February 23, 2004

Common Elitist Usage

Our colleague LanguageHat has been reading William Safire, who in his most recent column says that he is guided by "common elitist usage". LanguageHat wonders:

What on earth does this mean? I can only think that, trapped between his automatic deference to prescriptive ukases and a cloudy realization that if everybody is using words in an illogical way usage must trump logic, he squares the circle by means of this oxymoron. I can't decide whether I'm amused or impressed.

Actually, I think that what Safire is saying is perfectly coherent. On the one hand, he is saying that what he considers correct is determined ultimately by usage, not by etymology. On the other hand, he doesn't accept just anybody's usage as authoritative; he defers to "elitist usage".

Deferring to some sort of linguistic authority is what all of us do. Even those of us who feel quite secure in their usage in general recognize certain people or institutions as the authorities on the use of technical terms in areas in which we are not expert, such as names of plants or chemicals. Indeed, one prominent suggestion for how to decide whether two groups of people speak dialects of the same language or different languages is whether they recognize the same sources of linguistic authority.

What is interesting about Safire's statement is ithe ambiguity of the phrase "elitist usage". "elitist" has two meanings:

  • "characteristic of the elite"
  • "characterized by the belief that certain people deserve special treatment by virtue of their supposed superiority"
For me, at least, the latter is the usual if not only meaning, so I lean toward the interpretation that Safire is interested in the usage of elitists. Dictionaries do give the former meaning as well, though, so perhaps he means to say that he follows the usage of the elite.

Of course, this raises the question of who the elite are, and why their usage should be authoritative. There are many types of elites, but usually, in the absence of any other context, the term refers to the elite in wealth, power, and fame, people like George Bush, Michael Jackson, and Martha Stewart. Except for those plant names and chemicals and so forth, I think I'll follow my own usage. Posted by Bill Poser at February 23, 2004 05:57 PM