The Magazine


Christopher Caldwell, FedUp.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Researching an article on Ireland that ran in the STANDARD last week, I came across a pessimistic series of employment projections by PwC. They sounded important. But I had a problem before I could cite them. Who or what was PwC? Was it the acronym of some trustworthy national statistics office? Of some upstanding but possibly biased lobby with a name like Progressive Workforce Coalition? Or was it the chat-room alias of a drunken blogger called, say, Paddy "Wildman" Connolly?

The "w" at least seemed to rule out the possibility that the word was in the Irish language. Anyone who has spent time in Ireland will have noticed the bilingualism that is a legacy of the young Irish republic's (failed) attempt to revive Irish over the past century. You'll see a door that says "Toilet," and below it "Mhbhnhsnaiodh-bhrachtáis go mbleimh-seo," which is Irish for either "Toilet" or (more likely) "Let the Tourists Use This One--The Clean Bathroom Is Across the Hall."

A bit of Internet searching revealed that PwC was PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm that grew out of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse when it merged with Coopers & Lybrand. Oh, them! Why didn't they say so? So I wrote the name out as Price Waterhouse Coopers. And with that, I realized, I had walked into a moral conundrum. Was this fair? Was it "inaccurate"? After all, it's their name--what right did I have to call them something else?

Well, I decided, the same right as the corporate artiste who came up with the idea of changing the surname of poor Mr. Waterhouse (whoever he was) into lower case so it could be jammed into that of the late Mr. Price, then shunting the new amalgamated name like a boxcar into that of Coopers without any intervening space and then, finally, detaching Lybrand from the train altogether. It is a kind of semiotic petty theft. The corporation acquires the feeling of "Oh, aren't I special!" and the cost in intelligibility gets paid by the public.

Now, PwC is not the only company that does this boxcar trick. There are HarperCollins and FedEx, too, and that is leaving aside eBay and iPods. And the prejudice among pedants that spaces, hyphens, and other marks of separation were to be done away with dates at least to the 1980s, when I made my living as a copy-editor. The presumption of the Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of typesetters, is that any time you attach a prefix to a word, you create a new freestanding word. The result is typesetting that looks wrong more often than right. I recently read a book about Reagan in which a line broke with "presum-" and was picked up on the next line not by "-ably" but with "-mit." Breaks like "unkosh-" .  .  . "er" ought to be un-kosher.

On television, you are shown not "mini-series" but "miniseries," which looks like it should be accented on the second syllable. It comes off either as a typographical error ("You mean ministries?") or a Latinate word you would expect to see used by one of those minor Victorian poets more alluded to than read (" .  .  . what Arthur Hugh Clough called 'the scourges and miniseries of war' .  .  . "). Thus "bio-pic," which is barely intelligible, gets written as "biopic," which is not intelligible at all. ("The tumor was discovered early, thanks to advances in biopics.")

But typographic innovation is mostly about vanity--misplaced vanity. Consider E.E. Cummings, or e.e. cummings, as he sometimes chose to style himself. He is a poet of considerable merit, an impressive minor novelist, and one of the genuine men of letters of the early 20th century. When I started reading him in the 1970s, the all-small-letters seemed countercultural. Now they seem like the mark of someone who was looking to be noticed for something other than the quality of his poetry, and he is read accordingly. If the feminist intellectual Gloria Jean Watkins had not changed her name to bell hooks I might have read her by now.

Language is a public good. You don't have a right to treat it any way you like, to free-ride on common understandings. Someone who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theater cannot exculpate himself by insisting that in his family "Fire!" means popcorn. You can innovate with language but you cannot privatize it. That is why most of us feel faintly affronted to hear the name of a favorite stadium preceded by the name of a corporate sponsor. Cutesy spellings that cut against decades of habit are generally attempts to bully the public. They should be met with all the resistance at our disposal. I have that on the authority of Paddy "Wildman" Connolly.