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The Reactionary Utopian
September 4, 2008

Annoying Words
by Joe Sobran

[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 synonyms.

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 purpose.”

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 Metaphysics.

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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