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At the peevers' waterhole

I remarked yesterday about a fatuous article on language by David Bentley Hart at First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. But if you want to get a sense of how peevers’ minds work, you need to look at the extensive comments on that article. I offer a sampling.

Item: ‘transpire' means 'to breath across’ not to happen.

One of the classic peever attitudes is that a word cannot stray from its etymological origins. You get that as well from the people who insist that decimate must mean “to reduce by a tenth.” The sensible position is to say that it can mean “to reduce substantially” while resisting the usage “to destroy.”

Transpire, meaning “to breathe forth” or “to give off or discharge” dates from the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A more common meaning, “to become known,” dates from the eighteenth century. What the Peevery calls an error, “to take place,” has cropped up for two centuries now and does not look as if it is going away. I’ll warrant that you would have some difficulty finding many citations for transpire meaning “to escape from secrecy to notice” in the past half-century.

(I will be charitable and suggest that breath for breathe in the comment is merely a typographical error.)

Item: I share in your despair over the misuse of "restive," though I'm afraid by now the barbarians have not only ingested it, but have popped it out in reverse. Witness this headline published in the NYTimes a few days ago: "Syrian Forces Crack Down in Restive City With Raids and Gunfire." The article makes it clear that the city in question is anything but "inactive" and "inert."

Similar to the etymological fallacy is the insistence that a word can have only one meaning, and that that meaning is eternally stable. Restive for “inactive” or “inert” is indeed in the OED, which labels it “Now rare or Obs.” In our time, it means either “stubborn” and “unmanageable” or “restless” and “impatient,” the latter sense being the more common. The most common error in using it is to make it a synonym of restful, which has the opposite sense.

Item: Dictionaries

Someone else made the same point in a comment that I made in my post, that idyll, pace Dr. Hart, is pronounced with a long i, as indicated by several dictionaries and Garner’s Modern American Usage. Dr. Hart’s riposte:

Apparently all three of the dictionaries you consulted are extremely bad. No surprise there: many dictionaries now record the pronunciation with which the lexicographer is familiar, even if it is wrong. Still, I have never seen the "idol" pronunciation listed as any but a secondary pronunciation, probably defective. As for Garner's, I now know never to consult it. Believe me, the preferred (and I would say correct) pronunciation is with an initial short i; and, to my ear, the second syllable should ideally have a sound somewhere midway between "ill" and "eel."

Apparently the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the defectives. Another acolyte chimes in:

I recommend the Webster's comprehensive Second Edition, the old Oxford English Dictionary (not the new one, which does not 'prescribe'), and Fowler's English Usage, either first or second version. Also The King's English by the brothers Fowler. There is an old American book called Index of English, but I don't remember who wrote it. An English dictionary that's pretty good is Chamber's (or it used to be).

There you have it: You can’t trust dictionaries, because they tell you what people mean with words. There’s an implied slap here at Webster’s Third for its “permissiveness,” about which the Peevery has now carried on for fifty years.

Item: The Myths of the Golden Age and Ideal English

What is back of much of this talk is the belief that there was a point, usually in the writer’s youth, when the English language was stable and teachers told everyone The Rules and everyone who had been educated followed them. Some time before that wicked, wicked Webster’s Third International.

There was, of course, no such time. Anyone who has taken a serious look at English from the time of Chaucer to the present sees that it, like any living language, is always in flux, with meanings and whole words becoming obsolete, new words being coined or appropriated from other languages, old words assuming new senses. This is the norm, and intelligent writers and editors are like pilots, continually making adjustments to allow for lift, thrust, and drag amid shifting conditions.

There is no ideal, eternal, perfect, Platonic English known to a handful of adepts. There is only the language that we all speak and write, and its grammar and syntax and the meanings of its words are established by the way that the great mass of us use them over time. There are choices to be made by speakers and writers who aspire to be clear and exact, but those choices are informed by judgment, not dicta.

You can adopt the attitude of Dr. Hart and his sectaries—you’re free to speak and write in English as you choose. But to the degree that you adopt his shibboleths and superstitions, you will find the language passing you by, and fewer and fewer people will understand what you are trying to say. Or care to listen.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 AM | | Comments (35)


"I will be charitable and suggest that breath for breathe in the comment is merely a typographical error."

