I’m trying, I really am. When I was younger I was an intolerable snoot (to use DFW‘s silly term), picking apart texts and holding up errors (real or factitious) with repellent glee. Years of linguistics courses, followed by more years of absorbing their descriptive approach, not to mention the tolerance that comes with middle age, have left me readier to roll with the punches, accepting the fact that the language changes faster than I can change with it, amused by my own irritation with usages I happen not to like. Even within the history of this blog, I’ve grown less eager to seize on linguistic misdeeds found in my endless reading; life is short and one can’t expect reporters and editors, increasingly pressed for time, to get everything right. I’ve even stopped expecting The New Yorker to live up to its former hard-earned reputation for accuracy. But some things are too much to be borne.
In this week’s issue, one of the “Talk of the Town” segments, Word Feast by Lauren Collins, is a chatty squib about the practice (imposed by a new general manager) of poetry readings before the “family meals” at the Union Square Café (which was one of my favorite restaurants back when I lived in NYC and could afford to eat at such places). My pleasure at the thought of people sharing poetry is, unfortunately, more than outweighed by my resentment at bosses who force their employees into jolly group activities. But that’s neither here nor there; the bone I wish to pick is with the very last sentence, describing the aftermath of the reading:
“Did we order forks, by the way?” someone asked, which could be considered iambic quadrameter.
This is so egregiously stupid a sentence, in two completely different but equally easily avoidable ways, that I am compelled to bring it here for public keelhauling.
In the first place, there is no such word as “quadrameter.” I can, alas, believe the twentysomething Ms. Collins was never exposed to even the most basic analysis of poetics in her doubtless expensive education, but could she not have opened a dictionary? And more to the point, did no one at the magazine (once famed, let me repeat, for its eagle-eyed editors and fanatical fact-checkers) read that sentence and say “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right”? The word is tetrameter, which comes from Greek tetra- ‘four-’ (combining form of tettara ‘four’) and metron ‘measure’; it has been in standard English use for four hundred years. The fact that “quadrameter” is a bastard, half Latin and half Greek, like television, would be annoying if it were a real word, but it’s not—there’s not even a nonce usage recorded in the OED (which I certainly hope will ignore this citation).
Secondly, no it could not “be considered iambic quadrameter,” or even iambic tetrameter. This would be iambic tetrameter: “The forks! The forks! We must have forks!” The quoted sentence has no meter at all; if you inserted an extra syllable—“Did we order the forks, by the way?”—it would make a nice anapestic trimeter, and if you read it with a slight pause where the inserted word would be you could fit it into such a context (“How delightful a banquet we’ll have!/ Did we order forks, by the way?”), but it is neither iambic nor tetrameter, and no amount of strained emphasis will make it so. The last paragraph of that story is so wrong, so bad, that it should shame the once-proud magazine that ran it.