A Reading Life

A celebrated case of ‘word rage’

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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I do not like the word “pants.’’ As for its diminutive form, a word that I have never uttered or written, I simply cannot bear it. Is this loony? I’d say not; it’s just that words, far from being simple signs for some preexistent reality, embody all sorts of associations and traditions that tint or warp or infect the things they describe. As the late, great linguist Charlton Laird pointed out, there are, strictly speaking, no synonyms. To which I would add that, in the end, outright error aside, one’s choice of one word over another is a matter of one’s personal history, taste, and sensibility. My own makeup, for instance, has an element that causes me to recoil from the therapeutic prescription of the expression “needs to’’ used in place of “should’’ or “must,’’ as in “He needs to learn some manners,’’ and “will,’’ or “want,’’ as in “I need to read this book.’’ But, returning to “pants,’’ I prefer “trousers,’’ though only somewhat, as it is a stuffy sort of word whose spirit I associate, thanks to my reading, with the stifling prudery of the Counter-Reformation and the artist known as “The Trouserer.’’ (This was Daniele da Volterra, commissioned by Pope Paul IV to paint clothing on the nude figures of the Sistine Chapel.) Still, if “trousers’’ are a little oppressive and priggish, “pants’’ are, in the words of Ambrose Bierce, “vulgar exceedingly.’’

I came across this gratifying confirmation of my own prejudice in Jan Freeman’s “Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers’’ (Walker, $24). (This is the very same Jan Freeman who writes the Globe’s superb language column, The Word.) I am going to leave you to investigate the problem of Bierce’s pants on your own, though I will mention that according to Freeman, Bierce “told friends that no woman, including his wife, had ever seen him naked.’’

The pairing of Freeman and Bierce is a happy one: She is good-humored, tolerant, and democratic; he is ill-tempered, opinionated, and snooty. Both are witty: she, acerbic; he, ferocious. Bierce saw no reason at all to rein himself in for, as Freeman notes, he “had parlayed his prejudice into a successful career.’’ In fact, as she shows, Bierce, arch stickler and “peevologist,’’ invented many of the rules and strictures he laid down with such rectitude. Just to begin with, he insisted that “few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worthwhile to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries.’’ Not surprisingly, he takes umbrage at idioms and finds slang abhorrent and is forever knocking both on the head. That pinched view of language goes back at least as far as John Locke if not William of Ockham and beyond, but Bierce is so festive in his indignation that the subject becomes genuinely entertaining, especially when accompanied by Freeman’s tart, often bemused commentary. “Not for the first time,’’ she remarks as he lays down another idiosyncratic decree, “I ask myself: Where did Bierce get this stuff?’’

In tackling Bierce’s pronouncements and “word rage,’’ Freeman not only illuminates the writer’s personality, but also addresses a few usage problems that continue to vex us today, delving shrewdly into their etiologies. As it happens, the book, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the original, goes beyond Bierce and shows how much American English and attitudes toward it have changed in a century. Take, for instance, the matter of “will’’ and “shall,’’ the subject of near-theological exegesis in years gone by. Freeman notes wryly that though some usage writers still mention it, “Wilson Follett’s twenty-page excursus on the subject, in Modern American Usage (1966), seems to have killed American enthusiasm for the distinction once and for all.’’

At one point Freeman remarks of some modern usage - or hideous solecism as it might be: “Bierce would be rolling over in his grave, if he had a grave.’’ (The great man disappeared in 1913, his fate never discovered.) It is alarming to think of the mortuary disturbances erupting in some unmarked place caused by Paul Dickson’s “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary’’ (Melville House, $19.95). According to Dickson, there are more synonyms for “drunk’’ in the English language than for any other word - and, needless to say, that plenitude is rife with slang, idiom, metaphor, and similar unpleasantness. Dickinson set The Guinness Book of World Records record in 1993 with 2,660 supposed synonyms, and now he intends to break that by coming up with 2,964.

Though the book is generally good fun - and the sort people are, for some reason, always giving me - it does set off the fulminant nit-picker within me. In the first place there’s no rule as to what constitutes an integral expression for drunk. If “totally drunk’’ is counted, as it is, why not “really drunk,’’ “very drunk,’’ “way drunk,’’ and so on? Then, many expressions that ignorant, inept, or befuddled people may have used to mean drunk have been included. The presence of loaded in the expression “loaded for bear’’ is no excuse for thinking it means drunk; and to insist on it undermines the wonderful image it conjures and its true meaning: that of being all set for a belligerent confrontation. Similar to this is the sad degeneration of “tight as a tick’’ - an excellent term - to “full as a tick’’ down to the utter bathos of “drunk as a tick.’’ The same deterioration may be seen when “high as a kite’’ slips to “lit as a kite.’’ Citations may, I’m sure, be found for these expressions, but they are instances of people with no feeling for language getting it wrong. Another error is further compounded when the sketch that illustrates the phrase “Talking to Earl on the big white phone’’ shows a barman handing a customer called Earl a telephone. This makes no sense, for the expression means vomiting into the toilet - an attendant phenomenon, possibly, but not a synonym for drunk.

The joy of this book arises out of the pleasures of flamboyant, colorful slang and of inspired metaphor and sly euphemism. Most of Brian Rea’s marvelously silly illustrations have enhanced this, but Dickson’s determination to push up the numbers has not.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

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