[Back on 1 February 2014, I posted a trio of articles, two from the New York Times and one from the Washington Post, that I entitled together “Words on Words” because they were about the craft of writing. As I noted in the intro to that collection, ROTters will know that this is a favorite topic of mine. So once again, I’m republishing two columns from the Washington Post Magazine dealing with writing and the use—or misuse—of words. They’re both from humorist Gene Weingarten, so even if writing isn’t something that interests you, you may still find these short pieces amusing. ~Rick]
“WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE”
by Gene Weingarten
As the world’s leading connoisseur and curator of Bad Writing on the Internet, I often get letters from people about some common misuse of language that happens to annoy them. Most of these complaints are pedestrian. (Yes, I know “ATM machine” is redundant. Zzzz.) But reader Amity Horowitz just wrote in with an eye-opener. Coyly, Amity invited me to Google the peculiar expression “defiantly recommend.”
“Defiantly recommend” has been used 1.5 million times! While one might occasionally recommend something defiantly, at the risk of censure or ridicule – say, the ritual eating of one’s placenta – how often would that sort of thing happen? Not a million-odd times. So I investigated.
“Defiantly recommend” turns out to be a classic example of Internet-induced idiocy, an elegant collision of incompetence and indifference:
A person wants to write “I definitely recommend,” in, say, a product review but spells it “definately,” which is the illiterate’s go-to version of the word. Spellcheck (and its co-conspirator, autocorrect) realizes something is wrong and suggests “defiantly.” The incompetent writer doesn’t know this is wrong or doesn’t care or doesn’t notice. And so “defiantly recommend” gets published a million-plus times. A similar thing happens when inept spellers write “alot,” meaning “a lot,” but spellcheck turns it into “allot,” which explains the hemorrhage of Google hits for expressions like “I have allot of weapons.” This phenomenon has happened more than 2.2 million times, which is allot.
We will call this sort of thing The Law of Incorrect Corrections, and it leads indirectly to:
The Law of Uninformed Uniformity
Before the Web, to be published as a writer, you pretty much had to be a professional. Professionals are unafraid of words and know a lot of them and take pains to use them in entertaining, unexpected combinations. This is not so with many amateurs of the Web, who have much they wish to say but lack the professional’s confidence and extensive arsenal of words. They are to writing as I am to fashion: I know I have to put something on every day, but I have no confidence in my ability to mix and match with style or taste. And so I tend to dress in “uniforms”: safe combinations of familiar things, such as khaki pants with blue shirts. The modern Web-sters are like that with words. With words, they are … woefully inadequate.
Consider that very expression, a staple of the Internet. A Google search confirms that 80 percent of the time the word “woefully” is used, it is modifying the word “inadequate.” It’s difficult to explain how preposterous this is, but I’ll try: It’s as though 80 percent of the time people use salt, it’s on scrambled eggs. Think of all the missed opportunities for flavor.
Finally, The Principleof Trite & Wrong
Cliche is easy – it pops into the mind in an instant and often sounds profound or at least comfortingly familiar. Therefore, cliche infests the Internet, even when it is completely inappropriate to the point being made.
Consider “nothing could be further from the truth.” This expression is always a lie. Repeat: This expression is always a lie. If we scan the Web, however, we find it has been used 13 million times, generally in pompous defense of oneself or of another against allegedly scurrilous allegations. Charles Colson, for example, once decried the popular image of Martin Luther King Jr. as “a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values.” Says Colson: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Really, now! I think I can refute this without getting into a tedious discussion of a dead man’s politics. Here is one statement, for example, that is palpably further from the truth: “Martin Luther King Jr. was a subspecies of avocado.” See?
I could go on and on, but whatever I said about the absurdity of the situation would be woefully inadequate.
[Gene Weingarten’s humor column, “Below the Beltway,” has appeared weekly in the Washington Post Magazine since July 2000. He also hosts a monthly humor chat. As a feature writer, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in both 2008 and 2010. Since 2010, he has co-authored the syndicated comic strip Barney and Clyde. This essay was originally published in the Washington Post Magazine on Sunday, 5 January 2014.]
“THE MURDER OF ROGET’S THESAURUS”
by Gene Weingarten
When I was a teenager, I loved murder mysteries from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, particularly those by Agatha Christie. Until recently I thought I had read everything Dame Agatha had ever written featuring her idiosyncratic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. So I was surprised and delighted to discover in a bookstore a collection of Poirot short stories I had not seen before. Most of them were from very early in Christie’s career, published only in magazines.
I bought the book and settled in for a trip down Memory Lane. Alas, it turned into a trip down the descending colon. These stories stank. Christie had yet to figure out exactly who Poirot would be. Instead of having a charmingly ordered mind, he was an annoying fussbudget. Instead of being a likable aesthete, he was comically effeminate. Instead of being a little full of himself, he was an insufferable egomaniac. The plots were derivative: Poirot and his loyal sidekick, Hastings, did not so much resemble Holmes and Watson as duplicate them to a potentially litigable degree.
Far from feeling betrayed, as a writer I felt relief. If Agatha Christie had once been this bad, there is always hope for hacks like me. Maybe I’m not mediocre, maybe I just need more time to find my voice. Y’know, work out the kinks.
I bet all the great writers had dreadful misfires before they got it right. Who knows what you’d find in that first balled-up sheet of paper in the trash can next to their writing desks?
Gabriel García Márquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father taught him to use the potty like a big boy.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a prudent investment strategy.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. I mean, it was just nucking futz.”
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog is whatever maggoty dreck they last snorked up from the gutter.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, irritant of my pancreas . . .”
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Never drink orange juice right after brushing your teeth.”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it usually stems from the uncalled-for implementation of noogies.”
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies) . . .”
(Actually, that last one’s verbatim, as written. Couldn’t make it worse.)
[This column was originally published in the the Washington Post Magazine on 27 April 2014.]