Let’s Make It a Word
BY DAVID LEWIS
Irrespective of how egregiously incorrect irregardless may be, it’s fun to use in conversation, shamelessly baiting know-it-alls and grammar police. After they correct you, insist it’s a word or becoming one in some newfangled dictionary that includes expressions like my bad and totally tubular. Then tell them it’s used by pro-athletes all the time when they’re pretending they can talk in post-game interviews.
At least irregardless is a known commodity (regardless is correct). The one that’s more bothersome is impact, because it didn’t mean what people now think it means. But it’s been used so much that we have to put up with it. Impact was what happened when your car crashed into a wall, not what happened when cows trampled streambanks or people littered in a national park. It’s now the kind of word used by bureaucrats and academics who talk like bureaucrats and academics. Why not just say effect—as in the effect development has on the environment. It’s safe to say Jim Harrison wouldn’t use the word while penning his taut, masculine prose, nor would Hemingway have. Impact fails because it’s nerdy language born not of the soul but of a dry mind that lacks genuine expression. Seems we’re stuck with it, though.
All that computer lingo resonates like fingers on a blackboard too. Computer speak makes a body long for genuine Montana expressions like barrow pit, spendy, and big windy, even if you’re an out-of-stater. Those expressions have character. Interface doesn’t, although in your face does—what a difference a few letters make. Then there’s all that sterile sounding enviro-speak used to describe things that aren’t sterile at all: habitat, environment, impact (there it is again), ecosystem, riparian. You’d think nature was invented by someone who never went outside.
While we’re on the subject of words (we are, if you hadn’t noticed), this editor happened to use a multi-syllabic word at an apparently monosyllabic watering hole lately—mellifluous. A fine specimen of vocabulary, a great word. You’d have thought he was speaking Vietnamese. Bemused (look that up too), he took a poll of the various clients of the establishment and found that nobody knew what the word meant. That’s not right, it’s a good word.
Hint: the word comes from mel, the Latin word for honey, and fluus, meaning flowing. As in: The lead singer of AC/DC is not mellifluous in the least. The band is, in fact, cacophon-ous. If you don’t get it by now your GED application is in the mail.
The language is changing so quickly, though, that even the best can hardly keep up. The Oxford English Dictionary, that guardian of the Queen’s English, and the greatest work of scholarship in the world (it’s really big), took upon itself long ago the task of deciding what’s a word and what isn’t. The test is simple. If it sticks, it’s a word. If it’s an expression likely to fade away, a fad, it’s not. As a result, the Queen’s English has now become Uncle Sam’s and the limeys are livid about it (we’re the best country). American English has become so prolific, so essential and predominant, that even the stuffed shirts can’t deny it. Moreover, American English has, like flower pollen, ridden the global winds (knapweed pollen if you’re French), cross pollinating with other tongues to the extent that the world now has Franglais and Spanglish complete with expressions that can’t be uttered in any other way except through those hybrid “dialects.”
This linguistic birds-and-bees dynamic troubles the French, but think of all the place names we have in our area alone deriving from the era of French trappers and explorers: Choteau, Rauche Jaune (Yellowstone), Coeur d’Alene (Heart of the awl), Grand Teton (Big Nipples—leave it to the French. Thank God they didn’t name Pompey’s Pillar).
In the end, language is a living, self-organizing entity, like all mass dynamics spontaneously engaged in by human beings—traffic, for instance, commerce, and crowds. Rules exist, but they can’t manage and don’t create anything. They are reactions to the natural processes of a vital organism. They don’t even keep up with trends and needs. As with attempts to manage or care for populations through bureaucracy, it can’t be done. Dictionaries and language police, like bureaucracies, only nibble around the edges of human behavior. Ultimately, and innately, we say and do what we want. We don’t come to full stops at stop signs, and eat the last cookie when nobody’s looking—irregardless.