Friday, September 08, 2006

Not the King's English

A carton of books in someone's home caught my eye. (If you should ever want to trap me, bait the trap with books!) Digging through the pile of "paperback writers," I came across a yellowed copy of Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut.

"Hey, this looks interesting."

"Um... That's yours!"


Anyway, the book had a wonderful piece called "New Dictionary" that was actually a 1966 review of the then new Random House Dictionary. In Ben Yagoda's The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, Vonnegut was quoted: "The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo speech you heard when a child...Lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as ornamental as a monkey wrench."

But Vonnegut's Times review ended with what sounds like a sideswipe at permissive rather than "prescriptive" English: dictionary is as good as another for most people. Homo Americanus is going to go on speaking and writing the way he always has, no matter what dictionary he owns. Consider the citizen who was asked recently what he thought of President (Lyndon) Johnson's use of the slang expression "cool it" in a major speech:

"It's fine with me," he replied. "Now's not the time for the President of the United States to worry about the King's English. After all, we're living in an informal age. Politicians don't go around in top hats any more. There's no reason why the English language shouldn't wear sports clothes, too. I don't say the President should speak like an illiterate. But 'cool it' is folksy, and the Chief Executive should be allowed to sound human. You can't be too corny for the American people--all the decent sentiments in life are corny. But linguistically speaking, Disraeli is dullsville."

These words, by the way, came from the larynx of Bennett Cerf, publisher of "The Random House Dictionary of the English Language." Moral: Everybody associated with a new dictionary ain't necessarily a new Samuel Johnson.

I say, in copywriting and blogging, stick to folksy and utilitarian monkey wrench writing. If you're writing for the Times or Posterity (whoever that is), make sure your language brushes its teeth and polishes its shoes.

No comments:

Post a Comment