I’ve been writing about politics and music — separately, I should say — and want to take a break. For some language. If you don’t want to take a language break, please don’t! No subject is touchier to readers, with the possible exception of Trump. (And Ayn Rand?)
During Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, I went on an explosion of tweeting. Along the way, I said, “Oh, Jeb, you pronounce “err” “air”? Dude, you went to ANDOVER! Back before America tanked! Come on!”
It’s true. Jeb started at that famous prep school in 1967, before the national rot set in. Several of his teachers were born in the 19-aughts, surely. A few may have been born in the 19th century. They knew stuff. They sure as hell didn’t say “air.”
Maybe Jeb says “air” because people would regard him as dumb or weird if he said “ur”? Sometimes I mispronounce things, just to avoid the hassle. Go along to get along.
On Stephen Colbert the other night, the host ribbed Jeb about his campaign logo. The candidate said, “I’ve been using ‘Jeb!’ since 1994. It connotes excitement.” Later, someone on Twitter knocked Jeb for not using “regular-guy words.” Because, as we all know, only populist boobs can govern.
Spare me a pol with his “regular guy” words. Obama has ruined “folks” for me forever.
A memory, please. Many years ago, I edited a piece about the 1948 presidential campaign, or touching on that campaign. Truman said defamatory things about Dewey, grossly defamatory things. I wanted to title the piece “To Slur Is Truman” (because the old quip was “To err is Truman,” playing off the proverb “To err is human”). We didn’t use the title, though, because it would have made no sense to the “air”-ing ones.
Should we get into “forte,” meaning expertise, versus “forte,” the dynamic marking? Because people now say “fortay” for both, rendering some poetry nonsensical: If you rhymed “forte” with “sort,” for example, you’re screwed.
So is Groucho. Margaret Dumont (or someone) says to him, “Singing is not your forte.” He replies, “I wish Knox were my forte.”
“Short-lived,” “coup de grâce,” “cache” — we could play this game all day.
Mark Helprin and I were talking about these things once, and he said,
I have been accosted many a time by fishmongers with boning knives because I used to say “fillet” with a “t,” stressing the first syllable. They would then say “fillay,” and I would say, “Okay, lay me gay my money out of my wallay, and then I’ll hit myself over the head with a mallay,” which occasioned the bad blood. If you like, we can go to the fish counter together and get attacked.
Let me now turn to sex. Mona Charen has a column today about Carly Fiorina, principally, and she says “sex,” not “gender,” which is part of Mona’s greatness.
The question dogs any woman who writes about politics: “Don’t you want to see the first woman elected president of the United States?” The unstated premise, always obvious, is that you are some sort of traitor to your sex if your hand isn’t itching to pull the lever for someone with the correct chromosomes. My answer has always been, “That depends upon what she believes.”
Hillary Clinton banked on the First Woman President effect from the start — an understandable gambit for someone with no substantive accomplishments and many flaws. Her sex may be the only thing she hasn’t lied about.
Mona also says, “Fiorina knows it’s useful to be the lone female in the Republican race, but like Margaret Thatcher, the figure she most resembles, her sex is the least interesting fact about her.”
While we’re talkin’ Thatcher: When Charles Moore came out with the first volume of his authorized biography, he was interviewed by a young man. Moore discussed the opposition that Thatcher faced from certain “Whiggish” types in the Conservative party. The young man asked, “Was it anything to do with her class or her gender?” Moore answered, “I think it was related both to her class and to her sex.”
Now, Moore was not being rude, for he is anything but that, and he was not trying to correct or rebuke the young man. I think he just couldn’t force his mouth to say “gender” in that context.
But if he were running for office? He might be tempted to say “air” and “fortay” and “coup de grah” and all the rest of it!
P.S. Whenever I write about language, I get mail from people who inform me — because I’ve never heard it before — “Language evolves, you know.” Allow me to say preemptively: I know.
Also, some people are furious because, I believe, they have been made to feel stupid. Let me say, I don’t care how others pronounce words — I really don’t. I’m the most laissez-faire person I know, including some card-carrying libertarians! I just find these matters interesting (and once in a rare while, important). I’m not a prescriptivist.
P.P.S. All of my life, I’ve been corrected — “corrected” — for saying things correctly. Both in pronunciation and in grammar. I wish to reach an agreement with the world: You don’t correct me for saying things correctly, and I don’t correct you for saying things incorrectly.
Deal? No, the world never agrees!