THE MEANING IS THE MISUSE

“Always begin with an anecdote.”

The Lesser Half came across this nugget of good sense on a website devoted to all of us who — she even more than I — struggle with prose. Five or six years have passed since she shared it; I may have misquoted the nugget slightly. Or maybe grossly. Maybe the advice was end with an anecdote. Or both? — begin and end? Frankly, I think that some of the very finest essays are pretty much nothing but: just strings of anecdotes — one after another from start to finish, cleverly knotted together with expository bits to convey a feeling, scarcely earned in many cases, of coherent argument.

But if I were to begin with an anecdote …

It’s my turn to choose. I am — this is just a rough guess — eleven years old. Each month, some weeks after sealing and sending off our selection, we receive in the mail a cardboard package from The Book-of-the-Month Club. Often a knock on the door announces its arrival: because few of these majestic volumes will fit through the narrow mail slot of our front door the postman, Ajeet, whose name he has told us means “invincible” in Hindi, sometimes hands them over in person. We feel that in addition to being invincible he’s probably impressed with the caliber of our reading material.

Naturally we’re oblivious to the fact that nearly all trashy riffraff — the majority of families on Ajeet’s route — belong to this club, the only club that’ll let us in. It’s why you’ll find prominently displayed in most of our crammed front rooms either Bruce Catton’s Terrible Swift Sword or Carl Sandburg’s The Prairie Years, two of the grimmest works of historical literature ever published. (Occasionally you’ll also see Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which, as I would discover a couple of years later, is actually quite fun. Especially the chapter about the guy who discovered that language was a kind of game.)

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Wittgenstein strums the banjo

On that occasion my choice was definitely in the grim category. The book was called, I think I have this right, The Careful Writer. Its author was Theodore … Theodore something. Last name’s a blank; venerable crusty editor of a major metropolitan daily. (The Times, possibly? I can still see that picture on the jacket flap. I believe so. Plume of smoke spiraling up from his Chesterfield. Furrowed brow. Beady obsidian gaze that would never flinch no matter how many flea markets, no matter how many Salvation Army sidewalk racks, his masterpiece might pass through in ensuing years.) But I’m sure I had no intention of reading this thing, The Careful Writer. Instead I thought, in my usual conniving, calculating way, that by lugging it to my elementary school, pretending to study it in the dappled shade of swing sets and monkey bars, I’d have a better chance at winning the romantic affection of … this too I forget — of whomever my proto-Byronic longing (not to say, my conniving and calculating) was focused upon that particular week. What I do remember is that my plan failed. I guess if it had succeeded I might still know the girl’s name.

Version 2

Regardless, I continued to carry the book with me and would, out of sheer idleness, pick through its pages from time to time. Then more and more. Eventually this developed into a full-blown ensorcellment that would last clear through my teenage years: a belief that special powers — not unlike those of fairies, magicians, and spiritualists — could be cultivated through an arcane knowledge of grammar. Sad to say, my belief was soon vindicated. I had discovered that these mystical dichotomies — good language favored over bad, like right over wrong — could serve as a moral weapon among my own people, the very un-entitled, whose immigrant shame left them particularly vulnerable to critiques of speech. They could barely open their mouths without getting on the bad side of … of Theodore.

Which brings me where I was aiming the first place. What does it mean to misuse a word?

Rather, to “misuse” — in quotation marks. As you might guess, my question, if not exactly rhetorical, is a leading one. Like many relatively well-educated people I once accepted as an article of faith that misusing a word meant violating some kind of platonic standard. To say something effectively — as against ineptly — was simply a matter of cleaving to rules. The rules. The basis of such a position, held by many a self-declared Addisonian rationalist, is that clarity emerges from and depends upon — there’s really no other way to say this — conformity. What I now believe is that grammar (or rather the imposition of prescriptive rules governing speech) has nothing to do with clarity and everything to do with controlling people and punishing them.

Grammar in this sense, it seems to me, is weaponized diction. Recently, while crunching away at a salad in the dining loft of my local foodie market, I eavesdropped on a nearby a pundit as he upbraided his companion, wife I assume, for using impact as a verb. I hadn’t witnessed the wretched crime itself, for the perp was not only seated farther from me than hubby but quite soft-spoken. Hubby, meanwhile, I could hear just fine; he played to the room, ensuring that everyone took in his fine orations.

“You can’t say that. It’s is a noun.” He sounded very certain. “And you can’t just make a verb out of a noun. ‘Impact’ is a noun, period. You can cause an impact, you can create an impact, but you can’t impact something.” More certainty still. This was immediately backed up by the policy rubric fiercely defended by weary prelapsarians everywhere: “The language is being ruined,” he announced, then exhaled indignantly. Shrugging, he added that this was “old news.”

Version 2

Old news indeed. Certainly there’s nothing new in a grammar-monger neglecting to peek at a dictionary before spewing the nonsense he spews. (It pains me even to speculate why, given his strict vow of logic, hubby wasn’t similarly troubled by his own oxymoron, in which news — an idiom that once meant “new stuff” — was being modified by the word old, its direct antonym.) I felt like passing a surreptitious note to the missus revealing the facts: he’d got it all backwards. That neologism — that presumed neologism — he was flipping out over, to impact, has in fact been a verb in English since 1601, at least. It was not to achieve hubby’s precious nominative status for nearly another two hundred years (1781 or thereabouts). 

Which doesn’t matter anyway, because English seems to be governed by a single rule, just one proper, honest-to-god, sure-fire rule. Ready? Here it is:

We can make new words. 

And we can follow this rule by more or less any means or method we like. Should it really be a point of controversy that we can make nouns from verbs, verbs from nouns, and so on? No one ever gets wildly upset by our ancient practice of creating adverbs from adjectives (adding the suffix –ly), or nouns from adjectives (adding -ness). Nor by the fact that those very adjectives — from which such nouns have been formed — may themselves have been engineered by adding -ed to words that were, get this, already nouns in the first place.

That’s how the system works, to whatever extent some “system” exists at all: new meanings subverted from older meanings, new usages that depart from or completely contravene incipient ones. New words out of thin air! We can change any word’s primordial function, its “part of speech,” simply by (and arguably only by) circulating neologistic variations among fellow speakers, often without bothering to alter the original word orthographically. For example, without any visible change the adjective “liberal” (as in liberal arts) becomes a noun (as in Eugene McCarthy is a liberal). Or, similarly, the noun “bundle” (as in bundle of rags) takes on an additional meaning as a verb, “[to] bundle” (as in please bundle these rags together). Again, no spelling change, only a difference in its syntactic function.

Not that English should be seen as unique in this respect. Most languages — certainly those used for conversation and writing — develop by similar means. The only reason you can’t do such things in, say, pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon or Late Republic Latin or Attic Greek or Vedic Sanskrit has nothing whatever to do with the fixed, highly regulated inflective structures for which these languages are well known and sometimes privileged with undeserved reverence. It’s because the people who spoke them are dead.


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