Friday, August 15, 2008

Glossary of Solecisms and Barbarisms

The 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, etc. To my mind, these ought to serve exclusively as collective designators of the years 1700-1799, 1800-1899, 1900-1999, etc., respectively. But as a number of people seem to use them as designators of the decades 1700-1709, 1800-1809, 1900-1909, etc. (respectively), the wisest policy seems to be to eschew them altogether in favor of the more upmarket near-equivalents the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century (, etc., respectively). [(Avoid altogether, as in print, it may stand in either for a decade (1900-1909) or a century (the twentieth); while in speech, and in the second of these senses, it is apt to be substituted absent-mindedly for its centurial elder sibling by those who know better and assume they are speaking to those who do not. ("Hegel was a philsopher who lived in the nineteen hundreds," spake the Hegel-worshipper Francis Fukuyama in a television interview.) Write (or say) "the twentieth century" or "the first decade of the twentieth century," depending on which of the two you mean. ] I call these near equivalents, of course, because they exclude from their range of designation all 00-terminating years, (such as 1900) which fall simultaneously at the end of a century and the beginning of a teen-hundred series. [while belonging to the 1900s, is not a part of the nineteenth century; and that, say, 1920, while belonging to the 1920s, is not a part of the third decade of the century--but I challenge the reader to contrive a sentence that, while being true to the historical record, benefits in equal measure from the vagueness of decadal/centurial chronology and the precision of specific annuation. The best example I myself have been able to come up with is]: During the McKinley-Roosevelt intraregnum (i.e., the late 19th century up to and including the first year of the 1900s, along with the first year of the twentieth century [the second of the 1900s])... [I leave the composition of the subsequent clause or clauses as an exercise for Spanish-American War re-enactors and and collectors of Buffalo World's Fair memorabilia.]

Die young. It should go without saying that only a young person (either a child, a boy, a girl, a young man or a young woman) can hope ever to die young, and that a person already deceased may legitimately be said to have died young only if in his final moments he would have passed muster as a youngling. And yet, in our epoch, everyone can pretty much rest assured that if he departs from this vale of tears a day shy of the current acutuarily-mandated threescore and fifteen, his survivors will see to it that some allusion to his having died young makes it into his eulogy, and into every bit of posthumous gossip that originates within this selfsame community of his past acquaintances. can take it for granted that he will be posthumously A 25-year-old man is indisputably a young man, because, actuarially speaking, he has far fewer years behind him than before him. A 45-year-old man is indisputably at least a middle-aged man, because, again, actuarially speaking, he has far fewer years ahead of him than behind him; while a 60-year-old man is as of this writing at least disputably an old man, because (as of this writing) no human being has yet attained the age of 120. One thing is certain: both the quinquagenarian and the sexagenerian are already too old to die young. The English lexicon has long contained a word for describing deaths that fall between the actuarial means of midlife and mortality: that word is premature, and to die after having passed the first watershed but before having reached the second is to die prematurely, not young (or youngly).

An errand is something you are sent on, not something you undertake of your own initiative. So at a lunchtime rendezvous with a friend, say not, in generic summary of this morning's haircut-cum-supermarket-run, "I was running errands" but "I was doing things" (or "shit"). And in excuse for this afternoon's forthcoming sock-shopping-expedition-cum-body-massage say not "I've got errands to run" but "I've got things" (or "shit") to do.

Envy and Jealousy. The scrupulous Anglophone would do well to draw a clear, un-dotted line between the senses of these two words--to refer the first exclusively to a passion arising out of a craving for something that one lacks, and malevolently directed towards the imputed possessor of that something; and the second exclusively to a passion arising out of the fear of losing something that one already possesses, and malevolently directed either to the would-be possessor of that something or, indeed, to that something itself. So Dr. Johnson: “If we look however without prejudice on the world, we shall find that men, whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliances of servility, are apt enough in their association with superiors to watch their own dignity with troublesome and punctilious jealousy, and in the fervour of independence to exact that attention which they refuse to pay” (Life of Gray); and, more equivocally, Edmund Burke: "I was, indeed, aware that a jealous, ever-waking vigilance to guard the treasure of our liberty, not only from invasion, but from decay and corruption, was our best wisdom and our first duty. However, I considered that treasure rather as possession to be secured [i.e., by “us,” the jealous] than as a prize to be contended for [presumably in a contest between “us,” the envious unfree, and “them,” the jealous free]." (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

The jealous man, then, may be likened to a miser; while the envious man is more akin to an aspirant thief. Admittedly, there is probably no native lexicographical precedent for drawing such a hard-and-fast distinction, inasmuch as our dictionaries all seem to treat jealous and jealousy as one-way synonymic ports-of-call for envious and envy, respectively (such that, according to their rules, although a jealous husband is ineligible for re-qualification as an envious one, a envious subordinate is effectively interchangeable with his jealous counterpart). All the same, inasmuch as these two words--or, rather, pairs of words--are, like many others deriving from the Latin, marked by a history that both informs and transcends the limits of current and recent usage, there is some benefit to be derived, albeit passively, from being attuned to this history and to the denotative limits potentially imposed thereby.

