Thursday, December 31, 2009

Doctor Syntax returns

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall
The vapors sweep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan


Every year at this time I let Doctor Syntax out of the Vicarage and let him raise hell with the way we've ruined the greatest language on Earth: spray painted it like an old abandoned subway car, put it up on blocks and stolen the wheels and made it all but impossible to have an intelligent conversation because, like one of those German Enigma machines, every word seems to change meaning every time it's used.

Every year brings the same references to "language police" because you know it's true and you know we're guilty of polluting the minds of millions with silly, balbative portmanteau words like Ginormous or Sexting, our relentless verbing of nouns like texting and friending and our instant acceptance of every cliche metaphor, metastatic Malapropism, stupid solecism and yes, with every pusillanimous political polemic we pass along.

No, if conservative, liberal, reactionary, fascist, anarchist, Marxist, royalist, and Fascist are all used interchangeably, we might as well stop talking, legislating, voting and adjudicating and take up arms. And we do.

Every year, as our vocabularies atrophy, we make up words or as our overuse of superlatives diminishes them, as our misuse erases them, we have to invent new ones. After all, when your skate board or your X-Box is awesome, you simply can't discuss how you felt when you saw that Hubble picture of some distant nebula, now can you? What happens to the real verb "to befriend" when it's more fashionably idiotic to "friend" someone or worse, to BFF them? It dies quickly of course and any real dictionary these days is a virtual Arlington of fallen words.

There's a college up in Michigan, Lake Superior State University, that's been putting out an annual list of words that need to die for 35 years. I'm afraid the school will die before they have any results to show. In fact if we still have universities in 35 years I have to wonder whether they'll be teaching in Standard English in the way medieval Universities taught in Latin, while business and popular pursuits are conducted in some 'consumerized' argot or vulgate designed to boost sales and befuddle customers while the general population can't read Hemingway, much less Tennyson any more.

No, I'm not the language police. The real language police are the people who tell you you're a racist if you call an Asian tiger or bear an Asiatic tiger or bear -- or that you may never end a sentence with a preposition. No, I just love English and as you know I love wordplay and the inventive use of words. In principle I don't object to such silliness as "chillaxin," the compound of two bits of dialect; chillin' and relaxin' but only in principle and never when used by some underage hipster with a two thousand word vocabulary. I even thought the short lived "not so much" routine was cute for a few moments, but that's the thing: with fish, house guests, metaphors and the Macarena; after three days one notices a smell. At least I do. Maybe it's time you did too.

Yes, I agree that "shovel-ready" is shovel ready for burial; I agree that it's time to stop calling every adviser a Czar. I am sick unto death at the "app app app app" that I hear quacked out at the phone store, but LSSU's 15 words are not enough nor does the list expose the inverted elitism behind our linguistic cacophony. We may have majored in English at the best schools, but in our Howdy Doody hearts we know it's bad to be grown up and embarrassing to sound educated and so we try ever so hard to sound like the baggy pants crowd who know just how the really cool kids talk in the penitentiaries and crack houses. We always fail at it of course, because those kids change their jargon faster than we can.

As I said, I only do this once a year and that's because it's useless, of course. It only lets me vent some excess steam pressure, to rant against the dying of the light. I know that "impact" will ever hence mean affect and effect and influence and inform and not be just a carrion metaphor. I know that those words are gone forever from popular parlance and that this little rant will be as hard for my grandchildren to read as Chaucer. Hell, animated video clips may have replaced the written word altogether by then and the University of Wii may be the new Harvard. I don't know. I do know that no one cares how much of value we lose every day or with what dross we replace it. I do know there are still people who can write well and I'm proud to appear here with them. I do also know It's New Year's Eve again and time for old Syntax and me to drown our sorrows -- metaphorically speaking, of course.

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