The Threat of Impact

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I’m delighted by the news about the Benghazi memos. It seems that the CIA, the State Department, and the White House subjected those brief statements to more than a dozen revisions. Thank God — someone has finally learned the secret of good writing: revise, revise, revise.

That was sarcasm, what I just said.

But seriously, folks: people can do too much revising. In the words of Alexander Pope, “There’s a happiness, as well as care.” President Obama was not in the happiest vein when, on May 16, he entertained a question about when the White House found out about the persecution of rightwing groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He delivered an answer that probably took a battalion of White House counselors all night to produce: “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. [Inspector General’s] report before the I.G. report had been leaked through the press."So he didn’t know about the report? I assume, from this answer, that he knew about the thing. After all, Republicans had been complaining about it for years.

Anyway, this is more good news for Word Watch. If the president and his friends keep making statements like that, there’s going to be a lot more hilarity ahead. I just wish that Steven Miller, interim grand sachem of the IRS, had stayed in office a bit longer. Seldom have petulance and stupidity been so lovingly joined as they were in his congressional testimony. If Miller speaks, I will listen.

But Word Watch itself can bear some watching. The last column had issues. . . . And I guess that’s all you need to know.

Just kidding. If I were a government official or a corporate “spokesman” (an odd word — most appropriate, perhaps, for a potentate of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), issues would be the word I’d use to tell you, “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”

Issues, as I mentioned last time, is the universal word. It can mean anything, and nothing. Usually nothing. It’s a word that shuts off debate. Arguments, controversies, contentions, dissensions, everything but a burial at sea — issues will obscure them all.

When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

But let’s move on. Let’s get beyond that . . . I usually don’t respond to readers who have issues with what I write. I figure that after I’ve had my own say, which is plenty, they deserve to have theirs. And God bless them for noticing what I say. But Paul Bartlett was kind enough to respond at length to the last version of this column, and to respond in a way that strongly invites my own response http://libertyunbound.com/node/1045. He picks up on the fact that I condoned the use of “tweet” but “castigate[d]” the use of “snuck.” So, he asks,

Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.

Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?

Controversial words! Thanks, Paul.

Sure, language changes. So does the weather, but I’d rather have a cloudless sky and 70 degrees Fahrenheit than a blizzard bearing down on me. And the fact that Chaucer is dead (he died in 1400, which is helpful in remembering what’s what in literary history) doesn’t signify. Vice President Biden is alive — do you want to talk like him? As opposed to John Dryden (who died in 1700)? Or Oscar Wilde (1900)? You see what I mean.

But those are easy examples. Chaucer, Dryden, and Wilde were among the greatest wits who ever graced our language; the current vice president is a mere buffoon. When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

One consideration is the connotations of a word. If you want to sound like a backwoods character, sure, use “snuck,” because that’s its ethos and connotation, the bowl in which it swam (not swum) until quite recently. It’s never really left that bowl. It can’t leave, because whenever it tries to do so, it blunders into “sneaked,” which means the same thing, except that it’s associated with a more educated group of speakers and listeners. “Sneaked” is not arcane; it’s not like “sware” as the past tense of “swore,” or “bare” as the past tense of “bear.” But it was universally employed in formal writing and speaking until approximately 2008. There is no reason to replace it.

“Impact” is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction.

Thomas Jefferson, no mean judge of words, said that “necessity obliges us [Americans] to neologize.” He also said, “Certainly so great [and] growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

Tell me, what variety of climates, of productions, or of arts, what new circumstances impel us to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked”? Or “impact,” instead of all the things that would be better in its place?

And that is another consideration — not just the existence of a traditional word with established and appropriate connotations, but the existence of a variety of words that are obliterated by some new and brutal imposition.

Your boss sends you a memo. It says that your company is being impacted by something. It could be anything: the annual test of the fire alarm, the arrival of federal investigators, the news of China’s ability to market a 50-dollar widget for 50 cents (notice: I said “market,” not “sell”; “sell” is the older verb, but it has slightly different connotations). The “impact”could be serious or trivial. So why the hell doesn’t he say what he thinks it is?

