Tuesday, February 6

It’s Only Language

Being the offspring of English teachers is a mixed blessing. When the film star says to you, on the air, “It was a perfect script for she and I,” inside your head you hear, in the sarcastic voice of your late father, “Perfect for she, eh? And perfect for I, also?”

In these days of just about enough perils facing our nation, there is plenty of evidence around to conclude that our grip on our glorious language may be loosening. And the current administration, as in other matters, is not among the good guys. Let’s get everybody’s favorite example out of the way: the leader of the free world’s goofy inability to pronounce what is arguably the most important word in his vocabulary: “nuclear.” What is so hard? A school kid botching it Bush’s way — “nuke-you-lur” — would have to stand in the corner. Fortunately, an oval office has no corners.

(Does Bush’s atom have a nuke-you-luss? Does it work in reverse? Is Bush’s railway a foo-nick-lee-ur? Let’s bet.)

Andy Rooney tried to nail this matter on “60 Minutes”. Andy wondered as I do why the literate Laura doesn’t do something. Every time the president commits this verbal blunder, she must wince along with the rest of the world. Bush’s “the French have no word for ‘entrepreneur’ ” is guaranteed immortality.

The French make fun of him, of course, and by extension, of us. I say let’s irk them back by continuing with our clanging mispronunciations of their sacred tongue, such as: “Vichy-SWA,” “coo-de-GRAH” or “double enten-DRAY” — and best of all what we did to the French “chaise longue,” dyslexically turning longue (long) into “lounge” and chaise (chair) into “chase.” A fox hunter’s chair, perhaps? (Let Froggy puzzle it out.)

I think we’re just stuck with the president’s individualist English. This is the man who gave us, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family,” and who told Brian Williams, regarding his alleged Camus studies, “I have an ‘eckalectic’ reading list.” Until he was nice enough to repeat it, I was sure he had said “epileptic,” which at least would have been a word. I prefer the three-syllable version “eclectic,” but then he is The Decider.

Donald Rumsfeld and about half of his military pals seem to feel that hidden weapons are found in a “cash-AY” [cache: from Fr., hiding place; pron. kash], provoking further giggles from our busy French detractors. The cashiered secretary of defense is equally hard on his own language, as with, “It wasn’t wrong. It was just miss-CHEEVY-us.” “MISS-chuh-vuss” is of course what he was after. Oh, and with all due respect Mr. Erstwhile Secretary, a medal can be called a memento, but not a MO-mento. Princeton, class of what again?

Getting a little thing like words right, is it so important?

The right answer is: Yes. As when poorly worded road signs cause fatalities. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought, and sloppy thought to sloppy legislation. And why not a sloppy war? What if someone big, issuing an order of earth-shaking potential, made the (tiny) error of confusing the last letters of Iraq and Iran?

Another whole category of language abuse is the stating of untruths which, when shown to be untrue, are repeated. As in Dick Cheney, the man who recently said to Wolf Blitzer, “We’ve had immense successes in Iraq,” adding “and we will have more immense successes.” Blitzer looked, well, blitzed. Instead of lowering a large butterfly net over his guest, he got his breath and, charitably, did not request examples. And what of Condoleezza Rice? The same Condi who was willing to contribute “a mushroom cloud” to the Scare America campaign now insists that an escalation be called an “augmentation.” What, in her new tea-time vocabulary, would she call the W.M.D. that caused the cloud? An “Instrument of Considerable Inconvenience”? What are the war dead in her sanitized lexicon? “The indisposed”? Or simply “those whose coffins may not be photographed.” Once dead, our brave soldiers are an embarrassment.

Incidentally, are Jews still Semites? Or are they suddenly “Semets”? For years now the boo-boo “anti-se-MET-ic” has gained ground, even among rabbis, as well as TV talking heads, big-name news people and the literati. Where did it come from? Listen for it. Try the Sunday morning shows for a likely catch.

And what about the various distortions of the easy word “heinous.” From lawyers especially you get “hayney-us,” “heeny-us” and even “highness.” Look, guys and gals, it’s easy. It rhymes with a well-known two-syllable word which some might consider not nice, but I guarantee will stick the correct pronunciation in your brain, especially if you compose a silly rhyming couplet. (“His behavior was heinous/ And … etc.” — which, by the way is not pronounced “ECK-cetera.”)

And then there’s the poor little “kudo.” It’s a word Variety has used incorrectly — as in “DeNiro received many kudos for his performance” — for enough decades that it is now forgotten that “kudos” (Greek for praise) was already singular. There never was a kudo. Will Variety eventually take the word “pathos” and extract a “patho”? Stay tuned.

Last week during hearings, at least two of our star-spangled generals spoke of a “dim-you-nition” (diminution, perhaps?) of troops. Does ammunition then become “ama-nyoo-shun”? Let it pass.

It’s gotten so bad for “lie” and “lay” that if a candidate got the votes of only those who don’t know the difference, it would be a landslide. Upon hearing, “He was outside laying on the lawn,” I remember being glad my dad thought I was worldly enough to get it when he asked, “And who was under him on the lawn?” Wouldn’t anybody just know you wouldn’t “lie it on the table”? Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well.

When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?” But I see the forces of darkness have prevailed, and this and many wrong uses are now deemed acceptable by the alleged guardians of our language, the too-quickly supine dictionary makers. Are they afraid of being judged “not with it”? What ever happened to, “Everybody does it don’t make it right”?

Certain misquotes are rooted in marble. It would take another act of Creation to restore “gild the lily” to Will Shakespeare’s “paint the lily.” (“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”) There are hundreds of these. And there’s, “The senator literally exploded with laughter.” Who cleaned up the mess?

Then there is that common ailment, the tin ear, and its possessor’s knack for rendering sublime quotations drab, often through insensitivity to the music of the words and their proper order. A good example is the great but frequently wounded quote of Mark Twain’s on writing, a quote that causes, when done right, my forearms to horripilate.

Here it is: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning bug … and the lightning.”

Recently, an after-dinner speaker botched it. He got all the words in, but not in the master’s order, ending with “the lightning and the lightning bug.” I had to go out and walk around a while. Word order is everything. Anyone who doesn’t hear that it’s imperative to end with the majestic word “lightning” would probably argue that nothing’s wrong with “The Sierra Madre’s Treasure,” Milton’s “Lost Paradise,” “The Opera’s Phantom,” “Music’s Sound,” “The Sea and the Old Man” and, who knows, “The Island of Gilligan.” (Have I beaten the point to death yet?)

(Let us note: the hapless speaker was at the DAY-us — dais — not the DYE-us.)

But let’s be charitable. I soon learned it isn’t necessary to correct. I quickly learned to bite my English teachers’ boy’s tongue and let a lady guest refer to an “elicit” affair. But if I ever find myself once again with the senator who spoke of his “incredulous” experiences, I shall pop him one.

I don’t see the future as bright, language-wise. I see it as a glass half empty — and evaporating quickly. Almost daily irritants, like the dumb cluck’s beloved, “between you and I” will never be expunged, it seems. “Loathe” and “loath” will continue to change places, and “phenomena” and “phenomenon” will still be used interchangeably. But, finally, what the hell? It’s only language. It’s only what we live by.