October 31st, 2012


Transitory Transitives

The ability to turn almost any part of speech into a verb is one of the glories of English, but it can be quite distracting. Take my desultory skimming of the internet this morning. Yes, they've discovered a Beowulf-style feasting hall under a village green in Kent, but I'm fixated on the phrase, "the ability to own and upkeep a horse". Yes, Mitt Romney has told porkies about Chrysler moving Jeep production to China, but I'm hung up on the image of "the Toledo plant shuttered and its more than 3,500 workers idled".

Each country's euphemism for redundancy says something about its culture. In the USA, it appears, workers are "idled" - a loaded term recalling the country's Puritan roots and the kinds of hands that the Devil makes work for. Here in the UK, people are "let go" - which sounds suitably passive aggressive, almost (and especially if done to the backing of Engelbert Humperdinck) as if it were done at the employees' instigation. And in France, of course, they use a culinary metaphor: firms are dégraissé. Bon appetit.

Okay, it's a lighter-than-air theory. That's why I float it.