Let me start with a postscript to a previous blog entry about obesity. There is a plea on ABC television for locating missing children, which provides a picture and description of them, and, perhaps inadvertently, induces some serious observations.
First off, these missing children are preponderantly girls. Why? While differing in other ways, some 95 or more percent have one thing in common: they are overweight, many of them grossly so. Well, what imposes itself as the likely connection between obesity and vagrancy?
My guess is unhappiness at the bosom of their families, assuming that their families even have a bosom. The attempted compensation is overeating, mostly of junk food, and if that doesn’t help, escape. Now, lack of bosom brings me to reconsideration of a mistake that has haunted me through the years. Forgive me if I have inflicted it on you before.
It is something recorded, among other places, in the book, “No Stone Unturned” by Diana Rigg, a collection of hostile criticisms disbursed and endured in the theater. There she cites my review in New York magazine of a play called “Abelard and Heloise,” in which she starred as, you guessed it, the latter. And not only starred, but also appeared in a brief, rather discreetly lit, nude scene. It elicited my comment, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” Or so she claims; actually what I wrote was “brick basilica.” This sally, I regret to say, quoted thus mistakenly, is the only quotation from me in a number of anthologies.
More importantly, alas, it prompted what she describes as follows: “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know.” Besides being needlessly injurious, my remark was also inaccurate. Neither a mausoleum nor a basilica, whether it refers to an ancient Roman public building or an early Christian church, had, or was expected to have, a flying buttress, something that came in with cathedrals.
Aside from being in questionable taste (but then witticisms--especially needed in reviews of poor plays—are seldom kind to their targets), there is also a historical question involved: Did Heloise have a flattish chest, and if so, would it have mattered to Abelard, her lover, about whose pectoral preferences. as about so many other things in the Dark Ages, we remain in the dark?
I doubt whether Miss Rigg, a lovely and gifted artist, has read my apology buried somewhere in my writings, but let me assure her herewith that had she ever deemed fit to appear in my bedchamber (to use an appropriately medieval term), the last thing I would have thought of is kicking her out of bed-- basilica, mausoleum, or any other metaphor be damned. Need I add that my joke was based on the popular expression “built like a brick shithouse,” another edifice forgoing flying buttresses.
But on to more impressive mistakes. I repeat here the remark of a female graduate student guide through Olana, the Hudson Valley home of the painter Frederick Church. Before a grand landscape, she declared that “this was the work with which Mr. Church plummeted to fame.” A rather unique mistake from charming lips, forgivable with friendly titters.
But so many other mistakes nowadays are more widespread and far less pardonable. Take what has been issuing with alarming frequency from competing Republican politicians these days on television. Hardly one that hasn’t been wallowing in such idiot idioms as “cannot help but” and “the reason is because.” Call it pleonasm, tautology or redundancy—by any name it smells just as unsweet.
Now it is true that grammar can be curiously idiosyncratic: why should it be “other than” and “different from”? Why is a demeanor masterful and an argument masterly? Why, in popular parlance, is “parameter” wrong for “perimeter”? (If you had some knowledge of Latin, perimeter would be obvious, but who nowadays has even that much Latin?) And in pronunciation, why DESpicable rather than DeSPICable? One could go on and on.
Yet there are cases where minimal thought could avoid illogical lapses. How could “the reason is” be anything other than the same as “because”? How can “cannot help” doing something not suffice without that “but,” and why “cannot but” do something subsist without “help”? Again, doesn’t it take two, and only two, people to love each other, whereas it takes more than two to love one another? There is such a thing as mutual respect, but a friend can only be shared, not mutual, i.e.,reciprocal. Again so on and on. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous pleonasm “free gift”;, of course the world of advertising can no more be trusted than that of television, whose regulars usually “lay” where they should “lie,” never mind that other “lie,” a synonym for major fibbing.
To be sure, there is incorrect usage that has become so ingrained that there is scant hope for correction. There is no chance of good food being called “healthful” rather than “healthy,” as if good could otherwise be infested with germs. And will a crowd of spectators ever be consistently a “number of people” rather than an “amount,” as if it were a quantity of salt in your diet.
So, mostly out of mistaken political correctness (and when is P.C. not mistaken?) we get “everyone has their reason” or “everyone please sit in their seat” where the “one” part in “everyone: begs for a singular. But “his” would be, it seems, an affront to feminism, and “his or her,” though correct, would be cumbersome. Thus does gross solecism become enshrined in polite discourse. How much real harm does “his” and, for that matter, “mankind,” do to rational women’s self-respect? Of course, for “mankind” there is “humanity,” but for “his,” despite the weirdest attempts, there is no bisexual version.
And why, out of sheer ignorance, come up with “thanks for inviting Bill and I to your party,” as if there were no such thing as the properly accusative (or objective) case to be made for “me.”” This is an errant gentilism, which assumes that “I” is always more refined than “me.” Not only is “me” mandatory there, it has also pretty much replaced “I” in phrases like “It is me.” With this, we cannot but acquiesce, even without reference to (preferable to “referencing”) Rimbaud’s renowned “Je est un autre.” This usage is so ingrained that it bypasses the rule that any form of the verb “to be” governs the nominative, thus “It was they [not them] who got there first.” Complicating matters is that the correct phrase “Than whom no one is smarter” somehow may justify “He is smarter than her.”
These days “good” has, with like illogic, replaced “well” in an answer to “How are you?” The questioner is, however uninterestedly (not, please, disinterestedly, which bespeaks selflessness), politely inquiring about your health, not about your behavior, about which he couldn’t (not “could”) care less. “I am good,” besides being a mistake, is boastful; only other people can truly judge how moral you are. The problem is that adjectives, like good, are more popular than adverbs, like well. This, probably, because they are shorter, snappier, than adverbs: “I was doing nice (rather than nicely) before I met you.” Also, confusingly, adjectival forms often do nicely as verbal complements: “Go slow,” for “go slowly.”
Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield, and similar problems arise with spelling and pronunciation, the rather dim Spellcheck notwithstanding. And the same for phrases: how many people use “begs the question” correctly? It is not only a matter of British versus American English, although Bernard (not George Bernard) Shaw was right to characterize us brilliantly as two nations separated by the same language. There are obvious differences involved here (in England, Parliament is plural; in America, singular) and a difference in one does not affect the other. The problem is that English’ unlike French, does not have an Academy prescribing what is correct. And even the good old Academie Francaise is apt to change its mind, presumably to follow usage rather than to stipulate it. I was in Paris on a Fulbright when it was announced that the “s” in “pas” (not) may or may not be elided, which, as I recall, caused quite a fracas. What we do have are the Internet and the computer, bit I won’t go into the devastation they have wreaked.
A good many mistakes could be avoided if we did have some sort of established guardians of correctness, although even then we could ask with Juvenal, “But who will guard the guardians themselves?” And there I am concerned with bigger mistakes than the mere linguistic ones I have mostly dealt with herein.
How to avoid the wars that cover more of our globe than do the oceans? How avoid the folly of many of our elected—or worse yet, unelected—leaders? How to try more earnestly to eschew religion, or at least differences in religions, setting us at one another’s throats? How to get our teachers to really teach, and our students to really study? Surely we could do better than that fine writer George Meredith, who, because of his own marital troubles, arrogantly demanded for women “More brain, O Lord, more brain.” There is no such thing as more brain to be granted, or even a Lord who might do the granting.