Copyright © Dorian Scott Cole, 1997
Going into a word is not like going into a building. I have been summoned to buildings and learned upon entering that the address I was given was the men's room. Joke? Comment? Mistake? I was never really sure. But most of the time entering a building is a relatively predictable experience. Not so with entering words. Every once in a while I write a word then have to wonder if I have flushed myself down the toilet. I rush to a dictionary to see if I have actually said what I meant. This is the way it was with privy. I wrote in one article on this web site that I wasn't privvy to the inner sanctums of educational academics.
Fortunately I had ceased putting a double c in academics, which would have made my point for me. Learning to spell academy correctly took me many years - I learn just somewhat faster than an earthworm. If I once misspell a word, it remains fixed in my memory forever under the incorrect spelling. As I proofread, when I remember to proofread, I say, "That looks right - that's the way I spelled it last time." I seem to work better with remembering where to look up things, and with concepts. Orthography makes sense to me - the prefix, root, and suffix of a word means such and such, so you can put the three together and have a word. What more do you need to know?
That and which have me conquered. I have looked up the proper usage once a week for over thirty years. I finally came to the realization that that can be left out 50% of the time and no one even notices. It is a completely unnecessary word that only clutters up the landscape. Throw it away - that's 50% fewer times that or which require looking up the usage of that and which1.
After writing the article with the word privy in it and posting it on the web to immortalize my ignorance, I happened to think, "How do you spell privy? Are there two spellings, one meaning private and one meaning toilet? Did I actually refer to myself as the toilet in the academic's inner sanctum? Aargh! Dictionary: one v in privy. I looked at the article - I had made it a two-seater privvy. But fortunately the word could have either meaning, depending on the academic's perspective.
I don't use the word privvy every month - I can excuse that one. But even the most mundane words that are in daily usage can have terrifying things in them. Read on.
After being informed that the word desire is persona non grata in technical writing, I have been looking at other replacement words and I am so astonished by what I have found that I am actually starting a petition drive to drum the word want out of technical writing. The first definition of want is: "To desire greatly." So if desiring is a promiscuous word that can conjure up such wantonly lustful images that people actually feel threatened by it, then want has to be total debauchery. I found this word fifteen times in one article. I have actually been using this word in front of my kids! Shudder.
But what to use for a replacement? The dictionary could suggest a replacement in the word definitions. I checked. Both desire and want have wish as primary meanings. Maybe wish, as impotent and whimsical a word as it is, could be the replacement. So I looked up wish... Yech! The first definition of wish is - shudder - desire!
OK, I have it! (Notice the absence of the construction "I've got it!" Got is an ugly2 little word that is redundant when used with the word have. I have formerly campaigned to have got kicked out of the English language (along with that other ugly word, knob - if you don't understand why knob, read What not to get your wife on a romantic holiday). But it seems the English speaking world isn't sympathetic to my crusade - everyone now is saying "I've got, you've got, we've got!" So much for purity.
So anyway, for the words desire, want, and wish, we can substitute the all purpose letter X to symbolize what the user has on his mind. No, wait. X is too much like X-rated - we can't have that. Maybe R... no that could mean R-rated which is still kind of racy.
Let's start at the beginning of the alphabet. A. No, someone might take that as an abbreviation for Ass (assignment?). B. Butt... Forget that. It seems readers may have only one thing on their mind - sex. No matter what we write, someone is going to take it the wrong way.
OK, we should give readers a choice - that way they can find a word that suits them. So we can use the following construction:
"Select the item that or which you want, need, desire, wish for, or ____."
... Eh, maybe not. They may be so hot and bothered when they reach the end of that sentence that we will have to dump a pail of water on them to cool them off. Some people just take everything the wrong way.
1That is restrictive of the antecedent. Which comments on the antecedent. (According to Frederick Crews's The Random House Handbook, That outstanding reference Which is my trusty guide to standard English and which bears no responsibility for my ugly messes, written or other). I won't remember that/which tomorrow, either.
2 The columnist, James Kilpatrick, used to write a weekly newspaper column, The Writer's Art. (It's now on the Internet.) He called got "an ugly little word." On the other hand, compared to his refined writing, he might call my work ugly. Argh! To be compared with got. I got (obtained) his book, The Writer's Art, and thoroughly enjoy it.
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