The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its autumn assizes with a motion from Rebecca Bouldin of Columbus, Ohio. She seeks an injunction against “looking to,” as in, “Our agency is looking to expand our network.” She also asks the court to ban “waiting on,” as in, “We are waiting on him for his answer.”
Her motion must be denied, but not without a word of thanks, i.e., thanks for an opportunity to comment one more time on the glories of idiomatic English. In this example at hand, “looking to” makes no literal sense. Surely the meaning would be better served by the spokesman's “looking for ways to expand” or “considering opportunities to expand.” As for “waiting on him for his answer,” the construction serves no purpose not better served by, “We are waiting for his answer.”
But so what? The court knows when to back off. Idioms are the salt and pepper, the thyme and oregano of American speech. The court would no more ban them than it would ban the vodka (!) martini. Aberrations also have a life.
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In the same mood of uncharacteristic tolerance, the court welcomes a motion from Charles Davant of Blowing Rock, N.C. He seeks some grammatical or semantic justification for the ubiquitous “uh,” as in, “She'll be uh-comin' 'round the mountain when she comes” and “he'll be uh-hangin' from a white oak tree.” Ordinarily the court denies review to matters of speech, as distinguished from prose, but these surplus syllables deserve at least a passing glance. Here they contribute richly to rhythm – and rhythm counts.
Mary Lynn Hansen, recently domiciled in Fredericksburg, Va., asks the court to clarify the difference between “ravel” and “unravel.” She comments that “except in the world of needlework, ‘ravel' has just about disappeared.” Mrs. Hansen cites several examples last month:
From an editorial in The New York Times: “Bush and his aides should be just as alarmed about Pakistan's unraveling …”
From The Washington Post: “As things unraveled, each called the other's probation officer.”
The court notes that all the best lexicographers – notably those at Random House and Merriam-Webster – define “ravel” in part as “to unravel.” Knit that ravel
Given this evidence, it remains for the court to settle the matter for the rest of time: Only textiles henceforth may ravel.
Everything else – marriages, mysteries, legislative agreements on a bailout – unravel. Those who object to the ruling may pick up their knitting needles and go home.
A motion comes from Mrs. Anne Evans in Tucson, Ariz. She moves to abolish “enormity” and its derivatives: “Like it or not,” she writes, “something that is ‘enormous' isn't just huge, it's ‘monstrous,' ‘vicious' and ‘outrageous.'” It seems to the court that “enormity” and its derivatives carry some baggage that weighs more than metaphorical pounds. The terms ought to be reserved for something that is breathtakingly evil, like making a “martini” with vodka. Semantics matter! Motion granted! And the court stands in recess.