Word Count

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80th Column: Verbal Oddities

Ta-da! You're about to read my eightieth column for Visual Thesaurus—Happy Column! Penning (on computer of course) twelve hundred words on aspects of writing every few weeks has been a pleasurable discipline that's taught me, I hope, to say a lot in a little. I've explored many of writing's highways and byways, studied its bold structures and its shadowed beauties, laughed at its humor and admired its courage. The need to write with enough authority to intrigue Visual Thesaurus's well-read audience has sent me back to Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Moliere, Balzac, Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Twain, and Dreiser, beloved mentors who have given me the adult education that I'm counting on to keep me young.

Yet my column turning eighty has put me in a mood more silly than somber, so I'll devote this column to a scattered collection of verbal oddities that ordinarily go bouncing about in my brain with no outlet but breakfast table chat with my wife.

For instance, the new use of the conjunction so. The customary meaning of so, as I just used it in the paragraph above, includes a sense of causation: "I felt sleepy, so I went to bed." In the past few years, however, I've increasingly heard so used as a meaningless introductory sound like um or well that speakers use to give themselves a moment to marshall their thoughts. Typically I hear a radio interviewer ask a guest, "How do you feel about today's economy?" and instead of replying, "The economy is going to hell, so I'm selling all my stocks," the guest replies, "So, the economy is going to hell."

Is the new meaningless so a good or a bad thing? I'm a language pragmatist, not a purist, so I'll dodge that question, but I admit that I miss the meaningful so and, to date, if I want to speak without saying anything, I stick to good old um and well.

When my siblings and I were kids, our mother taught us to say yes when we agreed with something and often cautioned us severely, "Only cheapies say yeah." Of course we kids, like the vast majority of ordinary Americans said yeah, even yup, many dozen times a day, but our mother's strictures did introduce us to the language snobbery that flourishes wherever people hope that the world will see that they are more refined than their uncouth neighbors. One perennial victim of language snobbery: the ancient word ain't. I love the word ain't. Contrary to proverb, ain't is in the dictionary, and it's in Dickens, Trollope, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot, and every writer of English who hopes to capture how ordinary people speak. I don't use ain't much in conversation or the semi-formal writing of contemporary journalism, but I do use it often in song lyrics:

The melody is simple, the words ain't much…

Coffee in the breakfast nook, picnics in the park,
The kid's first teeth, the measles, it ain't all been a lark…

Tell me the truth, I'd say you ain't got much to lose…

Ain't sometimes smudges its own reputation by being used as one negative in a double negative:

There ain't no mountain high enough…

There ain't nothing I can do.

I ain't got no idea where he's gone.

"Tut, tut," says the purist, "Can't you see that negating a negative makes a positive? 'I ain't got no idea where he's gone' really means 'I have some idea where he's gone.'" Sometimes a double negative does create a positive: "I can't not go to the party," but in the day-to-day English we all speak and understand, a double negative doubles the negative, intensifies its nay-saying power. We all know that "There ain't nothing I can do" doesn't mean, "There is something I can do," it means, "Believe me, I truly can do nothing."

Onward: take a look at these two words: inasmuch and nevertheless. Both must have started out as three-word phrases—in as much, never the less—that long ago got squeezed into one word, and I'll bet you a nickel that, like me, you're never quite sure whether the one-word or three-word version is the more proper usage. Inasmuch is so often followed by as that the as could quite sensibly be added to the word—except that gives us inasmuchas that looks like something untranslatable from Spanish. Plus, even though we often use both words, it takes a bit of head-scratching to figure out why they mean what they mean. In as much as means, roughly given that:

Inasmuch as John often came late to class I'm grading him with a D.

Given that John often came late to class, I'm grading him with a D.

—and nevertheless means, roughly, despite:

John had a broken ankle; nevertheless he played the whole game.

John played the whole game despite his broken ankle.

But why they mean what they mean isn't as easy to answer as why "John fed his dog" means "John gave food to his canine." In and as are little words used to connect with other words, but here they connect with much, a word that vaguely defines an amount of something: much pain, much money. Never is a precise word, but what is it doing here with less, another imprecise word? "Never the none" would at least have some definitive whammy. So, like the rest of us, I use inasmuch and nevertheless whenever the flow of prose or conversation bring them to mind, but I skip merrily past the maze of trying to decipher their literal meaning.

In a high school Greek class—yes, once upon a time high schools taught Greek—our teacher, Dr. Elliot, introduced us to what he called the privative alpha, the single letter which, when added to a word, negates the meaning of the word it was added to. Add an alpha, an a to "political" and you get "apolitical"; add it to "tonal" and you get "atonal," to "pathetic" and you get "apathetic." I thought the phrase "privative alpha" was the coolest thing I'd ever heard of, even though explaining it to a girl on a first date usually meant no second date.