That is indeed charitable, John, because any peever would attack such a typo mercilessly. There is an expectation among peevers that all writing and speaking be absolutely perfect, and only the peever is allowed human errors. There's no mercy in that crowd.

Webster's Second gives the same two pronunciations as does Webster's Third. The \iddle\ variant is listed as British in both. The \idol\ is given first in both.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives both the iddle and idol pronunciations, iddle first.

Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let's call the whole thing off!

Mr. Hart might (or might not) be pleased to see Dorothy Parker's rhyme on Tennyson:

Should Heaven send me any son,
I hope he's not like Tennyson.
I'd rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.

As with political blogs, delving into the commentary on a baited (ha) post like Hart's is simply too depressing. After lurking about for a while in the learnèd byways of a place like the Language Log (or indeed, John, here), one might come to think that discourse about language is conducted among informed and reasonable people who engage in such practices as examining evidence and distinguishing facts from opinions. But then one turns over a rock like Hart's post and out scurries a swarm of darkness-dwelling dogmatists. Ay. It's enough at times to make one want to stop reading the Internet.

Mr. Hart is obviously a fifth columnist in the vanguard of those who want to establish an Academy of American English based on the template of the Queen's English Society's perfervid desires. I wish him well; after all, this IS a democracy.

How funny. I always pronounced it eye-dill.

It's a true goofball who ignores regional dialects... none of which are "more correct" than any other... just some that are less changed over the years than others.

I'm convinced that every mistake in usage was first made in the 16th century.

Umm, sir, first of all Dr Hart never said "transpire" means "breathe across": did you read the column? More to the point, the whole column was a hilarious joke about English-usage purism, in which he played the part of an alarmist who thinks bad grammar breeds cannibalism. Did you not get the joke, you poor soul?
Yikes, learn to read.

Wow, Johnny-boy, did you notice that DB Hart's column was a long deadpan joke, in which he portrays himself as an insomniac, neuralgic, and psychotic who believes that bad usage leads to cannibalism? Didn't you get the point that he doesn't really care about this stuff much at all? And that that's why the final paragraph suddenly switches to sushi?
I doubt you'll post this comment, so let me note that you're a staggering dunce.

Well, A Lytle, if you yourself had troubled to read this post a little more carefully, you would have seen that its focus is the comments on Dr. Hart's article, which is where the "transpire" rermark came.

I'm aware of the assertion that Dr. Hart's fustian is a hilarious send-up but am not persuaded, particularly since the people commenting take him seriously.

Patrick, you might have a quick look at my response to A Lytle's comment.

So Dr Hart is responsible for someone else's etymological assertions? Or for the earnestness of their comments?
I notice you attack the "idyll" pronunciation issue, which is one that Dr Hart clearly admitted was largely a matter of personal preference, even in the comment of which you give a truncated version. And he is right, actually, since no one yet has shown me a dictionary that confirms the long-i pronunciation as anything but secondary. (By the way, you should learn to spell the word correctly.) You left unaddressed most of the rest of his column, because I doubt you could make yourself defend the solecistic use of "reticent" (for example). At least I hope you wouldn't. Also, your remarks on "restive" actually confirm Dr Hart's point.
And I'm going to guess you're playing stupid when you suggest that Dr Hart's remarks about cannibalism, the psychotic gleam in his eye, unpaid Visigoths (etc.) was all meant to be taken seriously. Obviously, you wrote your silly little column without thinking and now don't have the character to moderate your insulting tone. You didn't get an obvious joke, which means that it is you who comes out looking quite absurd at the end of this little contretemps. Just another journalist who imagines he knows something about writing.

Hmm, let's see. Hart, in his column, starts with a set of hilarious asssertions about how bad English leads to cannibalism, then talks about his own insomnia and psychotic episodes, then lists his complaints against dictionaries that are actually degenerate lounge-lizards, then sheepishly admits that he's really just listing his own "paltry private grievances," and then complains about avocado in sushi--and you think he means the column to be taken seriously? Really? Can you possibly be that dense? Come on.

