Archaisms, ugh

7 09 2010

We made it back to Nashville in one piece and had a really great weekend with my family. Especially the kids had a terrific time swimming, riding horses, chasing mules on the “Noodle Wagon” (the funny name given to their Polaris Ranger, which they use to patrol the property), going on paddle-boats, riding with my mom on her 4-wheeler, playing with the dogs and just generally enjoying the lake, which was at its most beautiful and helped to no small extent by perfect weather. It’s definitely nice being this much closer and able to get down there and we’re already planning our next trip.

And now back to your regularly scheduled websurfing…

I woke up early this morning and, as usual, I started off by just clicking through my emails and RSS reader junk. Among them was a discussion thread I’ve been following on Goodreads where people are commenting on whatever book they’ve just finished and I found myself wincing not at the poor writers (they’re not the most pleasing in the world to see, but my expectations are low anyway) but at the horribly stilted ones:

“I too am loathe to peruse other works whilst reading his book.”

(I made that sentence up, but it’s very close to the original I saw in the discussion thread.)

That’s just painful. I dislike the position of “too” between the subject and verb, a very tacky “I, too” flourish that I noticed the author uses every single time she shares something in common with someone else. I know this because I checked her posting history, which says at least as much about how sad it is that I spend my mornings this way as it does her style. It’s as if she’s incapable of putting “too” at the end of a sentence. For example: I find you to be a really annoying, too. Wasn’t too hard.

More than that, though is “whilst.” Why not “while?” That particular word choice got me thinking about the use of archaisms in general. Now, before I get too pissy about “whilst,” I want to be clear that I’m talking about usage in standard US-English. It could be that a British English writer would feel more comfortable with whilst, but even then, most of what I’ve seen suggests that it’s at best archaic and stuffy there as well. In this case, the person who wrote the offending sentence is an American 6th grade social studies teacher. She has no excuse.

Archaisms, as a rule, just come off wrong and I don’t mean for that to sound like I’m an absolute prude. It can be funny. One of my closest friends frequently uses the word “mayhap” instead of “maybe.” It’s meant ironically, though, because I know the guy and it’s normally so incongruous in every context that it cannot be taken seriously. You can occasionally play up a funny sentence with a funny, out-of-place, William F. Buckley accent. There’s even a chance you can slip one in there occasionally in a witty or clever way, but normally there’d be some clear indication of irony while you did it. Sometimes, instead of saying “thank you,” I might say “Merci.” It’s a gag. I play it up and smile. It’s not serious.

No, no, here I mean the “whilst” coming into play in a strictly non-ironic, faux-intellectual sense. The problem with archaisms, used in that way, is that they’re off-putting and amateurish, so sayeth (ha!) H.W. Fowler in 1908:

The guilt of such peccadilloes as this may be said to vary inversely as the writer’s erudition; for in this matter the learned may plead ignorance, where the novice knows too well what he is doing. It is conscious archaism that offends, above all the conscious archaisms of the illiterate: the historian’s It should seem, even the essayist’s You shall find, is less odious, though not less deliberate, than the ere, oft, aught, thereanent, I wot, I trow, and similar ornaments, with which amateurs are fond of tricking out their sentences. This is only natural. An educated writer’s choice falls upon archaisms less hackneyed than the amateur’s; he uses them, too, with more discretion, limiting his favourites to a strict allowance, say, of once in three essays. The amateur indulges us with his whole repertoire in a single newspaper letter of twenty or thirty lines, and—what is worse—cannot live up to the splendours of which he is so lavish: charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit. Our list begins with the educated specimens, but lower down the reader will find several instances of this fatal incongruity of style; fatal, because the culprit proves himself unworthy of what is worthless.

Imagine if you had an American friend who could not help him or herself from slipping into a ham-handed attempt at a British accent anytime the topic of conversation shifted into any part of the spectrum of low-to-high culture above, let’s say, Twilight. Yeah, that. Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Writing is no different. Case in point:

I am not of the school that says that writers should write in the same manner in which they speak. I think written language really should be more organized, more thoughtful, more correct and even more ornamental than your standard speaking. Ornamentation is pretty dangerous business, though. Go too far and it becomes as gaudy and obnoxious as Dolly Parton’s hairstyle. Less is more.

The real risk is that you alienate the reader. Good writing connects the reader to the words and ideas. It doesn’t have to be invisible, because sometimes the medium is the message. It is possible to write elegantly and even with a little flourish without going over the top and it can clearly be artistic without annoying. Normally, the offense of ‘conscious archaism’ is the result of incongruity of style. If you were writing a poem, you really could go hog wild. If you wrote a literary novel, you could probably be more sophisticated with your word choice. I enjoy just as much about how a good writer writes as I do what he or she is writing about. For a great example, go to Google Books and look at the preview of Franzen’s Freedom there. Skip down to the bottom of page 6 where Franzen describes Carol Berglund and read that paragraph. Franzen is an incredible writer and there’s a lot of depth to not just the character, but the way he describes her. For me, personally, this is a blog and I try not to be too fancy (not that I’m really capable of it anyway) and I’m pretty sure that the standard internet discussion board is not the place for a whole lot of gilded diction, especially when you’re talking about your favorite science fiction novel.

“I’m very anxious not to fall into archaism or “literary” diction. I want my vocabulary to have a very large range, but the words must be alive.” – James Agee




2 responses

7 09 2010

I like your point about the incongruity which is so characteristic of offensive archaisms. I always get the impression the writer doesn’t actually know what the word or phrase means, but is putting it in to try to sound smart.

One of my pet peeves is mis-worded idioms, like “tow the line” instead of “toe the line” or “baited breath” instead of “bated breath.”

More examples, since I couldn’t think of all the ones I’ve winced at recently:

12 09 2010

An example of your dreaded ‘whilst’ rose up and slapped me in the face in my Observer magazine this morning:
You, and not Jared Leto, have my vote (and therefore that of all British English speakers, of course) – ‘whilst’ is at its best pretentious and at its worst makes you sound like an Eton-educated Tory.

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