Porridge, Hot, Cold, and Just Right

Posted: Mar 17, 2007 11:12 AM

If the English language were not so maddening, it wouldn't be nearly so much fun -- but maddening it often is, and we're talking subtleties today.

In January, The Washington Post reported that Laura Bush, as mistress of the White House, had named a new pastry chef. He will replace a sous-chef who resigned last year. A few months earlier, USA Today noted that Justice Samuel Alito had replaced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.

Replaced? Well, yes. And then again, no. In the sense employed here, "to replace" does indeed mean "to take the place of a predecessor," but writers must revel in the role of Goldilocks. She found some porridge too hot and some porridge too cold. We want our verbal porridge just right.

Thus, the new guy, Mr. Yosses succeeded the old guy, Mr. DuBois. And Justice Alito succeeded Justice O'Connor.

We have said it many times: Words have penumbras, auras, connotations. They have harmonics, overtones, echoes. Words have weight. They have edges -- sharp edges, dull edges, serrated edges. In the porridge we're tasting today, "to replace" was either too hot or too cold, and "to succeed" was just right.

(On this distinction, if you will forgive an autobiographical note, I speak with authority: In the summer of 1949, Douglas Southall Freeman, the eminent historian, retired as editor of the old Richmond (Va.) News Leader. He was the foremost biographer of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. He had been the city's leading celebrity for many years. His magisterial blessing now fell upon this 28-year-old reporter. Did I "replace" Dr. Freeman? Or "succeed" him?)

Our English language is filled with trickers. This was a headline in The Washington Post two months ago: "Alternative Plan for Schools Presented." The adjective was properly employed. The problem here is that the derivative forms of "alternative" sometimes carry a meaning of "only two," as in "alternating current" or "alternate juror," but more often carry a sense of "several," as in "alternative medicines" and "alternative excuses."

The variant forms began in the 15th century with "alternative," the noun, but soon metastasis set in, and by the early 1900s we had 14 derivatives. My impression is that only the verb, to alternate, is exclusive -- i.e., we alternate between hot and cold, right and left, up or down. Otherwise, like that trespassing little girl in the forest, we choose among alternatives.

Danae Wright, in Seattle, raises a question of first impression: Is the verb "to purvey" going through a sea change? She offers a brief book review in the Seattle Times this past November: "Lonely Planet, the respected purveyor of travel guides, has gathered in this one globe-spanning volume ..."

Five of my six everyday dictionaries say that "to purvey" applies "especially" to food. As usual, Merriam-Webster gets permissive: The verb apples generally to "provisions." My guess is that "to purvey" is a knife that has lost its cutting edge. After 600 years, it happens.

Boo Ramage in Greenwood, S.C., asks about an obituary for a basketball coach who "achieved notoriety" as a talent scout. She asks, Isn't it an insult to impute "notoriety"? It never used to be. The noun is innocently rooted in the Latin notus, known. In 1650, when it cropped up in English, "well-known" is all it meant. It's slipped downhill so far that today every dictionary says it means to be known widely and "usu. unfavorably." The Encarta dictionary says the meaning of "well-known" is now archaic. The more things change, to coin a phrase, the more things change.