It Cant Transpire Here
article in this mornings Washington Post informs us that
White House lawyers had not been apprised of what had
transpired. A more literate person would have written, White
House lawyers had not been told what had happened.
But of course this is the age of pseudoliteracy. If you can get apprised and transpired into the same sentence, hey, go for it! With a little extra effort, maybe you can cram parameters in there too. Then your prose will really wow those who dont know any better.
Never mind that transpired means, or once meant, came to light. If a word is misused often enough, the error becomes correct and lexicographers capitulate. Recent dictionaries sanction the abuse of transpired.
So why do I persist in calling it an abuse? Doesnt use determine meaning? Arent words mere sounds to which meanings are arbitrarily attached by popular association?
Thats what I was taught, by a learned linguist who, for some reason, scrupulously observed all the rules he told his students were obsolete. He spoke with utter precision, in complete sentences, as if Samuel Johnson had been listening critically. Yet he ridiculed fuddy-duddy rules of usage and dictionaries that prescribed the proper use of words. Language changes, he insisted, and its futile to oppose change even as he resisted change in his own verbal conduct.
My professor seemed to me like one of those aristocrats who believe in revolution, yet cant let go of their own blue-blooded habits. Somehow I learned more from his habits than from the doctrine he preached. His habits were right. His doctrine was wrong.
The doctrine was that lexicography is history. Dictionaries shouldnt say should. They should merely record usage up to the moment they go to press, without presuming to pass judgment.
But this too is a prescription. It assumes that its snobbish, even undemocratic, to oppose popular usage. Under the pretense of abolishing authority, it merely transfers authority to the mob.
Why is that wrong? Because language doesnt always change. Chaucer and Shakespeare dont change. If we want to keep in touch with the past, we have to make a certain effort to stabilize the language against irrational change.
The key word is irrational. Dr. Johnson, one of the greatest of lexicographers, recognized that change is inevitable, and for some purposes good and necessary; but he also knew that we can and must sustain a certain amount of continuity, or our heritage will soon be locked in a foreign language. Not all change is progress; some is decay.
Is it desirable that each generation should speak a different language? Do we want our descendants to find our words as hard to read as Chaucer? This week a movie reviewer wrote what may be the most fatuous sentence in the entire history of The New York Times: My own feeling about Shakespeare is that all too often the words get in the way.
G.K. Chesterton called tradition the democracy of the dead. Just as nobody should be disfranchised by accident of birth, he argued wittily, nobody should be disfranchised by accident of death. Every change in language is a step toward disfranchising Shakespeare. It shouldnt be a hasty step.
We ought to think of our great writers as a perpetually endangered species. Preservation isnt passive; like maintaining an old house, it demands a lot of work and, sometimes, hard choices. We cant save everything; we have to know what is worth saving. Surely that includes the core vocabulary of classical English.
If that language goes to waste, the aesthetic loss alone is tremendous. But there is a further danger. Modern tyranny has made a specialty of perverting language, reducing it to an instrument of propaganda and control. It thrives on a populace without long memories and traditions, which provide anchorage and the ability to measure the present against the past.
One of the masterstrokes of Chinese communism has been to replace the ancient Chinese ideogram with a modern phonetic alphabet, thereby reducing the entire population to pseudoliteracy. The people are taught to read, but forbidden to remember. The whole Chinese past has been erased.
But even when the past perishes, snobbery survives. It cant happen here, you say? Its already transpiring.
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