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The Alphaville Dictionary

Some years ago, I proposed a series of short pieces on language. The project never materialized, but it is really more appropriate for the website than the magazine. Here is the beginning:

In Jean-Luc Goddard's film Alphaville, a secret agent (Lemmy Caution) is sent to find a colleague and to destroy Alphaville itself, a computer-designed dystopia that has reduced humanity to the level of machines. In each hotel room in Alphaville, there is a "Bible," which is really an anti-dictionary that eliminates words like love and poetry. In America, we have been doing something very similar by redefining old words and inventing new ones. The effect (purpose?) is to destroy the clarity and precision of English and render us servile, first in speech and then in our minds. Politicians are the real masters in using words to deflect responsibility. Remember Hilary's use of the Clintonian passive, "Mistakes were made," to glide over malfeasance of office. Our current President is no slouch. His equivocation on the $300,000 douceur he received on buying a house was the forthright confession of making a "boneheaded….mistake."

As a preliminary step toward liberating our minds, I propose this feature, eliminating both the bad new words and the duplicitous usages that have  been introduced. The emphasis will be on 1) words that should not exist, 2) words that once had a clear meaning that has been lost in transition, 3) words that have been co-opted for wicked purposes, whether moral, aesthetic, or political, and 4) words that need to be revived.  Here are a few obvious examples.

1.  Some obvious candidates for elimination:

Yuck(y), Yum(my).

Yummy is for nurseries and even there should be repressed, while "yuck" is a Yiddishism that has unfortunately replaced ugh, the proper English expression of disgust.

2. Words that need to be restored to their pristine sense.

Fantastic, wonderful, awesome, great, etc.

We Americans, apparently, find it difficult to express admiration or approval or to make any distinction between a good sandwich and the Grand Canyon—they are both "awesome," which properly means inspiring awe, just as awful does not mean "poor" or "bad" but inspiring dread. "Fantastic," obviously means, having an imaginative appeal, thus bizarre or belonging to the realm of imaginative fiction. Thus, "Kubla Khan" is a fantastic poem. We can lower the tone a bit by saying, "that story of yours is fantastic [that is, not worthy of belief], but that is as far as the word may be stretched. People who routinely misuse "fantastic," "wonderful" and "awesome" are depriving the rest of us of some part of our ability to make sense of the world.

3) Words that have been perverted and need to be purged.

Mature, adult.

These used to mean, respectively, ripe and grown-up, now refer almost entirely to pornography, much as "gentleman" means someone who frequents strip joints and lap-dancing establishments. Adult is rather a technical word, referring to organisms that have achieved their full growth or human beings that have reached some legal age. Mature is deeper and can have the sense more of seasoned, ripe in years. We fan refer to "mature wisdom" or a "mature wine." It is too good a worse to waste.

4) Words that need to be revived

Heave

This is the hardest category, because it is easier to point to current enormities (a word that does not refer to size) than to beauties or virtues that have disappeared. When I woke up two nights ago, I became aware that in my dream I was pondering the meaning of "hove," the original past tense of the verb "heave." We use the word today, mostly, to refer to vomiting or to some geographical eruption or, in some cases, to the act of flinging something. Originally, as its German counterpart heben indicates, it meant to rise up or cause to rise up.

The original sense of the word is preserved largely by nautical usages, where "to heave" means primarily to raise, whether the sail or the anchor. To "heave to" is to set the sails in such a way that the ship stops. By contrast, the phrase "heave into view" (past tense hove) means to come up into view, presumably over the horizon—a lovely and precise meaning. If we recover the primary sense of the word, we can make better sense of the geological uses, as in "the volcano heaved up a great mass of lava."

This is just a start. I don't know quite how to handle sequels. Perhaps one column of new stuff per week, prefaced by the quoted opening paragraph on the Goddard film? I'm open to suggestions. However we end up handling it, I am going to keep a master file, in which the words and phrases are more or less alphabetized within the four categories. Please send in your own proposed eliminations, purgations, and revivals either as a comment or as an email to the Webmaster.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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