Friday, July 23, 2010

Amusing, awful and artificial

King James II of England, when he saw the restored and expanded St. Paul's Cathedral, called it "amusing, awful and artificial." The architect, Sir Christopher Wren, was not offended. On the contrary, he was flattered.

The king did not mean that it was funny or entertaining. He was not calling it atrocious or appalling. He did not consider it fake or pretentious.

In 17th century England, amusing meant "riveting." Awful meant "full of awe" or "awe inspiring." And artificial meant "artistic."

Language evolves and word meaning changes over time through common usage. In this case, words that once had positive meaning gradually devolved. That process is called perjoration.

It doesn't always take four centuries. The word "OK" has undergone more rapid perjoration. Although the etymology is debated, it is clear from its usage a century ago that, when used as an adjective, "OK" was once strong praise. If something was OK, or okay, that meant it was good in every aspect — perfect or "all correct." Today, when we say something is "OK" we mean it is mediocre, or far from perfect.
If we could assign letter grades to OK, it was once an A+, but now it's a C-.

"How was your trip?"
"It was OK."
"Oh, what went wrong?"

So when Oklahoma put the slogan "Oklahoma is OK" on its license plates, it was not lamenting the state's mediocrity but proclaiming that everything about the state was right.

The use of OK to mean assent or agreement now exceeds its use as an adjective. When we say "OK," we are agreeing to something asked of us. Put a question mark after it, and it is asking for someone else's assent.

"Everyone pitch in, OK?" (Meaning: Will you do it? Do you understand? Is that acceptable?)
"OK." (Meaning: Yes. We Understand. We will do it.)

Use of OK as a modifier may fall out of use altogether before it reaches the grade of F.


Back to Christopher Wren. He is buried in a crypt at St. Paul's. His modest burial marker reads: "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice" which means: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you."

One of the world's largest cathedrals — how's that for a headstone?

Friday, July 9, 2010


Random observations on usage:
1. A defense attorney commenting on an obscenity written on the nail of Lindsay Lohan’s middle finger during her trial that an alert Reuters photographer picked up: “This tops the cake.”
I assume the attorney meant "takes the cake," an idiom that means "is the most extreme example." Of course, it's possible the attorney meant what she said. A cake topper is the final piece, the focal point.

2. The Fox News Website briefly posted this headline: “Missing Missouri Girl Found Safe at Car Warsh.”
Now, now, no need to poke fun of the way Midwesterners talk.

3. MSNBC headline in April:
I may have posted that before. Originally I thought it was an editor's goof, but given the debate over Arizona's law, it may have been an editorial comment. In practice, it is not illegal to be illegal.

4. An AP story on immigration included this sentence: “The law requires officers ... to question a person’s immigration status if there’s a reasonable suspicion they are in the country illegally.”

The plural pronoun "they" doesn't match the singular antecedent "person."
Some English teachers go apoplectic over such usage. The singular "they" is widespread in spoken English. But it also has a long history in written English.

The Chicago Manual of Style notes:

On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun ("he" in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use "they" as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.

With the 14th edition (1993), the Manual revised its neutral stance to recommend "singular use of they and their," noting a "revival" of this usage and citing its "venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare."

Singular "they" and "their" can be used in most writing to indicate indeterminacy in regard to number — "Anyone willing to give up their seat will receive a refund"; or regarding gender — "Every homeowner must care for their own property."

If you aren't comfortable with any of the three options — singular masculine pronouns, joined masculine/feminine pronouns, or plural pronouns — just do what we do all the time in the news business: Write around it.