Court of Peeves, Now in Session!

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Jan 08, 2006 8:30 PM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks opens its winter assizes with a petition from David Ventre of West Chester, Ohio. He seeks an injunction against the use of "back in," as in, "Back in November 2002, Rick Reilly wrote." Or, "Back in 1999, a juvenile judge in Texas sentenced...." Or, "Back in the '20s, most beer lovers made home brew in the basement."

Wouldn't it be better, he asks the court, to knock off the filibustering "back" and get straight to the point?

To this reasonable inquiry the court responds with a dilatory defense: yes and no. Call it redundancy, or call it tautology -- yes, the employment of such unnecessary words as "back" generally should be avoided. The key element in that admonition is "unnecessary." Not all "backs" are aching backs. The usage is a matter of mood, or pace, or cadence. What's the right dress for a social occasion? Black tie? Blue jeans?

Similar decisions are reached in a dozen realms of creative art. The dress designer asks, how many ribbons, how many bows? The composer wonders, how many codas? The ballet master asks, how many entrechats is too damn many entrechats? The legendary architect Mies van der Rohe regarded almost all ornamentation as unnecessary ornamentation: Less is more!

So, too, with the writer. If the writer's prose style is spare, very well, "In November Reilly wrote" and "In 1999 a juvenile judge sentenced." The court approves. But sometimes a glass of wine beats a mug of gruel. The injunction will be denied. Next case!

Dorothy S. Braisted of South Beach, Staten Island, asks the court to expel such terms as "woman doctor," "woman lawyer" and "woman golfer" from popular usage. The employment of these nouns of gender, she charges, "is wrong, wrong, wrong!" The court is inclined to agree that gender identification is usually unnecessary, but in the absence of Horrid Examples will put the matter on hold.

But this much may be ventured: Either as noun or adjective, "female" should be used with care. It works with animals -- cats are either male or female -- and it works with hoses and double-extension cords, but in some contexts "female" has taken on a mildly pejorative connotation of weakness or bitchery. Next case!

Four members of a book club in Evanston, Ill., ask the court to renew its ban upon "got," as in an editorial pronouncement: "We've got our problems with the Patriot Act." Motion granted! Emphatically granted! This hateful verb is the past and past participial form of "get." The court is aware that "got" has a long pedigree. The famous Preacher "got servants and maidens," and Jeremiah "got a girdle," but the court has long regarded "got" as the second-ugliest verb in the English language. It works in "I've got rhythm" and "George, we've GOT to go or we'll miss our plane!" Otherwise it's no improvement on the plain vanilla, "We have our problems."

Jonathan Kopke of Cincinnati petitions the court for a Defining Order in the matter of bells. He observes that last year, when the pope died and a new pontiff was chosen, many writers and broadcasters confused "tolling" with "pealing" and vice versa. He explains: To toll a bell is to mark a somber time of sadness. The bell sounds slowly at regular intervals. To peal a bell is to ring it recurrently in a celebratory way. Bells toll at a funeral. They peal at a wedding.

The order will be granted. The court will note, ex tempore, that bells not only peal and toll, they also ring. And if your taste runs to the works of Mr. Poe, they tintinnabulate. In the Yuletide they jingle all the way. On that cheerful note, the court takes a week's recess.