Impact connotes violence. It’s a word appropriate to the sad results of a sudden lane change, or the landing of an asteroid on downtown Dayton. But here is a partial list of words for which impacted is regularly forced to substitute:

  • affected
  • influenced
  • attracted
  • allured
  • motivated
  • inspired
  • helped
  • hindered
  • shaped
  • ruined
  • devastated
  • destroyed

Impacted covers and obscures the individual meanings of all those words, and more. Often it’s intended to do so, by people who don’t want to specify their meanings, by people who have contempt for their readers’ intelligence or curiosity. But when that’s not the intention, impacted still prevents your audience from understanding what you mean to say — if you mean to say anything, instead of simply emitting some syllables that will relieve you of thought. Like issues, impact is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction. As such, it is to be rigorously opposed and mercilessly eradicated by all people friendly to language in its true and vital forms.

So much for pseudo- and degenerate neology. Unfortunately, I have other business left over from the preceding Word Watch — the peculiar affairs of the very peculiar Tsarnaev family, and what is turning out to be the very peculiar business of reporting on them.

Plenty of stuff has now appeared about how the elder of the Boston bombers was shellshocked (victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome) because of whatever went on in Chechnya (a place where, by the way, neither of the brothers ever lived), so naturally he had to become anti-American(!) and start blowing people up at the Boston Marathon. Not the Moscow Marathon, mind you, although you might have expected that, given the scunner that Chechens have against Russians. No, it was the Boston Marathon — as if anyone in Boston gave a damn about Chechnya. But I guess that’s where victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome flock, from all over the world — to Boston. They don’t stop on the way, in some Islamic country. No. They’re like all the other victims of American imperialism: they seek shelter in America. I heard an expert on the psychology of people under stress refer to the younger bomber as “this beautiful young man.” I’m not sure he’s as cute as all that, but so what? And this was on Fox News, the world headquarters of patriotic American anti-terrorism.

But let’s get to the intellectual and religious meat of this subject. On April 28 I found online an AP report on the mother of the Boston bombers. http://news.yahoo.com/mother-bomb-suspects-found-deeper-spirituality-224317582.htmlThe title attracted my curiosity: “Mother of bomb suspects found deeper spirituality.” Really! I thought. Is this the same woman, the woman who goes on television, spewing hysterical accusations against the United States? Indeed it was. But what was the evidence of this deeper spirituality, of its “finding,” and of its interesting effects? Was it a new conception of the cosmos, such as the Buddha attained at his moment of enlightenment? Was it a recovery of the Sufis’ bliss? Of the ethical vision of Muhammed? Was it something like St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? Or Sojourner Truth’s responsiveness to the call of God? Or the nobility of Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man"?

Interest increases when one recalls that “deeper” is a comparative term. This spiritual discovery — it was deeper than something else. Deeper than what? Deeper than the spiritualities just mentioned? Doubtful. Then perhaps it was deeper than the subject’s former spirituality? So what was that?

Well, forget it. It was nothing but a bunch of syllables in a press report. (And, you may ask, why is that any different from anything else the AP hands out?) It seems that Mrs. Tsarnaev was just a woman who “went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that — many followers of Martin Luther King were people of humble occupations, though of deep religious conviction, when they risked their lives and livelihoods in his campaign for a moral ideal. But in the case of Mrs. Tsarnaev, that was it. That was all. There wasn’t any more. That was the end. Period. You now know everything. There was no spirituality whatever in Mrs. Tsarnaev’s past.

Well, all right, never mind the comparative. At some point, she was hit by a deeper spirituality. You might say it impacted her. And what was that point? According to the article, it was the point at which she “began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.” Again, that’s it. That’s the deeper spirituality. She changed her clothes and started babbling nonsense.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tsarnaev says she found a deeper spirituality: “Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She's no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent. ‘It's all lies and hypocrisy,’ she told The Associated Press in Dagestan. ‘I'm sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children.’”

