Word Snobs Need To Chill Out

Call it the Buzz Feed Effect.  Lists are everywhere on the Web: best books of September, worst movies of the summer, you name it.  Then there are lists that rank the Star Wars movies from best to worst, or the other way around, not that it matters.

But all this does keep newspaper columnists like Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post busy when they’ve run out of ideas.

She recently did a hot mess column about words she thinks are over-used and need to be retired, written in response to reports that the CDC is asking staff not to use terms like “science-based” in budget requests so as to avoid pissing off Republicans.

Words come in and out of fashion. Parker doesn’t like “optics,” but is there a better way to explain the Washington obsession with how things look while ignoring what they mean? Its use may fade, or not. Likewise with “drill down” and “re-purpose.” Nobody can predict their future.

Read books written ten, twenty, thirty years ago—or a hundred. The English language evolves whether we like it or not. Some words die out because they’re just momentarily hip, some stick with us because they’re useful. Dictionary writer Samuel Johnson hated the word “mob” but he was wrong. It filled a linguistic, cultural need.

Parker crosses a line from personal dislikes to factual incorrectness. She claims that you can’t use “decimate” when you mean “devastate.”

We’re a very long way from the Roman Empire where decimate specifically meant to kill one out of every ten. And it meant that in Latin, of course. Like other Latin words (actor, century, missile) it’s changed its meaning over the centuries. People need to catch up and chill out.

Who uses the word “decimate” that way now in English, or moans about its supposed misuse except for word snobs? It’s a perfectly good synonym for devastate, destroy, annihilate, crush, etc.

If you want to complain about something important, something that affects the nation in major ways, how about exposing the steep learning curve when you buy an Instant Pot?

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Betsy DeVos and Winston Churchill?

Dana Milbank just quipped in The Washington Post that every time our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks, “it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished.” There’s a gravitas about that witty put-down that sounds Churchillian.

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.