Zestful Blog Post #103
As I sat down to my coffee and breakfast this morning, pen and paper in hand to rough out this blog post—I knew not what it would be—I was internally grumbling about misuses of language I’d noticed recently. Then my hand just started writing. At the top of the page appeared, “Stuff That Bugs Me”. I thought, it’s true I was brought up not to complain and find fault, but dammit, I’m gonna. My hand then wrote, ‘Volume I’. I burst out laughing. Here we go.
I regularly read a popular magazine, which is usually good with copy editing. But the most recent issue contained two blunders, the first being ‘nonplussed’ to mean ‘calm and collected’. This is sloppy and brainless. I will explain.
The word comes from the Latin ‘non plus’, meaning ‘no more’, as in ‘I’m so freaked out, I can’t handle any more! I can’t go forward!’
Like ‘literally’ to some people, ‘nonplussed’ has come to mean the opposite of its original definition.
And here we come to the prescriptive-vs.-descriptive argument involving dictionaries and other arbiters of linguistic accuracy. If enough people start using ‘nonplussed’ as a fancy way of saying ‘calm’, that definition will be first in every dictionary ere long and every moron will be using it that way.
Webster’s Third, which came out in 1960, must be blamed for starting the ‘descriptive’ trend in dictionaries. Some think civilization began to decay in the 60s because of LSD and long hair on men, but it was really Webster’s Third.
[This is not Webster’s Third, which will never darken my dictionary stand. This is my Compact OED (Oxford English Dictionary), magnifier visible on bookcase to the left. Photo by ES.]
I know language evolves. I get that. For instance, ‘get’ did not commonly mean ‘understand’, but it does now. I’m fine with that—there’s some intelligence to that particular evolution, having to do with economy and rhythm.
But using ‘nonplussed’ to mean its opposite is simply dumb. It’s the ‘non’ prefix that makes intellectually lazy people think it must mean ‘unruffled’ or ‘not bothered’. I stand against such corruptions, even though I use ones that have evolved over a long time, like ‘egregious’, which originally meant ‘illustrious’; ‘of a high order’. That changed during the Renaissance, so I don’t remember it.
Therefore, we come to the solution for the descriptive-vs.-prescriptive argument: If the meaning of a word starts to change to its opposite, or become dumbed down in any way DURING MY LIFETIME, I’m against it, and you should be too.
The other error in the same magazine was, “…you’ll need lots of money and some serious cajones.” Really? You’ll need money and some Peruvian percussion instruments? Oh, wait, you must mean ‘cojones’, which are testicles or, informally, courage. Well, why’n’t you say so?
Those two mistakes should properly be laid at the feet of the magazine’s copy editor. I’ve worked as a copy editor; it was part of my jack-of-all-trades job on a minor metropolitan newspaper, and of course I edit my own material. Also, I throw in some copy editing when doing manuscript analysis and development with private clients. I’m considering including a full copy edit with my services. For one reason, it will save my clients having to hire somebody else to do it, and for another, I will catch inadvertent blunders less experienced editors might miss. BTW, if you’re interested in working with me on your manuscript or career, just shoot me an email; the contact info is on my web site. I’ll send you my service sheet, which includes prices.
I turned to the magazine’s masthead, noted the chief copy editor’s name, and said aloud, “What are you, a seventh-grader? This is a Condé Nast publication. They can’t afford better than you?” This is how deeply these things affect me. I got on line, intending to send an email to the magazine, offering my services, but found no to-the-editor email address, or indeed any email address. This magazine doesn't publish letters to the editor, and they don’t want to hear from you or me, it seems. This is egregious, don’t you agree?
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