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High-flown rhetoric

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  May 10, 2007 07:12 PM

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If you think airline language is worse than airline food, you've got a friend in the cockpit: Boston-bred pilot Patrick Smith, author of Salon.com's Ask the Pilot column, takes on the lingua franca of flight in the current installment. (Part 2, on air-terminal talk, will be online tomorrow.)

Some of Smith's entries are simply informational (and sometimes reassuring). Air pocket "has no precise meteorological meaning," he says; it's just a bump in the ride. And wind shearis "one of those buzzwords that scare the crap out of people, but in fact it's very common and rarely hazardous."

But others entries note pet peeves, which aren't all that different, it turns out, from yours and mine.

AT THIS TIME "At this time, we ask that you please put away all electronic devices and place all cellular phones in the off position." Meaning: now, or presently. This is air travel's signature euphemism, and one whose needlessness really sets my teeth on edge.

TAMPERING WITH, DISABLING OR DESTROYING "Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling or destroying a lavatory smoke detector." While we're at it, this is another example of fatty verbiage that serves no purpose other than to bore passengers. Meaning: tampering with.

Smith goes too far, though, when he declares that the emphatic do -- "We do appreciate your choosing United" -- is a usage with "no grammatical justification." It may not be necessary in the friendly skies, but this has been normal English for a millennium and more.

The OED quotes (to pick examples with readable spelling) the16th-century Tyndale Bible ("Of whom Moses in the lawe and the prophetes dyd wryte") and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" ("Not so, sir, I do care for something, but . . . I do not care for you").

And Smith ignores momentarily, the top complaint of flying language conservatives. "We'll be landing momentarily," they say, means "for a moment," not "in a moment." (They would also point out that presently means, or did mean till recently, "soon," not "now.")

Still, if you've ever recoiled at being "beveraged" at 30,000 feet, you'll be glad to hear that someone on the front lines shares your dismay, if not your every pet peeve.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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