Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Would Benjamin Franklin get miffed about `comfort foods'?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, the historian and journalist Walter Isaacson brings to life a founder whom the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the "new Prometheus" for his kite-flying experiments with electricity. (Prometheus was the Titan chained to a rock by Zeus for stealing fire from the heavens and giving its power of communication to man, thereby making us godlike.)

The printer Franklin, we learn, was profoundly concerned with word coinage and usage and was a zealot about the capitalization of nouns. In the biographer Isaacson's fascinating back-of-the-book notes and commentary, we can find sources for some of Franklin's opinions about words, and Walter supplied me with some of the letters he used in his research.

"I thank you for your friendly admonition relating to some un-usual words in the Pamphlet," Franklin wrote in 1760 to David Hume, the English philosopher, who apparently objected to the Americans' habit of turning nouns into verbs. "The pejorate, and the colonize ... I give up as bad ... The unshakeable, too, tho clear, I give up as rather low."

Plaintively, he added, "I cannot but wish the Usage of our Tongue permitted making new Words when we want them, by Composition of old ones whose Meanings are already well understood ... For instance, the Word inaccessible, tho long in use among us, is not yet, I dare say, so universally understood by our People as the Word uncomeatable would be, which we are not allowed to write."

He did not shy from the nonstandard in a 1789 letter to his sometimes testy sister, recalling how the Franklin family was "always subject to being a little miffy." Perhaps rooted in the German reduplication "miff muff," an expression of revulsion, the term is still with us in "miffed," meaning "annoyed, irritated."

But by the time of the American constitutional convention, in an unpublished letter to the putative lexicographer Noah Webster, Franklin showed he was growing conservative in his view of the American language. Using the word "substantive" for what we would now call "nominative" or simply "noun," the apparently shocked revolutionist wrote to Webster: "I find a Verb formed from the substantive Notice ... Also another Verb, from the Substantive Advocate ... another from the Substantive Progress, the most awkward and abominable of the three ... If you should happen to be of my Opinion with respect to these Innovations you will use your Authority in reprobating them."

Today's patriots who reread the handwritten Declaration of Independence during the Fourth of July holiday will have noticed our founders' habit of capitalizing nouns, as Franklin does above. He did that consistently to resist what he considered a pernicious trend by other printers, recalling earlier times when "all Substantives were begun with a Capital, in which we imitated our Mother Tongue, the German," he wrote Webster, because it helped Europeans to understand English -- "there being such a prodigious Number of our Words, that are both Verbs and Substantives, and spelt in the same Manner, tho often accented differently in Pronunciation" (as when the noun pronounced "PROG-ress" turned into the abominable verb "pro-GRESS").

Franklin blamed "the Fancy of Printers" for beginning to drop the capitalization of nouns, merely to get an "even, regular Appearance." Over the centuries, Germans have clung to the practice of capitalizing nouns, but modernistic Americans preferred the smoother appearance of a line of type, which may be one reason foreigners find our language so uncomeatable.

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