Paul Greenberg

The scholar H.W. Fowler described and diagnosed many a linguistic malady in his classic study, "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage," back in that very modern year 1926. The Roaring Twenties were a study in modernity, and 1926 marked a high point in every field of fashion. Just catch a glimpse of the flivvers and flappers in "Downton Abbey."

Words and phrases come into vogue, too, and all too many of the less felicitous of them can't go out soon enough, much like leisure suits and muumuus.

Mr. Fowler's magisterial work on English usage was fated to become dated from the moment of its completion -- as any chronicle of a living language must. For language does not stand still any more than life does.

The complete schoolmaster, Mr. Fowler reserved an entry in his magnum opus, a kind of Gray's Anatomy of the English vocabulary, for what he classified as vogue-words, whose passage in and out of style deserves study like the course of any other disease:

"Vogue-words. Every now and then a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness, or a merely potential and not actual existence, into sudden popularity. ... Ready acceptance of vogue-words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality; the title of this article is perhaps enough to show that the second view is here taken; on the whole, the better the writer, or at any rate the sounder his style, the less will he be found to indulge in the vogue-word."

Some of those vogue-words whose use so irritated Mr. Fowler have mercifully faded with time, like frock for dress, and beau geste for gesture. Even his own invention, vogue-word, has now become a buzzword -- a term that has become a buzzword itself.

Unfortunately, for every vogue-word that disappears from the vocabulary, others pop up like crabgrass. The press releases, partisan outpourings and oh-so-expert analyses of economic and political trends that fill my email bin every morning are full of currently fashionable vogue-words. See how many you can spot in this all-too-typical paragraph I've fabricated to display them like so many lab specimens:


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.