…nil nisi bonum

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I can understand why Margalit Fox would want to give such prominence to Edwin Newman's two books on usage in her New York Times obituary for for the journalist, who died recently at 91. Newman retired from NBC more than 25 years ago, and people who remember him are likely to be hazier on his journalism than on his 1970's bestsellers Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, which are still in print (though only in large type and audio editions appropriate to a public of advancing diopter). But I wish they had left me out of it.

His prescriptive approach to English did not win favor everywhere. In an article in The Atlantic in 1983, the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg took Mr. Newman and the author Richard Mitchell to task for writing "books about the language that rarely, if ever, cite a dictionary or a standard grammar; evidently one just knows these things.".

Not that I have any reservations about my criticisms of Newman's books. He was representative of what has become the dominant form of American prescriptivism, a middlebrow entertainment uprooted from its history in literary culture and philology. The genre didn't bring out the best in Newman, but then it doesn't bring out the best in a lot of people. It's striking how many otherwise insightful and clearheaded writers revert to petulant adolescents when the subject turns to usage, as if their sensibilities were permanently fixed around the same time they absorbed their grammatical lore at the business end of Sister Petra's ruler. Hence the familiar tone of operatic indignation laced with adolescent sarcasm, bad puns, arch rusticisms, and drolly self-violating dicta, and generally accompanied by a certain cloudiness about the grammatical particulars — as in this passage from Fox's obituary:

Among the sins that set Mr. Newman's teeth articulately on edge were these: all jargon; idiosyncratic spellings like "Amtrak"; the non-adverbial use of "hopefully" (he was said to have had a sign in his office reading, "Abandon 'Hopefully' All Ye Who Enter Here"); "y'know" as a conversational stopgap; a passel of prefixes and suffixes ("de-," "non-," "un-," "-ize," "-wise" and "-ee"); and using a preposition to end a sentence with.

But Newman didn't invent this style, and in retrospect he was a lot jollier about it than most other practitioners. And in any case, his books were too slight and miscellaneous to warrant citing their critics in his obituary. As prescriptivist screeds go, Strictly Speaking doesn't belong with classic diatribes like "The String Untuned" (login required), Dwight Macdonald's 1962 take-down of Webster's Third in the New Yorker. But then it's been a long time since prescriptivism could claim defenders of Macdonald's kidney. Talk about going to hell in a handcar…

Anyway, you'd hardly want to judge Newman on the basis of what was just a late sideline to a notable journalistic career. The obituary in the Washington Post recounts an incident that gives a better sense of the measure of the man:

Mr. Newman's most memorable appearance on "Today" came in 1971, when he banished comedian George Jessel from the studio. In a rambling interview, the 73-year-old Jessel likened The Washington Post and New York Times to Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper.

"You are a guest here," a steely Mr. Newman told Jessel. "It is not the kind of thing one tosses off. One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist, which you have just done."

After further strained comments, Jessel said, "I didn't mean it quite that way. . . . I won't say it again."

"I agree that you won't say it again," Mr. Newman replied. "Thank you very much, Mr. Jessel."

"I just want to say one thing before I leave," Jessel added.

"Please don't," Mr. Newman said, as he broke for a commercial three minutes early.

When he came back on the air, Mr. Newman said television had a responsibility to uphold "certain standards of conduct."

"It didn't seem to me we have any obligation to allow people to come on to traduce the reputations of anyone they want," he said, "to abuse people they don't like."

Journalists of that kidney aren't too much in evidence these days, either.



25 Comments

  1. Peter Taylor said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    Would anyone care to explain the repeated reference to kidneys? I'm completely baffled.

    GN: Sorry. Probably "caliber" would have said it just as well or better. From the OED:

    2. fig. a. Temperament, nature, constitution, disposition; hence, kind, sort, class, stamp.

  2. Jan Freeman said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    Jonathon just pointed out (at my blog) the oddness of that "Non-adverbial use of 'hopefully.'": "Shouldn't the New York Times know that disjunctive sentence adverbs are still adverbs?" (Yes.) Meanwhile, the obit recorded at cnettv.cnet.com seems to have come up with the opposite notion: "Sep 15, 2010 … Don't dare use hopefully as an adverb. A sign in [Newman's] office read 'abandon hopefully all ye who enter here.'"

  3. Mark P said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    "Journalists of that kidney aren't too much in evidence these days, either."

    There are occasional sparks, usually lost in the mists of cable news outlets, but today it's usually the hosts rather than the guests who do the traducing.

  4. Xmun said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    @Peter Taylor:
    For another use of "kidney" in this sense, see T. S. Eliot's "A Cooking Egg", third stanza:

    I shall not want Honour in Heaven
        For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney
    And have talk with Coriolanus
        And other heroes of that kidney.

  5. Nijma said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    as if their sensibilities were permanently fixed around the same time they absorbed their grammatical lore at the business end of Sister Petra's ruler

    According to Teh Wiki, Newman received his education at George Washington High School, a public, not parochial school, which in the U.S. means it is administered by government officials and financed by tax revenue, not private funds. A rather small minority of American children go to private or faith-based schools. I have never personally seen a teacher with a ruler in this country; I suspect that such an event would be interpreted as assault and battery and would land the teacher in some very deep doo-doo.

