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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 13, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 37
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

"Lamenting the Loss of the Queen's English"

After many trips to Washington these past few years, I had concluded that everyone from Texas pronounces the N-word "nucular." That is, until I saw First Lady Laura Bush on television a few weeks ago roasting her husband at a Washington Press Club dinner, when she indicated that she could pronounce nuclear correctly. Bravo for Mrs. Bush!

But I am not here to bash Texans. After all, some of my best friends hail from there. No, this column is about language. And what triggered my writing it was hearing Bill Gates on NPR the other day, talking about the need for more students to study science and engineering — a topic near and dear to my heart. In the middle of one sentence, I heard him utter "irregardless." Did he mean "regardless" or "irrespective"? Wow, I thought, what an argument for more students to study English rather than engineering or computer science.

Of course, since Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after his freshman year, perhaps we should hold that venerable Cambridge institution harmless for failing to enlighten the world's richest man about the correct usage of the Queen's English. And how could I point fingers when, not long after, I had a conversation with my 24-year-old son, a relatively recent college graduate, who, when asked what he had done over the weekend, replied, "Me and my friends went mountain biking." So much for a "small Ivy" liberal arts education and an investment of well over $100,000 in tuition, room and board.

I'm not really singling out the Magnificent Eight academies. Fractured grammar is alive and well among all American college students these days. One of the Johns Hopkins deans lamented to me about the poor grammar in an e-mail received from a student who had just been elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

After the uproar about the Oakland, Calif., school system authorizing the teaching of one form of street language, where is the backlash about another? Have we totally lost the bounds of linguistic propriety? Right up there with "nucular" and "irregardless" are other entries into the fractured grammar dictionary. Mixing up "like" with "as," "which" vs. "that" — granted, these are a bit more subtle and less cacophonic to the sensitive ear than "irregardless." How about "interoperate"? If things work well together, they can be said to be operable or to interact, but the concept of inter-operability leaves me nonplussed (meaning bewildered, not nonchalant as some have misused the word). Let's see if I can use this new word in a sentence: "My toaster interoperates well with the bread."

"What we need," said one Johns Hopkins full professor, "is a list of actionable recommendations." Oh my gawd! Since when is a faculty member recommending filing lawsuits? My ears are really hurting now. The word "actionable" has a specific meaning: providing grounds for legal suit, as in "slander is an actionable offense." It does not refer to a list of items for which some follow-up action will result.

Just as I was prepared to accept that I was just being an old fuddy-duddy and ought to get on the bandwagon to learn this new fractured language, my daughter announced her engagement to a wonderful young man, who happens to be British. So, in addition to learning a new American vernacular, I find myself constantly thumbing through an American to English dictionary to try to understand my future son-in-law, who was schooled in the other Cambridge locale.

As George Bernard Shaw once said: "England and America are two countries separated by a common language."


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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