Opinion

An earnest appeal to language mavens

In certain forms of literary composition, nothing is more important than the opening sentence. It's the baited hook, the magic aroma, the half-opened door. A delightful example of this irresistible device turned up the other day in The Wall Street Journal. Its lead editorial began:

“Hell – otherwise known as Congress – has officially frozen over.”

Undignified but effective

Harumph! Yes, it was flippant, disrespectful, beneath the dignity of one of the world's great newspapers – but that idiomatic sentence did its job. It dragged us in. The piece went downhill thereafter, but it got off to a great start.

The Journal's lead paragraph is of interest for another reason. It continued: “For the first time since the 1950s, members will skip town today for the August recess without either chamber having passed a single appropriations bill.”

What ho! Wasn't that a duck-billed gerund that just flew by? Let me invoke the beloved name of my first city editor, Charles Henry Hamilton. He taught me 65 years ago that the construction demands an apostrophe-“s,” i.e, “either chamber's having passed.”

This curious bird turned up again last month in a column by Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. He was writing about Ingrid Betancourt, set free after six years of captivity in Colombia. Her rescue was so well-executed that the captors were overpowered “without a shot being fired.”

I believe my old boss would have insisted upon “without a shot's being fired.” Let me appeal to all you language mavens out there: Has the construction become extinct? O tempora! O mores! Oh, dear.

Under the heading of Words That Are New to Me, let me offer “majuscule.” It bobbed up two weeks ago in Bill Safire's “On Language” column in The New York Times. Guest columnist Caroline Winter was writing about the first-person perpendicular, the capitalized “majuscule I.” She was so taken by “majuscule” that she embraced it again just two paragraphs later.

We live and learn. The adjective dates from 1720. It defines a document “written in capital letters or uncials.” Written in what? Uncial writing is writing that has “a curved or rounded shape and was used chiefly in Greek and Latin manuscripts from about the 3rd to 9th century.”

Now that your vocabulary has been enlarged by a Jabberwocky word, let us attend to further semantic instruction from the good gray Times. Its lead editorial on Aug. 2 dealt with world trade.

We learned: “A strong World Trade Organization will be needed to arbiter trade disputes as the world economy slows … ”

To arbiter? The verbing of nouns is an ancient linguistic mechanism, but “to arbiter” provides no service not already served by “to arbitrate.” Fie, fie!

Envious not jealous

William L. King Jr., of Vestavia Hills, Ala., was irked last month by one errant word in a dispatch from The Associated Press about swimmer Dara Torres. The 41-year-old athlete has a physique “that would make any 20-year-old jealous.”

Jealous? No! Her physique would make any 20-year-old ENVIOUS. There's a difference worth preserving. We are jealous of what is ours; we are envious of what is yours.

The distinction crops up in the King James Bible as early as Exodus 20:5. The faithful must obey the familiar Commandments “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.”

For the record: Bartlett's lists 27 citations for “jealous” and “jealousy,” 33 citations for “envy” and “envious.” The only cite that leaps instantly to mind is from Antony's oration at the funeral of Caesar: “See what a rent the envious Casca made!” You want the whole thing? Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me et cetera, et cetera. You could look it up!

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