    [(myl) Now, certainly. But not when I was in public elementary school in rural Connecticut in the mid-20th century, where some of the older teachers still believed in and practiced rulers across the knuckles. And I imagine that in Newman's youth, the practice was more widespread.]

    [(GN) I probably should have said, "…around the same time they literally absorbed their grammatical lore at the business end of Sister Petra's ruler."]

  6. Jeff DeMarco said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    One of the cleverest things David Letterman ever did (and this was on his morning show!) was to come up with the Edwin Newman lunchbox for school children. I have wanted one for the past 30 years!

  7. groki said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    So kidney and kind are kinda kinned, eh?

    With Jessel, Newman served as a kind of cultural kidney: filtering TV's lifeblood and generating a certain amount of piss and vinegar.

    (Though the "Pravda on the Potomac/Hudson" charge need not be "they're Communist" so much as "it's all propaganda"–a view which has, in the interim, gained even more adherents.)

  8. Toby said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

    I'm not clear on why those of Newman's ilk make such a stink about "hopefully". I mean, I understand (and disagree) with their objection to the use of the word in a sentence such as "Hopefully, the weather will be better tomorrow." But why is "hopefully", and not some other word, the one singled out? Is this use of "hopefully" any different than the use of "happily" or "sadly" or "luckily"?

    "Happily, the weather will be better tomorrow."

    Do these people have no objection to such a use of "happily"? What is it about "hopefully" that is so singularly objectionable?

    [Nothing. This debate was over by some time in the 1970s. "Hopefully", like "frankly", serves as both a manner adjunct and a modal adjunct now. This is the sort of thing to look up in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage; it will really open your eyes. —GKP]

  9. anonymous said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    Nijma: My brother, in the 1960s, received a closed-fist bashing of his face from a public school gym teacher. My parents didn't pursue, you didn't do that then. Wrong? Yes. Happened? Yes. Shoulda been different? Yes. You should try harder to connect with reality.

  10. dirk alan said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    I love Edwin's old school umbrage. Good day sir – I said GOOD DAY !

  11. mgh said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    using a preposition to end a sentence with

    The "with" really is gratuitous, and sounds wrong to me for reasons other than prescriptive peevishness.

    (better: "…and a preposition one ends a sentence with.")

  12. Z. D. Smith said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    I find myself little impressed by those journalistic kidneys. Jessel—a famous leftist, at least one-time—was clearly comparing those newspapers to party organs. It's only the sort of bad-faith reactionary that we currently see trampling journalistic standards with such frequency that would immediately hear the word 'Pravda', and button up tighter than a duck's ass, and sieze the opportunity to accuse Jessel of such unpatriotic activity as accusing his target of Communism. That's not what he meant, and both parties knew it, but Newman went for the balls anyway. Shame on him.

    [GN: I'm not sure where this comes from. My recollection is that Jessel by this period was a hyperpatriotic windbag.]

  13. Marion Crane said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 3:17 am

    @mgh: Looks to me like Ms Fox wasn't too impressed by Newman's prescriptivism – at least, not his aversion to end-of-sentence prepositions – because this has a very tongue-in-cheek feel to it. It actually made me snort out loud while I was reading it, and I doubt that's really the sort of reaction you're going for when writing obits. Not that I ever have, mind.

  14. maidhc said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    I remember Edwin Newman. My father used to like him. I remember him as an entertaining writer. Some of his opinions on usage were a bit strange, but it was fun to read what he had to say.

    It's perhaps more common in Britain to encounter commentators that you don't agree with, but nevertheless enjoy listening to. Newman was a rare American example of that breed.

    I somehow acquired George Jessel's autobiography, which I haven't looked at for many years, but he didn't strike me as being a particularly sympathetic character, even if he was a left-winger.

    He would have a lot of ground to make up after having inflicted the song My Mother's Eyes upon the world. I guess he was trying to out-Jolson Jolson. But I think that Jolson had already pre-emptively out-Jolsoned himself, with Sonny Boy if with nothing else.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 7:46 am

    W/o getting into the question of whether "journalism" is ever practiced on the Today show (or was in that ancient era), I would not be impressed by a journalist who took offense at what an interview subject said, lectured him on how he should have behaved, and then huffily stopped asking questions. That's not a very professional way to obtain information, which is presumably the journalistic purpose of an interview. (If the interviewee says something off-the-wall, there are ways to challenge that with follow-up questions.) But if you accept that Newman was acting not as a truth-seeker but as a talk-show host, and the whole interaction with Jessell was intended for entertainment purposes only, it all becomes ok.

    And "One does not accuse newspapers of being Communist" is quite a prescriptivist thing to assert, is it not? Surely an empirical inquiry into language use would have found a significant number of examples of AmE native speakers doing just that.