St. Francis couldn’t have said it better.

As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. T can say anything she wants. There are plenty of crazy people in this world, and several of them on my street at any given moment. But for a news organization to project this particular crazy person’s claims as valid — that’s another matter. It’s not just a question of fact; it’s a question of values. Calling her ideas “spiritual,” because she asserts they are, suggests an attitude toward spirituality that is roughly equivalent to a rural pastor’s concept of sex among the ancient Romans — it’s just as ignorant, only more contemptuous about the topic under discussion.

And worse, at least from a journalistic point of view — ignorant and contemptuous about the audience. If you publish a news report in which you examine the philosophical thought of Mickey Mouse and speculate about how he would have married Minnie, years ago, if he hadn’t been a victim of Hollywood’s traumatic impact on young stars, you are showing contempt for your audience. But even that would show less contempt than publicizing the notion of Mrs. Tsarnaev’s spirituality, or entertaining the idea that terrorism comes from stress, or — to recall another recent instance — taking seriously the claim that when the Internal Revenue Service selected hundreds of nonprofit orgs for administrative torture because their names included such terms as “Patriot” and “Tea Party,” this was simply a rogue, low-level, unauthorized training experiment and attempt at efficiency.

We meet this on every side: the assumption that we can be fooled. Political discourse is routinely motivated by that assumption. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Just try to have your computer fixed. Eventually, the fixers will call you with incomprehensible news about what went wrong and what they need to do about it, something that is invariably expensive, inconvenient, and mystifying. If you ask what they mean by the terms they use, they become offended. If you ask for an explanation, they tell you, “I just gave you one.”

But keep asking questions. Keep track of how long it takes the people on the phone to say they need to talk to their Chief Technician and get back to you. Then keep track of how many questions you need to ask the Chief Technician before he or she reveals a need to read the diagnostics. (What? Is this the Mayo Clinic?) “Oh,” you say, “you haven’t had a chance to read them yet?” Now observe the reluctance with which your collocutor responds. There was nothing behind that curtain of words.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value. This isn’t true of my carpenter, who tells me that he “just likes to fix stuff.” But it’s true of the millions who are employed to communicate. Some are hired by government, others by private organizations that seem, almost inevitably, to ape the style of government. But these millions can’t actually communicate much of anything, because they don’t know anything, and they assume that everybody else is as dumb as they are. Dumb — or dumber.




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President Obama, Meet Alfred E. Neuman

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Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, whose presidency is intellectually and demographically a product of the antiwar, anti-imperialist, distrust-government movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has emerged as an automatic exponent of hidebound, don’t give an inch, interventionist, obscurantist, and warmaking government?

Obama couldn’t sit back and watch revolutions happen in Arab countries. He just had to intervene. Now he has to threaten and meddle in Syria, of all places. We will be fortunate if his militarism remains as feckless as it is right now.

As for domestic affairs . . . he couldn’t turn his crusading spirit against the entrenched forces of the Washington bureaucracy, as he appeared to have promised in 2008. Oh no. So far, he’s never seen a bureaucracy he didn’t want to defend. Not one of his significant officials has been invited to resign for his or her notorious failures. They’re all still there, telling transparent lies to Congress and the nation.

The latest example is Obama’s response to the gross failure of the FBI, which did nothing either to prevent the Boston bombers from doing their thing or to identify them afterward, despite the fact that the Bureau had, on its right hand, a passport picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, on its left hand, videos of the same Tamerlan Tsarnaev planting bombs. In the face of this evidence, the president proclaimed that the FBI did a great job.

According to the Washington Post:

In his first news conference since the Boston attack, Obama said law enforcement agencies had performed in “exemplary fashion” in the hunt for the bombers and in investigating one of the suspects before the bombings. He accused critics of chasing headlines.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties,” Obama said. “Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.”

