The Literary Corner: The Knight’s English by Osric Knight

By Osric Knight

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The title of this series is a bashful nod to The King’s English, by Kingsley Amis, a reference I’d be remiss not to recommend to the curious reader, or linguistic amateur (etymologically: lover of language).  It also serves to acknowledge my debt and inferiority to that Sovereign.  More strictly invaluable by way of supplementary reference, however, are H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage—two fixtures on my desk, along with the double-volumed Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993 ed.).

The articles below are intended to fill in such gaps as I’ve detected in these works that have formed since their respective publications so many decades ago.  For instance, neither Fowler nor Follett nor Amis needed to include an article on “mortify,” because its rampant misuse is a more recent phenomenon.  I also revisit certain words and constructions, the debate surrounding which has been largely decided, alas, against their (particularly Fowler’s) team.  It would be in quixotic vain to remonstrate, in 2017, as Amis obstinately did just a quarter-century ago, against the use of “optimistic” standing alone without a qualifying prepositional phrase.  One must make painful but necessary concessions to pragmatism and the guiding principle of intelligibility.

I ignore other commonly abused words, like “infamous” (=“wicked,” not “ignominious” or “unfavorably notorious”), because I have nothing to say about them that the three mentioned authorities haven’t said, and I believe theirs still to be the last word on the matter.  I also ignore words whose misuse has been sufficiently and publicly deplored by others; there are still plenty of people around who can tell you all about “decimate,” and so my additional contribution to the discussion would be eminently unnecessary.  Finally, there is no reason at all to address that small class of phantom rules invented by semi-literate schoolmarms, of which the absurd ban on prepositions at the end of sentences is perhaps the most notorious example.

In addition to these substantive articles I may well be induced to provide, by and by, a more exhaustive introduction, or rather interludial essays—including an exposition of my purpose, my guiding principles, general criticism, disclaimers and apologies.  But for now, without further ceremony, a few samples of the meat of the matter:

 

FALSE ANALOGIES

“Mortify”—the preservation of this uniquely expressive word in its proper sense is well worth fighting for.  And its misuse is relatively recent:  none of the three writers I mentioned at the top, one of whom was writing in the ‘90s, referred to it as prone to misuse, though no doubt the barbarity was quietly born in some university or newspaper or television-studio many decades ago (the tripartite sources of most linguistic barbarities—before the Internet Age).  Literally meaning to make mortal (i.e. susceptible of death), obviously, it means (by metaphorical transference) to humiliate, bring (one) down to earth, knock (one) down a peg, etc.; not “to terrify.”  It agonizes me to witness the savage beating this word has received from turgid tongues searching for a more posh-sounding synonym for “terrify” or “horrify,” and lighting clumsily on “mortify” by the false analogy presented by the suffix.

Jane Austen would be horrified, not mortified, to witness the contemporary mutilation of her favorite pet word.

“Petrify” seems to have undergone the same vulgar perversion, but I fear it’s beyond redemption, perhaps because it’s been used more frequently, and so the change has occurred more quickly.  Etymologically meaning “turn (some one or thing) to stone,” it was also used metaphorically, as in “petrified by fear.”  But now that we all think it means “terrify,” we omit the helpful qualifier “by fear,” and so it would be hard these days for anyone of even a modestly lyrical turn to write “petrified by amorous awe,” etc., without his gentle reader squinting with imbecile incomprehension at the page.  Oh well, we still have “paralyze”—for now; but it’s just not quite the same.


SEMINAL

This word has been so far bastardized by journalists as to mean nothing less generic than “great.”    When I see phrases like “so-and-so’s seminal treatise,” I am disposed to run for the hills; but I remain heroically patient and wait for the writer to demonstrate or imply by the next sentence why the treatise/novel/movie was seminal, if it’s not already clear by the context—because to be sure there are a good lot of seminal books out there, mostly by dead people, though not as many as the common New York Times reviewer seems to believe.  “Seminal” does not mean “great,” and still less does “great” mean “seminal.”  “Original” is closer to the mark, but not the same.  “Influential” gets us still closer to the mark, but not quite precisely there. As usual, etymology comes to our aid.  “Seminal” and “semen” and “seminary” all share the same Latin parent.  Think about it; I’ll let you figure this one out on your own.

