The Boxwooder
Number 136, November 1980
The Biter Bitten (Or, Maybe, Pre-Bitten)
Jacob L. Warner
Front Cover

What a fuss over a word! Yes, but let me say it again: the price of learning to use words is the development of an acute self-consciousness… You must attend to words when you read, when you speak, when others speak. – Jacques Barzum, Simple & Direct, Harper & Row, 1975.

Having just read Edwin Newman’s A Civil Tongue, I have lately been especially sensitive to the mangling of our language and have been collecting a few examples to use in this issue. But before I could fire my first round I received a broadside. Bill Danner wrote that the first word of my convention Boxwooder had brought him up short. That word, used with as little thought as I give to my breathing, was attendees. Bill maintains that the word is an illegitimate construction and that if employees are people who are employed, then attendees should be people who are attended. There are a few people – Bill Danner and Vic Moitoret with some frequency – who point out such mistakes to me. I suspect that no one gladly accepts criticism, constructive or otherwise. Richard Burton said he never reads reviews of his plays because the good reviews are never good enough, and the bad reviews upset him. Nevertheless Bill and Vic are right most of the time; certainly Bill is right this time, and if my memory doesn’t fail me, I shall benefit from his criticism.

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In the same issue was a glaring typo – aoain for again – made while I was replacing worn letters. The simple typo does not bother me greatly because at worst it shows that I’m a poor proofreader or a careless printer. Using incorrect words bothers me much more because there is a direct connection between language and thought, and incorrect language is evidence of incorrect thinking. To say this another way, if you cannot make a fine distinction between words, you cannot make that fine distinction in thought.

Precise language is necessary for precise thought. Snow is important to Eskimos, and I have heard that they have many words for the various types of snow. We have very few – slush, powder, etc. – because we do not need to make fine distinctions between the types. But because we do not have the vocabulary, we cannot make the distinctions that an Eskimo can when we think about snow. If a distinction is lost in a language, it will be lost in the mind, and may then be lost in fact.

Naturally I have excuses, other than ignorance, for my misuse of the language. After all I worked nearly 30 years in the Department of Defense bureaucracy. No one could survive that with his language intact. James Boren’s satire, When in Doubt, Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook, seems more realistic than satirical to me. The first time I had to use the title “New Initiative” in a briefing, I was afraid somebody would guffaw. I soon learned that nothing was ridiculous enough to worry about. We talked about “thrusts” instead of jobs or tasks and these were soon divided into “major thrusts” and “minor thrusts,” and you were expected to keep a straight face while you used these phrases. Organizations’ branches became “programs” or “directorates”; laboratories became “centers.” The major thrust of the Department of Defense language is ever away from the concrete, the simple, and the easily understood.

So much for lame excuses, let’s get to my examples. In the parking lot of Lake Park across the street from where I live, a number of signs in the employee’s portion state: “No parking except by permit only.” By the surroundings one can guess what they were meant to say, but on all Boordy Vineyard labels is the assertion: “Winemakers Exclusively Since 1945” and I do not know what that means. There is also a small label on the bottles of Boordy White that we now have that reads: “Tirage en Primeur.” I don’t know what that means either, but at least it’s not in my tongue. Why does a wine made in Maryland to be sold in Maryland have a French label? I suspect it is a mild joke by Philip Wagner, the owner. Anyway Boordy White wine is good, and it is cheap. As a further aside, I have just read that the Boordy Vineyard has been sold by the Wagners to Robert DeFord, III. He says he will continue making wine in the Boordy manner and will use Philip Wagner as a consultant for several years.

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Simple words can be combined to sound as if they mean something, but just what is hard to pin down. When Ivanhoe Donaldson of the D.C. Government was defending the qualifications of the new Special Events Coordinator, D.C. Commission on Arts & Humanities (the title itself is not a model of clarity), he said, “She’s had her own energy level in the arts. An art background is not just where you work, but where your head is.” I guess we can only hope that she brings her head along to her new job.

What did a Post reporter mean when he called the roof-top restaurant “a totally-public place”?

During roll call at the Democratic Convention, many state delegates avoided the awkwardness of chairperson and simply addressed the presiding officer as “Madam Chair.” The Post today had a story about a very active woman who is “vice-chair of the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts.”

A couple who found a huge gold nugget in Australia are purported to have nicknamed the nugget “Little Aussie” because it looked like the map of Australia. Can one nickname something that doesn’t have a proper name?

While bike riding I spotted a large book on the roadside and stopped to examine it. Numbers written on the spine indicated it was a library book. It was a heavy reference book on coins of the world. I was trying to figure out how I could carry it on the bike to return it to the library when I noted it was from the “Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High Media Center.” I said, “To hell with it” and put it back where I had found it. Media Center, indeed.

