Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bull****!

"I was provided with a receipt, and duly and officially accepted as an excursionist. There was happiness in that, but it was tame compared to the novelty of being `select.'"

...

"Occasionally, during the following month, I dropped in at 117 Wall Street to inquire ... how many people the committee were decreeing not `select' every day and banishing in sorrow and tribulation."
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Our coarse age can do no better than scream "bullshit!" at the daily abuse of language perpetrated by management, business, politics, advertising, media, celebrity journalism and those of us who take their cues from them.

How much more elegantly Mark Twain expressed his disdain! One can almost see the sneer in the quote marks he wraps around the word select, and Twain published those sentences in 1869. That must make him one of the first to recognize the calculated appeal to snobbery that select as an advertising adjective embodies.

But the best thing is that Twain both recognized the snobbery and threw himself into it headfirst and with great zest, joining the "select" passenger list for the pioneering trans-Atlantic tourist cruise that became the occasion for The Innocents Abroad. And that, friends, is one of the most enviable tasks a man can take on: to take part fully in what the world has to offer and to make fun of it at the same time.

Of course, Twain himself helped make the passenger list "select," a celebrity by the time the boat sailed, thanks to his lectures and to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." I shall read with interest to see whether he notes this irony.

===============

The Twain paragraph marked my second recent discovery that an annoying word, expression or usage was older than I'd thought. (The first was the gratingly earnest Clinton-era "part of the (national) conversation," of which I was surprised recently to find an instance from the 1950s or '60s.)

Have you ever found that an expression or phrase you hated or loved turned out to be older than you thought? While you're at it, why not find some newer grating commonplaces at Patti Abbott's Expressions you could do without?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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19 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

What's amazing is how often you assume an expression used is anachronistic--it couldn't be that old. But when you google it, often it is that old and older. Is it our arrogance that makes us think we invented the wheel and everything since? Witness the return of "Yikes" in the last decade or so.

December 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm inclined to take a more benevolent view. Certainly we may be arrogant, but expressions may pass out of use for some time and thus seem new when they reappear. The interesting question then becomes why an expression comes back into use when it does.

I like yikes, and I always have, so I'm pleased by any rebirth on its part.

December 20, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Cool" went out and came back, I think. "Far out," a phrase from the Sixties, disappeared with no regrets on my part.

I don't think "Gee-Whiz" has come back, but I discover that it's dated to precisely the year 1934 by Merriam-Webster. That seems early, but more interestingly, how has it been pinned down to a specific year? Its presence in a film, perhaps?

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Cool" may have had at least three lives: one from jazz, one from rock and roll, and one from whatever use, ironic or otherwise, that younger adults make of the word today. I share your feelings about "far out."

Years ago I visited Merriam-Webster's headquarters for a series of articles. At that time, and presumably now, they had staff members at least part of whose jobs was to read periodicals of all kinds to look for new words and new usages. If that's a long-standing practice, 1934 presumably marks the first time that someone came across "gee-whiz." I would assume that oral usage preceded written, though I could not guess by how much.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, with regard to why an expression comes into or returns to use, I think today television and the internet are always the cause of proliferation. One textbook case of this a while back was the use of 'if you will'. I remember the first time I heard that on CNN, and I thought, first, that it was a long since I'd heard it, and second, that the usage was incorrect. By the end of that week it was coming at me right, left and centre, always incorrect, and increasingly idiotically so. Reporters and commentators, of course, were using it as a way of filling, hoping 'if you will' sounded erudite as opposed to 'um er', or using it to suggest subtlety of thought where there rarely is any. It eventually got to the point where we had constructions along the lines of "I'm standing in front of the White House, if you will", and then, just as suddenly as it came, its use diminished and we are now almost, though not entirely, free of it. The whole process took about six months. The grotesque misuse of 'per se', with us for years but not so common now, thank God, I think hints at a root cause of all this: it is the province of the semi-educated, which with our baleful systems of education means those who have got degrees, and often more a bachelor's, I am sorry to say. Those the semi-educated likely consider uneducated (I have a rather different view it, but that is another matter) don't know these phrases to begin with, while the truly educated know their correct usage. Those betwixt come across them in passing, pick them up without knowing how to use them, and if those semi-educated then get to appear on television, we are off to the races.

