March 01, 2007

The WaPo opens an abusage forum

Forums for linguistic naming and shaming seem to be springing up all over. Today, The Washington Post started its own group-gripe feature, Wordplay:

Have you noticed that use of the word "organic," which once was confined to gnarly but expensive vegetables, now is all the rage? It has replaced paradigm and synergy as the word du jour for the pseudo-savants, and, frankly, we're loath to use it. But there is something organic about Page Three. The "Random Acts" of kindness feature grew out of responses to one reader's contribution. Someone's counterpoint to a random act drew a flood of reaction that grew into the "What Bugs Me" feature. Now a "What Bugs Me" piece on Monday, by Gordin Loftin of Annapolis, has sparked a lively response that gives birth to "Wordplay."

Gordon Loftin's "What Bugs Me" contribution was a list of "five of my beefs with misuse of the English language". But so far, only three WaPo readers have had their gripes posted, in comparison to the 2,610 complaints now posted in response to the Telegraph's 2/23/2007 question "What is the most annoying phrase in the English Language?", or the 761 comments on Dick Cavett's 2/4/2007 NYT blog post "It's only language".

I'm not sure why Wordplay's list of posted gripes is growing so slowly. Perhaps the WaPo employs an editor to winnow the submissions, and occasionally to comment. There's some evidence that this is true -- thus one of Mr. Loftin's original complaints was

"12 a.m." and "12 p.m." Don't exist and can lead to confusion. It is 12 noon or12 midnight.

Gary Jacobsen submitted a correction:

Mr. Loftin misses the mark with his criticism of "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." Writers must remember that meridian means "middle of the day," or noon. The term a.m. means "ante meridian," or "before noon." The abbreviation p.m. means "post meridian," or "after noon." See? It's really easy.

The editor adds "(Thanks to Rick Ripley of Silver Spring, Susanne Lazanov of Fredericksburg and Dorothy Flood of Vienna, all of whom wrote in to make the same point about noon and midnight that Gary Jacobsen presents above.)" Rob Perez points out that the editor did not correct Mr. Jacobsen's Latin -- it should be ante meridiem, not ante meridian. (And Jay Cummings points out that the Latin background, even when corrected, might help with the "don't exist" part but not with the "can lead to confusion part".)

Richard Holtz ends his list of complaints with a question: "Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. (Where did that phrase come from, anyway?)"

And Wordplay responds:

Meg Smith, Washington Post researcher, spent a good while trying to answer your question, Mr. Holtz, but she's not very satisfied with the results.

"According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'chest' has been used to mean 'the seat of emotions and passions' since at least 1590. In some literary journals, people are linking 'getting something off one's chest' to the Latin word and meaning for 'expectorate.' Which is just gross, but intriguing."

Not to worry, somebody out there has the answer, and we bet you can read it right here next week.

Thus we know that the WaPo has access to the OED. So far, though, the only editorial intervention is to suppress duplicate information and to answer questions. Obvious mis-prescriptions are not corrected -- for example, Judy E. complains:

What bugs me: Using the term "over" when "more than" is the correct term. "Over" is a spatial-relations term. "More than" is used to express in excess of. He was "over" 90 years of age is incorrect. He was "more than" 90 years of age is correct.

But the OED gives sense 13 for over, "In excess of, above, more than (a stated amount or number)", with citations going back to Old English:

OE BYRHTFERÐ Enchiridion (Ashm.) I. ii. 34 Gyf þær byð an ofer þa seofon.

and continuing through the usual range of classic authors, including Jane Austen:

1816 J. AUSTEN Emma (1926) II. iii. 177 It had not been over five minutes, when in came Harriet.

For a slightly different numerical sense "In a position of having exceeded (a numerical limit)",Thomas Jefferson is cited:

1802 T. JEFFERSON Let. 20 Feb. in P. L. Ford Writings (1897) VIII. 133 Virginia is greatly over her due proportion of appointments in the general government.

I recognize that introducing facts into the discussion might spoil the mood -- but a sensible evaluation of such complaints, sort of like an etiquette column, might turn out to be surprisingly popular.

Part of the appeal of a forum like this is the general good feeling that people get from sharing their gripes, whether they're gripes about language or gripes about manners and morals and hairstyles. But there's another factor, I think: millions of people are intensely interested in speech and language, but have no outlet for their interest except for prescriptivist complaints, and no model for linguistic analysis other than the display of invented "rules" by popular language mavens.

[Hat tip: Jay Cummings]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 1, 2007 05:48 PM