Hinky-Dinky, Parlay Voo?

Posted: Jan 15, 2006 10:04 PM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks resumes its winter assizes with a plea from Ronald H. Rodriguez of Chicago. He moves the court for an order compelling English-speaking writers to write only in English. He explains:

"My pet peeve is the writer who uses snippets of a foreign language that few readers may understand. Whatever significance the snippets may have in an article or story is lost on those who do not speak the language. At least these writers should offer a translation of what it is they want to say so we can measure its meaning in context."

The court will deny his motion, but not without a few ruminations. A writer's first goal, at least in the context of nonfiction prose, is to be clearly understood. Otherwise, why write at all? The first step toward that goal is to write within a common vocabulary, or broadly, within a common language. The English language embraces many languages -- a language for artists, a language for bankers, a language for cooks, and so on through the alphabet to languages for yacht owners and zoologists.

Ordinarily we write for a less specialized audience. Assume we are not writing fiction. The court is no good at fiction. We are writing a letter to the editor, or an account of a parish meeting, perhaps a book review. No matter the medium, the compelling question that every writer must answer is, Will most of my readers understand most of what I write?

A writer's answer to that question demands private speculation or public polling. At the court's first job as an editorial writer, the rule was to aim at a hypothetical audience of college sophomores in their most intelligent moments. The rule had no foundation beyond pure speculation. The rule thus admitted a reference to "Shakespeare," without the "William," but demanded an "Edmund" if the reference was to "Spenser." Such terms as "quorum call" and "dilatory motion" required no explication, but "writ of certiorari" had to be translated.

The court wanders down Memory Lane, but not without purpose. If writers want to be successful writers, they must first decide for whom they are writing. The court understands that many a writer is writing high-mindedly only for himself. Or herself. Fine! But such an exercise in omphaloskepsis will buy no brioches for breakfast. To accommodate Petitioner Rodriguez, the court will translate: "Omphaloskepsis" is "the contemplation of one's navel as an aid to meditation." A brioche is a sweet roll to die for.

To return to Mr. Rodriguez' motion: The use of foreign words and phrases is entirely a judgment call for writers and their editors. It is subject to the same considerations that govern the use of unfamiliar words and dirty words. It's a matter not only of education but also of taste and sophistication. The rule is, If in doubt, leave it out.

Bob Moraski of Chicago asks the court for an advisory opinion on the use of "disfranchise" as opposed to "disenfranchise." This appears to be a motion of first impression. The court thus turns for guidance to Bryan Garner's "Modern American Usage." He reports a positively tectonic shift: "Though 'disfranchise' has long been favored, 'disenfranchise' is now more than 20 times as common in print." The court is not persuaded. "Disfranchise" is simpler.

On its own motion, the court will counsel writers to be careful with nouns beginning with a "dis-" or "dys-" prefix. It's a dysphemism to call a psychiatrist a shrink or a Marine a grunt. If it begins with "dis" or "dys," you won't like it. Residents of the District of Columbia are effectively disfranchised. And most of them are also disgruntled. All rise! The court will recess.