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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, February 27, 2015

Lone reader heard from


I Swear



Vic Fleming

I am blessed to have as a regular reader one Kathy Young. Kathy keeps the books at Palmer Brothers, a commercial real estate firm in Memphis that turns 103 years old this year. Evidently, she gets a break for a few minutes each week, picks up the Memphis News, and finds herself reading “I Swear.” And it seems that a recent bit of my prose struck a chord with her:

“I had to laugh at your recent column about the use of ‘different from.’” Great start, Kathy. My goal as a columnist is to make you smile. “We must have gone to high school at the same time,” she continues. “My English teachers gave us the same lecture. They also lectured us on some other things I can still remember: 

“1. ‘Whom’ should only be used when it is the object of a preposition.

“2. A thing cannot be more or less unique.

“3. A flounder is a fish. 

“And yet, there it is, in the Webster’s Dictionary that I have in my living room, the verb form of the word ‘flounder,’ being described as a blend of the words ‘blunder’ and ‘founder.’ Even the dictionary has caved in to popular opinion.”

There’s nothing worse than a floundering dictionary editor, Kathy. However, I must say that, notwithstanding those teachers and my degree in English, I embrace and admire the process by which a complete and total non-word becomes a dictionaried word. Even when it’s through persistent usage or misusage.

A classic example of this phenomenon is the word Mondegreen, of which I wrote four or five years ago. In 1954 Sylvia Wright wrote that, as a child, she heard “laid him on the green” in a children’s song that tells what “they” did to the Earl of Moray after they slew him. But what she thought she heard was “Lady Mondegreen.” People began using Wright’s word, calling any humorous mishearing of song lyrics a Mondegreen. Forty-six years of usage later, it was officially admitted to “the dictionary.”

In a column just last year I wrote about Wordnik cofounder Erin McKean, a modern-day lexicographer who believes that dictionary-compiling should be like fishing, rather than enforcing laws. Throw the net out into the sea of language. Drag it in and see what’s being used. And then … deal with it – that is, show the world, in context, the weird, the wacky, and the wonderful. And don’t obsess over “the” dictionary.

That gets us fine new colorful words like glamazon, nonversation, and dictionaried. But it also gets us irregardless, floundering, and a usage of paired that means separated into groups of three.

Kathy’s note wraps as follows: “Last year, the Webster’s Dictionary Word-of-the-Year was ‘vape.’ It’s a verb: To vape, meaning to inhale the vaporized form of nicotine or other drugs from an electronic device. I suppose if one vaped something stronger than nicotine, one might start floundering.”

So impressed was I with Kathy’s note that I wrote her back and asked if it would be okay if I quoted from it in this column. She replied promptly, “It’s okay. I’m the only person I know who reads your column.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.