A host of reasons

July 06, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Perhaps you've had enough of the merits of same-sex marriage, pejorative ethnic terms, and the Christian tendency toward bigotry. Well, today we're back in business with quibbles over usage, in this case to look at why banning certain words can be useful.

Twenty years ago, John S. Carroll, then editor of The Baltimore Sun, had pronounced views about the propriety of language in his newspaper. He disliked references to body parts and bodily functions (It took some persuasion for him to allow the features department to run an article on the Butthole Surfers), and he found vogue usages distasteful. At one point, when one particular usage had got up his nose, he circulated a memo among the staff prohibiting the use of host as a verb.* 

Now those of you who leap to the Oxford English Dictionary whenever one of these discussions crops up will cry, "Wait, wait, doesn't host as a verb have a long pedigree?" And you would be right. The OED's earliest attestation is to a statute of Henry VII in 1485. Host as a verb appears in Elyot's Book Named the Governour and Spenser's Faerie Queen: "Such was that Hag, vnmeet to host such guests."

By the 1990s, however, the verb host had become a vogue usage, an innocuous word appearing with irritating frequency, much as iconic has become an annoying tic among journalists today.** 

The reason for the vogue, I conjecture, is that host had taken on an expanded meaning. No longer limited to inviting a person or group into one's premises, it had taken on an added sense of sponsorship. To host an event can partake of both senses, and sponsor alone will not do, because the sponsor does not necessarily provide the premises. 

Because of that additional sense, John Carroll's ukase notwithstanding, host as a verb now appears well established, because it has that particular and useful meaning. To play host is stiff and unsatisfactory, and really, there is nothing else that quite serves the purpose so compactly. 

Once a usage takes hold as serving a purpose, as it has with host and the once-scorned contact as a verb, it's time to abandon the objection. Hostility to hopefully has begun to wear itself out, and one can envision a point, perhaps just over the horizon, when iconic will be an innocuous word again because the monkey-see-monkey-do crowd has moved on to some other shiny thing. 

You who observe a house style would do well to take a look at your prohibitions to see how many of them still carry weight. 

*The editor, of course, is always right. It's his (or her) paper, and the editor gets to decide on what point of the stuffy-to-conversational-to-loosey-goosey continuum the publication will operate.

**Keep in mind the function of words such as iconic, dramatic, and prestigious. They are not really used for their denotative value. Their function is to signal to the reader, "Look over here; I'm writing about something important."  

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