Monday 21 November 2016

Word Aversion

The Times Literary Supplement ran a regular blog for some years, to which I made occasional contributions. The blog has now been replaced by a feature called First Person (to which I have also contributed).
For the next week or so I plan to recycle some of my old TLS blogs which will (I hope) be new to you. This will give me a break as I start a new full-time job today and will need to learn the ropes, if ropes there be. The first blog dusted off for your reading pleasure is this, from September 2014):

Word Aversion

The concept (new to me) of Word Aversion is described by the linguistics professor Mark Liberman as:
“A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

According to Liberman, common words prompting revulsion include not just the obvious ones such as “pus” or “ooze” or “scab”, but also “squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks and fudge” (these last four surely constitute the name of an advertising agency). As it happens I have an intense and perhaps cranky loathing for a particular word which we'll come to in a moment, a word used frequently by a character in a Martin Amis novel,
In The Zone of Interest Amis explores the spacious literary terrain between Joseph Heller and Primo Levi, featuring a malign nonentity of a concentration camp commandant by the name of Paul Doll. Amis has given this functionary an idiolect that is immediately recognizable and unsettlingly familiar: a complacent middle-management register, a chortling, affably pedantic, utterly reasonable tone that reminds me of certain of today’s public figures. Doll is, Amis insists rather too often, “a normal man with normal needs”. His worldview is expressed in pompous, pedantic and leaden aphorisms: “I also find that Martell brandy, if taken in liberal but not injudicious quantities . . .”,  or “one can’t ‘go mad’ and throw the money around as if the stuff ‘grew on trees’”. Those pincer-like inverted commas tell their own story. But if there's one word that pins him down it’s the word I’m most averse to:
“Whilst she could clearly see she had shaken me to the core . . .”
“. . .  whilst the luggage was stacked near the handcarts . . .”
“Whilst I can take a joke as well as the next man . . .”
And so on. Amis has chosen well in choosing “whilst”.
“Whilst” is a word that never fails to irritate me, not simply because it’s an unnecessary and unattractive alternative to “while”, but because it’s employed as part of the pervasive culture of “customer care”. Here are three examples gleaned on a quick stroll around my neighbourhood this morning:
 “This car park is reserved for customers whilst using the bank.”
“We apologise for any inconvenience whilst work is in progress.”
“Please wait here whilst your order is being processed.”
 And a very familiar recorded telephone message: “Please hold the line whilst we try to connect you”.
American readers will find “whilst” merely quaint, and possibly affected, but on this side of the pond there's a terrible tendency to prefer “whilst” to “while”, especially in public notices. It's not simply that “whilst” is outdated, it comes with a certain hidebound attitude – prim, supercilious, self-righteous.
Compare  “amongst”, “betwixt”, “unbeknownst”.
Especially “unbeknownst”. They all share – for me at least – a false Arthurian whiff, a saloon-bar, fake bonhomous resonance, something that implies thoughtful reflection and careful discrimination and eloquence but usually expresses the opposite. (I am relieved to be informed by the editors at the TLS that the “st” of “whilst” and “unbeknownst” are dropped as a matter of house style – and that “betwixt” is never used, on pain of summary sacking.)
Perhaps I am too sensitive. But then as Professor Liberman points out, word aversion isn’t rational. If you’re wavering about usage, the advice from Wikipedia is reasonable enough, and runs thus: 
“If you’re unsure which to use, choose ‘while’ (especially if you're an American).” 
Or, if you prefer: don’t use “whilst” unless you want to sound like a camp commandant in a Martin Amis novel. 

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