The Write Stuff
All but Homicidal …
All writers have their shortcuts — unexamined devices on which they rely — and because they are unexamined, they’re often oafish and off-putting. A fairly prominent biographer of figures from America’s Founding has one that sets my teeth on edge. That’s not just because he uses it over and over but because, by its very nature, it is deliberately misleading. While reading one of his books the other night, I started counting, and he trotted it out three times on one page, twice in successive sentences. He’ll say someone “all but” did something, which makes me “all but” homicidal.
The author writes, for example, that the anti-federalists “all but threatened James Madison with bodily harm” if he did not support a bill of rights. He says Richard Henry Lee “all but howled his outrage” over what he regarded as an imperfection in the Constitution. Think about it: The anti-federalists did not threaten Madison, and Lee did not howl. But saying these people “all but” did something they didn’t do is an incompetent attempt to add drama and excitement to a moment through exaggeration and falsehood.
Saying they “all but” did these things, after all, is to tell us not what they did, but what they didn’t do. And the writer’s job — most of the time — is simply to tell us what happened. If the moment is dramatic and exciting (this is something writers used to be told), “let the facts speak for themselves.”
Annoying Word of the Month: Mentee. Vulture’s review of Your Honor, the new Bryan Cranston series on Showtime, refers to an attorney “who is a former mentee” of Cranston’s character and, “in one of the more cliché touches in the series, a potential love interest.”
This is the first time I have seen “mentee” in print, though I hear it often. “Mentee” always sounds more like a breath mint than a protégé, but I suppose I need to get used to it. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this American coinage to 1965, but it seems to have appeared in 1916, and was irritating to some as early as 1944. An article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects quoted one of their number who in appalled disbelief wrote, “One of our group even wanted to describe the candidate as a mentee!”
The word is what linguists call a back-formation from “mentor,” obviously, but must be spelled with some care. The Columbia Journalism Review in 2011 cautioned against describing anyone as a “manatee.” I guess an exception might be made for sea cows.
And — back to that review of the Bryan Cranston series — “cliché” is a noun; the adjective is “clichéd.”
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