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WHEN BOYFRIENDS AREN'T BOYFRIENDS

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks resumes its autumn assizes with a complaint from Robert Williams of Los Angeles against "boyfriend." He moves that the word's employment be carefully limited. The motion will be granted.

As Exhibit A, the plaintiff submits a photo caption from the National Law Journal. The photograph depicts the crash scene that held the world's attention last month: "Paris authorities prepare to take away the car in which Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed along with her boyfriend, Emad Mohammed al-Fayed."

Boyfriend? The court winces. The gentleman known as "Dodi" was 41; the princess was 36. At that point, right on the cusp of middle age, men do not have girlfriends and women do not have boyfriends. The incongruity offends both eye and ear.

But if Dodi was not a boyfriend, how is his relationship to the princess to be described? The court is puzzled. In other citations that have come to the court's attention, Dodi has been identified as Diana's companion, her close companion, her male companion, her good friend, her close friend, and her beau, which the court rather likes.

The question presents a matter of some delicacy. The court has seen two references to the gentleman as Diana's "lover," a term that has the virtue of honest reporting. It is a fair assumption that the couple did not spend their private nights at the Ritz playing two-handed bridge.

The doomed lovers were not exactly covivants, for though they traveled together, they did not live together. That consideration also eliminates them as POSSLQs (persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters). The court would incline toward "paramour," chiefly because a copy editor never lived who did not lust to get "paramour" into a headline, but "paramour" is best reserved for the illicit sexual partner of a married man or woman. To say that Dodi was Diana's "significant other" is ridiculous. The court is musing aloud, a bad practice.

In any event, Dodi certainly was not her "boyfriend." The court will issue an order restricting the use of "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" to persons under the age of 20. Beyond that point, the court is unwilling to go.

To continue with the docket: Wayne White of Las Vegas asks the court to impose sanctions upon writers who employ "amount" when they want "number." In evidence he offers an account of the melee in the ring that ended the Tyson-Holyfield fight in June: "The skirmish brought up the subject of controlling the amount of people in the fighters' corners." Amount of people?

The usual advice is to reserve "amount" for nouns that have no plural -- an amount of hay, an amount of straw -- and for such special uses as "no amount of contrition will suffice." The sportswriter wanted "number of people." Only a mild admonition will be imposed.

R.W. Burchfield says in "The New Fowler's" that the old rule is losing ground, but his citations do not impress the court. It is very well to write that "no amount of words can replace a great photograph," but "amount" fails in other instances he cites.

Thus the court disdains a boy's "amount of problems," a bookseller's large "amount of books being published" and "the amount of pills taken by a suicide." It's the number of bulbs, not the amount of bulbs, that a gardener will plant. Careful writers will preserve the distinction.

William Beer of Walpole, N.H., petitions for relief from the threshold "frankly," as in "Frankly, I have no use for a cut-glass flyswatter." On its own motion, the court will expand the petition to include "honestly," "candidly" and "to tell the truth." The man or woman who begins a sentence with "honestly" is almost surely lying, and the dangling "frankly" is generally a prelude to dissembling. The court will not ban these illusory adverbs, but it warns against their regular employment.

Phyllis Clemensen of Mentone, Calif., complains to the court of the convoluted "not unlike" construction, as in "collard greens are not unlike turnip greens." She cringes at the wishy-washiness of the device and asks the court to do something about it.

The court declines. Sometimes a litotes (LY-tote-es) provides a nice touch: "She is not a bad cook." "He is not unattractive." "Chelsea is not unlike her mother." Such careful understatements lend a judicial tone to the expression of opinion. This is not a bad thing, the court will say, and on that note will adjourn the autumn assizes.

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