Logo for Joe Sobran's newsletter: Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 It Can’t Transpire Here 

July 20, 2006 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, December 5, 1996]
It Can't Transpire Here and word usageAn article in this morning’s Washington Post informs us that “White House lawyers had not been apprised of what had transpired.” A more literate person would have written, “White House lawyers had not been told what had happened.”

It can't transpire hereBut of course this is the age of pseudoliteracy. If you can get apprised and transpired into the same sentence, hey, go for it! With a little extra effort, maybe you can cram parameters in there too. Then your prose will really wow those who don’t know any better.

It can't transpire hereNever mind that transpired means, or once meant, came to light. If a word is misused often enough, the error becomes correct and lexicographers capitulate. Recent dictionaries sanction the abuse of transpired.

It can't transpire hereSo why do I persist in calling it an abuse? Doesn’t use determine meaning? Aren’t words mere sounds to which meanings are arbitrarily attached by popular association?

It can't transpire hereThat’s what I was taught, by a learned linguist who, for some reason, scrupulously observed all the rules he told his students were obsolete. He spoke with utter precision, in complete sentences, as if Samuel Johnson had been listening critically. Today's column is "It Can't Transpire Here" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Yet he ridiculed fuddy-duddy rules of usage and dictionaries that prescribed the “proper” use of words. Language changes, he insisted, and it’s futile to oppose change — even as he resisted change in his own verbal conduct.

It can't transpire hereMy professor seemed to me like one of those aristocrats who believe in revolution, yet can’t let go of their own blue-blooded habits. Somehow I learned more from his habits than from the doctrine he preached. His habits were right. His doctrine was wrong.

It can't transpire hereThe doctrine was that lexicography is history. Dictionaries shouldn’t say “should.” They should merely record usage up to the moment they go to press, without presuming to pass judgment.

It can't transpire hereBut this too is a prescription. It assumes that it’s snobbish, even “undemocratic,” to oppose popular usage. Under the pretense of abolishing authority, it merely transfers authority to the mob.

It can't transpire hereWhy is that wrong? Because language doesn’t always change. Chaucer and Shakespeare don’t change. If we want to keep in touch with the past, we have to make a certain effort to stabilize the language against irrational change.

It can't transpire hereThe key word is irrational. Dr. Johnson, one of the greatest of lexicographers, recognized that change is inevitable, and for some purposes good and necessary; but he also knew that we can and must sustain a certain amount of continuity, or our heritage will soon be locked in a foreign language. Not all change is progress; some is decay.

It can't transpire hereIs it desirable that each generation should speak a different language? Do we want our descendants to find our words as hard to read as Chaucer? This week a movie reviewer wrote what may be the most fatuous sentence in the entire history of The New York Times: “My own feeling about Shakespeare is that all too often the words get in the way.”

It can't transpire hereG.K. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead.” Just as nobody should be disfranchised by accident of birth, he argued wittily, nobody should be disfranchised by “accident of death.” Every change in language is a step toward disfranchising Shakespeare. It shouldn’t be a hasty step.

It can't transpire hereWe ought to think of our great writers as a perpetually endangered species. Preservation isn’t passive; like maintaining an old house, it demands a lot of work and, sometimes, hard choices. We can’t save everything; we have to know what is worth saving. Surely that includes the core vocabulary of classical English.

It can't transpire hereIf that language goes to waste, the aesthetic loss alone is tremendous. But there is a further danger. Modern tyranny has made a specialty of perverting language, reducing it to an instrument of propaganda and control. It thrives on a populace without long memories and traditions, which provide anchorage and the ability to measure the present against the past.

It can't transpire hereOne of the masterstrokes of Chinese communism has been to replace the ancient Chinese ideogram with a modern phonetic alphabet, thereby reducing the entire population to pseudoliteracy. The people are taught to read, but forbidden to remember. The whole Chinese past has been erased.

It can't transpire hereBut even when the past perishes, snobbery survives. It can’t happen here, you say? It’s already transpiring.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

small Griffin logo
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address:

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 


SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

Reprinted with permission
This page is copyright © 2006 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.