February 09, 2004

At a loss for lexicons

Can't anybody use a dictionary anymore? I enjoy a good curmudgeonly rant about how English is going to the dogs these days, I really do. But why can't the journalists who crank out such screeds check their lexical prejudices against a good dictionary or two?

A couple of months ago, I complained about Cullen Murphy, who "drew the line" in the Atlantic on the meaning of three words: 'Notoriety does not denote "famousness," enormity does not denote "bigness," and religiosity does not denote "religiousness."' As I pointed out, a quick peek at the OED reveals that the three senses that bother him are earlier (even original) ones, sanctioned by centuries of use, and only recently falling out of favor. I don't recommend that everyone start using those senses -- I agree with his judgments that they're no longer quite the thing -- but to see this as holding off the forces of cultural degeneration is like "holding the line" against gingham bonnets and beaver hats.

Yesterday, John Powers weighed in ("A Loss for Words", Boston Globe 2/8/2004) with another triadic tirade:

We say "transpire" when we mean "happen." We say "momentarily" when we mean "soon." We say "livid" when we mean "angry." This growing imprecision of usage may not be what fictional professor Henry Higgins declared "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." But it does matter if you don't know what you're saying. If you don't, how will I?

Let me be clear -- I'm not asking anybody to document that there is actually an overall "growing imprecision of usage". That's one of the assumptions of the genre of curmudgeonly rants. It's surely false, if only because the genre appears to date all the way back to Sumerian times, so that if the hypothesis were true, human communication would by now have been reduced to occasional grunts and growls, soon to be grunts alone. But all the best literary forms require that we suspend disbelief and grant the author certain essential premises, and I'm fine with that. "Growing imprecision of usage," check. Let's get to the good stuff, the clever skewering of boundary-blurring innovation!

"Transpire" does not mean "happen." It means "to leak out." "Momentarily" does not mean "soon." It means "for a moment," or "from moment to moment." "Livid" does not mean "angry." It means "black-and-blue," the color of a bruise.

Transpire. He sets, he throws; strike one, a long foul down the right field line.

The (free) American Heritage explains that

Transpire has been used since the mid-18th century in the sense “leak out, become publicly known,” as in Despite efforts to hush the matter up, it soon transpired that the colonels had met with the rebel leaders. This usage has long been standard. The more common use of transpire to mean “occur” or “happen” has had a more troubled history. Though it dates at least to the beginning of the 19th century, language critics have condemned it for more than 100 years as both pretentious and unetymological. There is some sign that resistance to this sense of transpire is abating, however. In a 1969 survey the usage was acceptable to only 38 percent of the Usage Panel; nearly 20 years later, 58 percent accepted it in the sentence All of these events transpired after last week's announcement. Still, many Panelists who accepted the usage also remarked that it was pretentious or pompous.

From the OED (not free, but surely the Globe can afford it), we can learn that some pretty famous people have been on the wrong side of Powers' screed -- Abigail Adams, Noah Webster, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne:

1775 A. ADAMS Let. 31 July in J. & A. Adams Familiar Lett. Revolution (1876) 91 There is nothing new transpired since I wrote you last. 1804 Age of Inquiry (Hartford, Conn.) 46 When..the reformation transpired in England..almost the whole nation rejoiced. 1810 F. DUDLEY Amoroso I. 14 Could short-sighted mortality..foresee events that are about to transpire. 1828 WEBSTER, Transpire..3. To happen or come to pass. 1841 W. L. GARRISON in Life (1889) III. 16 An event..which we believe transpired eighteen hundred years ago. 1848 DICKENS Dombey xxxii, Few changes -- hardly any -- have transpired among his ship's company. 1858 HAWTHORNE Fr. & It. Note-bks. I. 225 Accurate information on whatever subject transpired. 1883 L. OLIPHANT Altiora Peto I. 277 His account of what transpired was so utterly unlike what I expected.

Momentarily. He sets, he throws; the batter fouls it back to the screen. Strike two.

The usage note in the American Heritage says

Momentarily is widely used in speech to mean “in a moment,” as in The manager is on another line, but she'll be with you momentarily. This usage rarely leads to ambiguity since the intended sense can usually be determined on the basis of the tense of the verb and the context. Nonetheless, many critics hold that the adverb should be reserved for the senses “for a moment,” and the extended usage is unacceptable to 59 percent of the Usage Panel.

The OED's examples show that momentarily has been used to mean something like "instantly" or "quickly" since the 18th century:

1739 H. BAKER & J. MILLER Psyche ii. 207 Apply thy Thoughts to nothing but to endeavour momentarily to sacrifice a Victim to my injur'd Honour. 1799 R. SICKELMORE Agnes & Leonora I. 8 This was momentarily agreed to. 1801 E. HELME St. Margaret's Cave II. iii. 60 The friar groaned, but almost momentarily recovered his emotion. 1899 W. J. LOCKE White Dove (1900) iii. 43 Sylvester.., having done all that was momentarily possible, was at last able to reflect. 1984 ‘TIRESIAS’ Notes from Overground 7 He travels on dozens of different trains which he can momentarily distinguish by certain details.

So a deprecated sense, but not exactly evidence for "growing imprecision of usage".

Livid: he sets, he throws. Powers swings from the heels and misses everything. Strike three -- back to the dugout!

The American Heritage tells us that livid means

1. Discolored, as from a bruise; black-and-blue. 2. Ashen or pallid: a face livid with shock. 3. Extremely angry; furious.

with no usage note. The OED gives the same third sense: "Furiously angry, as if pale with rage," and cites examples from 1912 onwards:

1912 Collier's 9 Mar. 21/1 He sprang to his feet, livid. ‘That's a lie,’ and he stopped suddenly, startled by his own violence. 1918 C. MACKENZIE Early Life Sylvia Scarlett II. ii. 292 He was livid with fury. He asked if I thought he was made of money. 1936 M. KENNEDY Together & Apart II. 151 Betsy is livid. She says now she will fight to the last ditch to get complete custody of the children. 1949 R. CHANDLER Little Sister ii. 10 Orrin would be absolutely livid. Mother would be furious too. 1959 J. VERNEY Friday's Tunnel xxiv. 214 Friday's livid because he thinks you've punctured his bike. 1973 ‘D. SHANNON’ No Holiday for Crime (1974) x. 162 Mr. MacFarlane would be livid to have it [sc. whisky] impounded as evidence.

Mr. Powers, meet Raymond Chandler, "America's foremost detective novelist." I think you were just explaining something about his misuse of words. Oh, and there are some folks named Adams, Webster, Dickens and Hawthorne who wanted to talk with you. Something about "growing imprecision of usage", I think it was?

As I asked at the start of this discussion, can't anybody use a dictionary anymore?

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 9, 2004 03:09 PM