A Loss for Words
By John Powers
Boston Globe 2/8/2004

Americans may mean what they say,
but they can't always summon the language
to say what they mean.

I don't know how many times I've heard it, or read it, even in this newspaper: "The proof is in the pudding." "No, it isn't," I want to scream. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Cervantes wrote that four centuries ago. And don't get me started about having your cake and eating it, too. You have to have your cake in order to eat it. The trick is to eat it and still have it.

At least it used to be, back when we knew our proverbs and weren't misusing the word "proverbial." Not that America is going to fall apart because we butcher a few bromides. But I'm concerned about a country that's not quite sure what it's saying and doesn't seem to care.

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?

"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant, and what ought to be done remains undone," Confucius observed 2,500 years ago. These days, when our communications are ever more hurried and cryptic and indirect, it's even more important that we not be misunderstood.

I'm with the Mad Hatter, who set Alice straight when she insisted that meaning what one says is the same thing as saying what one means. "Not the same thing a bit," he harrumphed.

"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. Everyone talks about paradigms, but who can describe one? Are they anything like pachyderms?

I know what people mean when they use these words incorrectly, and I'm hesitant to correct them because I don't want to become one of the Word Police and probably couldn't qualify. I still have to look up "farther" and "further" in the dictionary to tell the difference.

Besides, as etymologists say, if enough people agree on the wrong meaning of a word, eventually it becomes the right meaning. That's how language evolves. I'm just afraid that it's evolving in the wrong direction -- toward ambiguity, vagueness, jargon. I'm like, whatever.

Much of the imprecision is lazy English, buzzwords, and catch phrases from a society that doesn't read and write as much as it talks and listens. It's hollow language, the vaporous stuff of TV ads, radio talk shows, cyberspace. It's English in real time, instant and unedited, shorthand blurted out by people in a hurry. Barbaric yawp, as Walt Whitman wrote in a time before telecom.

Obviously, we're not going back to the 19th century, when folks wrote six-page letters to each other and went to three-hour political debates for fun. But we still should take more time than we do to consider what we're saying -- and hearing.

When we use sloppy, cliched language out of haste or laziness, we make it easier for it to be used on us, especially by advertisers and politicians (is there a difference anymore?). They are masters of deliberate imprecision, whose language, as George Orwell once wrote, gives "an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

What are "family values," anyway? Does "pre-owned" mean the car wasn't used? Euphemism is the mother of evasion. If we want plain talk we have to demand it -- and use it ourselves.

Otherwise, we'll find ourselves in Wonderland, debating what the meaning of "is" is with the Caterpillar. The proof may be in the pudding, but I won't know until after I've eaten it. I'll eat the cake, too. But then, of course, I'll no longer have it.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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