Court of Peeves, Now in Session

Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:32 AM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its autumn assizes with a motion from James A. Basinger of Charlotte, N.C. He seeks a declaratory judgment on words of contumely or contempt. In particular, the plaintiff asks the court to distinguish between an "affront" and an "insult."

Where to begin? The court must cope, as it so often copes, with words of degree. Writers, especially editorial writers, must keep terms of opprobrium in proper scale. Touchstone, in "As You Like It," perfectly understood the making of such careful distinctions. The succession begins with a retort courteous, followed by a quip modest, then a reply churlish, and so on to the reproof valiant and the countercheck quarrelsome.

For a more recent instructive example, the court recalls the day, 80-odd years ago, when Nancy Astor said to Winston Churchill, "If I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee!" To which the imperturbable prime minister replied, "If I were your husband, I would drink it." Lady Astor delivered an affront. Churchill responded with an insult. It is the English way.

Thus the court returns, circuitously, to reader Basinger's motion. In the court's view, an "affront" is two decibels stronger than an "insult." A heap of difference separates an insult to one's intelligence from an affront to one's honor. Of the making of such distinctions, verily there shall be no end. Next case!

Bill Crowder of Oak Harbor, Wash., asks the court to enjoin Ambivalent Comparisons, as in, "He is one of the better linemen in the NFC." The petitioner asks, "Then who is the other one?" His point is that "better" should be limited to the comparison of two elements.

The complainant's motion must be denied. "Better" is one of those chameleon modifiers that give writers a hard time. Surely it may be limited in its meaning: In a boxing ring, one fighter may have a "better" hook or jab than his opponent. Gin makes a "better" martini than vodka. Gunga Din was a "better" man than Rudyard Kipling.

Not all comparisons are so absolute. Lincoln spoke of "the better angels of our nature." Charles II thought the debates in Parliament were "better than a play." Many an older man has seen "better" days. The modifier slips away in easy ambiguity. Some linemen are better than others -- and some of San Francisco's are a heap worse.

In the same vein, several readers have petitioned for a renewed injunction against "pretty" as an insipid measure of magnitude. The court, borrowing from the strictures of E.B. White, imposed this injunction 25 years ago. White lumped "pretty" in a class with "rather" and "very." These modifiers are "leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

The court has never banned "pretty" absolutely, but it has frowned upon it ferociously. Listen up, you writers! Whenever the mood strikes you to modify a "likely" with a "very" -- or a "probable" with a "rather" -- lie down, please, until the notion goes away. You will feel better in the morning.

The court's docket seems to be crowded today with complaints against modifiers. Thomas A. Ratliff Jr. of Cincinnati asks an injunction against "yet," as in "the president's fortunes have taken yet another bad turn." The plaintiff finds the intensifier "unnecessary," adding neither strength nor significance. The court denies the motion. Not all intensifiers are surplusage. This "yet" was a "yet" that made the sentence sting.