Henrietta Hay Column July 17, 2009

We need to be proactive when it comes to prioritizing our word usage

I think that if I had my college years to do over, I would study etymology instead of economics. That’s etymology as in words, not entomology as in bugs. The bugs I could live without, but words fascinate me.

How did people first communicate with each other? I wonder whether the first verbal communication came when a cave man looked at a cave woman and said, “Ugh,” meaning “When’s supper?” And there are those who believe that Adam said, “OK, I’ll try it,” in perfect English.

The need of human beings to communicate with each other is universal, and it is not an exclusively human trait. Animals seem to do very well at expressing themselves without words. Mercury the Wonder Cat always made it quite clear what he wanted without saying a word.

A living language is constantly growing and changing, but the changes should make it easier to understand and more beautiful to listen to.

Unfortunately, however, we do get carried away by language. I think we are committing verbicide on the English language. We make up new words so we will have an excuse to use more.

My friend the philosopher commented over coffee one day that it’s not the language rules but the details that make us so wordy. We do have a lot of details. We like to use 20 words to say what we could say in two.

An interesting list showed up on the Web recently. It compares the number of words used for different documents.

The Pythagorean Theorem is 24 words. The Lord’s Prayer is 63 words. The Ten Commandments are 179 words. The Gettysburg Address is 286 words. The Declaration of Independence is 1,300 words.

Federal regulations on the sale of cabbage amount to 26,900 words.

But I doubt that there are enough words in any language to make me understand Pythagoras’ theorem.

The English language is under siege today by several very weird trends.

One is what we might call “organizationeze,” not unrelated to “pedagogese.” We are inventing new words and new uses for words, not for clarity, but for obfuscation.  The business and education communities seem to be inventing their own language.

One thing that bothers me is the habit of changing the meanings and tenses and parts of speech of words, particularly creating verbs out of nouns.

Take my personal pet peeve, “ize.” The suffix “ize” is a means of turning nouns or adjectives into verbs. In some well-established forms — such as formalize, criticize, jeopardize and hospitalize — it makes sense. But words like accessorize, incentivize, privatize, prioritize and others not yet thought of are imprecise in meaning and lack clarity.

One of my favorites was an ad I heard one day on the radio for a savings account which is collateralized. I think I would not want to put any pennies in that bank.

Another one, which I have heard here in Happy Valley, is capacitize. That one means, so far as I can tell, “to make an auditorium full”—to capacity, that is — I think.

Then there is that commonly used “proactive.” There is no such word as “proactive,” according to Webster. If there were, the prefix pro means favoring the affirmative side, defending, supporting. That would mean proact means defending some action.  It is generally used, however inaccurately, to mean one should act rather than re-act. What’s the matter with “act?”

Recently, I read a book review in which the reviewer liked the book, but complained that the indexation was poor. So was the review.

I am no linguist and I certainly do not pretend to speak perfect English. I do, however, respect the language and I like to hear it spoken and written as accurately and concisely as it can be.

So let’s prioritize our subject matter irregardless of the overview and proactively interface with our friends as we collateralize our risks in this time frame, and, as my
Phoenix son says, boldly go where no language has ever gone before.

Henrietta Hay can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and on the Web at http://www.henriettahay.com.


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