Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Words on Probation

Veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. McIntyre writes:

When a new word pops into the language, or an old one acquires a new sense, there is a probationary period during which it either lodges itself in the language or fades away. As with electronic gadgets, the early adopters latch onto these words eagerly, the Luddites fiercely resist them, and the rest of us stand uncertainly in the middle.

I’m reminded of the process by a comment a friend posted on Facebook:

When did "parent" and "vision" become verbs? Ugh...I also hated "to grow a company" but I lost that one, I think.

Another friend pointed out that parent as a verb dates back to the mid-seventeenth century.

This sort of back-and-forth can seesaw forever. Remember back in the Seventies and Eighties when Edwin Newman and that crowd carried on about hopefully as a sentence adverb (meaning “it is hoped that” rather than the traditional “in a hopeful manner”). They thought it a vulgar new usage, though Cotton Mather used the word in just that sense in 1702. (Thank you, Oxford.) Some claimed that an adverb of emotion could not be used as a sentence adverb. Sadly, they were mistaken.

What is going on here has little or nothing to do with etymology, grammar, or historical usage, but everything to do with what we think of the people using the words.

When he was editor of The Sun, John Carroll, whose tastes in language are conservative, disparaged parenting but reluctantly gave into it for lack of a simple equivalent. Child rearing didn’t seem adequate to the purpose. The purpose was to indicate an attitude toward bringing up children that involved father and mother equally, emphasized nurturing over smacking the little creatures, and generally reflected Yuppie culture. Probably still does.

As publisher of The Sun, Mike Waller roared every time someone submitted a memo to him about growing the business, a cant phrase of the Nineties. I have to say that my own distaste for the phrase, after sitting in meetings listening to people tell how they were going to grow the business over ten years of a steady decline in the newspaper industry, remains intense.

Hopefully, after a long period of inoffensive uses, got to be a vogue term in the Sixties and Seventies, probably in advertising and business circles, and the starchy types reacted more to the people using the word than the word itself. Previously, scorn was directed at the same classes over their indulgence in contact as a verb. The latter scorn has faded away as the usage has become commonplace. We have lots of ways now to get in contact with one another, and a single broad-sense word is useful.

We know the people who embrace linguistic novelty, just as we are quietly amused at the people who experience tachycardia or Cheyne-Stokes breathing every time Apple introduces a new product. But if we are serious about words, we will hesitate about rendering judgments until we’ve had a look at how new ones fit historically and how much our own social and class prejudices may be coloring our reactions.

[Note: When I took a swipe at Edwin Newman, I had not heard of his death. Please consider him retroactively nil nisi'd.]

John E. McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics on his blog, You Don't Say.

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