Court of Peeves, Now in Session!

James J. Kilpatrick
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Posted: Apr 11, 2006 5:57 PM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its April assizes with a petition from George Allen of Charlotte, N.C. He seeks a two-part injunction, first against "seems like" and then against "help but." His motion will be granted, but not without some preliminary fussing and fuming.

On the first count, the complainant offers in evidence an article by broadcaster Ted Koppel that appeared in The New York Times in January. The renowned reporter rhetorically asks himself, "Where to begin?" He answers, "Confession of the obvious seems like a reasonable starting point." He concludes by urging network directors to aim their news programs toward the most affluent and best-educated viewers. "That would seem like a no-brainer."

Reader Allen inquires: "Why the 'like'? What good does it do? Isn't it redundant?"

The court agrees. Whether the irksome "like" is treated as an adverb, in the sense of "nearly," or as a conjunction, in the sense of "he drove like a maniac," it serves no useful purpose here. Koppel was not using "like" in a comparative sense, e.g., "My love is like a red, red rose." He was adding branch water to bourbon, the better to dilute his sentence. The court will add that the impact of his sentence could have been further strengthened by emending it to read simply, "That is a no-brainer." Less is more!

Midway in his article, Koppel voiced a lachrymose adieu: "I cannot help but see that the industry in which I have spent my entire adult life is in decline and in distress." The "cannot help but" circumlocution is of ancient vintage, but age has not improved its foppish phoniness. In one form or another the phrase smells of camphor balls. Off with its head!

Peggy Batchelder of Asheville, N.C., writes that her pet peeve is the twist that "anymore" can lend to a positive statement. She moves for its abolition and offers a personal letter in evidence: "I go downtown on Tuesdays anymore." Whether it is spelled as one word or two, the adverb has been employed in the sense of "these days" for a long time. The Dictionary of American Regional English dates it from 1859 and provides examples across the country. In Iowa, "We all use night crawlers for bait anymore." In Oklahoma, "We use a gas stove anymore." In North Carolina, "I meet so many people anymore."

The court never enjoins an impenetrable idiom. The motion to quash will be denied.

Some irks are exempted by age from the court's jurisdiction, e.g., "gubernatorial." Leslie Miller of Niceville, Fla., finds the adjective loathsome and moves that it be exterminated. Rooted in the Latin word for "governor," the word has been in English usage since 1734. It crops up perennially in "gubernatorial election" and "gubernatorial salaries," but always seems to be inelegantly rooted in "goober," i.e., a peanut. The court regrets its writ does not run to this one.

Dianne Kampinen of Chicago moves for an injunction against "quite frankly." She finds it arrogant, self-serving and attention-grabbing. The court agrees, and on its own motion will drop the intensifying "quite" and enjoin "frankly" altogether. The adverb is almost certainly deceptive. It implies a bogus familiarity, a closed openness. It yaws.

This particular flimflam comes in several forms: It appears in "to tell the truth," which should prepare an attentive auditor to expect a lie. The court also warns against the breathless exclamation, "Honestly, I never ..." Dishonesty is afoot! Words are not always what they seem. Often they are less so. On that eternal verity the court now take a week's recess.