April 24, 2014 by libroshombre
There’s a lot to be said for reading The Economist. Besides in-depth, authoritative reporting, its writers and editors employ richer vocabularies and more formal grammar than superficial rags like Newsweek and Time. I appreciate being treated like an intelligent adult, but at the same time, I don’t want to offend people by appearing overly highfalutin. Even using a term like “highfalutin” is seen by some as pretentious behavior. H.L.Mencken, that master American wordsmith, discussed the origins of “highfalutin” (an 1848 political speech) and “non-committal” (an 1841 Senate debate) in his classic, “The American Language,” and concluded “[b]oth are useful words; it is impossible, not employing them, to convey the ideas behind them without circumlocution.”
Fortunately, when it comes to this column, “Circumlocution R Us.” The great word history site, www.Word-Detective.com looked at “highfalutin,” which it defines as “pompous, arrogant, haughty, pretentious” and “excessively ornate or bombastic, especially in speech.” They found two possible but unproven origins, the weakest of which is that it comes from “the airy, delicate speech tones of hoity-toity rich folks.” There’s no evidence backing that one, but the other’s more plausible. It suggests that “highfalutin” comes from “high-flown,” meaning “exaggerated or elevated,” since “high-flown” has been in use since the mid-1600s
Highfalutin folks may not care about appearing so, but nobody wants to be thought a dogberry, though we all know a few. A dogberry is “a pompous, incompetent, and self-important official,” the term deriving from a character with that name in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” There’s much to be said for being precise and informative in interpersonal communications. Matthew Inman’s respected, and somewhat raucous, online comic strip, TheOatmeal.com, is a surprisingly strong bastion of good grammar, providing humorous examples to help fix the concepts in his readers’ minds.
For instance, “Mr. Jenkins often likes to throw spiders at children” is Inman’s example for illustrating the difference between “who” and “whom.” “Mr. Jenkins” is the sentence’s subject, or “who,” since he’s doing something, and the children having something done to them, are the object, or “whom.” However, Inman admits that “‘whom’ offers no real utility in our language. It does not convey an idea more clearly or effectively than by simply using ‘who’ … But ‘whom’ is not about utility or even pedantry … When you use ‘whom,’ it instantly makes whatever you just said sound distinguished and classy, even if you said something terrible …if you really want to use ‘whom’ but still can’t seem to get the rules straight, try looking for a pronoun such as “you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they,’ ‘we” that precedes a verb in the latter half of your sentence.” “With who shall I shave my back hair?” for example, can be properly re-phrased “With whom.”
TheOatmeal also takes on the useful semicolon, saying it’s useful “when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related or to contrast with one another.” Periods date from long ago when everything was read aloud. Commas indicated to the reader a brief pause, and periods indicated places to breathe. Semicolons eliminate the pause between two statements using words such as “and,” “but,” and “nor.” Two independent but related clauses, like Inman’s “I gnaw on car tires,” and “It strengthens my jaws for bear combat” can be joined with semicolons. But “I fought the bear and won” and Also, I never kiss plague rats on the mouth” need a period between them.
Those wary of highfalutiness should beware of abstract nouns, nouns that denote ideas, qualities, or states instead of concrete objects. The Lexicon of Linguistics gives “democracy” and “wisdom” as examples of abstract nouns, and “apple” and “water” as concrete nouns. Some modern pundits lamentably enjoy making concrete nouns abstract by adding suffixes like “-cy,” -ty,” “-ity,” “and especially “-ness,” creating linguistic monsters like “truthiness” and “hunky-doryness.” But it’s been going on a long time. Chaucer liked the term “heavity,” the opposite of “levity.” “Outrageousty” stopped being used in the 1400s, along with “debonairity.”
Librarians are often considered to be prone to strict hoity-toityness, and some may be guilty. But your public librarians aren’t afflicted with rigorosity or seriosity. In fact, they’re brimming with helpful graciosity.