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.