A couple of fanciful touches aside, much of the article reads like undiluted peevery and could be translated intact to, say, the Queen's English Society, which is unintentionally humorous. i
Add to that Dr. Hart's own comment in response to someone who challenged him. It appears to be neither ironic nor satirical.

So no, I can't swallow the apologists' arguments.

And, while the gentlemen above chastise me for my dimness in failing to appreciate a master stylist, they gloss over the commenters who took the article seriously, which, I know it's a little tedious to keep mentioning, was the subject of the post.

Actually, Hart's reply to his critics was pretty good fun too. It didn't seem overly serious at all. You're just grasping at straws.

But I take your point entirely: if you excerpt little sections from his piece without explaining the larger context or including any of the numerous hilarious lines, then it sounds as if he's being totally serious. Brilliant observation, Johnny. So it's OK if you entirely misrepresent the piece, because, hey, all you did was "select"--right?

Journalists are...journalists. I know that's a horribly abusive remark, but not unjustified if you ask me.

y the way, learn to spell "humorous" and "idyll." Oh, and Hart is right about "restive."

Anyway, I suggest that your readers go and look at the original piece. It is broad comedy with a few justified complaints (like the misuse of "reticent") thrown in. Mr. MacIntyre doesn't get the joke, but that's because the joke is on him ultimately.

"Johnny"? What is this, a schoolyard?

I suppose I owe an alternative interpretation of the original article. Rather than attemping satire, it uses a little hyperbole and mock humility to allow the writer to present himself as a jovial purist, rather than the common scold ordinarily encountered. But when you look at the substance of the points about language, they remain standard-brand peeving: aribitrary and ill-informed. It reinforces rather than undermining peeving, which helps to explain the chorus of peeving in the comments.

An update: David Bentley Hart (or at least someone purporting to be him) has entered the lists at Johnson:

In the comments he (a) insists that his article was meant to be humorous and (b) upholds a number of language shibboleths.

I believe that my interpretation has been sustained.

Patrick and A Lytle, I must not have read the same article by Mr. Hart that you did because the one I read is in no way satirical. It is, instead, an attempt to treat a serious subject with a light touch. Unfortunately, that light touch goes over like a lead balloon in the very first sentence (a ham-fisted paraphrase of one of the literary greats) and proceeds to sink from there.

If you want to see satire in peevery, visit the folks at The Proper English Foundation ( They do it right. You're welcome.


Do you think that his first sentence proceeded from the impulse of the moment, or that it was the result of previous study?

Good question, Picky. I imagine it arose chiefly from what was passing at the time, though he might sometimes amuse himself with arranging such little elegant expressions as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, always wishing to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Ah, John claims his is a different interpretation and that's all. Right. Anyway, why would anyone care what a copy editor who can't spell thinks about these matters? Hart is a scholar whom lexicographers consult on matters of usage. McIntyre actually thinks he has any standing in such a conversation?
Get back to your delivery route, you drab. And take Tim and Picky with you, since they probably need better jobs.

A Lyttle, you might stop the ad hominem attacks. You can also earn bonus points by identifying the literary work Picky and I were borrowing from (and extra points for doing so without looking it up).


Are you kidding? Is there anyone out there who doesn't know Jane Austen's 'greatest hits'? That's the whole point of starting off the column with a hackneyed phrase. So, let's get more obscure: who first wrote 'It was a dark and stormy night' (and no, the answer is neither Snoopy nor Madeleine L'Engle).

So, going through these comments, I went and read Hart's piece, which had me laughing all the way through. But I have to say that it wasn't some peevish list of "superstitions." Other than bringing up a few controversies of old, like "transpire," it's a good and sensible list of certain abuses of English that are becoming common these days, like saying "between you and I" or misusing the word "reticent" (which really is annoying) and things like that. I'm wondering what on earth Mr MacIntyre is going on about, since the column isn't anything but a rather fun exhortation to be precise and accurate in using certain words. And then I went back to MacIntyre's previous article, and found him treating the cannibalism lines (which I thought were hilarious, frankly) as though they were deadly serious ("a silly overstatement" MacIntyre sniffily says--really?).
Anyway, I think Mr. MacIntyre is like a lot of newspapermen, and probably misuses a lot of these words himself (he certainly spells very badly), and then gets riled up when someone points out the proper meanings. Then he claims he's on the side of English as a"living language," when that hardly excuses him from using a word accurately.
The one really contestable part of Hart's column concerns "transpire," but I happen to think he's right on that, so I can't get exercised over it.
Anyway, I found MacIntyre's stuff in these columns humorless and ham-fisted, and I found his inability to tell the difference between the natural evolution of words and the unnatural abuse of words a little depressing.

