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David Foster Wallace, Twenty-four word notes (Review)

February 15, 2013

David Foster Wallace got me in with the first few words of his essay “Twenty-four word notes”. They are:

Utilize A noxious puff word.

Oh yes! “Utilise” (as we down under spell it) is one of my pet peeves. Why use “utilise” when “use” is a perfectly good word? I regularly mutter.  Wallace is a little more direct:

Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated.

I wouldn’t quite have put it that way myself, but have quoted him so you can see the strength of Wallace’s feelings on the matter of words and usage. (By the way, did you notice the use of “she” here?)

Before I continue, though, I should say that I’m not sure that I’d call “Twenty-four word notes” an essay since it is exactly what it says it is, that is, it’s a set of musings and arguments about twenty-four rather ad hoc words. They do not seem to be presented in any particular order and there’s not really a coherent argument, but for those of us interested in language they are great fun to read … even if he touches the odd nerve or you don’t agree with his perspective. I was interested to discover in the Copyright Acknowledgements at the end of the book that this essay/article was originally published in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (in 2004, 2008 and 2012).

I enjoyed the piece for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are the pet peeves, of which “utilize” is just one. Another is “that”. There are two issues, as he says, with “that”. One is the “that” versus “which” issue, but I won’t go into that (ha) now. It’s the other “that” issue which (or, is it that!) intrigues me. You see, I had been given to understand by some Americans, that “that” can be used for people as in, say, “Wallace is the writer that wrote Infinite Jest“. Over here, down under, we learnt that “who” and “whom” are for people, and “that” and “which” are for things. Wallace agrees and in fact calls misuse of “that” for “who” or “whom” as a class marker! Hmm … that’s a bit strong … but, class marker or not, I know that I always cringe (internally anyhow) when I hear “that” used for people.

My other pet peeve that Wallace addresses is, hallelujah, “loan”. Wallace says, and I quote, because once again I’d only be muttering under my breath:

If you use loan as a verb in anything other than ultra-informal speech, you’re marking yourself as ignorant or careless.

But now here’s the thing. I have felt for a decade or more now that this loan-the-noun/lend-the-verb distinction is a losing battle. Language is, after all, a living thing. It changes. It has to, and, really, we want it to. This makes writing anything prescriptive like Wallace has done here a risky thing. Wallace doesn’t specifically address this issue of change but he does imply it. For example, immediately after the above statement about “loan”, he continues

As of 2004, the verb to lend never comes off as fussy or pretentious, merely as correct.

“As of 2004″. There’s his recognition, subtle though it is, that there are limits to prescription. I’m glad he makes that concession.

While there are other words about which he is similarly scathing regarding their misuse, not all words have been chosen for this reason. For example, there’s the word “pulchritude”* which he describes as an ugly word that is the complete opposite of its meaning. “Pulchritudinous” is even worse he says! I have to agree. He then goes on in this particular word note to list other words that are the opposite of what they denote, such as “big”, “diminutive” and “monosyllabic”. It is this sort of thing that makes language such fun, isn’t it?

Another word he discusses is one of my daughter’s favourites, “myriad”. I was anxious about reading this one for fear that he would be scathing about it too, but fortunately not. Rather he writes of the right and wrong ways to use it … and I’m pretty confident my word-loving, writing daughter gets it right.

Almost every word he discusses provided me with some entertainment or education – yes, I did learn “stuff” too – but I’m going to finish here on the last word he writes about. It’s “hairy” and his discussion of it is relevant to the book the article was written for – a thesaurus. This note – which in fact occupies some three pages – is about the huge number of descriptors for “various kinds of hair and hairiness” in the English language. I had heard of a few of them – such as “hirsute”, “glabrous” and “flocculent” – but others were a revelation. For example, the “cirrus” we use for clouds comes from the Latin for “curl” or “fringe” and gives rise to words like “cirrose”. And what about “hispidulous”? He describes this as a “puffed up form of hispid” and recommends avoiding it. I think I will. Then there’s “pilimiction”, which refers to an affliction we’d all like to avoid I reckon …

It is difficult to write on words and usage without being somewhat prescriptive, and Wallace isn’t afraid to be that. It is possible, I think, to write about words and usage without offending your readers, but this is not an example of that! Nonetheless, taken in the right spirit, it’s an interesting read and one which offers some good advice on writing. I enjoyed it.

David Foster Wallace
“Twenty-four word notes”
in Both flesh and not
Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2009
ISBN: 9781926428185

*Wordpress’s spell-checker didn’t like this word either. Can you blame it?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2013 10:07 pm

    It seems that there are differences in usage between use and utilise – eg as shown here – but I’m with you and David Foster Wallace on that for people and loan as a verb.

    • February 15, 2013 11:08 pm

      Thanks Judith … I think I would intuitively accept that link’s usage of “utilise” if I came across it, but my rule of thumb (and I expect that of the link’s writer) would be “When in doubt use ‘use’”!

      Did you know “pilimiction”?

  2. February 16, 2013 1:33 am

    What a fun essay! I like stuff like that even if I disagree because it is good to think about words and how we use them since most of the time I do so rather carelessly. Does he talk about using “impact” as a verb? Makes me grind my teeth when I hear it. Loan/lend is one to give up on. I think most people in the US don’t know there is a difference and when I moved to Minnesota I discovered a significant number of people here us “borrow” to mean “lend.” As for “that” I learned the that-for-things-who-for-people and I think most people do but in casual speech the distinction usually gets missed and in writing “that” multiplies like rabbits when people try to write long, complex sentences and don’t know how to string clauses together or are writing casually and not paying attention.

  3. February 18, 2013 9:21 am

    Oh! That’s me! That’s me! I started getting nervous too, but think I can breathe a sigh of relief (although he’d probably have a go at me for me rampant never-ending verging-on-ridiculous exuberant overuse of adjectives ;) )

    • February 18, 2013 5:29 pm

      He possibly would Hannah but as, unfortunately, he’s no longer with us, you’re safe!

  4. acommonreaderuk permalink
    February 19, 2013 6:54 am

    We literary Bloggers all enjoy articles like this don’t we. I try to write the best prose possible but defend other people’s right to use words in any way they want to. But then I hear someone on the radio say “I’m bored of…” And I want to throw the radio across the room

    • February 19, 2013 9:36 pm

      Oh yes, we do, Tom! And we all have out sticking points don’t we. What about “I could of”!

  5. chillcat permalink
    February 25, 2013 12:06 am

    I do love stuff like this and only enjoy DFW getting entirely carried away with words. ‘That’ to represent a person jars! And I’ve never really utilised ‘utilise’ I don’t think (haha)

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