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Alaskan Range: Etymology

Columnist Greg Hill tells of that interjectory fellow Gordon Bennett who offered sound advice to all journalists.

Lewis Thomas, who died in 1993, is remembered as a physician, medical researcher, dean of the Yale and New York University medical schools, science essayist and poet, and as an etymologist! Don't confuse etymology, the study of words, with entomology, the study of insects! And in memory of Dr. Lewis, avoid exclamation marks! "Once you allow one or two in," Lewis wrote in his book, "Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher," they tend to multiply, scattering themselves everywhere, expostulating, sounding off, making believe that phrases have a significance beyond what the words themselves are struggling to say words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point at the end like a Toyota salesman on TV."

Sometimes exclamations are warranted, like when "surprise, contempt, outrage, disgust, or frustration" are being expressed. That's also the definition of "Gordon Bennett!," an interjection still used in Britain. It's inspired by playboy newspaper publisher J. Gordon Bennett, Jr. who. inherited the New York Herald from his dad in 1866, at age 25. Jr. soon left his mark on American journalism, including stunts like generating news by funding Henry Stanley's search for Dr. Livingstone. Bennett also founded the International Herald Tribune while self-exiled to Europe. This came after he showed up late and drunk for a formal dinner at his prospective in-law's New York home one winter's evening and promptly relieved himself in either the fireplace or a grand piano.

Accounts from eyewitnesses varied, and inaccurate facts infuriated Bennett, who compiled a set of writing laws for his reporters. Some of his commandments seem dated today, such as forbidding "coarse" terms like "pants," "zoo," and "gangster." The subsection titled "Dos and Don'ts for Writing for the Herald" has many good suggestions for modern journalists, including "Shun the monotonous repetition of words Outline your story before you begin to write Tell the story clearly and forcibly and keep away from worn or hackneyed phrases."

Imagine Bennett's reaction had he seen SavetheWords.org, a website dedicated to reviving little-used words. Visitors to SavetheWords can adopt terms like "adimpleate (to fill up)," "blateration (blabber, chatter)," and "krioboly (sacrifice of many rams)." Adopters must swear "to use the word, in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible." Some old words might require effort to work into daily chitchat, such as "gleimous (slimy, full of phlegm)" and "lagenarious (flagon-shaped)." But others, like "slimikin (small and slender)" really sparkle. Forget about adopting "historiaster (a contemptible historian)," because it's now mine.

Grammar Girl's Top Ten Language Myths at http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com is great for fledgling writers. There they'll learn it's OK to split infinitives, as in "to boldly go," and that using the passive voice is permissible when the person responsible for the action isn't named, as in "Mistakes were made." And it's even fine to end sentences with prepositions if the final preposition "is necessary to keep from making stuffy, stilted sentences." Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, ought to know. She's not only a professional technical and freelance writer, she has an English degree. Moreover, she's informed, funny, and flexible in her pronouncements, and she knows that even good writers sometimes strike out.

Marianne Moore is a case in point. Moore was a widely-anthologized American poet in the mid-twentieth century, beloved by the general public and poetry readers alike. She was pals with many contemporary poets, including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, some of whom published her first book of poetry without her knowledge in 1921, while Moore was working for the New York Public Library. By the 1950s she'd left her library gig behind and won a Pulitzer Prize. Top Ford executives asked her to suggest names for their newest car model. Her submissions included "Anticipator," "Thunder Crester," "Mongoose Civique," "Intelligent Whale," "Varsity Stroke," and my favorites: "Patelogram" and "Utopian Turtletop." Ford declined them all and went with their internal choice: Edsel.

Listen, you struggling writers and car executives! Heed John Lennon! He said, "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."


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