Jewish World Review June 6, 2002 / 24 Sivan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Dear Grammarian,
It was wholly a pleasure to get your letter seconding my objections to the pretentious -- and ungrammatical -- preference for "he and I" instead of "him and me" after a preposition. I like your vivid if vulgar term for such usage: piss-elegant.
Your appellation beats the heck out of calling it ignorant and pretentious. As usual, the fewer the syllables, the better the description.
The preference for higher-sounding forms of speech is also something of a class marker. As a general rule, the upper the class, the simpler the speech. "Language most shows a man," said Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson. "Speak, that I may see thee." (What a terrible fate for an ambitious playwright: to live in Shakespeare's time!)
In his indispensable "Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Double Talk," Hugh Rawson sums up the general idea behind linguistic pretension:
"The longer the euphemism, the better. As a rule … euphemisms are longer than the words they replace. They have more letters, they have more syllables, and frequently two or more words will be deployed in place of a single one. This is partly because the tabooed Anglo-Saxon words tend to be short and partly because it almost always takes more words to evade an idea than to state it directly and honestly."
This also explains why our more duplicitous politicians also tend to be the longest-winded. That's why, when Bill Clinton gives a short speech, somebody really ought to mark the spot with an historical plaque. The Democratic convention went wild back in 1988 when he spoke those most welcome of all phrases in his nominating speech for Michael Dukakis: "In conclusion … ."
One of the surer marks of the middle class is a deep yearning for pomposity, which it confuses with sophistication. Why use one or two syllables when three, four or five might be found to fuzz up the meaning?
In his small classic, "Class," Paul Fussell notes that a sure sign of the linguistically pretentious is "their innocence of the objective case, for one thing. Recalling vaguely that it is polite to mention oneself last, as in 'He and I were there,' (they) apply this principle uniformly and come up with "Between he and I.'"
Dear Disappointed, It was wholly a pleasure to get your response after we reprinted my first column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the 10th anniversary of my becoming editorial page editor.
Neither short nor sweet, your lengthy fax plus attachment was a welcome, not to say, bracing change from the other messages that day. I need all the humbling I can get.
Then there was your request. You asked that I find and return the congratulatory letter you sent me 10 years ago -- because you'd been so disappointed in my performance.
I'm sorry I can't return it. Because I didn't keep it. I don't even remember it. (It has been 10 years.) I hope I acknowledged it at the time, but in the event I didn't, I want to thank you for your good wishes.
I will take the liberty of returning your fax and accompanying attachment in the event that, 10 years from now, you might like them back.
With all good personal wishes,
Dear Law Student,
It was wholly a pleasure to receive your good question. ("What attitude should we Southerners have about the Confederate States of America? Should we be proud of it? Ashamed? Indifferent? What do you think?")
I think the War's over, and we should let it be over. But I know that's impossible, it being the rock from which we are hewn. Rather than fight it all over again, to no more avail now than before, it should be regarded as an elevating tragedy. Let us learn from it as we do from Shakespeare's tragedies, from the Prophets and Psalms.
I know of no better or more concise summary of the moral meaning of that awful struggle than Mr. Lincoln's Second Inaugural. Those who gathered at the Capitol to hear it that long awaited spring, when Northern arms were on the brink of triumph, might have anticipated some grandiloquent proclamation of victory. Instead they heard words that silenced all vainglory with their malice toward none, charity for all. Even now the Second Inaugural's biblical rhythms and perspective make any commentary superfluous.
That brief address will not tell you what perspective we Southerners should have on the ill-fated Confederate States of America; rather it makes the whole question irrelevant, and the only fitting response an awed silence.
To this day the Second Inaugural lends us all, North and South, past and future Americans, moral perspective on that terrible rent in the national fabric, which is still being woven.
It was wholly a pleasure to receive your accusation and question, for it gives me an opportunity to address both with one statement. After a column critical of today's racial preferences, officially called affirmative action, you wrote: "It is so easy to see your very biased viewpoint. I wonder what you were doing when Orval Faubus was in office."
I hasten to answer: I was in Pine Bluff, Ark., writing editorials against Orval Faubus and for civil rights. I was against racial preferences then, too, when they were called segregation.
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