Hard stuff? How hard is it to compare pictures? And how hard is it to devise ways of keeping creeps like the Tsarnaevs out of the country? Or their creepy friends, now arrested for covering up the Tsarnaevs’ crimes? But imagine that you’re a government bureaucrat. Then your default position will be: student visas — why check? And yes, suppose that the Tsarnaevs return to the country that is supposedly persecuting them, thereby giving them a reason to live on welfare in the United States — well, why hold that against them? They’re charged with crimes? So what? Who, me? Worry?

Ridiculous? Yes. And why should Obama defend it?

The sad explanation is that he is a part of the old “counterculture” at its silliest, and it turns out to be intellectually and emotionally indistinguishable from the political “culture” it warred against. War is wrong — except when good people (like us) are waging it. Imperialism is wrong — except when good people (like us) are pushing the foreigners around. Entrenched bureaucracies are wrong — except when they are entrenched bureaucracies run by good people (us again!).

So that’s what it all came down to. Authority is wrong whenever I’m not the authority. But whenever I am, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Critics are just chasing headlines.

The ’60s died — not with a bang but a blowhard.




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From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

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If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” “message” (used as a verb), “embedded” (as in “a journalist embedded in the military”), and even “homie” (“homeboy”). They are expressive of situations, and concepts, that older words could not express. As a writer about prisons and criminology, I have no objection to “perp” and “cellie,” punchy variations on earlier words, and in actual use by large and informed communities (cops and convicts). As an academic bureaucrat, I have no principled objection to “silo” (used as a verb, meaning “cause to be isolated in one’s own bureaucratic zone”): it’s an apt metaphorical description of a real phenomenon. It’s also a fad word, and to be regretted on that score; and I don’t particularly enjoy the association with cows and fodder — although nonbureaucrats are welcome to enjoy it. But as Dr. Johnson said, the expression is sound at bottom. There’s an alternative expression, “stove-pipe,” which is used on television because (A) most TV people never saw a farm, but they may have seen a ski lodge with a decorative stove; and (B) the other TV people don’t want to insult, or seem to insult, the farmers, those sterling exemplars of heartland values. Me, I prefer “silo,” because that word brings the reality closer to the metaphor. People can work in silos, but they can’t work in stove pipes.

But lookit. We have no need for “issue,” one of our most common locutions, whenever this is employed as an inept euphemism for “problem.” My objection goes double for naked uses of the word, uses without an adjective or other explanatory signal. To say that a teenager “has issues” is no better than to say that he or she “has problems,” although it removes all conceptual punch from the noun. It “means” anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

Then we come to the medicinal use of “issues.” An omnipresent radio ad in my part of the world touts the services of a doctor who will deal with both “erectile issues” and “premature issues.” In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts. These are “issues”? I think not. They may be problems, vexations, disgraces, even pleasures. But they are not “issues.” “Issues” means “things that are subject to debate.” Maybe coming right away is an issue, whose effects can be debated. If so, debate them. If not, say what you mean by “issues,” and why you insist on bringing them up.

To say that a teenager “has issues” means anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

The transition from “problems” to “issues” is an ominous sign for our civilization — in two ways. The first has to do with the anesthetization of real difficulties. To turn a problem, which is or ought to be a call to serious thought and action, into a mere issue, which is something to be contemplated or mused upon or dealt with by taking a pill . . . that is a terrible thing. Hitler was not an issue; he was a problem. Cancer is not an issue; it is a problem that people need to confront. A weird teenage kid isn’t an issue that you should sit around and jaw about; he or she is a problem that needs to be solved, if you can.

The other way in which issue is a problem involves the politicization of discourse, a process that proceeds apace in our chronically post-1960s society. “Issue” is a word appropriate to public debate; “problem” may include that sort of thing, but it also embraces the vastly larger area of difficulties and challenges in human (not merely political) life. “Issue” dissolves the distinction; it is, therefore, in the truest sense of the word, an evil locution.

