[A few of my peeves]
When the devil wants to enrage old English teachers — an irascible
lot, to be sure — he has people abuse and overuse certain words, among
them the following examples.
To begin with simple words. Most people don’t seem to appreciate
the difference between “may” and “might,” a
distinction that used to be taught in the seventh grade, along with
that between “lay” and “lie.” If you don’t
see the differences among these words, observe how Shakespeare and
Samuel Johnson use them.
How many times have you heard someone say “prior to” instead
of “before”? “Prior to” has its proper place,
as when we say that something is logically prior to something else,
but as a rule “before” is better to indicate temporal order. “It
happened a week prior to my birthday” is sluggish and pretentious.
I’m far from the first to complain that hordes of people now
use “transpire” to mean “happen” or “occur” instead
of “come to light,” “turn out,” or “be
revealed.” This has become so common that the traditional usage
is apt to cause confusion. An important shade of meaning has been lost
to our language.
Among the great political abuses now current in English is the use
of “defense” for “military.” Expenditure for
the manufacture of countless terrible and costly weapons of mass murder
is now called “defense spending.” The phrase “national
security” is similarly abused.
Nowadays, “democracy” is what Richard Weaver called a
god-term. To be democratic is to be good, and whatever is good must
be democratic. Why? Nobody explains. In fact, it’s rare to find
a useful definition of democracy.
“Medieval,” by contrast, is a devil-word, the opposite
of “modern.” Why is everything medieval assumed to be bad?
Again, nobody explains. But St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dante
Alighieri, to name but three, were medieval men. To hear some people,
you’d think all men ever did in the Middle Ages was pray and
torture each other by turns. In the enlightened twentieth century,
on the other hand, there was much less prayer and much more torture
as man learned to fly, drop bombs on cities, and congratulate himself
on his humanitarian achievements (such as making abortion easily available).
Homicide is certainly more efficient now than in the Dark Ages. We
can be proud.
Some words are not exactly wrong but are terribly overused: “reinvent” is
one, “resonate” another. Celebrities who try to change
their public appearances or “images” are said to be reinventing
themselves. It also seems that “resonate” has no useful
Probably the most overused word in the language today is “evolve.” It
serves for change, growth, development, and oddly enough, improvement,
which might surprise Charles Darwin, who was trying to eliminate the
idea of purpose from our picture of the universe. I have even known
devout Darwinians to speak (without irony!) of “evolutionary
Bad people are no longer extremely cruel; today they are “sadistic.” Sadism
used to mean a sexual perversion: taking sensual pleasure from inflicting
pain. The other day, in an otherwise fine translation of the Confessions of St. Augustine, I found “sadistic” thus misused twice.
It was a bit like finding the word “carburetor” in Aristotle’s
Similarly, “psychopath” and “sociopath” used
to be diagnostic terms; instead they have become terms of moral disapproval!
Compare the odd recent history of the word “sick.” Sickness
used to be an excuse; but lately it’s become a form of blame,
as in “Ugh! You’re sick!” or “You have a sick
sense of humor!”
Even talk radio hosts are fond of “oxymoron.” They use
it to mean any contradiction in terms, rather than one made deliberately
for rhetorical effect.
Strunk and White’s little classic, The
Elements of Style, warns
us particularly against the construction, “the fact that,” which
nearly always guarantees wordiness, since many people prefer “despite
the fact that” to the single word “although.” I have
a similar aversion to phrases that contain the word “basis.” It’s
amazing how many people say “on a daily (or monthly, or annual,
or regular) basis,” when they could simply say “daily,” or “monthly,” or “yearly,” or “often.”
Many of these gaffes arise from the desire to sound “official” or
vaguely authoritative by inserting needless and supposedly impressive
verbiage. Some result from obvious confusions, such as “perimeter” and “parameter.” But
most result from a simple failure to think.
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