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Voices | Sam Allis

War of words

The English language is constantly changing, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it

By Sam Allis
May 24, 2010

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It’s always salubrious to review the things that bug you. You live longer that way. In my case, that’s a mondo job.

I still smoulder that Charles Street goes the wrong way. I remain furious at those Boston cabbies who keep their air conditioners off on brutal summer days, claiming they’re broken, to save gas. I deplore the odious change that keeps some Boston parking meters running until 8 p.m. I stabbed myself with a pen knife trying to get the sticky stuff off to open a new CD. I’m livid at the postman who slapped an unremovable sticker on my fake brass mail slot. Don’t start with me.

But what really gets the veins in my forehead popping these days is language. There is no accounting for taste, and no better example of this truth exists than word usage. I held back as long as I could, but can no longer stay silent. The use of “transition’’ as a verb is intolerable, and it is spreading like an oil slick across the print world. How often do we read, “He is transitioning to a new job’’? Let’s just say no to that. It’s plumb ugly. Blame this abomination on corporate America, and the military industrial complex. Come to think of it, blame everything on corporate America and the military industrial complex.

We can thank the Facebooks of the world for the new verbs “friend’’ and “unfriend,’’ although some cite its use in the mid-17th century. Who cares about the 17th century? Shoot me if I ever say, “I’m unfriending him because he didn’t return my book.’’ I prefer to say, “The heck with him. He’ll never get another book out of me and I hope his computer gets virused.’’ Note my new use of “virus.’’ Pretty cool, huh? I want it in some dictionary pronto.

So I’m saddened to report “unfriend’’ was named Word of the Year in 2009 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. That simply can’t be, you say, until you realize that words make it into dictionaries based on how many people use them. If enough do, they’re suddenly legit. How else could you explain two finalists — “deleb’’ and “tramp stamp’’? “Deleb’’ means “dead celebrity,’’ while “tramp stamp’’ is “a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman.’’

Just because a word can get in doesn’t mean it should. New entries can ruin the language. We lost the battle years ago to keep “impact’’ a noun. It is now a verb as well, like it or not, and I don’t. I don’t want to read “The editor impacted my story.’’ (This word was reportedly used as a verb in the early 17th century but later dropped. Again, my eyes glaze over.)

As with statistics, you can find a dictionary to support almost anything you dream up. I’m big on the American Heritage Dictionary because a 2004 article in The New York Times Magazine about it noted, “It’s usage note for ‘impact’ reads, in part, ‘Eighty-four percent of the Usage Panel disapproves of the construction to impact on . . . fully 95 percent disapproves of the use of impact as a transitive verb.’ ’’

But the article goes on to say the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which is used by the Globe among many, lists “impact’’ as both an intransitive and transitive verb. Go figure.

Let’s not forget former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who famously used “caveat’’ as a verb at a Senate hearing in 1980. This prompted New York Times word guru William Safire to define such usage as “a new linguistic form called ‘haigravation.’ ’’ The first Marquess of Argyll reportedly used “caveat’’ as a verb — “But I would caveat this’’ — in his short address before he was executed for treason in 1661. Does that matter a whit to you?

Here’s the deal. I don’t care how the Marquess used “caveat’’ before he met his maker, or the history of “impact.’’ The English language has been constantly changing from the opening bell and will continue to, however imperfectly, long after I’m gone. Fine.

What I do care about is now. Each to his own, up to a point. Just because people who “sext’’ — a fake word I rather like — are using “unfriend’’ as a verb doesn’t mean we all have to sink with them.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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