Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Railing against vogue words

I recently read someone railing against the words insight and insightful. Vogue words! The writer was probably channeling the third (1979) or fourth (1999) edition of The Elements of Style, which says of insightful :

The word is a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive.” If it is to be used at all, it should be used for instances of remarkably penetrating vision. Usually, it crops up merely to inflate the commonplace.
My railer’s ace in the hole: insightful is not in his (1970) dictionary — which might mean that he needs more dictionaries. Webster’s Third had the word in 1961. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first appearance in a 1907 John Galsworthy novel: “As if she had been guilty of thoughts too insightful, Mrs Pendyce blushed.” But widespread use is relatively recent: Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a significant increase in the word’s use between 1960 to 2000. As for insight, it first appears in Middle English circa 1200, as insiht. That’s one long vogue.

When I read or hear this sort of railing against words, I have greater sympathy for the exasperation with which linguists regard prescriptivist attitudes toward language. But not all careful thinking about one’s words is nonsense.

Words I can live without
Bluesy , craft , &c.
Delve , -flecked , &c.
Expressed that
That said
Three words never to use in a poem

[Searching OCA, I find that I’ve used perceptive just once in ten years. Insightful turns up only in an observation that E. B. White’s preference for perceptive seems arbitrary. I appear to have little affection for either insightful or perceptive. That’s a different matter from an uninformed insistence that a particular word is a newfangled convenience or without lexicographic reality.]

comments: 4

Chris said...

Perhaps White just had a snobbish bias in favor of the Latinate / French perceptive over the "native" English insightful.

Michael Leddy said...

In the added chapter on style, White says to “Avoid fancy words”: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” But, he adds, it’s a matter of ear. So here his ear preferred perceptive.

Diane Schirf said...

I was going to craft a comment, but insightfully decided against it.

Michael Leddy said...

I’m laugh-flecked!