Do you suffer from Sticklerís Fury? Itís that feeling of uncontrollable rage that overtakes you when you encounter a particularly egregious crime against the language.
Iím not talking about the slightly disgruntled pang you feel when you pass a Starbucks and that little voice in your head says, ìConsidering the brain trust behind that venture, youíd think they could have sprung for the apostrophe.î Starbuck, as you know, is a character from ìMoby Dickî (he tries to stop Ahabís obsessive hunt for the great white whale). As far as Iím concerned, if the coffee purveyor admired Herman Melville enough to pay him tribute by borrowing a moniker from one of his inventions, it should have gone the extra mile and accorded Starbuck his rightful apostrophe. I mean, weíre not talking about multiple Starbucks (the character); there is one Starbuck. His coffee shop should be called Starbuckís. Itís not like Ralphs, the supermarket chain; Ralphs (plural) happens to be the name of the family whence the grocery giant sprang.
Nor is Sticklerís Fury the urge to roll your eyes every time you hear someone use the word ìimpactî as a verb: ìYes, Johnson, the addition of the apostrophe to our name will certainly impact our bottom line.î I guess saying ìhave an impact onî just takes too long. Donít even get me started on the neologism I recently had the displeasure of overhearing: ìimpactful.î
Now, I understand that incorrect usage is the engine driving linguistic evolution. Whatever the common folk were saying is what turned Old English into Middle English into Modern English. Eventually, just about every horrible variant becomes accepted ñ perhaps not preferred (at least not at first), but accepted. I remember when I was a kid, if my mother heard someone use the word ìforteî and pronounce it ìfor-tay,î great scorn would be heaped upon this unfortunate (though, thankfully, not to his face). ìYes, it has its basis in French,î sheíd point out, ìbut there is no accent aigu over the e; itís just ëforte.íî Of course, as the years went by, so many pretentious idiots were saying ìfor-tayî that we looked like the nitwits if we omitted the Continental flourish. Before long, ìfor-tayî was appearing in dictionaries as an acceptable variation.
Still, though I am happy to be speaking Modern English and not the language of ìBeowulf,î there are some things I just canít abide.
The heat began at my feet and surged upward. My face flushed. My eyes flashed. My heart pounded.It has recently come to my attention that a certain professional subset (who will remain nameless) has begun using the word ìoverwhelmî as a noun, as in, ìHe was suffering from overwhelm.î Not ìHe was overwhelmed,î or ìHe found the problem overwhelming,î but ìHe was feeling a high level [or something] of overwhelm.î The first time I saw it, on a website, I could only rationalize, ìUgh, another field-specific bit of jargon forcing its way into common parlance."
A few days later I got an assignment from a new client. I read the first paragraph of the text heíd hired me to edit. There it was: ìHe was drowning in a sea of overwhelm.î The heat began at my feet and surged upward. My face flushed. My eyes flashed. My heart pounded. This, my friends, was Sticklerís Fury. I trembled at the keyboard, unsure how to proceed. My mind raced. Could I let this go, just edit the offending language, or would I have to say something? It occurred to me that if I did not stop this person now, he would go on to spread the poison. Soon enough, people would be saying with impunity, ìOh, sorry, I canít go out tonight ñ Iíve been feeling a lot of overwhelm lately.î I had to take a stand, draw a line in the sand. I knew I risked overstepping my bounds and losing this client, but I had to speak out. I owed it to myself; I owed it to him.
The e-mail was cordial, upbeat, instructive without condescension, but between the lines seethed the white-hot wrath of a lifelong stickler. I hesitated long and hard before hitting ìsend.î Hours felt like days as I waited for a reply. Finally, it came: ìOkay. Please fix it.î