A word lover's holiday wish list
I'm always on the lookout for words with more 'snap.'
It's that time of year when I wonder how we ever got along without online wish lists. I remember Christmas shopping in the old days, when we had to trudge three miles through the snow to get to Bloomingdale's.
But I carry another wish list around in my head and keep adding to it all year long. It's a list of concepts for which I wish we had better words.
Some of them are as basic as a lot. As in, a lot of stuff. We use a lot to mean "much," but it also really means "some." How do we say beaucoup in English?
What I'm getting at is that in formal English, where a lot is really too casual, we so often go to circumlocutions like considerable ("considerable public discussion about the pipeline") or a great deal of.
We do have much, but it works mostly in the negative: "There isn't much food left in the fridge." In the affirmative, much tends to sound quaint and/or stuffy, or mock- formal: "Much merriment ensued."
For "countable" nouns, at least, there's many, which doesn't seem quite so quaint as much: "We have many possibilities to consider." (To be fair, though, many people – OK, lots of people – would say "lots of possibilities." See, even I did it – and I do it a lot.)
So maybe we should just accept a lot as perfectly correct for all occasions. But with much, you know where you stand. A lot has a certain ambiguity of meaning.
I have a lot of books around my apartment; an auctioneer has a lot of books in his warehouse, too.
They're two different kinds of lot. My lot is about muchness, maybe overmuchness. To an auctioneer, a "lot" is all in a day's work, even if he has far more actual books than I do.
Then there's "lot" in the real estate sense. "A lot is discussed at school board" was a local newspaper headline I ran across the other day. I thought maybe a controversial construction site had finally been broached for public discussion somewhere. But no, the headline writer was simply trying to convey that the board had a long agenda.
Other words on my wish list: better words for "important," "major," "significant" and all those other tired locutions we journalists so often reach for: "A significant new development in the ongoing efforts to ... zzzz."
What we're trying to say is, "This is a big deal." But what do we mean by deal? Is this a card game?
In a sense, yes. The underlying concept of is dividing and distributing, as one deals out cards at the beginning of a game. The word is related to dole. The various other senses of deal – the bargaining, the transacting, the interacting – all grow out of this concept.
I'm suddenly remembering back to the days of chattering teletypes in a newspaper's wire room. The code for a major (that word again!) news alert on the Reuters ticker was the simple word "snap" in all caps.
When I checked with agency headquarters, word came from editor Paul Homes that although "snap" hasn't been an official designation since the 1980s, it's still around.
"The term 'snap' remains very much alive and kicking internally in the Reuters news division," he says. "It is the term most commonly used by journalists – even these days – for an 'alert.' 'Should we snap it?' is often heard in Reuters newsrooms."
This exchange has left me feeling I've rediscovered an old friend. Bully for Reuters for coming up with this in the first place, and for the agency culture that keeps it alive.
O readers! Are there concepts that you'd like to see expressed in language that has, well, more snap?
Drop me a line and let me know.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.