By Joseph Epstein
Words, like children with attention deficit disorder, won’t sit still. The nature of language is change—relentless, unremitting, remorseless. Verbs are formed out of nouns like butterflies out of caterpillars (though some, like “incentivize,” seem more like butterflies turned into caterpillars). Neologisms, or newly coined words, abound. A great game, the language game, one that is played without a clock and knows no season. “The notion that anything is gained by fixing a language in a groove is cherished only by pedants,” wrote H.L. Mencken toward the close of the first volume of “The American Language.” Still, sometimes words become so twisted in their meanings that one feels the need for a referee with a loud whistle to keep things at least generally in bounds.
Have you noticed, for one egregious example, what has happened to the word “surreal”? Once reserved for a distinct artistic and literary style featuring the fantastic and the hallucinatory, it is now used to mean just about anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary. A baseball player knocks in the winning run during an extra-inning game, and in the interview afterward he calls it “surreal.” A woman describes having borne twins as “surreal.” The experience of a car accident is, you will have guessed it, “surreal.” If André Breton, the French poet who published the first “Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924, were alive to see what has happened to his lovely neologism, he would, as the English say, cack his pants.
Certain words have an inherent magical quality that unduly pleases people who emit them. Suddenly the words “many” and “several” have everywhere been replaced by “multiple.” Not several but “multiple witnesses” saw the mugging; the teacher instructed her students on a particular point not many but “multiple times”; and “multiple stores” carry a product that attracts “multiple customers.” The word nowadays pops up endlessly—you might say, though I wouldn’t, with multiplicity—during television and radio news broadcasts. For those sensitive to language, it is almost enough to merit changing the name of the dread neurological disease from multiple to “many sclerosis.”
“Global” is another vogue word riding high. H.W. Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, describes the phenomenon of vogue words with a nice precision: “Every now and then a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness or a merely potential and not actual existence, into sudden popularity. It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” One can easily enough see the attraction of “global.” To talk about “the global economy” or “the global effects of the internet,” or merely to munch on that fat syllable sandwich “globalization,” suggests you are a person interested in large views, grand connections, the big picture. Global, baby, smile when you say it.
In the vast realm of currently overworked metaphors, “table” walks away with all the prizes. What began life as a noun, a simple enough piece of furniture, “table” is these days showing up everywhere and with fatiguing regularity. Nancy Pelosi, when she not long ago told the Boston Globe about her intention to stay on as the Democrats’ leader in the House, said: “It’s important that it not be five white guys at the table, no offense.” She added: “I have no intention of walking away from that table.”
As a verb, “table” began life in England with a meaning very different from, in fact opposite, the one it has in America. In Parliament, to table something is to put it on the agenda to be acted upon; in the U.S., it means to delay, or postpone, the item. As a broader metaphor, “table” is ubiquitous and nearly all-purpose. News reports always have people, negotiators especially, threatening (unlike Mrs. Pelosi) to walk away from the table. The insincere refuse “to lay their cards on the table.” Others are asked “what they bring to the table.” In baseball, the first and second hitters in a lineup are known as “the table-setters.”
What must a person new to the U.S. and attempting to grasp American English think when confronted with these various uses? “Where is this table? How large and strong must it be to support all the things that are apparently set upon it? And how scratched up from all those taken off it! Can it be that there is more than one table being talked about?”
How very confusing! It’s nearly enough to drive a man, as the Americans say, to drink himself under the table.