Recently, however, it's occurred to me that a is not the only privative prefix. There are also:

un: unprecedented, unknown, unbelieveable
in: incapable, inarticulate, invariable
dis: disconnect, dissimilar, distrust

As alpha came from Greek, dis and in, Wikipedia told me, came from Latin, and un came from the Germanic languages. Sometimes in becomes im, as in impotent and immobile. There are also privative suffixes: meaningless, motionless. The privative rule has a few intriguing exceptions: invaluable means extremely valuable, not of no value; and inflammable means burnable just as flammable does. For decades regulatory agencies have encouraged manufacturers to take the word inflammable off kerosene and charcoal labels and to substitute flammable in hopes of avoiding dangerous confusions.

Well, VT mavens, that's my celebratory eightieth column with a few verbal oddities for you to puzzle over for the coming month. Please, send any such oddities you love to the comments box. Why do we writers love verbal oddities? For their quirkily innocent selves, of course, but also because, like little wavelets splashing on the ocean's vast surface, they point us to our noble art's endlessly surging depths.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 31st 2016, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Venita F. (Palatine, IL)
I'm a big fan of "Ain't life grand?" to bring on a knowing smile, so thank you for not judging me. Great 80th column! Congratulations and keep 'em coming.
Monday October 31st 2016, 7:38 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
II also like "ain't" because we don't have "ain't."
Monday October 31st 2016, 7:39 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
My autocorrect corrected me. That last word was supposed to be the non-word "amn't."
Monday October 31st 2016, 7:18 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Congratulations on your 80th column! I look forward to them, and I've never been disappointed. Thank you!
Tuesday November 1st 2016, 2:29 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
As I was reading, I was wondering if 'nevertheless' was derived from 'more or less,' which suggests an interval of uncertainty in either direction. Perhaps 'nevertheless' was intended to indicate that all the uncertainty was in one direction. And then we have 'nevermore.'

'Nevertheless' has a sibling 'nonetheless.' Interesting that you came up with 'never the none.'

As for 'ain't,' I suggest that it came from 'amn't' or 'an't,' after being filtered through a cockney accent. As an example of Cockney pronunciation, I offer 'tyke' for 'take' and similar, but unfortunately my only source is My Fair Lady, which is hardly a rigorous linguistic reference, regardless of Henry Higgins' profession.
Tuesday November 1st 2016, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
Perhaps this meaningless use of 'so' is somehow unconsciously implying that the responder has actually given the question or situation some previous consideration, since 'so' traditionally follows, and refers to, a previous idea. Whereas 'um' or 'well' suggests the responder is not immediately prepared to answer the question, 'so' suggests that we have come into the middle of the responder's thoughts.
Wednesday November 2nd 2016, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Show Boat: It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain't necessarily so.

Jerome and Oscar had it right! YOU have it write - um - right.
Happy 80th. I too, am in my eighth decade.
Sam T. Tucson, AZ
Wednesday November 2nd 2016, 12:51 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
First, Happy 80th , Happy Column.
I took an interest in the reading but I have been disappointed by the abbreviation of "am not" are not" is not" etc.. that means ; ain't. But i am French!!!! sorry!!.
Monday November 7th 2016, 4:45 PM
Comment by: stephen B. (potomac, MD)
I have never read your column before, and am happy I now have. However, I was mildly disappointed with your comments related to "so". I was hoping that you would take issue with the phrase "Thank you so much." This makes me crazy. "Thank you" is not sincere enough? Granted when someone does something that is truly extraordinary, then perhaps a "thank you so much" is warranted. But I go through every single day observing people invoking "so" bolted to what should be an adequate "thank you" for such trivial things as receiving the cup of coffee that was ordered at Starbucks. Wouldn't the air and energy expended for the extraneous "so" be better used via a sincere "thank you, have a nice day"?
Tuesday November 8th 2016, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Sam T.
Tain't Showboat--It's Porgy and Bess--George and Ira Gershwin.
Tuesday November 8th 2016, 5:10 PM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
I sit corrected. You are absolutely correct. Thank you!
Tuesday November 8th 2016, 6:36 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
My favorite use of "So" is Seamus Haney's, as the opening word in his verse translation of Beowulf, which starts with the Anglo-Sazon "Hwaet!"

Wednesday November 9th 2016, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
To begin with - now there's a phrase that calls out for explanation. To begin with what? To begin what? The three words together don't connect with anything, yet we know just what they mean. Nowadays we might say, less elegantly, "For starters ..." but that three-word introduction won't go away anytime soon. Maybe fodder for your 81st column?

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