Word making goes on apace. The natural way to make a new word is to stretch an old one. We stood and watched as instruments became instrumentation and heard it twisted back into the verb instrumentate. Just as orient gave orientation and then a new verb orientate with the same meaning as the original verb. In the August bundle in his paper Jeff Jennings used permanentized in his journal. Emily Hudlow, in her book Alabaster Chambers, said, “… Mother puppetized a tea bag.” Last night at the Democratic Convention a TV announcer said that a procedural issue had been “presidentialized.” I don’t know what he meant. My candidate for fuzzy-word champion is the former Superintendent of D.C. Schools, Barbara Sizemore. I once heard her say that a proposal had been “implementized but not operationalized.”

Another common method to create new words is to add a prefix; the current favorite is pre. There was a time when a preprint meant a printed journal article distributed before the journal was published. Now I don’t know what preprint means. I think there is no difference in a preprinted form and a printed form. Surely there is no difference between planning and preplanning – not like paring and preparing or tension and pretension. Recently I noticed in the newspaper that someone had “two preteen daughters.” I guess time will make them become teen daughters. Some time ago I saved an ad with what surely is the champion of pre-words. This ad proclaims that a certain brand of coffee is “Pre-vacuum Packed.” I truly don’t have an inkling of what pre-vacuum could mean.

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A statement that fascinates me is from a TV commercial in which some chemical company is trying to put a better face on their operations. It is: “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.” Is this the equivalent of saying that if there were no water, it’d be hard to swim? Or perhaps: “Without language, commercials themselves would be impossible.” There is an anecdote that claims that Lincoln said to some of his cabinet members, “If we call a cow’s tail a leg, how many legs does a cow have?” When someone ventured that it would have five, Lincoln said, “No, you are wrong. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” I’ve never been able to decide who was right in this story. How did a leg get to be a leg in the first place? Did calling a leg a leg make it a leg? If so, when did the calling time expire?

Richard Cohen recently had a column in the Washington Post entitled, “Recurring Redundancies Arise Again and Again.” He points out that we are so saturated with redundancies that they sound normal. We have “free gifts” and even “complimentary free gifts.” We have “close personal friends.” Cars are “completely demolished” and buildings are “razed to the ground.” The Empire Strikes Back is said to be the “second of a three-part trilogy.” (It’s possible they actually mean nine movies.)

Some redundancy is desirable in speaking because we are often speaking in a noisy environment or to people who are not paying close attention. Some repetition is necessary for communication. It enhances our ability to understand each other on weak telephone lines or through radio static. It is by no means as necessary in our writing. I feel that because of TV we are becoming more attuned to oral communication than to written, and thus redundancies begin to sound normal and language without them sounds spare and stark. In a TV interview it is inconceivable that the announcer could ask a long, complicated question and have the person being interviewed simply say yes or no. We would feel cheated; a complicated question deserves a complicated answer. It wasn’t always this way. When President John Kennedy was asked a lengthy question about whether he would be willing to debate the Republican nominee, he replied, “Yes, I would.”

Of course redundancies are by no means the only unnecessary additions to our written language. We use many empty words and phrases. We say “as a matter of fact,” “from the point of view of,” “it should be noted that,” and many, many more. Again, in speaking some empty words are necessary; we must give our listeners time to understand what we mean, and we hold the floor with a few meaningless phrases. In writing, such phrases merely slow down and obscure the message we are trying to get across. In reading, one can stop and consider and even backtrack and reread to try to get the author’s meaning. This is a very important difference between reading and listening. It is well illustrated by watching a science program on TV – say one of the rare programs that actually seems to be about something. It may be enthralling and apparently informative, but as soon as the program is over, one is a little dubious about the exact details of what was presented. Although lectures are the standard teaching device in all schools, they are a very inefficient means of communication – much worse than TV. But that’s another subject.

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One source of extra words in writing is the piling on of adjectives and adverbs – perhaps the most common fault of us amateur writers. The proof is that when one must cut a piece to fit some assigned space, one always finds that the more one cuts the better it sounds. And that’s downright discouraging. It is paralleled in printing in the difficulty of using ornaments. One can start with all kinds of dingbats for a cover design and find that as he removes each one, the cover looks a little better. But it is easier to see superfluous dingbats than superfluous words though the extra dingbats do much less harm to our message.

Even in speaking, unnecessary words can weaken one’s meaning. Compare the effect of saying “I am totally and completely innocent” with “I am innocent.” Or as I heard one person say, “Emphatically, no.” To my mind one should not say “emphatically, no” but should emphatically say “no.” We are growing more and more accustomed to people talking on TV to fill a prescribed time. The announcer is watching the director (or whoever does this chore) for the signal to stop talking, and however little he has to say, he cannot stop until he sees the throat-cutting signal.

In his famous little book, The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. stresses economy of words. He says that just as a drawing must not have an extra line, a piece of writing must not have an extra word. William Strunk, Jr. was a hard, hard man.

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Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Stymie Medium. Edited and
published by Jake Warner who printed 470 copies on a 10 x 15 C&P
at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt MD 20770.

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