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Storm rising

Over at Britannica Blog, Gregory McNamee is making fun of Arizona.

A little while back—you may have seen the pictures—Phoenix was hit with a couple of huge dust storms. Amazing videos. The meteorologists called them haboobs, an Arabic word for that kind of dust storm sweeping off a desert. Many good people objected to that word. How would our troops feel, one wrote in a letter to the newspaper, knowing that we were using Arabic words? Why can’t we use English? Another asked.

So Gregory McNamee has a little sport with Arizona, “the state’s sole growth industry, namely xenophobia,” and “some of the writers’ seeming unfamiliarity with English in general.” It reminds me a little of those inquiries by H.L. Mencken into which was the worst state of the Union, the least educated, the cultivated, the most barbarous. (I recall that he settled on Mississippi, but that may have been a provisional judgment.)

Of course, Arizonans’ lack of understanding of the promiscuity of English doesn’t distinguish them much. But there’s more than ignorance at work here. We didn’t use to get shirty, like the Brits, over borrowings in the language. There’s suspicion here, and there’s fear, the products of an unsettled time.

We have become a fretful people. We worry about our jobs and provision for our old age, and with good reason. But we also worry about Muslims and Mexicans. We are suspicious of science, so we listen to cranks and airhead celebrities and their crackpot warnings against vaccination. We have elected a Congress that leaves the nations of the world goggling in disbelief at its incapacity to pass a measure to guarantee that we will pay our bills.

I begin to worry that if we do not, as a people, begin to get a grip, we will face a storm worse than any haboob.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (10)


This seems to fall into the category of objection that states that _other_ people might be offended. Our soldiers! What would they think? (In their presumed homogeneity of opinion on such an issue.)

One sees this now and then with the uber-PC as well.

Rev. McIntyre:

You worry?

I am dismayed. Repent!

You preach from the seminary of our holy father, Henry of Mencken, and utter such apostasy.

Of course the world is going to hell. It always has been. Where is your sense of proportion to the cataclysm?

This is unbecoming and unlike you. Bad gin?

I can attest that I have known the word "haboob" for exactly 36 years. When I was a contestant in the National Spelling Bee in 1975, I lasted 10 rounds, and "haboob" was one of the words I spelled in Washington. I can also attest that I have never seen it pop up in discourse in those intervening 36 years; I would have noticed. Some people are defending "haboob" as the generic choice whenever one must refer to this weather event. That's pushing it, but nonetheless, "haboob" is established enough to be a perfectly cromulent word.

"Use to get" (We didn't use to get shirty...)? Is that a typo?

Had I been asked to identify the derivation of the word, I'd have said the boys' locker room at my Jr. High School. I am quite sure that is why, barring personal growth, I will always look for another word.

I'm an Arizonan.

Some of us don't send letters that therefore don't get published and gawked at:

"Haboob! What an awesome word for an equally awe-inspiring natural occurrence!"

But we're out there.

Rik: The negation of "used to" is "didn't use to," not "didn't used to," just as the negation of "had to" is "didn't have to," not "didn't had to."

They didn't use to call these things haboobs. That's what *this* former Arizonan is perplexed about. As I said somewhere else online, imagine waking up tomorrow and hearing all the weather reports tell you about "regensturms."

Then again, I just had to talk my still-in-Arizona mom off the ledge about the foreigners taking over, so ...

Didn't use to / didn't used to. Hmmm. Google Ngram shows "didn't used to" as more common lately. Just wondering.
The chart is similar for all of the English variants covered.

Rik: That's because this use of "used" is no longer felt as a main verb meaning "accustomed" with an infinitive following, but as almost the equivalent of a modal verb like "will", "may", or "must". When we read in old books sentences like "Truly it is like what I was used to feel when I read the old priest's tales [...]" or "I prefer to believe that my informants are treating me as in the old sinful days in India I was used to treat the wandering globe-trotter", we feel the grammar to be unnatural for modern times. In the case of the second we may even read it not as /yust/ but as /yuzd/ and so misunderstand it altogether.

You might be amused at a suggested response to the outrage which I heard on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me": Let's switch to a more Americanized term, like "hagazongas."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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