Going on to lesser, though related, forms of evil . . . . I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, one of the worst innovations ever made in the world of writing is the slash. I mean the thing that comes between the two words in such expressions as

social/economic
men/women
novels/poetry
directors/administrators
climate/warming
and any other expression/phrase in which a slash could possibly be used/inserted.

A slash is a sign that a writer cannot or will not decide whether to use one word or another (which means one concept or another), or to use them both — which usually means that he or she is averse to conceptual thought. He or she can’t devote precious time to deciding whether to say “philosophy and ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology, or both,” or just “philosophy” or “ideology,” and therefore decides to let the reader slop along as well as possible with “philosophy/ideology,” required to make his or her own speculative decisions about what the author might possibly mean.

There is never a legitimate use for a slash. Say what you mean — if you mean anything.

“Climate/warming” raises an especially weighty issue/problem. The transition, or hesitation, between the two terms is emblematic of the concept creep that often, and illegitimately, establishes the terms of contemporary political debate. Consider “segregation.” In the 1950s and 1960s, “segregation” meant separation of races by law or governmental action. In the 1970s “segregation” came illicitly to mean “any situation in which blacks were not represented proportionately to whites.” Thus, I suppose, whites were segregated from black gospel music. It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation. A finding of statistical “segregation” might result in judicial mandates to alter fundamental patterns of life across a city or even a whole metropolitan area. Such findings, and the verbal confusions on which they were based, were significantly responsible for the “white flight” that rendered inner city neighborhoods more “segregated,” and more “impoverished,” than they had ever been before.

The cry of “segregation” is still, sometimes, heard today. In general, however, “diversity” has taken its place. The advantage of “diversity” is that no one can say what it means, although it means, at least, everything that “desegregation” used to mean, or not mean.

And speaking of the politicization of discourse . . . This month’s Boston bombing was too barbaric, and too ridiculous, to be politicized in an overt manner, among people not predisposed to see any bad event as an American conspiracy. But it was socialized in ways that illustrate how far politicized perceptions have seeped into the language of otherwise normal people.

In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts.

A mysterious statement! Here’s what I mean. The two alleged culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers, were universally described by their acquaintances as quiet, too quiet to leave any specific insights or memory traces. Yet they were also universally described as nice boys of whom nothing evil could be believed.

This, I submit, is an unusual take on reality. Not only are such statements obviously self-confuting — how can you testify to someone’s niceness when you also testify that you don’t know anything much about him? — but they also turn the speakers into the kind of joke that everybody can recognize. “Yeah, I lived down the street from the guy . . . Real nice guy. Didn’t see much of him. He kept to himself. But I just can’t believe he’d do a thing like this.” For how many years has everyone been laughing about junk commentary like that? Yet it continues to be made, and communicated to the nation, after every fresh act of violence. One can only conclude that many people believe they have a duty to utter and purvey such absurd observations. Someone has taught them that duty.

I think the “someone” is the schools and the media, which continually preach that everyone is equal and equally good at heart — even such people as the Tsarnaev brothers. “He was one of the nicest kids,” said a college “friend” of the younger alleged murderer. “Every time I saw him, he made sure to say hi.” Yes, a very nice guy. The kind of guy who allegedly spent the weekend blowing legs off kids and the next few days working out in the college gym and partying with his chance acquaintances. “A fully assimilated American,” pronounced many of the TV news reporters.

The media are the principal enforcers of this bizarre social programming (I won’t call it education). “Possible bombing suspect cornered on boat,” said the CNN onscreen headline, even as Dzokhar Tsarnaev was being taken away under arrest, following a final blowout with the cops. Yes, a possible suspect. Not perhaps a real suspect, but maybe, just maybe, a possible one. The network was even more ignorant of words than it was slow with news, but it was careful to communicate its own niceness. “Possible suspect” indeed.

