Brave new language has snuck' up on me

Published 1:08 am Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Part of it must surely be upbringing, and the other part must be my inquisitive nature coupled with mediocre math skills which leaves me curious about problems but inept at solving those which use numbers.
What I mean is that I have this ceaseless fascination with the English language, and though I neither speak it nor write it very well, I do a mite better at it than I do at most other subjects.
All of this to say that this is a column about language, its use and misuse and my difficulty at adapting to new norms that stem from the release of every dictionary.
I remember a couple of years ago reading that Webster's revised dictionary included some new additions, including the term, "snuck." I don't remember what the exact definition of the word was supposed to be but it was past tense of the word "sneak" and required a helping verb.
I am one of the first to stand up and scream that a word that means what it means shouldn't be rewritten to mean the same thing and sound like something else. Based on this, "snuck" works fine.
What I mean is that I don't like to use a thesaurus for the simple reason that I have too often seen people who enthusiastically turned to Roget use words that don't mean much of anything.
Quote I from a sentence once submitted in a news story by a beginning reporter, "Jones was posthumously awarded the Posthumous Award' which is awarded to a deceased person for his or her contributions after he or she is dead and is no longer living." I got the idea that Mr. or Ms. Jones may not have been on hand at the event to pick up the award.
The long and short of this is that by using a thesaurus we can get ourselves in a bit of a jam, so why not refrain from using one altogether? I suppose I would argue that when a reporter writes a news story and includes such excess verbiage as "conversated," "reluctantly replied," "inquisitively questioned," "discussed," etc., then I lose interest rapidly. After all, "said" means "said." If it works, why change it? Asked would be an acceptable form of the word since it means what it implies as well for those occasions when a question mark is appropriate as the closing punctuation.
So if I would make the argument that a word should be used based on the merits of what it means, then the argument could be made by any right-speaking Alabamian that "snuck" works like a charm.
After all, we have all snuck from time to time here there and yonder. Despite the fact that it's a new addition to Webster, we in the world of the South have used it for years.
But the use of the word snuck does concern me. As do half a dozen or more words that I hear mispronounced or misused each day.
Take "forehead" for instance. Most people read it as two distinct words, "four" and then "head" with an accent on the first syllable. Of course the older dictionaries tell us the word is pronounced "forrid." But we didn't seem to get it so it was changed. Take the word "tarpaulin" for another example. Growing up in the South, I found that I was nearly 18 before I knew the word wasn't four syllables, "tar-pole-ee-uhn" as I had always heard it, but was, instead "tar-po-lin."
Don't get me wrong. I make plenty of goofs myself and find that I often wish the dictionary would be re-written to make me appear to be correct. But Mr. Webster and company don't like to do it on my account.
There was the time I wrote in a caption below a picture, "Her and her dog went for a walk…" And that's probably not my worst ever. I shudder to think!
But my goofs aside, I have remained passionate in my support of protecting the integrity of the English language, including the time I wrote the Associated Press and informed them that a person who marches on behalf of peace is not an "anti-war protestor." After all, who would protest against a state of "anti-war"? AP was not amused and a revision to the old AP Stylebook with my exception duly noted was not forthcoming.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that when we re-write the correct rules to make allowances for our own inability to abide by them, we are setting a dangerous precedent. Of course times change and without revisions to language we'd all be speaking a guttural version of English that sounds like a cross between barbarian, German and people choking on very strong beer. But changing the dictionary to include new phrases like "Internet" or "online" is a far cry from revising it to make people who speak it poorly seem correct.
So, Mr. Webster, I beseech you, let this insanity end before good sense has snuck away from us all and we don't know the difference between a forehead and four heads. Besides, it's time we all learned that we can't be right all the time in language and in other matters.
Brian Blackley is publisher of The Atmore Advance. He may be reached at 368-2123 or by e-mail at

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