Friday, June 24, 2016

DFW on utilize

David Foster Wallace wrote notes about twenty-four words for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2004). In 2011, Dave Madden announced his discovery that these notes, and other notes, from other writers, could be found in the thesaurus included with OS X’s Dictionary app — namely, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Some of Wallace’s notes are still available in OS X El Capitan; some have disappeared. They all appear as “Twenty-Four Word Notes” in the posthumous Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2012).

The OAWT now titles these notes "Reflections.” You can hear Oxford University Press stepping away, in the manner of a The-views-expressed-do-not-necessarily-reflect disclaimer: “Conversational, opinionated, and idiomatic, these Word Notes are an opportunity to see a working writer’s perspective on a particular word or usage.” Wallace’s opinionated and idiomatic take on utilize appears to have been toned down. Here’s the 2008 OAWT note:

In the 2012 OAWT note (now in the Mac Dictionary app) the twit is gone:

There are other, smaller changes: rather is gone, you becomes he , and “I tell my students” prefaces the observation about pomposity and insecurity. It’s possible that Wallace himself revised this note in preparation for a later edition of the thesaurus. But in Both Flesh and Not: Essays the twit returns:

There are other changes: utilize is now called “noxious”; he becomes (an awkwardly self-conscious, avoiding-sexism) she ; smart becomes sophisticated; formal is uncapitalized. The double quotation marks replacing Wallace’s usual single marks are no doubt an editor’s work. Aside from the quotation marks, I suspect that the Both Flesh and Not version is Wallace’s entry as submitted to Oxford, with both noxious and twit merrily standing.

But all that aside: what I value in this entry is its final sentence: “‘formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.” Listen up, students!

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)

[There may be a legitimate use for utilize : The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) says that “More than use , it suggests a deliberate decision or effort to employ something (or someone) for a practical purpose.” But to my mind, utilize suggests a capitulation, deliberate or not, to the pompous style. I have seen and heard the word often enough to have made up my mind.]

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