Widely and trustingly reported was the testimony of Dzokhar’s assistant high school wrestling coach (and who better to discern the inner truth about this sweet young man?). “A smart kid,” he said. And not just smart but a real American, according to the New York Times. “Boy at Home in U.S.,” it prattled. Evidence of smartness? Maybe the fact that Dzokhar managed to run over his brother with a stolen SUV, probably causing his death. Evidence of being at home in America? People on Fox News continually specified what they regarded as evidence in this category: Dzokhar smoked weed all the time and liked hip-hop music. Who says that Fox is the conservative network?

Petty grammarian that I am, I’m almost as discouraged by signs of creeping illiteracy as I am by proof of galloping nonsense. Reporting the giddy adventures of the Tsarnaev family — poster children for open immigration, who planted themselves in America by claiming political persecution from Russia, collected all the benefits they could in this country, then kept drifting back to Russia — the established media talked about one or another of them “starting school in America” or heroically “graduating high school in America.” This is the kind of locution one hears in supermarket ads, which encourage us to “Shop Bingo’s!” — Bingo’s being the place at which one is incited to shop. So “shop” is something one does to Bingo’s, just as “graduate” or “start” is something one does to a school. “Tell me, Dzokhar, what did you do to your high school?” “I graduated it.” Maybe, given enough time in the “adopted country” to which he was so well “assimilated,” he would have gone farther and blown it up.

As I admitted, I’m petty. But in the long run, literacy may be even more important than the Boston Marathon. True literacy requires the ability to recognize and reproduce basic patterns of language — to know, for example, when to use a transitive verb and when to use an intransitive one.

Or to know how to deal with strong verbs. There aren’t very many; you should be able to master them. But no. On Good Friday, the Fox News Jerusalem correspondent noted that “Christians sung hymns.” When I was in grade school, the grand example of strong verbs, the one that we were made to study, presumably because it was the easiest, was “sing-sang-sung.” Today, it seems, you can become a foreign correspondent without havinggraduated grade school.

It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation.

One thing I wasn’t taught at the Henrietta Township Rural Agricultural School was the progression “spit-spat-spat.” The reason was that everybody knew it. When you told the teacher on a fellow third-grader, there was no indecision about how to phrase your accusation. You said, “Teacher, teacher! Tommy Johnson spat on the playground!” Maybe that’s because backwoods people still read the Bible, actually sat and read the thing, and therefore knew about stuff like this. But when, in 2013, Justin Bieber, heartthrob of millions, or at least thousands, was accused of dealing unfairly with a neighbor, the headlines took this form, “Man Claims Bieber Spit on Him.” Hardly a “spat” in a carload, although the Los Angeles Times ran a story with “spat” in the body but “spit” in the headline. And, to remember other bodily functions, when was the last time you heard somebody say that he “shat” this morning? He (or she) may be too insecure about language to dare saying “shitted” (which is good); but if so, he’s bound to take the long way about and say “took a shit.”

This is not a good sign. It’s a sign that the rich sonic resources of the English language are being wantonly pissed away.

Worse is the steady progress of “snuck,” that strange folk attempt to create a new strong verb. Talk about backwoods language, and the language of children! Until recently, “snuck” was recognized by all, even its habitual users, as a colorful low-level colloquialism, ordinarily used for comic effect, and never to be used in formal writing. Then, a few years ago, it started showing up in presidential press conferences, news reports written by the weekend staff, and other low-end outlets. And now, here it is! It’s arrived! Snuck has made it to the headlines. Chronicling the behavior of an Ohio murderer who behaved badly at his sentencing, respectable news agencies offered headlines of this kind: “How TJ Lane Snuck in a Shirt with ‘Killer’ on it.” They weren’t trying to be entertaining; they were just being ignorant. And not one of them headlined “sneaked.”

Here’s a headline I’d like to see: “How Illiteracy Snuck in Everywhere.”




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