I was recently given (by pf and a fellow grammar gremlin) a copy of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, by Theodore M. Bernstein (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1971). I must admit when I saw the word “usage” my Pavlovian response was to shudder, but when I looked more closely I realized that far from promoting absurd shibboleths, the surprising Mr. Bernstein was debunking them, an activity always dear to my heart. A sample entry:
Says Bierce: “Obviously an asylum cannot be unsound in mind. Say asylum for the insane.” Shall we, then, also banish foreign correspondent, madhouse (dating to 1687), dramatic critic, juvenile court, criminal lawyer, psychiatric clinic and civil engineer? To pose the question is to expose the ridiculousness of the objection. Adjectives are not always confined to a single narrow meaning. Many of them have coordinate meanings, such as characterized by, used by, designed for, derived from. It is one of the conveniences of English, and especially American English, that thoughts can be compressed into a couple of words instead of requiring elaborate phrases; thus, insane asylum rather than asylum for the insane. Of course, insane asylum is avoided these days for a quite different reason: It is too harsh, it does not meet the euphemistic requirement of the day. And so we are more likely to say mental hospital or home for the mentally disturbed.
So thanks, you goofy gremlins!