, another the next.
I want to say, "Let's see, this is Tuesday, I guess today it will be . . . "
The airlines have other forms of speech that catch my ear. For instance, they will tell you when the departure is delayed that "we are waiting for other equipment." That means that the plane you hoped to board in Washington in 15 minutes has conked out and that they have to send in a substitute from Dallas or Seattle.
Until I knew this, I spent many anxious hours wondering what "equipment" we were waiting for -- a wing, an engine, a tail?
The syrupy sendoff by the stewardess -- excuse me, flight attendant -- is another favorite. "On behalf of Capt. Muldoon and the entire flight crew, we would like to thank you for flying Sincere Airlines this afternoon."
The "entire" always reminds me of a famous cartoon by Carl Rose. It shows a pack of hounds being blessed by a clergyman, while one glowering beagle sits apart. It is called "The Atheist."
I wonder if there is an atheist on the crew, some Jenni or Bobbi who is at that moment cursing under her breath and ramming things into those little metal drawers in the galley, not thanking anyone, wishing she were back in Bloomington, Ind.
This is not a good time for phrase-seekers. The federal government, which can be a mother lode of evasive, deceptive verbiage, is not producing much. Ronald Reagan is one who quotes other people's one-liners: "Make my day." or "You ain't seen nuthin' yet." It says a great deal about the state of the language that the most quoted set of words from the recent campaign, "Where's the beef?" which were spoken by the loser, came out of a hamburger commercial.
Since the departure of Alexander "Let-me-caveat-that" Haig, no one in the Cabinet has shown any linguistic distinction. The formulations have run to the defiantly preposterous, as in "peacekeeper" for the MX missiles and "freedom fighter" for an ex-Somozista guardsman who is burning down peasant villages. The only phrase that may make it to the mainstream is "constructive engagement," a term of aggressive vacuity which means smiling while you watch someone playing with fire.
OMB Director David Stockman, who recently left the government, has received an advance of $2 million for his memoirs, although nothing indicates he is a wordsmith. He has given us "in-house," a phrase that so infuriates one of the editors of this paper that he has forbidden its use in his jurisdiction. Stockman must also answer for "out years" a term that adds murk to budget discussions. It means "future years," but the use of "out" suggests the speaker is in, and even "in-house."
I regret to report that the noun is losing its war with the verb. Such odious assaults as "It will impact my kitchen floor." and "You access the alley by the delicatessen." have resulted in the taking of much ground. The transformers' greatest victory, however is the capture of "parent," a straightforward term for a mother or a father which has been verbalized as "parenting," a maddeningly mushy word which redefines the whole dicey, interminable business of bringing up children as some kind of a process, for which you can take courses. A parent is what you are, not what you do.
Surrender is also imminent in the struggle against the use of "I" when "me" is mandatory. The rout of the objective case was completed on "Dynasty." I heard Ali McGraw explaining why she is so crazy about Blake Carrington. "People like he are hard to find," she simpered, to what dismay of her English professors at Wellesley I can only imagine.
The most discouraging trend of all is the substitution of "okay" for "thank you."I first ran into it at my People's Drugstore, where I stood for a long time behind a sulky adolescent who had a picture order worthy of a Life photographer: three enlargements, two complete prints of a whole roll, one in black and white and one in color. The clerk was a patient and fatherly man who took it all down with unbelievable kindness and finally said, "It will be ready on Thursday."
"Okay," said the lout, and not another word. His habit has impacted a lot of people, and others will probably access it in the "out years."