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COURT OF PEEVES, NOW IN SESSION

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its April assizes with a motion from Phyllis Urban of Bedford, Ind., to ban such grammatical insults as "the fugitive went missing in March." The court has banned "went missing" before, to absolutely no effect, but willingly will ban it again. Into exterior darkness, go!

The primary objection to "went missing" or "turned up missing" is that it makes no syntactical sense. It is all very well to say that Dagwood "went sailing," or that Cathy "went swimming," for we understand the underlying infinitive form. They have gone to sail or gone to swim, but how does a fugitive go to miss?

The only kind thing that can be said of the idiomatic "gone missing" is that the irksome construction is well-understood. We grasp what the writer or speaker is trying to say, to wit, "She ain't here." The same faint praise could be heaped upon "It don't make no difference how we treat them parts of speech."

Hilde M. Wilson and Don Tewkesbury of Seattle, joined by Jack McCullough of Birmingham, Ala., Nan Boyne of Raleigh, N.C., and Sam Laird of Hobe Sound, Fla., bring a class action asking a definition of "troop." They offer in evidence a mass of clippings. Ms. Wilson speaks for the plaintiffs:

"The Associated Press reported that "19 U.S. troops' were killed in an explosion near Mosul. Somewhere else, a Marine transport crashed, "killing 31 troops.' When did the collective noun "troop' become a word to identify individual soldiers?"

The court has sought guidance from the six dictionaries upon which it daily relies. Five of the six are of one mind: A "troop" is a body of soldiers, especially a cavalry unit corresponding to an infantry company. Only the usually reliable New World dictionary appears to sanction a singular "troop," and its definition is woefully fuzzy. It says a troop is "a body of soldiers," and offers as a puzzling example, "45 troops were killed."

The court uncertainly recalls from its brief service as a cadet in the horse-drawn field artillery that two squads make a platoon, four platoons make a company, four companies make a battalion, and so on up the chain through regiments, brigades, divisions, armies and public information officers.

To return to Ms. Wilson's class action: On advice from the office of the secretary of the Army, the court rules that a "troop" formerly was indeed a body of soldiers. In today's nomenclature, a troop is also an individual soldier. The meaning derives from the context.

Steve Leonard of Biloxi, Miss., asks the court to say something about "pundit." The court will oblige, but the court will say nothing nice about the noun's current employment. For the record, "pundit" is rooted in Sanskrit, the classical literary language of India.

The noun is loosely defined in the upper-crust suburbs of New Delhi and Bombay as "scholar, teacher, master," in brief, a "learned man." Its second meaning is "a person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner, usually through the mass media."

In a mocking sense, today's pundit in the U.S. is a "stuffed shirt," "big shot," "swell-headed know-it-all." "Pundit" or "pandit" always is defined as a masculine noun.

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick at The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.