  16. Glenn said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    The Today/Jessel incident is quite illuminating, I think. I often find myself regretting that TV "journalists" (sorry for the scare quotes, but with rare exceptions I think they're justified) seem to allow any fact-free nonsense or calumny to go unchallenged and wishing that they would simply say to their guest (a la Willy Wonka), Good DAY, sir!

    And yet: Newman's reaction to Jessel appears to be the standard DC-journo aversion to criticism of Establishment Media that is, to me, quite pernicious. So while I find myself applauding Newman's actions in theory, in practice I cannot. I suppose I want TV journalists to censor only those points of view I don't like. I'm sure we can all agree to go by that rule, no?

  17. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    I just want to second Geoff Nunberg on Jessel. I remember him from the Tonight show, stoutly maintaining that no one had a right to protest the Vietnam war or any other war America might be involved in. Maybe I'd have a better opinion of him if I'd been around thirty years earlier, hearing him express whatever opinions he held at that time.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I think the key word used both in Glenn's comment and by Newman himself is "guest." If you are relating to the person you are speaking with as a host relates to a guest (where among other things you have the right to hold the guest to your household's particular norms of propriety/civility in discourse), you are not, it seems to me, engaged in the enterprise of journalism. Perhaps on other occasions Newman did engage in actual journalism rather than being the sort of tv talking head the Brits more honestly call a "newsreader." But not on this one.

    GN: Well, "guest" is an elastic word these days, and the fact that it's applied to the interviewees on radio or TV talk shows, where the ostensible purpose is to inform the public, doesn't entail that they're entitled to the same deference that they'd be shown, say, as invitees at a dinner party. Certainly a lot of people would say that the host (an even more elastic item) on such a show has a journalistic obligation to challenge questionable statements of fact or to object strenuously to abusive or insulting characterizations, to the point of closing off the discussion. (I'm thinking, say, of a talk-show guest who describes the 9/11 widows as witches and harpies who enjoyed their husbands' deaths — though nowadays remarks like that are apt not just to be received respecfully, but to win the speaker invitations to other shows to repeat them for the delectation of listeners.)

    Whether the Jessel interview was comparable is a matter of opinion. The facts are that Jessel appeared on the show wearing a military-style "USO uniform" bedecked with decorations and complained that newspapers coverage of drug use and civilian deaths in Vietnam weakened the morale of American soldiers: "But of course, when you pick up Pravda, The New— York Times you generally see, oh , they're all full of dope and killing children." After a similar reference to the Washington Post, Newman cut him off. The incident was widely debated: NBC News defended Newman, but a number of people felt he was out of line, whatever the provocation. Some charged that NBC was "muzzling" defenders of the government while leftist movie stars were permitted to talk treason; one Republican congressman called for an investigation, but the FCC ruled that Newman had not violated the fairness doctrine.

  19. XXXXX said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Ah yes, I remember him wearing that ridiculous uniform on the Tonight show too.

    This is Rodger C, by the way, trying to expunge my name from a public computer so I don't see views still stranger/more erroneous than my real ones attributed to me in the future. Any administrator who knows a less embarrassing way to do this on WordPress, please contact me at the given email address.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    September 18, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    guest is an elastic word

    I travel by plane about twice a year, often taking Air Canada for as least part of the trip. Until not too long ago, persons travelling by on Air Canada planes were called passengers/passagers. Last year, they became customers/clients. This year, they were guests/invités! Even hotel "guests" are not normally called "invités" in French, unless someone else is picking up the whole tab – they are then guests of that person, not of the hotel. But since when do airlines graciously "invite" people to fly on their planes? And what is wrong with the word "passenger"?

  21. Sili said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    I would not be impressed by a journalist who took offense at what an interview subject said, lectured him on how he should have behaved, and then huffily stopped asking questions.

    Described like that, it certainly brings a certain personage to mind, and I for one am not impressed by them.

    So, yeah, bad form.

  22. groki said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    marie-lucie: But since when do airlines graciously "invite" people to fly on their planes? And what is wrong with the word "passenger"?

    (I don't speak French, so I'll stick with the English. also, you may be ironically exaggerating your puzzlement: my apologies if my take is overly literal.)

    "passenger" is too passive: too much like luggage (though that is how it feels to be flown nowadays :), and reinforcing the you're-stuck-with-our-service image. "customer" is admirably clear about which is the server and which the served (and who's paying), but still it's too commercial, not luxurious enough.

    "guest" suggests someone of means, a sought-after prize it's a privilege to serve, while at the same time implying the provider is also an entity of substance. a parity of unequals, in a way: we're impressive enough to have the complex expensive service, but you're special, too; we know you can go with someone else, but you're clearly discerning enough to choose us. "guest" carries with it a nice mixture of haughtiness and obsequiousness.

  23. groki said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    and re passenger: I'd like to see the verb "to passenge" gain currency.

    eg: "as the ship of state lurched, they passenged blithely on."

  24. Proofreader said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    One goes to "Hell in a handbasket" or to "Hell in a handcart" but not a "handcar."

  25. Sandra Wilde said,

    September 21, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    My favorite Newman story: He once tried to access a restricted area at an event in France by saying "Je suis journaliste." The cop trumped him by saying "Et je suis policier."

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