Thursday, June 14, 2012

Words I can live without

A spontaneous list: delve, -flecked, get (as in “So-and-so gets it,” meaning that So-and-so sees things as you do), helm (as a noun or verb, unless you’re at sea, literally), limn, the planet (as in “on the planet”), tome. These words are tired. Let us allow them a rest.

Delve often becomes a slightly pompous substitute for examine, go into, or look at. But the primary meaning of delve (“reach inside a receptacle and search for something”) makes the word best reserved for figurative use that suggests a genuine search. It makes no sense to describe, for instance, a letter-writer as refusing to “delve into specifics”: if those specifics are available to the writer, no search is needed. Better to say that the letter-writer is refusing to go into specifics, and give delve a rest. The use of -flecked to form phrasal adjectives also needs a rest: I cringe when I read that a new film is “laugh-flecked.” And when told that someone is at the helm of a committee, I want to abandon ship, even if the person helming gets it.

Michiko Kakutani’s overuse of limn has created problems for the word, which seems to lend itself to misuse anyway, as when an art critic writes that lines on graph paper limn a portrait. No, they form one. Here is the portrait in question. See?

Referring to the planet is silly. The greatest tenor saxophonist on the planet is the greatest tenor saxophonist, period. (That would be Sonny Rollins, I’d say, or David Murray.) One might say greatest living. But “on the planet” will make sense only when there are saxophonists on the moon. For now, “on the planet,” like “of all time,” suggests the American penchant for grandiose statement.

As for tome, the New Oxford American Dictionary notes that use of the word is “chiefly humorous”: tome as a substitute for book sounds a bit absurd. If the novel you’re reading is “an interesting tome,” you’d better be speaking archly. My friend Aldo Carrasco and I used tome as a joke with reference to letters, some of which ran for — think of it — several pages.

Related posts
More words I can live without
That said,

[All examples are drawn from journalism or life. The definition of delve is from the New Oxford American Dictionary. Michiko Kakutani’s overuse of limn got me noticing her overuse of mess and messy, which I wrote about here, here, and here. I like extra details in brackets and hope that you do too.]

comments: 5

The Arthurian said...

When I was young, Mom came home one day with per se. In the next month, I heard the expression enough to last a lifetime.

Were I to watch an hour of CNN in search of "that said" I'd be blitzered by the callous Thanks for that's.

[You do a lot on interesting oddities like telephone exchange names. What I like best is when you remind me to evaluate and improve my writing. Thanks for that.]

Michael Leddy said...

[You’re welcome.]

Michael Leddy said...

P.S.: Something re: improving writing is coming on Monday.

Jazzbumpa said...

I'm fairly certain I've never used the word "limn" in any context, so I guess I get it.

Someday I will [archly, no doubt] but only if standing in a body of fresh water.

Greatest anything is a always open to interpretation and mere personal preference. As tenor saxophone contender, I have a tender spot for the late Bob Berg.

[But I don't think I'd go so far as greatest]


Michael Leddy said...

I’ve used limn only when writing about others’ use. Something we can shake on. :)

Bob Berg, gone much too soon.