Sunday, 17 May 2015

We are not enthused: regional roots of a peeve

A slight sidetrack: I just ran into a bygone usage peeve - or at least one that ought to be bygone - via a review of Bertha Thomas's 1913 Picture Tales from Welsh Hills., in which the Dial reviewer takes umbrage at "enthuse".

But above all he felt free — free to explore, observe, enthuse, abuse, exercise to the full and continually the interplay of ideas with those starting on the same lines and like-minded
- page 80, The Way He Went, Picture Tales from Welsh Hills (Bertha Thomas, F. G. Browne 1913 edition, Internet Archive picturetalesfro00thomgoog).
In the November 1st 1913 edition of The Dial (the Chicago-published "Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information") the uncredited reviewer first gripes about this in the review itself ...
Some aberrations in the writer's English, perhaps attributable to the contagious influence of the Welsh idiom, will be noted here and there by a critical reader, who will grieve at Miss Thomas's unabashed use of "enthuse," without apologetic quotation marks
- page 365, Briefs on new books, The Dial, No.657, Vol. LV, November 1, 1913.
... and then feels it important enough to go on to an extended editorial (or op-ed) piece on the point, exhibiting several of the specious arguments - ancient etymology, "need", "absurdity", straw-man ridicule of nonexistent postulated forms of other verbs, and assertion of wrongness despite established usage - used by many objectors to new (and often not so new) coinages:
The birth of a new word, when the new word supplies a real need, is cause for rejoicing; but the careless introduction into the language of barbarous or hybrid or otherwise philologically objectionable terms is a thing to be deprecated. An offender already familiar to many is the verb "enthuse," which is being more and more freely used in both a neuter and an active sense. In a late number of "The Newarker" occurs this sentence: "They were stimulated and enthused by their communion with the live thinkers and workers of the world." A noteworthy publication of the season, Patience Pennington's "A Woman Rice Planter," which, even without its highly commendatory introduction from Mr. Owen Wister's pen, would win its way in the world, has at least one of its fair pages disfigured with this vulgarism, used in all deliberation and seriousness; and the otherwise admirable "Picture Tales from Welsh Hills," by Miss Bertha Thomas, cools the cordiality of our welcome by giving its sanction to this misbegotten monster of a word. Why it is to be called misbegotten will be made plain by a little reflection or a brief study of the dictionary. Enthusiasm (or, in Greek, enthousiasmos) is connected with the Greek verb enthousiazein; and the corresponding English verb, if we must have it, would be enthusiaze, just as we have dogmatize, from the Greek dogmatizein. To dogmat would be just as allowable as to enthuse; and if we permit ourselves to enthuse and to be enthused, why should we not ecstase our neighbors and be ecstased by them? But the truth is, there is no call for any of these grotesque absurdities. We have the verbs, stimulate, animate, kindle, excite, electrify; and we have no need of enthuse. Nevertheless, it has already secured a foothold in the language, and it would be safe to predict its unqualified recognition in the next edition of "Webster."
- page 397, Casual comment, The Dial, No.657, Vol. LV, November 1, 1913.
It's a century too late to say "lighten up - it happened decades ago", but that's my main thought. A glance at Google Books Ngram Viewer shows this to be an overdue sighting. The writer was railing about a usage whose print history went back more than half a century in the USA - the OED's first citation is an 1827 letter, but the word particularly kicked off after 1860. (British print use dates from a little later, around 1880).

click for full size chart
This is a nice example of Ngram Viewer using tags ...
... to compare "enthuse" in different corpuses (US / UK)

A quick look at the earliest complains about "enthuse" finds an interesting detail: it looks to me like a historical peeve rooted in specific demographic prejudices. Whatever learned etymological arguments they may throw at the problem, my strong guess is that Northern-state writers such as the Dial critic disliked "enthuse" chiefly because they saw it as a folksy Southernism.

This is the central basis of the similar rant by the New York born Richard Grant White - in fact, I wonder if White wrote the Dial piece - in his 1871 Words and Their Uses, Past and Present: A Study of the English Language, where the "enthuse" entry leads with:
Enthused.—This ridiculous word is an Americanism in vogue in the southern part of the United States. I never heard or saw it used, or heard of its use, by any person born and bred north of the Potomac.
- page 207, Words and their uses, past and present. A study of the English language (Richard Grant White, New York, Sheldon & Company, 1870, Internet Archive wordsandtheirus04whitgoog).
And this is borne out by an earlier comment, from a Northern correspondent, in Notes and Queries:
There is, to be sure, one barbarous word, “to enthuse,” which can boast of no such authority [of British origin], but this being strictly confined to the slave-holding states, cannot, with any deference to the feelings of our southern brethren, be called a "Yankeeism."
page 19, "St. T., Philadelphia.", Notes and Queries, 3rd S, VI., July 2, 1864
The "enthused" entry in Words and their uses is in the "Words that are not words", a compendium of White's dislikes on the basic of taste and logic. His dislikes are often overtly emotive, expressed in terms such as "a perversion", "insufferable", "vulgar", "coarse", "of very low caste", and "laughable and absurd". Despite his American origin, his views are tinged with a general anti-Americanism, and particularly he attacks Southern US usage more than once.

