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JUST WORDS* JOHN L. DUSSEAUt I am writing a book that I call, variously, either The Imprecise, The Restless Word, or Difficult Words. Its purpose is to define and illustrate with examples from literature words either commonly misused or of inexact meaning. Asked to differentiate between misfortune and calamity, Disraeli replied that if Gladstone (his arch political rival) were to fall into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. Were someone to fish him out, that would be a calamity. This is a bold undertaking, for there already exist two splendid books on the use of words—Fowler's Modern English Usage and Mencken's The American Language. But despite their vast erudition and brilliance, both works suffer somewhat from the curious personalities of their authors. Fowler was in truth a petty tyrant, who would set the canons of proper usage by imperial fiat, and in the veins of Mencken ran not blood but liquid aggravation. His detestation of the pompous and absurd in speech and writing was so intense that it sometimes took on an almost rhapsodic character. Here are his reflections on the inaugural address of Warren Gamaliel Harding: He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. One is scarcely able to imagine Mencken's apoplectic reaction to "Read my lips," let alone "Read my hips." I propose to take a milder course, and to show that English is a vital living language whose proper use is established not by self-appointed pundits but by those who speak and write it. Today it is almost beyond *From an address given at the West Hamilton Street Club, Baltimore, Maryland, January 9, 1992. tAddress: 915 Exeter Crest, Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085.© 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/93/3603-08 19$0 1 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 36, 3 ¦ Spring 1993 461 belief that in the nineteenth century British purists waged a ferocious and often ludicrous battle against the introduction of Americanisms into England's English. In a notably unhumorous passage, Punch delivered this ultimatum: "If the pure well of English is to remain undefiled no Yankee should henceforth be allowed to throw mud into it. It is a form of expectoration that is most profane, most detestable." Even the London Medical Times and Gazettejoined the fray, seriously alleging that the medicaljournals of the United States were written in a slang "too outlandish for any decent English physician to understand." Now that the fury has abated, the attack seems quite senseless. In fact, it is difficult to see how modern communication could manage without these and many other Americanisms: balance (in the sense of remainder ), belittle, bookstore, constitutional, flop (in the sense of failure), governmental , immigrant (in the sense of incoming migrant), influential, lengthy, nationality, presidential, reliable, stockholder, and systematize. It is not easy to understand why words so useful as presidential and lengthy should be stigmatized, but the British Monthly Anthology called both barbarisms. The first requirement for communication, teaching, and learning is the existence of an agreed-upon vocabulary of terms of established meaning. The first and vital step in understanding any discipline is mastery of its language; but troublesome words (or any words, for that matter) have not descended to us in a state of consistency, uniformity, or perfection. Johnson put this ambivalence bluntly in the preface to his great Dictionary ofthe Englhh Language: "I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth and that things are the sons ofheaven. Language is only the instrument of science and words are but the signs of ideas. I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay and that signs...


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