Fancy shmancy

Jon Margolis

August 14, 1991|By Jon Margolis

AS WILL be demonstrated presently, though not now, this is an English lesson.

It has been inspired by being put on hold, always an inspirational experience, during which a very nice recorded lady (well, recorded voice, which seemed nice) kept saying, "All our lines are presently busy."

And to think that she works for a university. The University of Toronto, yet, up there in Canada, where, one could hope, the Queen's English is taken more seriously than down here in the breakaway colonies.

Actually, this phone call does not entirely account for the inspiration. No more, for instance, than the shooting of the archduke in Sarajevo inspired World War I (which -- have you noticed? -- isn't over yet). Like the shooting, the recorded message was just the event that pushed matters to the conclusion toward which they had been heading.

More influential over the years have been the pilots and the stewardesses, or flight attendants as we are now supposed to but do not call them. Wonderful people, pilots and stewardesses. With only a few exceptions they perform superbly tasks that are more difficult and less glamorous than they seem. And they probably don't even write their own stuff. No doubt some corporate nerd does it for them.

Whoever does it is wrong. "We are presently climbing through 30,000 feet on our way to our cruising altitude of 37,000 feet," says the pilot. "Welcome to Chicago's O'Hare Field, where it is presently 2:32 p.m. Central Daylight Time," says the stewardess.

No, we aren't and no, it isn't. If we are now climbing through 30,000 feet we will presently be passing through 32,000 feet. If it is now 2:32 it will presently be 2:33.

This is because (as we hope you realize by now, and if not trust that you will presently) "presently" does not mean "now." "Presently" means "pretty soon."

Granted, this is a confusion that has become widespread, so much so that perfectly proper dictionaries, such as the American Heritage, provide "at this time or period; now" as a proper, if second, definition of the word, adding that its usage panel was divided on the second definition's acceptability.

Thus do civilizations fall. One of its defenders, the late, estimable Theodore Bernstein, as close to an authority on these matters as we have, did not simply reject this heresy but explained why: "Nothing is gained by blurring the word and giving it two meanings," he wrote.

Language being an expression of attitude, there is more involved here than the choice of words, though that itself is no small matter. But the attitude expressed by this particular choice is especially disturbing, for it is nothing less than putting on airs, trying to be not just fancy, but fancy and shmancy both. And no attitude will more quickly cause a civilization to fall.

It is the same impulse that leads people to the entirely incorrect "between you and I," which some find more refined than the correct "between you and me." "Between" is a preposition, the object of which must be in the objective case. The only time it is correct to say "between you and I" is if you are describing an object flanked on one side by a female sheep and on the other by an organ of sight, in which case it is "between ewe and eye," or, perhaps, if the object is flanked by a certain kind of evergreen tree and the organ of sight, one could say that it was "between yew and eye."

This thirst for fancy-shmancydom also leads stewardesses to tell passengers how to "de-plane" when the passengers want only to get off.

You can see what happened here. "Now," based on an Old English word from the Teutonic, was too blunt for some folks. They began to say "at present," which is correct enough though longer than "now" by two syllables and six letters. Unlike "now," the word "present" came to English via French. The French, as is widely known (not, you will note, "well known," which you can be only to a person who knows you well) invented fancy-shmancy language. It's their forte. Well, it's one of their fortes.

Let us stop putting on airs. The least we can do for American civilization is to be plain speakers. Fancy-shmancy did not cross the prairies and conquer the frontier. Pilots, stewardesses, recorded voices telling us that all lines are busy, change your ways presently. Or better yet, now.

Jon Margolis writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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