The Write Stuff
By Alan Crawford,
One of America’s great prose stylists was H.L. Mencken of Baltimore, remembered today for his bouncy and joyous mockery of politicians whom others regarded with respect, if not reverence. But Mencken was more than a lively debunker of the pompous. His book The American Language is still a classic of amateur scholarship.
Published in 1919, The American Language explores how people in this country speak and write, in informal as well as formal settings. Mencken was especially eager to record the ways in which our vocabulary developed on its own, through slang and everyday speech, but also through advertising and bureaucratic usage. In that, the book underscores what one of Oscar Wilde’s characters said about the English having “everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
And even in the first edition of The American Language, Mencken noticed how words were being added to the language by the suffix “-ize.” His examples include respectablize, scenarioize and powerize — coinages rarely heard in barbershops and bowling alleys but all the rage “at the upper levels” of business and academic life. Mencken called these “monstrosities,” which they usually were and are.
I hear them all the time, mainly among people in the “communications” field. In a matter of days, I heard for the first (but surely not last) time agendize and intentionalize. I winced, though I wanted to act aggressively and put down this assault on a language that, to my knowledge, had done the speaker no harm.
Theodore Bernstein, a longtime New York Times editor who also taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism, took a more tolerant view of “-ize” words but not a wholly approving one. They are “one of the devices that have helped the English language grow,” Bernstein argued in The Careful Writer. “But it has also in some instances helped it grow stuffy or grotesque.”
Here’s Bernstein’s take:
Self-important people love important-sounding words, and the ‘-ize’ words seem to be one variety that satisfies their yearning. But the question that must be asked is not, Does this word sound important? But rather, Is this word necessary? That test will readily weed out a large proportion of the coinages that clutter the language. And when the new ones appear, the proper view should be one of skepticism — a kind of damn-your-ize attitude.
Put bluntly, if you don’t have to use an “-ize,” don’t do it. Just say no.
Annoying Word of the Month: Passion. Everyone today is supposed to be “passionate” about what they do to make their rent or pay their mortgage. It doesn’t matter what it is — podiatry, double-entry accountancy, beet farming — it’s your passion. It has always been your passion. From a young age (maybe even in the crib), you’ve dreamed of nothing else. You’ve yearned for that day when the opportunity would present itself, and you could fulfill your occupational destiny. Just tell potential employers why you’re special so they hire you, but don’t tell them you’re passionate.
Far from distinguishing yourself, it makes you sound as though you are just reciting by rote a word you’ve heard everybody else use. Or overuse.
Want More Information on This Topic?
Contact Alan Crawford, editor, Impact