The wonderful Boston Globe language columnist, Jan Freeman, is filling in for Safire this week at the NY Times, and her column, “Bierce’s Bugbears,” is a very enjoyable list of odd prohibitions plucked from Bierce’s 1909 book Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. A sample:
“I am afraid it will rain.” Wrong, said Bierce: the proper expression was, “I fear it will rain.” He gave no reason, but the rule appeared at least half a century earlier, in Walton Burgess’s “Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing and Writing the English Language, Corrected.” And Burgess did have a reason: he explained that fear was the correct verb, because “afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety.” Unfortunately, that was simply false. Afraid did not imply terror for Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen: “When you have seen more of this country, I am afraid you will think you have overrated Hartfield,” Austen’s Emma tells Mrs. Elton. Though several other usage mavens repeated Burgess’s and Bierce’s advice, there’s no sign that it ever made an impression on the wider public.
She’s doing an update of Bierce subtitled “The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers”—look for it at your bookstore in a few months!
Totally unrelated, but does anybody know the history of Clarice Lispector‘s family name? She came from a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Podolia (now in Ukraine), but “Lispector” certainly doesn’t sound Yiddish, or indeed anything but odd and beautiful (like the writer herself, who I got interested in thanks to this review by Fernanda Eberstadt of a new biography).