Yeah, I know the caption is wrong; it’s part of my message. Stay tuned.
I once had an editor who declared that the press (he probably said it more like “The Press!”) is the final guardian of the language.
If we don’t bother to get it right, he posited, who will?
And too often, we fall short of the mark.
On NBC’s Today show one morning this week, four talking heads doing the “Take 3” feature discussed their pet peeves on improper or overused expressions.
Since many of the excesses or errors in the language occur on TV, I took special interest in their corporate mea culpa.
Their rogue’s list:
• “I’m obsessed,” which a New York Times article said is used five times per minute. (To make such a study, I would suggest that the Old Gray Lady is obsessed with such usage.)
At any rate, the panelists said that people declare they are obsessed with everything from kale to catsup.
• “It’s amazing” also came in for ridicule for its overuse. It’s amazing how often the phrase is used.
• And they concluded with “literally,” as in “My head literally exploded!” (and you’re still here to talk about it?) or “We were literally going 200 miles per hour!” (not unless you were in a Formula One race car, Bubba).
OK, they opened the door, and I’m going to rush through it.
My good friend Casey Fletcher has assembled an eclectic email group of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to whom he circulates lofty think pieces culled from erudite journals, most of which I do not understand.
But a few days ago, the article was on the correct use of “who” and “whom,” written on the premise that nobody really cares any more, and when in doubt, we should just use “who” and forget about it.
I wrote a demurrer, ending with something like, “For who the bell tolls? Let’s not even ask.”
Other officers in Casey’s Word Police took both supporting and opposing positions on this weighty issue. I cannot remember who (or whom) took which side.
Ranking near the who/whom conundrum is its/it’s.
One is possessive, the other a contraction. But the apostrophe often appears (dare I say literally appears?) at random.
A friend once explained his rule for me:
“Every third time I use the word, I insert an apostrophe.” It’s amazing how often that works.
It is impossible to hear a newscast these days without hearing the phrase, “... just happens to be ... ” as in “Today just happens to be Saturday,” ignoring centuries of calendars which pre-ordained that today would be Saturday. It is neither coincidental nor amazing.
But I am obsessed with the promiscuous use of “iconic.”
Michelangelo’s statues are iconic. My grandsons’ Lego creations, however special they are to me, are not icons.
A sunrise might be iconic, I guess. The shadow it casts across my front yard is not, even if it looks like Jimmy Durante’s nose or Jay Leno’s chin.
The Magna Carta is an icon; my column, however brilliant (even if it properly uses both who/whom and its/it’s) is not.
It should be, of course. Life can be so unfair.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. His column just happens to be published on Saturdays, because he is obsessed with meeting his publication schedule. It’s amazing that he literally achieves this every week.)