Fwd: A rich rivalry for wordniks

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Thu May 03 2001 - 14:09:28 BST

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    Herein, a morning (check your time-zones...) tidbit of a distraction.

    - Wade

    ***************

    A rich rivalry for wordniks

    By Martin F. Nolan, 5/3/2001

    AMONG OLD RIVALRIES, you can have the Taiwanese and the Chinese, the Red
    Sox and the Yankees, the Guelphs and the Ghibelines, the Flemings and the
    Walloons. I'll take The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. Their
    genteel donnybrook broke out before the Civil War and has enriched
    American readers since. Harper's is older, yet quirkier. The Atlantic is
    younger, yet steadier.

    As if reacting to the efforts of President Bush to succeed by being
    boring, both present centerpiece essays on the English language, Harper's
    in 18 April pages, the Atlantic with 19 pages in May. Such a charming
    collision has not adorned newsracks since the mid-1970s, when Time and
    Newsweek, exhausted by Richard Nixon and Watergate, simultaneously
    featured on their covers an obscure New Jersey singer, Bruce Springsteen.

    In ''Tense Present,'' David Foster Wallace reviews six books on usage for
    Harper's with a forest of footnotes, admitting that he is ''the last
    remaining kind of elitist nerd,'' one who shudders at seeing ''10 items
    or less,'' (instead of fewer), or hearing ''`dialogue' used as a verb.''
    He is a self-described SNOOT, a member of ''Syntax Nudniks of Our Time''
    ..... the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else.'' Wallace
    confronts the strict cadences of what he calls PCE. Politically Correct
    English, he writes, has ''achieved the status of a dialect,'' one he
    regards as ''not just silly, but confused and dangerous.''

    In The Atlantic, Simon Winchester, author of ''The Professor and the
    Madman,'' about the Oxford English Dictionary, follows up with a
    biography of Peter Mark Roget and his thesaurus, a treasure-house of
    words. ''Everyone has the book. Occasionally one makes use of it,''
    Winchester insists. ''But one never, never relies on it to help with the
    making of good writing.''

    In a parenthetical aside to his history of Roget's, he notes: ''We like
    to think that our time is producing an uncountable welter of new words;
    but in comparing the mere 45,000 English words recognized by the last
    editions of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, published in the 1860s, with the
    414,825 listed in the first edition of the OED, published in 1928, one
    can perhaps understand the pressure under which thesaurus compilers of
    the time were compelled to work.'' Winchester's work is fascinating; also
    alluring, charming, captivating, enchanting, etc.

    In the rivalry between two American insitutions, I confess a bias toward
    The Atlantic, not only because I wrote for it decades ago, but also
    because of an incident involving language. The editor of Harper's,
    moderator of a panel about politics and rhetoric, persisted in using
    ''media'' as a singular noun. Hearing the distinctive sound of a
    fingernail on a blackboard, this panelist objected. Such barbarism cannot
    continue, I said, imploring the chairman to recall George Orwell and
    Spiro T. Agnew. ''It is clear that the decline of a language must have
    political and economic causes,'' Orwell wrote in his essay, ''Politics
    and the English Language,'' in 1946. ''In our time, political speech and
    writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.''

    Agnew, as vice president, popularized the noun ''media'' as a propaganda
    weapon, implying that the press, television, and radio conspired to write
    as with one pen. Pulverizing ''media'' into a single noun simplified his
    task. A headline in last week's New York Times saying ''Media is ...''
    must have pleased the mendacious shade of Spiro T. Agnew.

    ''And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech,'' begins
    Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis. When the descendants of Adam and Eve
    began to worship a tower they had built in Babel, the Lord decided ''to
    confound their language, that they may not understand one another's
    speech.''

    In dismantling today's tower of Babel, Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic
    Monthly are useful, nay, heaven-sent tools.

    Martin F. Nolan's e-mail address is martynolan@aol.com.

    This story ran on page 15 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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