Asportation: Unnecessary Wordiness…or a Retronym in Process?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a vocabulary post on a legal word (surprising, considering that a good chunk of my recent work has been for law firms; that’s been so successful that I’ll soon be offering a new service specifically for legal clients).

In the past, I’ve covered a few unusual words that appear in legal contexts (and issues of legalese; see: usufruct, burglarious, this, and this). Today, let’s look at “asportation.” It’s not about aspiration or transportation; airports or teleportation; perspiration or trainspotting.

Take a deep breath, then click here.

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In With The New

February’s nearly over and I usually dedicate a post around this time to review the annual “Banned Words” list, but this year I’ll take a pass. There’s only so much pet-peevishness I can take, and that exercise in public griping drifted over the line from entertaining to annoying several years ago. There’s nothing worth discussing on it this year that hasn’t been covered better elsewhere (but if you’re interested, you’ll find it here).

Instead, I’ll stick with the spirit of my recent posts on Words of the Year (and Part 2) and discuss several interesting words (and ideas) that I encountered over the past year. None of these words was strictly new in 2017, but they were either new to me or I noticed them being used in new ways that deserved attention. I’ve done only superficial research into their deeper origins, so what follows should be taken as incomplete.

Ready for something new? Click here.

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WOTY 2017 (Part 2): “Fake News” All Over Again.

On January 5th, the American Dialect Society announced the results of its voting for Word of the Year (WOTY). They went with fake news which, if you’ve read my previous post, was a choice you might not think I’d approve of. However, if you’ve also read some of my WOTY commentaries from previous years, you might have noticed that I can be won over by a WOTY choice not because of the word itself but by the justification its selectors make. In the case of the ADS and fake news, I have been totally convinced: their justification, supported by a new and accurate definition, is a slam dunk. I was impressed and completely support their choice.

I’ll get to that new definition in a little while (if you don’t have the stamina for my longer play-by-play, you can skip below to this flag: <<<<<>>>>>). On the way there, let’s look at some of the other candidates and winners in the ADS selection contest. The ADS gets its own post in my WOTY wrap-ups because they seem to put a lot more thought into this than most of the others. They not only select an overall WOTY, but they look at a number of sub-categories (which vary from year to year). They have a semi-open nominating policy, which is unscientific but usually produces thought-provoking choices. And votes for candidate words are cast and tallied in real time in a room full of people who are passionate about and deeply interested in our language (even if they don’t take themselves entirely seriously during this process). The WOTY chosen by the ADS is, in many years, the only one really worth taking seriously.

Click for your choice of alternative lies or fact-based reporting

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WOTY 2017 (Part 1): We’re all complicit.

Ah, December. When a young man’s thoughts turn to college bowl games. And when those of us who spend a disproportionate amount of our time in the trenches observing and analyzing this thing we call the English language wonder, “what’s going on with the WOTY for 2017?”

WOTY (word of the year) candidates and ‘winners’ have been floating around since at least October, and those of you who have made it a habit to stop by this site have probably noticed that every year I do the Pokemon thing (“Collect ’em all!“—let’s call this “WOTYmon” from now on) and offer up a quick and far-too-often sarcastic review of what the various WOTY declarers have…declared.

It’s my self-appointed duty, and my Christmas gift to you: I slog through all the nonsense of each year’s WOTY declarations and summarize it, so you don’t have to. Whether you find any value in that or appreciate it, accept this small token. Happy Holidays!

Let’s get to it. Where’s the WOTY? Click here.

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What makes someone an authority on the English language?

A vocabulary slip on my part in a recent post led to an email conversation with long-time reader Steve G., which eventually meandered over to this question.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on the idea, and can offer a short list of the most important criteria: an authority backs up its position with evidence, experience, consensus, and the respect of other experts and authorities. (We could add other factors, but I’ve limited this post to that short list.)

Some languages have official language academies with the mission of keeping the language pure or honest or “consistent with its fundamental principles.” But English has no equivalent of the RAE, the Académie française, or the Accademia della Crusca. There’s no official version of English, no designated English language institute to issue new words or rule on grammatical disputes, and no officially appointed or elected panel of arbiters of correct and incorrect usage.

Yet we have experts (and plenty of them), some commonly acknowledged and others self-appointed. Why give deference to any of them?

Here’s what I think. Since English doesn’t have official arbiters, we also don’t have official manuals stating how to use English. An artificial language—be it Esperanto, or Java or SQL for that matter—can have rigid rules of syntax, with simple and clear guidelines on how the elements of the language (be they letters, words, or sentences) are strung together (into words, sentences, and larger objects) to deliver meaning. There are also rules about things like verb tense, declension, case, and so on. English has plenty of these rules—you’ll instantly look ignorant if you can’t get your noun-verb agreement correct, or if you screw up your plurals—but there’s quite a bit of leeway. These rules don’t have the force of law, but grew out of tradition, consensus, and expedience.