It shouldn't be assumed, by the way, that White's stance was universal at the time. If you want a refreshing change from White's prescriptive blimpishness, read the American philologist Fitzedward Hall's 1872 Recent Exemplifications of False Philology, which thoroughly puts the boot into the shaky scholarship and complete subjectivity of White's arguments, including those for "enthuse":
Long ago, it may be presumed, the reader has discovered, in Mr. White, the peculiarity, that, when he employs language which, with ordinary people, indicates the communication of facts, he is only announcing his own opinions of what should be facts; and it is rare indeed that these are not officious idiosyncrasies.
Again, to get a word meaning "make enthusiastic", Mr. White tells us: "From the Greek adjective enthous, an English verb, enthuse, might be properly formed". How he works out this conclusion is shrewdly left to conjecture. He says, indeed, in his Preface: "The few suggestions which I have made in etymology I put forth with no affectation of timidity, but with little concern as to their fate "; and the assurance and indifference thus professed are just such as, in default of sound scholarship, might be expected.
- pages 70 and 77, Recent Exemplifications of False Philology (New York : Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1872, Internet Archive recentexemplifi00hallgoog)
Outside America, anti-Americanism - or at least recognition of the American origin - was a focus of much of the other criticism of "enthuse" from the 1870s on. For instance:
... if it be true that the verb “to enthuse" has found its way to England, it may be safely affirmed that no author or journalist of reputation will venture to adopt it.
- Americanisms (reprint from the Pall Mall Gazette), The Living Age, 1872

And how could all these good people, with all their presumed advantages, have said "brainy" and "tony," and permitted themselves freely to conjugate in all its revolting moods and tenses the terrible verb "to enthuse"? Can it be that, amid all the warfare that appears to await us in the near future, the United States troops will one day have to be called out for the defense of our mother tongue?
- page 826, Recent American fiction (review of The Hon. Peter Stirling), The Atlantic Monthly, June 1895.

Here I fancied I detected the thin edge of another importation from America, to the ingenuity of which country we are indebted for such abortions as "to enthuse," ...
- page 147, "To Ambition" by "TENEBRÆ", Notes and Queries, 8th S. VII, Feb. 23, 1895.
And after that it just got on to the general peeve and prescriptivist factoid circuit as a meme as a Bad Thing, regardless of its origin. It was bad because it was perceived as new:
5. Beware of words too new to have a recognized place in the language.
The wretched word "enthuse" seems to be fighting for a place in standard usage, and as yet no one can tell what the sequel will be; at present it is a word to be shunned.
- The practical elements of rhetoric with illustrative examples (John Franklin Genung, Boston: Ginn & Company, 1891, Internet Archive practicalelemen03genugoog).
Neologisms in General. No precise rule can be given for the use or avoidance of neologisms. Some of them, e. g., the verb enthuse, or predicate in the sense of affirm, predict, are so crude and barbarous as to fall under the head of vulgarisms or slang. Others deserve at least respectful treatment, and still others will doubtless become standard English.
-page 164, A Handbook of English Composition, James Morgan Hart, Philadelphia: Eldredge & Brother, 1895, Internet Archive ahandbookenglis00hartgoog).
In the following examples, the student will name the error in the use of the italicized word or phrase as a Barbarism, a Solecism, or an Impropriety, and substitute for it the proper word or phrase.
1. He has tried to resurrect popular feeling, but the people do not enthuse.
Rhetoric: Its Theory and Practice. "English Style in Public Discourse" (Austin Phelps, Henry Allyn Frink, New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1895).
Then there is the misbegotten verb to enthuse—the most hideous of vocables in my sight—what is to be its fate? Although I have detected it in the careful columns of the Nation, it has not as yet been adopted by any acknowledged master of English; none the less, I fear me greatly, it has all the vitality of other ill weeds.
- page 307, New Words and Old, Brander Matthews, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 97, 1898.
“Enthuse” is vulgar and detestable.
- page 250, The Bookman's Letter-Box (editorial correspondence page), The Bookman, Dodd, Mead and Company,  Volume 10, 1899.
You also used another colloquialism which I wish you to exclude from your vocabulary, and that is that hateful newspaper word enthuse. There is in reality no such word. It is not recognized at all by our older dictionaries, but I notice that the Century dictionary admits it as a colloquialism, assumed to be derived from enthusiasm, which it is not, of course. Somebody thoughtlessly coined the word as you did vigorating and dropped it into a newspaper, where it was spread abroad and picked up by uneducated people.
- Twenty-five letters on English authors (Mary Fisher, Chicago: Scott, Foreman and Company, 1900, Internet Archive twentyfiveletter00fishuoft).
What's depressing is that people are still complaining about "enthuse" more than a century after it ceased to be a hot topic, even to the point of some writing guides actively stating it to be wrong - though such guides are generally written by self-appointed prescriptivist pundits such as Robert Hartwell Fiske, not by credible evidence-based dictionary authorities.

Unfortunately even the sensible usage guides more often than not advise knuckling under on disputed points, to stay on the safe side and not offend those readers on the traditional side of disputes. I'd like to tell people not to take such a nesh attitude to frightening the horses, but the difficulty is, it's easy to take a "f**k them" approach to such prescriptivism if you're operating from a position of independence (such as writing a weblog). But Realpolitik is unavoidable if you have a prescriptivist idiot as teacher, college tutor or employer, with power to impact on your marks/career if you don't toe their usage line. I don't know what the answer is.

I'd like to think that at least the dictionaries take a fully descriptive view nowadays. Yet even the current Oxford English Dictionary retains from its 1891 edition this judgemental description of the etymology of "enthuse", which falls very short of standards of neutral descriptive stance on word origin.
enthuse, v.
Etymology:  An ignorant back-formation < enthusiasm n.
- OED online
- Ray

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