Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
Liberating the Language
[p.81]Bear with me on this, will you? I’ve got to get it off my chest. I’m an English professor, yes, but stereotypes to the contrary, I’m not a crank about language, at least in terms of grammatical peculiarities that people expect teachers to be starchy about. I never say “It is I.” I never worry about who v. whom. To boldly split an infinitive seems to me as natural and wholesome as it is to brazenly create fresh slang every half-generation or so.
When certain groups of people fiddle around with the language for some fancy purpose of their own, I resist. At the moment, it’s advertisers who are the cornsilk in my incisor.
Have you listened to the radio and TV commercials for clothing lately? In case you haven’t, I’ll give you the word: it’s pant. Pants are no more; slacks are no more. For some unfathomable reason, clothiers today talk about “a fine wool pant,” and “a handsome beltless slack.” At first I thought this was just some oddball’s peculiarity, but no, they all say it: “You’ll love this pant.” “Great price reduction on this slack.”
If this change from pants (plural) to pant (singular) were [p.82]seeping up from the grass roots of the language, I guess I wouldn’t object. But I can’t believe it is. I can’t believe that on a
Monday morning, Harry leans over the banister and yells, “Alice, where’s my grey pant?” I cannot believe that Bud stands at his closet door and calls, “Mom, is my new slack out of the dryer?”
What causes nonsensical changes like this? Is it somebody’s idea of being trendy? Are we soon to hear advertisements for a scissor, a garden shear, a nice brass fireplace tong; will opticians sing the praises of their new bifocal or sunglass; will skiers be sporting a new goggle? It’s to giggle.
Then we have the replacement of nouns with adjectives. There used to be an article of furniture called the china closet. No more. It’s called a china. Look at the ads. Of course, it is not china, but does anyone care? Any day now, a bookshelf will be called a book. Only the copywriters know what we’ll call those things we formerly called books. These same furniture dealers baldly tell you you can buy a dining room from them for $499.00. Of course, you couldn’t put the studs up for that price. Their dining room is a table and four chairs. In the grocery stores, you see signs advertising picnics. The product being hawked is picnic hams. If you’ve lived or traveled in the East, you may have acquired a taste for Danish pastry. But in this age of familiarity, it’s lost its surname: now it just goes by Danish.
The tinkering gets worse. Do you need face cream? Forget it. The least you can buy are some cosmetics—a word derived from cosmos, no less. We learned what the word meant—just in time to see it vanish. For a while we had “personal care products,” which could mean anything from face cream to toilet paper and tampons. Now we have “systems.” Paul Mitchell Systems. Does that phrase convey information? Not to me. It could mean anything from air conditioning to computers, but it actually means—cosmetics. Try your psychic powers on this one: bath botanics. What do you see? Large jungle plants taking over the plumbing? A rice paddy springing up between family ablutions? At minimum, a window full of flora, right? Wrong. Bath oil.
Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. And Abraham Lincoln liked to ask folks, on occasion, how many legs a dog has if you call his tail a leg. If someone answered, “Five,” Lincoln would rap out, [p.83]“Wrong! Calling a dog’s tail a leg don’t make it one.” It sure don’t, Abe: not in your day, not in ours.
Government, politics, the military (remember “disinformation”?), and, yes, I’m sorry to say, education seem as mired down in doublespeak as ever. Maybe it’s naive to expect anything better from advertising. On the other hand, free enterprise has given us sports bras and disposable diapers: maybe the language, too, can be liberated. Don’t give up the slack!