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IT’S BACK TO SCHOOL TIME!

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES September 2005

“LIGHTEN UP, STEINER!” — an admonition I’ve been hearing lately by some readers who’ve found my last several editorials a bit too heavy. So, here’s something that ought to bring a smile or two, a resuscitation of an October 1997 ‘Peeks & Piques! in which I vented on the misuse of the English language. September seems a fitting time to do this, since it’s back to school time, anyway. To begin today’s lesson then, let me say that I still mentally stiffen up when I hear someone say “gen-you-wine” for genuine, or “er-ree-oo-dite” for erudite (where do they get that second syllable from?). Alan Cassidy, my British brother-in-law, claims of course that, linguistic snob that I am, I still manage to mispronounce almost every bit of the King’s English that comes out of my mouth. (So where, I retort, do you get that fourth syllable from in “aluminum”? I see no “i” after the “n” to, as Capt. Picard in Star Trek says, “make it so.”). But I can still see why he cringes when his American in-laws say, “pass the buddah” during dinner. Even worse, at least for me, is to endure hearing news anchors breathlessly drone on about spectacular accidents, murders, and celebrity break-ups as “tragedies” (take a peek at Bethune’s essay this issue on what “tragedy” really means) or of hurricanes “decimating” Florida towns. How can a mindless windstorm know to pick out every tenth house while on its rampaging path? Roman legions used to ‘decimate’ a foe’s forces; that is, kill every tenth man as an object lesson for them to think about before challenging the Empire in the future (see decimare (L), the origin of our word “decimal,” i.e. numbered by tenths). Another good old-fashioned Latin word, dilapidare, used in English in the form of “dilapidate”, is another of those words that have been stretched to include a greater meaning than originally intended. Derived from lapis, lapid, the Latin for ‘stone’, to be dilapidated meant to have ones’ stone wall or stone building tumble down — either by force or by natural exhaustion. Thus, a wooden home or metal car or aging senior citizen, cannot, properly speaking, be “dilapidated” — unless, as in the second instance, it happens to be Fred Flintstone’s automobile. Trying to sneak in Stonewall Jackson here as a dilapidated senior just wont cut it, either. Back in ’97, when I wrote my first piece about how we mangle our language, I pointed out the almost endless string of misspellings we find in newspapers (including this one) or on hand-lettered grocery store signs. The market I can understand, but professional journalists? I suppose they begin in early education where inattentive teachers let outrageous howlers and bloopers pass unnoticed and so they leave school with the mistaken notion that they’ve got this language business down pat. Back in the days when I taught English in public schools, I used to collect some of these doozies and thought someday to publish them. I didn’t, but I still recall a few. My favorite bloopers were misplaced modifiers: “I saw a girl playing a piano with blond hair” or “It would be cool to hang up a deer’s head on the wall of the living room that you just shot” or “I saw a raccoon going to school today” (how do they know that the little masked mammal was not just out playing hooky?). Not a misplaced anything but a malapropism, here’s another student gaffe I particularly enjoyed because it had a whiff of validity about it: “William Shakespeare is one of the most wildly read playwrights in the world.” Well, I had seen a few harebrained interpretations, so I couldn’t really fault the kid. And finally, what is it with e-mailers? Where is it written — badly or otherwise — that spelling rules should go out the window when we send our missives into cyber space? Talk about dumbing down America! But, I’d better watch it now or the purist in me will turn this into another tirade — and I already promised to lighten up this time, didn’t I?

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