During my recent hospitalization, about which you have by now heard quite enough, but it isn’t a fair or merciful world, a series of health care professionals trouped into my room to ask if I were nauseous. This in no way hastened my recovery from my Major Surgery. Indeed, every time they asked, I winced, as I have always hated people not troubling themselves to differentiate between nauseous and nauseated. Finally, when the charmless, bored RN from Maui asked, I could endure no more, and said, “Do you mean, am I sickening? If so, wouldn’t you be a far better judge than I?” As I explained that what she really wanted to know was if I were nauseated, she gave me that look that those of Us Who Care Passionately About Our Language get so often, that look whose cartoon thought balloon contains the caption, “You know perfectly well what I meant, asshole.” It’s the same one those for whom unusual and unique are interchangeable give, that of those who don’t know or care what literally means, who can’t be persuaded to use the vocative comma no matter how many times you wave Let’s Eat Grandma at them.
They diminish the ability to express one’s self unambiguously in the only language that I speak, though, and can glare as vehemently as they please. There are few things more beautiful than an interesting perception expressed with precision, and I will not give up the fight while there is air in my lungs.
In the mid-1970s, I wrote a glorious song about romantic betrayal called “Where’s My Jayne” (The spelling was a small homage to Ms. Mansfield, of whom I was a large fan.) The chorus went: Where’s my Jayne, and with whom? I have to assume a man. I shall never forget a perfumed talent scout for a Major Record Company assuring me that the youth of America could never enjoy a song that included the word whom, as it sounded…inauthentic, though I’m probably picking a better word for him retroactively. I have since surmised that Tom Petty, presumably a high school graduate, is universally heard to be, uh, keepin’ it real when he sings, “Don’t come around here no more,” or when a thousand comparably educated songwriters try to imitate the unfortunate grammar of blues or folk musicians who’d have killed for a chance at education. My guess is that uneducated blues and folk musicians feel every bit as honored by their young imitators’ appalling grammar as they did by white suburban kids expressing their solidarity with the plight of the oppressed black man by dressing as sharecroppers in the 1960s.
I’m very well aware that I probably wouldn’t be so protective of grammar if it weren’t one of the few things in life that I’m sort of good at it, and that I may be the grammatical equivalent of a mechanic who’d be terribly upset seeing his apprentice using the wrong wrench or something. I get on nearly everyone’s nerves, including the missus’s. Seeing me cringe at, for instance, “She’s younger than me,” she might snarl, “Pronouns are for pedantic prats,” exactly in the tone of someone else snarling, “You know perfectly well what I meant, asshole.” But I’m no hypocrite. Point out a boo-boo of my own and I will look appropriately contrite and embarrassed,
Oops. Just now, I heard David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, tell Terri Gross, “[Our daughter’s autism] has been a problem for my wife and I.” Do you know how much that hurt?
To those who will reflexively point out — with no argument from Johnny! — that languages are forever in flux, and argue that it’s therefore just peachy to say nauseous when you mean nauseated: shove off. If the lazy likes of you have your way, I’ll be unable to reach for nauseous when writing a song and need a two–syllable/first-accented word for sickening. Do not remove arrows from my quiver. Do not dare.