The writers and editors at the New York Times evidently need to feel a lot more linguistic insecurity than they do. On the editorial page of today’s paper (August 30th) I was appalled to read the following, in a discussion of McCain’s choice of Palin as his VP: “That really is the only criteria for judging a candidate for vice president.” Don’t they know that “criteria” is the plural and “criterion” the singular? It should (of course) be “that…criterion”; it can only be “those…criteria”. You hear the mistake in conversation fairly often–but on the editorial page of the NY Times! Deplorable. Pathetic. Contemptible. And obviously it’s not just one person who doesn’t get it; a lot of people must have let that pass. Some serious knuckle-rapping needs to be done there–or firing. And while I’m on the subject, people have to stop saying “phenomena” when they mean “phenomenon”–using the plural when they mean the singular. But I bet there won’t even be any embarrassment in the editorial offices of the Times over this “criteria” fuck-up–as if only the most pedantic of pedants would even notice it. I threw the paper across the room when I read it.
Speech carries various anxieties. Fear of asserting what is false should count as the most serious–inadvertent falsehood, as opposed to plain lying. The philosophical skeptic taps into this fear, making assertion seem perilous. In the 20th century fear of meaningless utterance became acute: it was all too easy to confuse the grammatical with the meaningful and end up spouting nonsense (the positivists tapped into this fear). This is more disturbing than the skeptical insinuation, because while truth is not transparent we feel that meaningfulness should be. Another linguistic fear, though, is the fear of cliche, of saying the hackneyed and over-used. I’ve always had a dread of this form of linguistic calamity and will go to almost any verbal lengths to avoid cliche–and yet the fear of it still dogs me. How can anyone still permit themselves to utter the phrases “emotional roller-coaster”, “voracious reader”, “like a deer caught in the headlights”, etc? I wouldn’t be caught dead with that stuff coming out of my mouth. What other linguistic fears are there? It would be interesting to compile a list and then impose a taxonomy. Speech is always an arena of anxiety, is it not?
The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn’t make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity–playing tennis–with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.