Gimme Shelter: A look at the language

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION

It’s time to review how English, the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and Kanye West fared in 2018.

Perhaps a good place to start is the October meeting in the Oval Office between Mr. West and the president, where the entertainer (that would be Mr. West) proceeded to take a linguistic journey with no thought of a destination. Mr. West used the time-honored rhetorical strategy of rolling out obscenities when you notice some audience members staring, open-mouthed, while others are twirling fingers next to their temples.

The president was, what? Bemused? Baffled? Really didn’t care? (See Senator Orrin Hatch, the First Lady.) “Impressive,” the president said.

Mr. Trump is not nearly as amusing in the use of English as George W. Bush, who once, in an attempt to be inspirational, let loose some soaring language: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

He was prescient, however, about the current president, when he said, “See, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again … to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

I would have thought that “collusion” as in “no collusion, no collusion” (lather, rinse, repeat) would have been 2018’s Word of the Year, but what do I know? The word nerds of Dictionary.com — eyeballs parboiled from staring at screens, sporting eccentric haircuts — have sent up a digital flare awarding “misinformation” the top prize. They state that, “As a dictionary, we believe understanding the concept is vital to identifying misinformation in the wild, and ultimately curbing its impact.”

(That “in the wild” has kept me up nights. Well … stopped me for a second.)

The elves and gnomes of the Oxford Dictionary, beavering away in shadowy caves near the River Cherwell, have emerged, blinking into the light, to declare that their Word of the Year is “toxic.”

Pressed about this, they huffily squeaked that “data shows that, along with a 45 percent rise in the number of times it has been looked up over the last year, the word ‘toxic’ has been used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses.”

Scurrying back to their dank quarters, they left a mud-stained list of “toxic collocates” (look it up) for the year. Oh, if you insist: Collocates means words most commonly bound to “toxic,” and this year’s marriage made in purgatory was masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae and air.

Reading the list gives a clear insight into what’s on the mind of the Anglophone world. It’s enough to drive most thinking people to sobriety.

As we do each year at this time, we asked David Lozell Martin, the journalist, editor, best-selling author of a dozen novels and one of the finest American memoirs, “Losing Everything,” to weigh in. The hanging judge of language — do not get on the wrong side of him over the serial comma — complied, releasing his holiday guide of, as he put it, “this year’s writing outrages.”

In a dispatch from his fortress on the Delmarva Peninsula (named for the brave and noble Delmarva tribe), Mr. Martin said he believes mischievous robots have transformed most of us into blithering idiots.

“Writers think spell check is there trusted friend. Its not,” Mr. Martin writes, and quickly shows how most of us really don’t read what we write. In that opening sentence, he points out, “Two words are wrong: ‘there’ should be ‘their’ and ‘its’ should be ‘it’s.’ Astute readers would have caught those mistakes, but spell check would not.

“To make sure what you write is lucid, don’t rely on grammar, punctuation, and spelling software. Instead, here’s a radical idea: learn how to write and then carefully proofread your writing.”

Learning the craft of writing requires reading, he notes, and suggests a guide. “I’ve been editing 50 years and I still review Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style,’ once a year.”

The language samurai asks that we “stop writing stupid emails. All the email shorthand, bad grammar, and lack of punctuation is committed in the name of efficiency. Bullcrackers. Email is the practice writing you do in preparation for your other writing — and no pro gets ready for the big game by practicing doing things incorrectly. Your emails should be as composed as any of your other writing.”

Like a hawk circling a vole, Mr. Martin turned again in the widening gyre (look it up) to seize on spell check: “Even love notes: If you write, ‘Roses are read and violence are blue and sugar is sweat and so are you,” spell check will say it’s perfect, but your beloved will head for the hills.”

Signing off, the master advised slowing the whole damn process down. “I know you’re going to think you don’t have time for all that. I’ll let you in on a secret: soon enough you’ll be dead and have an eternity of time. Meanwhile, slow down long enough to do at least one thing really well: writing. Your boss will be impressed, and you’ll have the satisfaction of producing something lucid in this confused world.”

Clarity, thy name is Martin.

And I will now put into nomination 2019’s Word of the Year: “Bullcrackers.”

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