boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
THE WORD

What's wrong with this question?

CONNOISSEURS OF PEEVE-OLOGY, here comes the book you'll love to hate. "She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook," a collection of despised English usages, is now available on Amazon in the UK and Canada.

But who needs a book? The London newspaper got its material from readers who nominated their Most Annoying Phrases, and the original posts -- thousands of them -- are still on the Telegraph's website.

Some are old familiar bugbears: At the end of the day, like, basically, issues, leverage. Some are mildly surprising: Absolutely for "yes" is widely scorned, and 24/7 takes a lot of heat. Quite a few are American borrowings, including game plan, step up to the plate, whole new ballgame. ("We don't HAVE a sport referred to as the ball game!") And some are just quirky: "It's Father Christmas, not bloody 'Santa Claus'!"

The phrase that struck me, though, wasn't one of the nominated annoyances; it was one that contributors were using to make their complaints. Dozens of them, instead of giving reasons for their pet dislikes, simply stated their objections in the form of (presumably rhetorical) questions:

Dumbing down -- "What is wrong with lowering of standards?"

Gobsmacked -- "What's wrong with amazed or shocked?"

Societal -- "What is wrong with social?"

Bye-bye -- "What's wrong with goodbye?"

What's "wrong with" the established words? After six or seven repetitions of the phrase, I had a question of my own: Who said anything had to be "wrong" with them? Surely these word watchers don't think the only excuse for a new expression is the inadequacy of a current one -- do they?

When Ben & Jerry's introduces Banana Split ice cream, they're not dissing Cherry Garcia. You can download another tune, or buy another shirt, without implying that the ones you already own are faulty. Your second child isn't compensation for the flaws of the first (though the elder may never believe it).

Sometimes, yes, you might spot something "wrong" with the old language choices. Ms. covers more territory, more conveniently, than Miss and Mrs. did. Social is potentially ambiguous (hence the impersonal societal); wonderful already had its turn in the hyperbole spotlight.

But that's beside the point. New usages don't wait for vacancies in the vocabulary; they just show up at work and make themselves useful. When one succeeds, we're good at explaining it after the fact: We needed just that word, with just that nuance, we say, whether it's Shakespeare's puke or the 300-year-old bye-bye or today's dumbing down.

Words that fail, on the other hand, are soon forgotten, like disadorn and aspectable. Were they superfluous, or just unlucky? We'll never know, says linguist David Crystal: "It is mostly impossible to say why one word lived and another died." Or which of today's words will prosper, and which fade away.

The only thing that's clear is that reasons don't matter. You can promote your preferences, and denounce those who differ, as much as you like; but when you declare a word unnecessary, its very existence refutes you. If amazed and shocked truly covered the territory, nobody would have coined gobsmacked.

. . .

COMMUTER CONSPIRACY: Tim Dickinson, posting on Rolling Stone magazine's National Affairs blog last week, thought he saw sneaky maneuvering in the language of Scooter Libby's presidential reprieve.

"The White House has done a great job of framing this as a commutation," he writes. "To commute is a cold, technocratic, emotionless verb. But look at the actual order Bush signed and it calls the presidential quasi-pardon by its real name: Clemency."

His point, as I understand it, is that "clemency" is too good for Libby -- it's "an emotive word," appealing to "our sense of mercy." So the White House is avoiding it, he implies, because its connotations of sweet-natured forgiveness would highlight how sour and unsentimental the perjury proceedings were.

But there's a simpler explanation. "Executive clemency," in the Justice Department's officialese, embraces both pardons (the crime is wiped out) and commutations (the sentence is reduced). Commutation isn't a quasi-pardon; it's a different category of clemency.

It's true that clemency ("mildness, leniency"), which can describe personality, is more "emotive" than the abstract commute, which means (in this 17th-century sense) merely "to exchange" -- here, a lesser penalty for a harsher one.

But clemency has no verb form; "commuting a sentence" is what presidents do, whatever their party. No doubt the Bush team wanted to announce this contentious move in cool, impersonal terms. But they really didn't have a lot of choice.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES