Quinn, Jim, The Nation
Self-styled language conservatives, like political conservatives, sometimes adopt a pose of know-it-all judiciousness. Not for them the headlong rush after fad and fashion, the mob's giddy urge for newness. Staunchly, sometimes sadly (for they know the cause is lost), they stand up for the civilities of the past and the language of our fathers. In their complaints about words like Ms or hopefully or prioritize, you can almost hear the voice of Carlyle opposing the Reform Act of 1832 or Matthew Arnold speaking out against the disestablishment of the Church of England. Erudite orthodoxy guards the gates of literacy. Of course it's all a fraud, as anyone can discover by reading William Safire's "On Language' column in The New York Times Magazine.
Safire is our leading sociolinguistic conservative, and with the help of a group of indefatigably alarmed correspondents he likes to call Lexicographic Irregulars, he publishes a weekly list of words we should worry about. The tone is urbane; the criticism is quiet, even jocular; the information, dead wrong. On the evidence of Safire's columns, language conservatives are a smallminded bunch, so removed from erudition and so mentally lazy that they are strangers to the most primitive of research methods: looking words up in the dictionary.
All you need to demolish most Safire articles is a couple of good historical dictionaries: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate, the Oxford English Dictionary and its supplements. I'll take a single column, "Invasion of The Verbs,' from October 6, 1985, as a sample of Safire's method.
"Invasion of The Verbs' warns us against the new verbs that are "being coined every day.' An adwriter from N.W. Ayer has heard a conductor say, "The last two cars of this train will not platform at Talmadge Hall,' and is appalled at the presumption of the working class. To platform seems to him as bad as that other voguish verb, to parent. Phil Gailey of The New York Times reports that politicians talk of profounding the issues. Safire himself has come across liaise and post-mortem used as verbs. Worst of all, Harold C. Schonberg of The Times has overheard an editor say that fresh news "mooted the story.' And "I hoot,' adds Harold, "at the moot.'
First of all, as Safire himself admits in the column, making nouns of verbs and verbs of nouns or even of adjectives is a basic strategy of our language. So basic that the oldest and most intimate English words are the ones most likely to be both noun and verb: hand, mouth, eye, bed, house, father, mother and so on. The structure of modern English makes this functional shift easier for us. In most Indo-European languages you can tell what a word is by looking at it. In English you often have to have the word in context. "The cage' is a noun; in "I cage' the word is a verb; and in "the cage door' it works as an adjective. If speakers of English stop shifting words about in this way they won't be conserving the language, they'll be inventing a radically different one.
A little dictionary work could have saved us all this fuss. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to platform first appeared in print in 1793. Among the users cited are Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Abraham Lincoln. To parent has been around since 1663. To profound, listed as obsolete by the O.E.D., started in 1412 with Lydgate; Sir Thomas Browne is cited for three separate shades of meaning. Liaise is relatively new, though it is one year older than Safire. The O.E.D. calls it "services slang' and dates it from 1928. Among those who have used liaise as a verb without harm to the English language are Louis MacNeice (Holes in Sky) and Lawrence Durrell (Mountolive). Postmortem is cited first as an adjective (1837), then as a noun (1844), then as a verb (1871); but new words are usually around for years before they finally appear in the conservative medium of print, so all three of those forms were probably used simultaneously. …