Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lost causes

Jonathan Swift, back in the 18th century, hated and tried to eradicate the practice of abbreviating words into shorter words. You know how that turned out. Today words like ad, phone, bus, taxi and sitcom are commonplace.

Swift also resented newer words he considered crude and temporarily fashionable. Among these words were sham, bully, banter and bubble, all words now long established and accepted by English speakers everywhere.

For generations, protectors of the language, probably including your high school English teachers, have crusaded, as Jonathan Swift did 300 years ago, for purer, more correct grammar and vocabulary. Their successes have been few, for most of us talk the way we hear our peers talk, not the way language authorities insist we should. Just as Swift's campaigns in defense of the language were doomed to failure, so are most of those still being waged by some of us in the 21st century. Here are just a few of the lost causes:

Eager, not anxious

The word anxious, correctly used, suggests anxiety. Yet most of us use it to mean eagerness, as in, "I am anxious to start our trip." We should say eager instead, but few of us do. Patricia T. O'Conner in her book Woe Is I, says the words can be used interchangeably in speech, but that we need to be more precise in our writing.Yet I once noticed John Updike using anxious instead of eager in one of his books. If even Updike does it, it is probably a lost cause.


I hope this isn't a lost cause because people saying literally when then mean figuratively is one of my pet peeves, but I am afraid it is. Too many people just don't know the difference.

Aggravate and irritate

As O'Connor points out, poison ivy irritates and scratching aggravates, but few of us bother to make that distinction.

Have a good day

I mentioned again just a few days ago my annoyance when I hear people say "Have a good day!" instead of the more concise "Good day!" Others say "Have a nice day!" or "Have a good rest of the day!" Some of us may still dream of going back to simpler times, but there is no sign this will ever happen. Perhaps we should just be happy people are still wishing others a good day, however wordy they may be.

There are many other lost causes. Perhaps I will continue with this topic some other time.

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