The Corner

Language Break

In today’s Impromptus, I comment on the suicide of the United States, al-Qaeda in Africa, atrocities in Syria, the Chinese gulag — and then get down to something really serious: the English language. I have an item on “only,” and its repeated misplacement by writers, even very good writers. A reader sends in a classic list of sentences:

Only I kissed the girl.

I only kissed the girl.

I kissed only the girl.

I kissed the only girl.

I kissed the girl only.

That’s a whole lotta kissin’. Speaking of kissing, a radio announcer, I believe, once had fun with the title of a Cole Porter song: “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “What, Is This Thing Called Love?” “What Is This Thing Called? Love?” And more.

A final word on language. A reader writes me,

I spent 27 years in the Air Force, mostly in flying jobs. We called ourselves a “fly by night” operation, because it seemed like we were always launching from somewhere to anywhere at “oh dark thirty.” This was a universally recognized allusion to sometime in the middle of the night. The makers of the current movie probably thought that the average person couldn’t figure that out — hence Zero Dark Thirty.

I will personally guarantee, though I have not seen the movie or talked to any members of Seal Team Six, that if the team used anything, they used my term, not the movie title.

I, of course, haven’t the foggiest idea. But that’s an interesting letter.

UPDATE: A second letter on the “dark thirty” matter:

Jay, with all due respect to the Air Force: I’ve been a Marine Corps officer for ten years, and we have always, in that time, referred to the numeral 0 as “zero,” not “oh.” Could be because we’re a naval service, and the Navy says “zero,” whereas the Air Force is descended from the Army, which says “oh.” I have no idea at what point in the murky past of American military tradition the Army said a number in one fashion and the Navy in another, but whatever the case, the phrase “zero dark thirty” is a familiar one in the Marine Corps lexicon, and as part of the naval service, SEALs are highly likely to use it too.


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