• Annoying Words

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    [A
    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
    them.

    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
    abused.

    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.

    “Medieval,”
    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
    proud.

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    September
    4, 2008

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