The peculiar beauty of this language is that no two of its words are exactly the same.

 

BRUTALIZE

I concur with Amis’s verdict that the word is now “unusable,” but I want to examine why this should be so, when “hateful” has experienced quite a similar problem, or change, and yet I have not consummately decided to resist the advent of its contemporary meaning (see next).

Proper meaning:  to turn (some one or thing) into a brute, to render brutal, to animalize.  New meaning: to treat (some one or thing) brutally, to abuse (some one or thing) violently.

There are at least two problems with the recent corruption of “brutalize.”  One is that the new meaning is diametrically opposed to its proper meaning, due to subject-object conflation, so that literate readers aware of the proper meaning will have to pause fruitlessly in order to resolve the ambiguity.  The other problem is more troublesome:  the new meaning is logically wrong, as applied to the particular word, and therefore insuperably incompatible with the word it has come to infect; “brutalize,” as it is spelled or constructed, simply will not admit of the new meaning. Almost without exception, verbs suffixed with -ize are originally adjectives or nouns; and -ize (from the Greek -izein) loosely means “to make” or “render” something the noun or adjective to which -ize is suffixed.  Thus, to utilize means to make use of; to tantalize means to make a Tantalus out of the object, i.e. to make him the teased, to tease him; to idolize means to make an idol out of; to civilize obviously means to make the object civil—it does not mean that the subject is acting civilly towards the object.  Therefore “brutalize” means to render brutal; a surviving synonym would be “to animalize.” It emphatically does not mean, and cannot mean, to treat brutally.  To be sure, there is often a permissible figurative overlap in meaning between “treat brutally” and “render brutal”:  thus the bombing Pakistani civilians may be said at once to treat the people brutally, i.e. act like brutes towards them, and to turn them into brutes.  Still the unavoidable ambiguity that has recently arisen, and the howling illogic of the new meaning, has indeed rendered the word unusable.

So when you want a neatly holophrastic way of saying “make or render brutal,” your best option is to use “animalize” or “brutify” instead.  With thanks particularly to “brutify,” we may safely throw “brutalize” to the winds of oblivion without a funereal tear (as we have shed for truly unique words whose deaths we have had the grim duty to announce elsewhere in this series).

 

HATEFUL

Mysteriously, neither Fowler nor Follett nor Amis (as far as I could ascertain) addressed the usage that has infected this word with ambiguity, and yet I am sure that I have seen “hateful” used as “hating” rather than “hated” in works written before the 1960s—but I may be mistaken.  At any rate, for centuries “hateful” meant “hated,” not “hating”; “horribly contemptible,” not “hostilely contemptuous.”

The only real cause for complaint is the ambiguity.  Unlike the contemporary corruption of “brutalize,” the new use of “hateful” is not strictly illogical.  Tearful, full of tears; joyful, full of joy; but wonderful, uh, full of wonder?  What about frightful, fearful?  Hateful, full, um, of hate?  The fact is, that, unlike -ize, the Saxon -ful really does not in all cases bear necessarily on the question of subject or object, and never has done.

And the SOED (1993 ed.) accepts both meanings of “hateful.”  (Caveat: as always, dictionaries are persuasive, not binding, authority as regards linguistic prescription; for after all they are primarily in the business of describing usage, not prescribing logical or preferable or elegant usage.)  Moreover:  the quotation the SOED uses as an example of what I have been calling the “new” meaning, “hating,” comes from . . . Shakespeare himself!  Thus the new acceptation is really a revival of the oldest one.  My advice to myself, however, is to avoid using the word altogether until the new, or revived, meaning has quite fully replaced the other.  The regnant acceptation of “hateful” as “object of hate” went unchallenged for too long, and most of my favorite authors from Smollett to Wodehouse wrote during that long reign, so it is impossible for me to banish it from my memory.  But people in general, too, should at least bear in mind the older/middle meaning of “hateful”—“hated,” “horribly contemptible”—or else people like Dickens will become as incomprehensible to us as Shakespeare sometimes is now.

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