Verification word here is 'subtacky'. Now there's a fitting coinage.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

I always thought to "have someone by the short hairs" was a (somewhat) more delicate way of saying you had him by the balls. A few years ago I found out that expression goes back thousands of years, and refers to grabbing a swordsman's beard, from which position he was virtually unable to do you harm, and led to the widespread acceptance of shaving.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I'll reply at greater length later. For now, here is a post from January about the idiocy of television election coverage that includes an observation on "if you will."

I think you're dead-on about the semi-educated, and I share your joy at that highy appropriate verification word.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm glad I have recently shaved off my beard.

Incidentally, I have always wondered why athletes in contact sports, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu, would glory in their long, flowing locks. Polamalu is just giving opponents something to grab onto and slow him down on an interception return.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ah, but Peter, grabbing by the hair might be an automatic personal foul; hey, an easy 15 yards!

Captcha: unsers -- Al, Del and Bobby

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So maybe that hair is intended to draw penalties? I wonder if the tactic works.

Maybe defensive players think that wearing their hair the way they like to is worth the risk. I can't think off-hand of any running backs or wide receivers with hair that runs out of their helmets and over their shoulders.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I just found this and this. It appears that the issue has already come up in the NFL in connection with precisely the player I named. And I forgot about Ricky Williams. I think he has out-of-helmet hair, too.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I assumed the same origin for "by the short hairs" (and "by the short and curlies") that you did.

As in swordsmanship, so in hurling. That great hurling fan Declan Burke explained to me that a defender clinging to and harassing his man was not inviting violence, but was merely staying close enough to prevent a dangerous, decapitating swing of the opponent's hurley.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

I think I probably just used 'per se' incorrectly on another portion of Peter's blog! Luckily, I've never pretended to be anything other than semi-educated at best.

Here's something odd I've noticed about words that come into general circulation suddenly, whether in the national context or just in your own little circle--you can notice them and be annoyed by them, but it can still be hard not to slip into using them. There's a phrase I hear a lot around me in the past year or so, and I actually don't know if it is correct or incorrect. It goes something like 'she referenced that', and I think is supposed to mean 'she referred to that', although I don't have a specific example in mind. Whether right or wrong, I do think it fits Philip's theory that people often say things to fancy up their language. It sounds pretentious to me, but I have at least once heard it coming out of my own mouth. There's a kind of horror involved, where you find yourself wanting to reel your voice back in, in vain. And unlike many mortifying moments, it may have nothing to do with what anyone else will think. It's a sense of having offended against your own sensibility.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Reference" as a verb pushes me over the edge. My dictionary dates its use as a verb to 1891, meaning:

1 a: to supply with references b: to cite in or as a reference
2: to put in a form (as a table) adapted to easy reference


I don't know the origin of its current use as a pretentious synonym for "refer to." I'm afraid that this usage has become so common that it is beyond vogue. It will not pass out of use as quickly as the revived "if you will" in Philip's example.

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should be clear that it's the current sense of reference as a verb that drives me nuts. I don't remember hearing or coming across the earlier senses cited in the definitions above (from Merriam-Webster).

December 21, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, there's lots of new verbs that drive me crazy. During the Gulf War some general (not Schwarzkopf) was briefing and kept saying "attrit," meaning "reduce by attrition." I damn near threw things at the TV screen when I heard it.

December 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A former head of copy desks at my newspaper used to say "attrit" all the time. He must have felt a little frisson of excitement every time he did.

December 22, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

The phrase that used to drive me crazy during Gulf War I was "hunkered down". As in, "Yeah, those Iraqi troops are really hunkered down there." Someone like Colin Powell said it once, and then everyone was using it. There was a kind of non-human cast to it somehow. And yet, it's another one of those hateful phrases that managed to burrow in. I've used it (though in non-warlike terms) several times even quite recently, perhaps even on this blog. I don't really know why. Maybe it's just that the brain is organized in a way where catch phrases have more prominence so it's easier to reach for them than something less familiar.

December 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't remember that one attaining particular prominence, but I don't think it would have bothered me. It would have evoked pictures of the troops huddled in trenches, sticking tenaciously to their positions.

The related phrase that has come into greater use during the current Iraq war is "on the ground." The phrase could mean something, but it almost never does. It's closely related to level in that respect.

December 22, 2008  

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