Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Wordnerds spawn books like thesauruses spawn synonyms


What are this summer's best new books for wordnerds? I found that locution on the back-cover promotional copy for The Elephants of Style, by Bill Walsh, a Washington Post copy chief.

He digs puns; his last book was Lapsing Into a Comma. This title is a play on The Elements of Style, of course, and he carries the wordplay into the subtitle, "A trunkload of tips on the big issues and gray areas of contemporary American English."

What Walsh calls his "curmudgeon's stylebook" contains such useful items as differentiating names of peoples: "Although the people of Pakistan are Pakistanis, the people of Afghanistan are Afghans. The word afghani refers solely to the country's main unit of currency. To call an Afghan an afghani is like calling an American a dollar."

His "gray areas" are stimulating. On the singular of data, he rejects the traditional datum, holding that "it's time to pull the plug and acknowledge that data is a collective noun, like information." I agree. But Walsh also accepts as "useful linguistic evolution" the word gender to mean "sex." I say it's feminese, shying from the blunt word sex, and resolutely limit gender to treating nouns in foreign languages as masculine or feminine. He'll win on this.

We really part company on news media. He holds that it is usually used by people as a collective singular: "Change `The media are restless tonight' to `The media is restless tonight,' because obviously the reference is to the communicators, not the modes of communication." It's good to hear an intelligent argument for media is, but I think it lumps together each medium (radio, TV, blogs) when it is important to recognize the multiplicity of communications voices. I'd stick with media are (unless I forget, which is often, and the copy editor saves me).

To each book comes its season, and now is the time for Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush by Allan Metcalf, the respected philologist and longtime stalwart of the American Dialect Society. We members of the Judson Welliver Society of former White House speechwriters (Welliver was the first, for Harding and Coolidge) lap this stuff up.

In a chapter on "Presidents as Neologists" -- words or phrases coined by or, more often, popularized by presidents -- Metcalf includes John Adams' adoption of the Algonquian word caucus; Thomas Jefferson's electioneering, countervailing and public relations; Theodore Roosevelt's lunatic fringe and probably nail jelly to the wall. Former president Franklin Roosevelt, while in college, provided the first instance of cheerleader, and Abraham Lincoln is credited with Michigander. (The author might have added Abe's "That is cool" in his Cooper Union speech, meaning "ironically desirable." Though environed by difficulty, he was clearly ahead of his time.) President 43 coined misunderestimate and will be remembered for his embetterment of mankind. (The word-processing demon in my computer keeps trying to change that to embitterment. A preferred form of reportorial inclusion in a military unit would be embedderment.)

Metcalf's work on presidential style, including passages useful to students of bloviation as well as inspiration, includes the inescapable mispronunciation of nuclear as "nucular," committed by Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, and as "noo-kee-uh" by Jimmy Carter.

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