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Slugfest of the Pedants



To the editors:

I've no wish to perpetuate a Slugfest of the Pedants with someone who finds a 240-word letter "lengthy," but I would appreciate a chance to persuade Bill Wyman (Letters, April 9) that he really is not obliged to refer to Persian as "Farsi" just because it appears in a dictionary (I found it in one of five) or in Newsweek as part of a quip by an ex-secretary of state. His sociolinguistically simplistic First Law of Language Stupidity would be better stated in terms of Bunker's Universals of Lexical Laxity. These state that (a) if a colloquial solecism such as "flaunt" (for "flout") or "refute" (for "deny") is recorded in a dictionary, writers will henceforth accord it the status of holy writ and ignore the loss in precision this brings to serious writing; (b) they will quietly drop the more accurate term from their lexicon for fear of being judged pretentious and out of touch with the real world. This is in general true, and in the case of "Farsi" vs. Persian it may already be too late to reverse the trend.

However, there is a school of thought which, contra Bunker (and Wyman), considers it the writer's task to lead and mold usage, rather than follow and capitulate to it without some thought. This school has had some modest success in the matter of derogatory ethnic and gender terms: "nigger" will be found in Mr. Wyman's dictionary, and was used by Conrad and Twain, but I hope these authorities would not persuade him to prefer a term connotative of ignorance and contempt over a neutral synonym that replaced it as public consciousness was raised by a new generation of "pedants." Also relevant is the point that the choice of a native-speaker term to replace an accepted term in one's own language is rarely ingenuous: Yid in Yiddish is neutral or approbatory, "Yid" in English is purely derogatory. Admittedly "Farsi" is not as consciously derogatory as "nigger," "Jap," "Yid," or "Frog," but the connotations of its English-speaking users are clear: "A language I have only just heard of, from an immigrant taxi driver or a media report on terrorism, not to be thought of as the Persian mentioned by Chaucer, Marlowe, and Franklin." Ignorance can beget prejudice; preserving an English usage that perpetuates a culturally familiar sound (and meaning, for some at least) is surely preferable to alienizing a language and its speakers simply in order to be "with it."

John Perry

University of Chicago

Bill Wyman replies:

I didn't say that anybody is "obliged" to say Farsi for Persian: Perry started this by obliging me to say Persian for Farsi. Second, I didn't say "any" dictionary. I said "any current" dictionary. Third, it's exactly backwards to say that inclusion in a dictionary removes the stigma from a solecism. When what were once solecisms become common usage, they are slowly added to dictionaries, often with interim "usage notes" that codify the ludicrous laws made up out of whole cloth and laid down with venom by the self-appointed language police. Fourth, the idea that what gets put in dictionaries has an effect on usage today is quaint. Fifth, who cares if people now say "refute" for "deny"? It sounds wrong to me, but that's the way language changes. Such matters are ludicrously subjective: one could just as easily be outraged at "moot," which as recently as 30 years ago had a meaning almost exactly opposite from its common one today. Sixth, I thank Perry for absolving me of being "consciously derogatory," even if he did bring up words like "nigger" and "Yid" in doing so. The technical term for a move like that is praeteritio. (As in, "I don't mean to suggest my opponent is a child molester, but . . ."). Seventh, let's look at the most "permissive" dictionary in America (the Ninth Collegiate) and the most conservative (the new American Heritage). For what it's worth, both back me up on Farsi, disagree with both of us on "refute," and note that some people still object to "flaunt" for "flout." This tells me that Perry and I are typical: we have a blindered view of language that sometimes coincides and sometimes diverges from true usage patterns in America.

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