First Penguin edition, 1963 - 1964 reprint.
The following letter appears in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books:
It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic”. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to the etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?
"We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Tom PaineSam Abrams
Rochester, New York
To which Tony Judt replies:
Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant — the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say that they were “chaotic” I would have said so.
At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.
Oof. Tony Judt died on 6th August, aged 62, from the effects of motor neurone disease: this was among the very last things he wrote - at what cost, you can guess from the essay under discussion, in which he described the pain of descending inarticulacy, as limbs and then voice failed him. (In January, I mentioned that my mother died of motor neurone disease: more precisely, what killed her was progressive bulbar palsy, a form of MND that starts in the muscles of the throat and mouth, so that her voice was the first thing to go. I think not being able to speak - or at any rate, only via a Stephen Hawking-style voice synthesiser - was the thing she hated most.)
You have to admire the righteous vigour Judt brings to the pleasurable duty of slapping down a pedant; but let's not pretend there's no pleasure in pedantry, or that pedants never have a point (Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen's Alphabet: "PEDANT — A man who likes his statements to be true"). The thing is to make sure, as Sam Abrams did not, that your pedantry is founded on correct information and sound judgement. Which is where Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English (1947) comes in.
Pedants love a book like this, full of admonitions and nice distinctions, but Partridge is no friend to the pedant - "the trouble-feast at every linguistic banquet, the spoil-sport in all word-fun, the wet blanket on all stylist ardour, the kill-joy of every verbal or syntactical exuberance, the 'sour-graping' écrivain manqué that crabs the work of the successful of the copious creative writer..." (under PEDANTRY). Partridge favours traditional usage and correctness only in so far as they are aids to clarity, and he has boundless reserves of contempt for all kinds of pretentiousness - officialese, elegancies, archaisms and literarisms.
Some of his bugbears (always to be preferred, he insists, to the Gallicism bête noire) have outlasted him to become more or less acceptable: I don't think "deft", "effete", "feral", "polymath" or "prescient" count as literarisms these days. "Toilet", which he condemns as an elegancy, I'd say has sunk almost to a vulgarism. Other elegancies he worries about are "Jehu" and "myrmidons", neither of which I'd registered as a problem, "demise" and "veritable", which have slipped down the linguistic scale to become mere journalese, and "ablutions" and "post-prandial", which are used facetiously. At times, he seems to have fallen into irrelevancy: "jannock (jonnick, -ock) is by some Lancashire people so frequently used that it seems to them to be the best of English, but I fear that it is still a rather provincial colloquialism." Seriously? I'd never come across the word: Chambers defines it as "straightforward, on the level", which is a good description of Partridge at his best. On the other hand, his caution against journalistic over-enthusiasm for the word "revelation" is more necessary than ever; reading that "motivate, motivation belong to psychiatry and educational psychology: why not leave them there?" I can only nod sadly.
In spite of age and eccentricity, Usage and Abusage is still the best guide I know to writing clearly, with sensible advice on, among many other topics, the use of italics, the subjunctive, the distinction between "ascribe" and "attribute", general themes such as "SUITABILITY and ADEQUACY", and some of Partridge's personal enthusiasms, such as thieves' CANT (you read much more on this subject in his Dictionary of Historical Slang - I'll try to scan in the Penguin cover some time).
Philosophically, Partridge had little in common with Dr. Johnson: he favoured plain speaking, disliked Latinisms and stilted, pompous language (see JOHNSONESE). But he was a lexicographer in the Johnsonian tradition - he worked independently, living by his scholarship, and his personality was so strong that it comes across even in something as brief and dry as a dictionary definition. I'm a particular fan of his Dictionary of Forces Slang (1948) - until you've browsed it, you can't really appreciate how far the war brought military language and thinking into the culture. The Wikipedia entry is as good an introduction as any.
Cover design by Derek Birdsall: the ambivalence implied by the tick/cross hybrid seems inappropriate to Partridge, but it sticks in the mind. My copy was in perfect condition when I got it, aside from the Skoob label and a tiny splash of Tippex, and a good deal at £4; it's is now somewhat worn from use, which is as it should be.