Writers Talk About Writing
Green-Eyed and Garrulous: Envy as a Vocabulary Builder
"Is our whole dissembly appeared? ... Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this."
— Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing
"Sure if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs."
— Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals
It's an old phenomenon — reaching for the fancy word instead of the plain one, and coming up with a word whose meaning is not quite what the speaker intended. We often smile at those who, as H. W. Fowler memorably put it, "go wordfowling with a blunderbuss." Each of us, if we are attentive, may have collected a small trove of these earnest mistakes uttered by friends and acquaintances over the years. I remember the woman who assured me that a mathematical process was very "simplistic" when she meant it was not hard, and the man who peppered his conversation with "as you alluded," when he meant "as you mentioned."
Those are often the mistakes of people of limited education, but even people with bachelor's degrees confuse "mitigate" and "militate," while "nauseous" has been used so often to signify "nauseated" that the word in that sense is now part of standard American English. Some of these mix-ups are understandable results of similarities in sound, coupled with infrequent use, as in the case of the mitigate/militate pair. But many, like the words in the previous paragraph, probably represent a wish to seem a little more erudite, stylish, or hip.
Not just words indicate this very human urge; phrases offer especially tempting fruit for the aspiring sophisticate. I know a man who tacks "in that regard" onto many of his spoken sentences, in the belief that it lends a fine judicious tone to his discourse. This is a fairly innocuous affectation, but others are less so. Two or three years ago we Americans went through a phase in which people were saying and writing, "That begs a question whether ..." — seemingly unaware that "beg the question" has a specific meaning in logic and has nothing to do with raising a question. That epidemic seems to have died down lately, squelched, perhaps, by scorn from purists, but other nonce phrases have sprung up to take its place. Many — on this side of the Atlantic at least — appear motivated by the covert envy some Americans have for British ways of putting things.
"At the end of the day" is a current favorite. There's nothing wrong with it — unless it leads to ambiguity, as when a reporter says, "At the end of the day Hagel will probably be confirmed," and we wonder whether he expects the vote to take place this very evening or whether he simply means "when all is said and done" — which used to be the way we expressed that idea. Another fad of the moment in the chattering classes is "That said ..." at the beginning of a sentence — meaning what we used to mean by saying "However ..." or "Nevertheless ..." Something about "That said ..." feels snappier, more brisk, more — well — British.
So it seems that less well-educated Americans envy the better-educated, whereas those Americans who can write one or more degrees after their names have a certain weakness for British locutions. (To the phrases just noted, one could add "one-off," " having someone on," "spot on," "sticky wicket," and the by now almost fully naturalized "queue.") And whose speech do the British choose to emulate? It used to be that French phrases, discreetly deployed, were thought to impart a certain je ne sais quoi to the speech of an educated Englishman. But today it seems that many American expressions are rapidly entering the British lexicon, though to judge by the comments of those affected, the reason is not envy — far from it — but sheer tidal pressure. Some of the expressions (like "24/7" and "going forward") are as annoying to many Americans as they are to those Brits who complain about them. But others, like "touch base," "leverage" (as a transitive verb), "alphabetize," and "burglarize," either fill a hitherto unnoticed need or may be thought to impart a slightly naughty American aroma to the suave smoke of an English pipe.
Jan Schreiber is a poet, critic, and translator. Over a varied career as an editor, social scientist, software entrepreneur, and literary scholar he has written frequently on American poets and the problems of understanding and evaluating modern poetry. His latest book, Sparring with the Sun: Poets and the Ways We Think about Poetry in the Late Days of Modernism, is being published this spring.