Without rigid official grammar manuals, English adopts by default the authority of style guides—unofficial handbooks that describe what’s best and explain why. Instead of strictures detailing how the language works, we instead get advice and suggestions (with the occasional proscription) and—in the better cases—examples and models to follow.

Fair enough, you say. There’s no government language agency in London or Cambridge or Washington, DC, to tell me what I can and can’t do. So who are those people in Oxford and Chicago who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell me what I can and can’t do? Who died and made them keepers of the language?

Again, a fair enough question. But let’s turn it around: if you moved into a new house and your electrician told you that he needed to re-wire your main panel, you wouldn’t ask him who died and made him keeper of electricity. If your doctor told you that your cholesterol was too high, you needed to lose 5 pounds, and you weren’t getting enough sleep, you wouldn’t ask her who died and made her the keeper of healthcare.

You would accept their analyses, their conclusions, their professional judgment (a judgement is, after all, a special kind of informed opinion). Why? For many reasons, some having to do with education, training, and certification, but others having to do with their practical experience doing that job, built on a long tradition of formal and informal education and accumulated knowledge.

Who said that doctor deserves to be a doctor? The school where she earned her degree. Well, who gave that school the right? An accrediting body. Yes, but who gave them that right? Well…we can keep going deeper and deeper, but what you’ll find in most professions is that there’s some kind of body that at some point in history was created when the members of that profession made an effort to hold themselves to rigid standards and drive out the underqualified amateurs and quacks. Some of these groups go back centuries, others are quite new, but they have that in common: they needed a way to formalize their standards and build outsiders’ confidence in the profession.

For language authorities, the idea is the same, although the implementation isn’t. Professional users of language have all sorts of associations and societies: the Writers Guild of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Modern Language Association, and AWP, to name a few of very many. They have different focuses: screenwriting, travel writing, teaching, and so on. (I’ve been a member of different groups but am a current member of only the Editorial Freelancers Association).

But membership in these groups is not particularly stringent. You can’t join the AMA without a recognized medical degree, get into the ABA without verified licensing, or become a voting member of IEEE without proper accreditation or demonstrated competence. In many cases, however, you can join a writers’ association with little or no
fuss. Even when there are higher bars, these organizations have no actual power when it comes to what you can and can’t do professionally: the medical profession has ways to stop unqualified doctors from practicing, but anyone can write and publish a book, no matter how much of an affront the content is to readable English.

How does an individual or organization become an accepted authority on English? The same way one becomes an authority on anything: through education, training, practice, dedication, an adherence to professional standards, and a demonstrated record of quality work. The only real difference is that “the profession of English” has no accrediting body. There’s no shortage of professional associations, but few of them make any claim to being arbiters of “good English.”

If I were to ask you who you accept as an authority for English spelling, grammar, punctuation, and so on, you would probably rattle off names from a short list, including Strunk & White, OED, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage. If I tweaked the question a
little—who would you cite for best practices?—and gave you time to think, you might throw out the names of some respected institutions and successful authors: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood. We’ll disagree on specifics, but not the general idea: we’re all willing to trust institutions with a long history of integrity and individuals with an acknowledged expertise in the language.

You might spot a weakness in my case. ‘My eighth grade English teacher had 30 years experience, but I’ve had to unlearn almost everything he taught me.’ Or ‘That author has sold 100 million copies, but educated critics agree that some of the writing is near gibberish. Why should I trust advice from that source?

Which gets us back to the real criteria for expertise: evidence. None of the authorities I’ve
mentioned, regardless of how long they’ve been around or how well-regarded they are, should stand if they tell you what to do but don’t back it up with evidence.

When it comes to English usage, this means that an authority can’t say ‘Do it this way.‘ An authority must say ‘Do it this way, because of this. Here are examples.’ All good authorities do this.

The best will go further: ‘Here is an example of it done wrong: note the difference. Here is further historical support for this recommendation. Here are summaries of what other authorities have said on this point.

And, by the way: an authority does not have to be ancient and well-known to be trustworthy. Some have been around for ages: OED, Strunk & White, Fowler. But there are perfectly good modern authorities who can be trusted because they provide consistently good advice supported by solid evidence: Garner, Language Log, Grammar Girl. There are numerous authorities you might not have heard of, but which have earned their reputations by providing both solid advice and advice that is solidly supported.

Should you consider me an authority? I don’t presume that you will. But if you follow this recommendation and require that every authority provide good evidence before you accept its advice, then you’re likely to always choose good authorities that deserve your respect. The overall quality of contemporary English will have risen, if ever so slightly, and you will (I can only hope) have improved your critical thinking ability. That’s more than enough for me.

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