bkswrites

Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

“Nancy Pelosi is incredible!”

In lost meanings, thoughtless patterns on January 25, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Sure as I am that Siobhan “Sam” Bennet, president of the Women’s Campaign Fund, meant that as an enthusiastic compliment when she said it on a recent episode of PBS’s “To the Contrary,” I just as surely wish she wouldn’t provide fodder for nitpicky critics. In fact, I wish we all could find some better words for expressing our admiration than those that imply the person or idea is literally too good to be true. Women like Rep. Pelosi — or Bennet, for that matter — are not fantastic or in any general way unbelievable. Neither are they terrific. Wonderful, maybe, but not wonderous.

Late in September, I was pleased to hear, on another public-broadcasting staple, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” a very funny exchange in which she teased author JR Moehringer with his published dislike for the overused “awesome.” They also touched on “amazing.” But at least those two mean what they’re overused to say, even if most applications actually fall short of the power those words should carry.

I just hate to see words lose their real meanings. When we have plenty of truly incredible politicians around, let’s find a way to get enthusiastic about the credibility of the others.

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Too Definite an Article?

In legal lingo, significant insignificancies on January 25, 2013 at 9:11 pm

I can’t say that it’s an error, and I’m afraid I don’t even have a direct quote to include. But I’m afraid that from the first moment I heard about the ruling of a federal appeals court on President Obama’s recess appointments last year to the National Labor Relations Board, I was intrigued by the report that part of their ruling of unconstitutional action hinged on the presence of “the” rather than “a” or any less definite word in Article II, Section 2 (Powers and Duties of the President), Clause 3, which empowers the president to fill executive-branch vacancies “during the Recess of the Senate.”

I guess, among other things, we will find out exactly how much care we think the Framers of the Constitution took with the very smallest words. Or maybe we’ll find out how willing we are in the 21st century to be bound by the conditions of early-19th-century America.

It may well be that the definite article appears in II.2.3 only because, at the time it was written, there was only one Recess in the Senate’s work year. The Senators could not fly back and forth between D.C. and their states to hear their constituents one day, vote on an executive appointment the next. Neither could they, as in 2012, send in one or two of their number every day or so during the (same) idle period to bang a gavel and declare that the Senate was not recessed, but in session. But let’s not go further here into the possibly political motivations of the 2012 Senators, individually or collectively. Let’s likewise leave to the politicians and the Supreme Court the questions of the implications of this ruling for President Obama’s other appointment during this particular recess — which he repeated for Senate confirmation yesterday — or for the work done by the five appointees during their possibly unconstitutional tenure.

There are more linguistic nits to be picked in this case, too: Does “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess” mean only vacancies that begin during the recess, or any vacancy that takes the executive out of action? But then, none of the five 2012 appointments was to a post mentioned in the Constitution or remotely contemplated by the Framers.

One of the talked-about expressions from President Obama’s inaugural address a couple of days earlier is his differentiation of “absolutism” and “principle.” I suspect we’ll hear more of those differences as this ruling is mulled, dealt with, and probably appealed. It’s definitely worthy of our consideration.

Whatever … and a few other compounds

In compound expressions, thoughtless patterns on January 25, 2013 at 9:10 pm

No, it’s not another rant against the universal and no-longer-new retort. In fact, I’ve occasionally found it useful myself. And I didn’t actually hear the title character today, but it’s been too many days since I’ve posted, and one of the kinds of abuses I said I wouldn’t criticize nevertheless reminded me of a peeve: It’s whenever folks are afraid to let a word go out on its own. They reflexively make it take along its little sister, making a compound or phrase. It’s becoming more and more rare to hear what without its ever.

The related word that set me off was on tonight’s “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS: “Whenever his wife died, he gave it to …” No, it wasn’t about a serial widower, but a one-shot bereavement and bequeathing.

A word even more often roped into nonsense by a frequent, but not necessary, companion is whether. Yes, it needs or, but if it has another alternative or two, it doesn’t need not. So many otherwise intelligent speakers of English fall into the likes of ‘Whether or not he stays or goes.’ I even hear the not doubled up: ‘Whether or not she likes it or not.’

I’m not often criticized for terseness, but compounds are not necessarily forever. Let that what, where, and whether have their independence, or find new friends. Keep in mind what all the word parts mean, and save some of them for later.

Whatever …

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