Annoying Words

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few of my peeves]

When the devil
wants to enrage old English teachers – an irascible lot, to
be sure – he has people abuse and overuse certain words, among
them the following examples.

To begin with
simple words. Most people don’t seem to appreciate the difference
between “may” and “might,” a distinction that
used to be taught in the seventh grade, along with that between
“lay” and “lie.” If you don’t see the differences
among these words, observe how Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson use

How many times
have you heard someone say “prior to” instead of “before”?
“Prior to” has its proper place, as when we say that something
is logically prior to something else, but as a rule “before”
is better to indicate temporal order. “It happened a week prior
to my birthday” is sluggish and pretentious.

I’m far
from the first to complain that hordes of people now use “transpire”
to mean “happen” or “occur” instead of “come
to light,” “turn out,” or “be revealed.”
This has become so common that the traditional usage is apt to cause
confusion. An important shade of meaning has been lost to our language.

Among the great
political abuses now current in English is the use of “defense”
for “military.” Expenditure for the manufacture of countless
terrible and costly weapons of mass murder is now called “defense
spending.” The phrase “national security” is similarly

Nowadays, “democracy”
is what Richard Weaver called a god-term. To be democratic is to
be good, and whatever is good must be democratic. Why? Nobody explains.
In fact, it’s rare to find a useful definition of democracy.

by contrast, is a devil-word, the opposite of “modern.”
Why is everything medieval assumed to be bad? Again, nobody explains.
But St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dante Alighieri, to name
but three, were medieval men. To hear some people, you’d think
all men ever did in the Middle Ages was pray and torture each other
by turns. In the enlightened twentieth century, on the other hand,
there was much less prayer and much more torture as man learned
to fly, drop bombs on cities, and congratulate himself on his humanitarian
achievements (such as making abortion easily available). Homicide
is certainly more efficient now than in the Dark Ages. We can be

the rest of the article

4, 2008

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