If you're familiar with Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), it's most likely because you've read his most famous short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," or his satiric and widely quoted Devil's Dictionary.* But like many journalists and fiction writers, Bierce also considered himself a usage maven. He collected several hundred of his peeves in a 1909 book, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.
Write It Right might be forgotten today if Theodore Bernstein hadn't reprinted it as an appendix to his own usage book, Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, published in 1971. That's where Jan Freeman, who now writes The Word, the Boston Globe's language blog, first encountered it. Here's how she remembers Bierce's advice:
In my copyediting days, I would dip into it now and then, more for entertainment than for guidance. A fair number of the topics were still-familiar stylebook entries—literally for figuratively, less vs. fewer, over and more than—but many more were baffling. Why was the term landed estate "dreadful"? What was wrong with "I'm afraid it will rain"? Did other critics think "spend the summer" was bad English? Or "quit smoking," or "it was a success"?
Those questions appear in her introduction to Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers**, Freeman's sprightly update of Bierce's century-old book. In it, Freeman compares Bierce's advice to that of his contemporaries (Bierce often made up his own rules) and to our own language standards. And she salts her commentary with dishy tidbits. Why, for example, did Bierce, and Bierce alone, declare build a fire unacceptable? (He preferred make a fire.) Could it have been, as Freeman suggests, because Bierce's rival Jack London had just published "To Build a Fire" in 1909?
Like many of his contemporaries, Bierce shuddered at Americanisms such as dirt for earth, run for manage, dress for gown, and pants for trousers. Freeman observes that the still-young United States of Bierce's day had "status anxiety" about the American language; many educated Americans, she writes, "worried that their native locutions were less refined than whatever the Brits were saying." Bierce also hated neologisms, including jeopardize ("the 'finalize' of the 19th century," Freeman writes; Bierce preferred jeopard) and electrocution (Bierce: "no less than disgusting").
Most interesting to me is Bierce's antipathy toward borrowings from the business world. Endorse to mean approve "is a commercial word, having insufficient dignity for literary use," he wrote. I take no stock in it was "disagreeably commercial"; stock, he wrote, should be replaced with faith. He even took umbrage at pay attention and pay a visit. "One cannot be indebted to a place," he sniffed. Freeman's comment: "Bierce's anti-commercial antennae are oversensitive, leading him to read 'pay attention' as a vulgar monetary metaphor. ... [He] seems to be alone in his animus."
The words may have changed, but hostility toward "commercial" language continues today. Just Google "business buzzwords" or check Wikipedia to find long, gleefully compiled lists. I confess I still find monetize grating (and gratuitous), and my ears throb when I hear buy-in, client-centric, and proactive. But language is constantly changing, and I may be on history's losing side, as Bierce (mostly) was. Here's Freeman's sage advice:
Would a little more historical knowledge help us keep our cool in the face of language change? Can we understand that incentivize may be just the new jeopardize, a scapegoat for our times, and not a sign that civilization is doomed?
OK, I'm paying attention. Buy a copy of Freeman's book for yourself, and another for your own favorite language maven.
* All three of these links go to to the Ambrose Bierce Project, an online library of the complete text of all of Bierce's published works.
** Dear Federal Trade Commission: I received a free copy of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right from the publisher, Walker & Company.