Late means "recently dead," not merely "dead." Thus, while as of this May 17, 2006 we may and indeed ought to speak of the late Louis Rukeyser (obit. May 2, 2006) we are clearly not within our rights to speak of the late John Lennon, let alone of the late John F. Kennedy or the late Buddy Holly. Exemptions may be granted for nonagenarians vis-a-vis Franklin Roosevelt and widows vis-a-vis their late husbands.

A ménage à trois is a living arrangment, not a sex act. A mélange à trois, on the other hand...

...And speaking of the word mélange, a lot of people seem to be using pastiche as a synonym for it nowadays. A pastiche, let us not forget, is and in English can never be anything other than, an essay in the imitation of the style or idiom of a specific author, composer, etc.--often, but not necessarily, satiric in intent (whence its utility as an alternative to parody). And speaking of pastiches and parodic intent--there really ought to be a word for a literary genre that, while aiming to embody a particular form of writing, cannot help being mistaken for an example of another form altogether. For in casting a retrospective eye over this here glossary, such as it is, I can't help being reminded of those local-society gossip columnists who string their anecdotes together with shamelessly paratactic nonsequiturs and bold every occurrence of a Proper Name. Does anyone know if there's a word for the form of culinary presentation in which, say, a canteloupe-and-pear salad is made to masquerade as a plate of bacon and eggs? If there is, I would fain poach it.

Sequence of Tenses: The Willful Flouting Thereof. “Whatever composer [Glenn Gould] championed, from whatever century, had a pronounced contrapuntal bent, and with composers about whom he was ambivalent he gravitated to their most contrapuntal essays—Mozart’s K. 394 fugue, Beethoven’s Große Fuge. Even Verdi’s Falstaff was tolerable because it has a fugue at the end” (Kevin Bazzana, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould [Oxford, 2004], p. 92). Skewed me, Dr. Bazzana. Far be it from me to etc. etc., but shouldn’t that there has in the because clause be a had?; not that I’m contending at the moment that Falstaff hasn’t got a fugue at the end (I’ll save that contention for my forthcoming Glossary of Specifically Musicological Solecisms and Barbarisms [viz. the entry headed “Fugue for Fugato”), but rather and merely that the fact that it has got one now (i.e., in your case, 2004) could not have been of the slightest interest to Glenn Gould then (i.e., in his case, 1982 at the latest). It could not have been of the slightest interest to him because, like every other facet of your present-day ontic universe and, indeed, that ontic universe as a whole, it did not exist for him. Vis-à-vis the registration of Mr. Gould’s predilection for counterpoint, you might as well have written, “Even Verdi’s Falstaff was tolerable because in 2004 it would still have a fugue at the end.” “Ah, I see,” you say: “You mean because for all Gould knew, in the meantime someone might discover a manuscript of Falstaff without a fugue at the end?” No, it's got nothing to do with that sort of a posteriori counterfactualism; for, indeed, the interdiction on the present tense in past-tense reportage by all rights ought to extend to references to references to the most unshakeably permanent a priori and analytical truths, as in the following passage (devised by me and bearing no known relation to any facet of GG's biography): “Gould always gravitated to compositions with prime opus or catalogue numbers. Even Beethoven’s Opus 17 sonata for piano and French horn or cello, which one would have expected him to despise on strictly musical grounds, delighted him no end because 17 was a prime number.”

Turn of the last century. An absolutely nonsensical turn of phrase that willfully shoehorns “turn” into an absurdly unprecedented synonym for “beginning.” The turn in question in fact properly denotes the transition from one century into another (cf. “the changing of the guard”), and hence cannot be regarded as the exclusive property of either centennial participant in the transition. For heaven’s sake, let us, the exact contemporaries of this most recent turn, remember that one can speak, either idiomatically or notionally, only of “the turn of the century”--a phrase axiomatically employable solely by those whose memory of a preceding century is so dim—or, indeed, even nonexistent—that they have come to regard the period of its transition into the present one as an age in its own right, cordoned off from their own by stratum upon stratum of techno-socio-culturo-econo-logical ephemera; let us, further, agree to keep this phrase securely mothballed until such time when—touch wood--we find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the trans-centennial pseudo-contemporaries of the flappers and speakeasy-istes (i.e., the youth of circa 2025).

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