logamachy (low-GAH-mah-key) n. — a dispute over or about words
I hereby declare myself a Knight Errant and Defender of Logos in the ongoing war over words, neologisms, the purpose and flexibility of language, and the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Let the controversy begin.
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For my birthday last year, my sister gave to me a series of lectures by Dr. Anne Curzan called The Secret Life of Words. Dr. Curzan’s academic and professional credentials are far more impressive than my own. She is a noted and award-winning professor of English at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MA and PhD. She is on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (as is Sherman Alexie, a writer I very much admire), and she frequently shares her insights on language on Michigan Radio’s weekly segment “That’s What They Say.” This linguistic Goliath is hardly likely to be in any way intimidated by an old wolf armed merely with over 40 years of published writing (for which I earned my own PhD, thank you very much), and a few dozen years of technical writing, technical editing, and teaching communication under his tight-fitting belt. My purpose, in truth, is not to challenge her on those levels at all. My goal is simply to point out that da barbarians is at da gates, and the gate-keepers have completely given up, given in, abdicated, abandoned, renounced, retired, stepped down, shuffled off this mortal coil, and joined the bleeding Choir Invisible.
There are 36 30-minute lectures in Dr. Curzan’s Great Courses presentation, and I have so far been unable to get past the sixth of these. From almost the first lecture, I was too busy exercising my own resplendent vocabulary in response to a variety of assertions and declarations by the learned professor. Right from the start, I caught the scent of the wind (wolves are good at that), when she referred to flexitarian as a “new word.” It is not a proper neologism; it is the bastard of the mating of existing and otherwise respectable words forced into linguistic copulation in order to flatter a minuscule subsection of the population. Presumably meaning “someone who is primarily a vegetarian or ‘vegan’, but who can be flexible in various social circumstances,” this abomination exists solely because some Precious Little Darling had to come up with a special “word” to describe their faithless laziness in terms of both language and diet. Presumably, we are expected to understand the phrase “I’m a flexitarian” to explain why a person might or might not eat a meal presented at, say, an awards dinner. My response is, “We have chicken, fish, or a vegetable medley. Pick one and shut the hell up.”
For a neologism to have value, it must describe something that is heretofore not described and which is best served by the creation of this new word rather than using existing vocabulary. “Flexitarian” does not deserve the dignity of being called a word, as it is both unnecessary and useless. This idiotic pandering to those waffling whiners who demand some special vocabulary to define their personal reality is weakening both society and the English language. It is counterproductive, self-indulgent, and loathsomely egotistical to imagine that an event planner is supposed to make exceptions based upon someone’s inability to step up and ask for what’s wanted. Even in social settings, where one might say, “Oh, I can’t go to that restaurant; I’m a flexitarian,” it’s simpler to ask what sort of menu is available rather than try to make some flabby personal statement which actually means, “I’m a principled ‘vegan’ who will eat meat when being ‘vegan’ is inconvenient.” (For those wondering why I’m putting “vegan” in quotes, it’s because it too falls into the same category; we already have the word vegetarian, and creating a new word to describe a specific subspecies of “lousy hunter” is wholly unnecessary.)
When I asked various scholars, writers, and readers in my circle about this alleged word, their best guess at a definition of “flexitarian” revolved around showing off one’s muscles; not one of them extended the idea of “flexible” toward diet or eating preferences. Again, words already exist to serve the purpose of communicating; using this “word” communicates nothing… or perhaps I should say that the use of “flexitarian” would communicate to me that I was speaking to an idiot.
Even in the first three hours of the 18 included in this series of lectures, Dr. Curzan managed to outrage me so frequently that I had to stop listening in order to start taking notes on precisely those points on which she and I will not merely disagree but may, in fact, join dialectic fisticuffs in our logomachies. Let me state for the record that I appreciate Dr. Curzan for helping me to test the limits of my new blood pressure medication, and that I will take her well-presented, properly-researched, academically reasoned talks as a gauntlet hurled. I will also observe that she did speak to this idea of what constitutes maintaining the growth of a language, and that I will address those points later. Meanwhile, I state unequivocally that I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be a “flexitarian.” Wolves eat meat, and few things are as juicy as a good intellectual war. So whatever your diet, Doc… bring it on.