Job and A Lyttle are entitled to make a meal of the occasional typo in posts and comments, but if they mean to be fetishists about spelling, they might note than my name is not quite MacIntyre.

And in case the gentlemen missed it, there's this item from a post this morning:

At Johnson, my new pal A Lyttle is urging David Bentley Hart to give me a sound thrashing at his website: “When he goes on the offensive, he writes some of the most amusing stuff out there. I'd like him to shred MacIntyre and RLG in public because I have an indecent attraction to blood-sport, and he doesn't leave a lot of carrion behind for the vultures.”

If I can control my trembling, I’ll post an update once Dr. Hart unlimbers that ponderous wit.

A Lyttle, while I've never read Bulwer-Lytton myself, I have read the results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest for years. Mr. McIntyre linked the recently announced 2011 results. In case you have not laughed your way through these yet, here's the link again:


P.S. Jane Austen's opening line to Pride and Prejudice is not a hackneyed phrase. Hamfisted paraphrasing of it in the name of attempting to be humorous is getting to be a hackneyed cliche, though (if one is allowed to use hackneyed as an adjective for cliche without being accused of redundancy).

Two things:

1) Dr Hart has asked me to calm down and has suggested I should apologise for excessive ire. I have posted a kind of apology on The Economist site too.

2) Tim, I say this in good humour. The point of using the hackneyed paraphrase at the beginning of an article like that is precisely to set the tone of silliness throughout. We have all got away from Dr Hart's column, but before all this began, it was clearly a comic piece, and a very funny one (yes, it was), and the tone throughout was one of self-mockery. So, come on gents, that's why Mr MacIntyre's behaviour here has been so weird. He went on the attack without even bothering to register the nature of what he was attacking.

OK, that's all, finis, curtain down, bye-bye, and Abyssinia. Sorry for the hand-grenades. Tomatoes would have done the job better.

Mr, McIntyre [sorry about adding an "a" before]:

"Unlimbers?" "Unlimbers?"

You know, you're not making a really good case for yourself as an authority on the English language.

I also don't think it's fetishistic to point out that, for a man who makes a living as a copy editor, you have a funny way of spelling "humorous" ("humerous," which doesn't look like a typo when you consider the configuration of a keyboard) and "idyll" ("idyl," a misspelling you keep repeating). Is every correction of usage or spelling a "fetish" or "superstition" in your book? Is that why you object to Hart saying that "refute" doesn't mean just "deny" or "reticent" does not mean "hesitant?"

You should lighten up. The more self-important you act, the more defensive you look.

For myself, by the way, I find Hart's wit incredibly "limber." I went back to some of his previous articles and I thought it was some of the best "highbrow" humor I've come across since S.J. Perelman. But what makes you laugh is the hardest thing to explain of all, so if you don't get it you don't get it. Whatever, man.

Unlimber is a perfectly good word. It means to prepare a field gun for action by detaching the cannon from its limber.

May I just say thank-you for this column. Its description of what a Peever is, and does, hit me as if I had been slapped across the face with a wet and quite dead cod.

I hadn't realized how silly I must have seemed to other people as I railed against the misuse of decimate, transpire, and so many others whose rigid definitions had long ossified in my mind.

I'll stop waving my walking stick in the air quite so much now and pay more attention to meaning rather than what it might have meant when written in cuneiform.

I want to be so much better than a Peever.

Seriously, thanks for the wake-up

Rick Grant

Several gold stars to Rick Grant! His message gives me hope.

> Webster’s Third ... about which the Peevery has now carried on for sixty years.

Shouldn't that be fifty years? Webster's Third was published in 1961.

Just so. thanks.

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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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