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Court of Peeves is back in session

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its April assizes with a complaint from Scott Kruize of Tukwila, Wash. He asks the court to enjoin a Squishy Anomaly. His motion will be granted.

The plaintiff was irked by a report in January that the launch of a test missile had ended in an "anomaly." That's all? An "anomaly"? It was a "meek, mild, even mealy mouthed euphemism." He asks: How did a hugely expensive explosion become a mere "anomaly"? Merriam-Webster softly defines an anomaly as an "irregularity," as in "occasional irregularity." What it was, the complainant insists, was "a big kaboom!"

The court agreed to hear the complainant primarily to remark upon the changing levels of gentility that perplex a professional writer. In 1940, in the court's experience, it was verboten to write of breast cancer: Cancer was cancer, and that was all our readers needed to know. Syphilis and gonorrhea, when their incidence had to be reported at all, were "social diseases." Like the big kaboom, constipation was only an occasional irregularity. A female dog was, in print, a female dog. Rhett Butler didn't give a d---.

That test missile didn't end in an "anomaly." The thing blew up. Next case.

Michael J. Libersat of Lafayette, La., petitions the court for an order banning "pleaded" as the past tense of "to plead." His preference is for the four-letter "pled" instead. The court has denied this motion four times in the past 20 years and will adhere to precedent. The only past tense sanctioned by Black's Law Dictionary is "pleaded." In any account of a criminal trial, that is the mandated verbal form.

In other contexts, the choice is up to the writer. It will be governed largely by considerations of sound and cadence. Will a sentence benefit from a long "e" and two syllables or a short "e" and only one? Of course, once such a choice has been made, the writer is stuck with it, at least for a while. Context also matters. The court feels that the beautiful Belinda pleaded with the ruthless Rudolph Rassendale not to tie her to the railway tracks. But Hairbreadth Harry, an overbooked celebrity, politely pled another engagement.

Anne Van of Bellevue, Wash., and Susan Thompson of Somewhere in Cyberspace, ask for an advisory opinion on "couple." Both petitioners wonder what happened to the "of" that used to appear in such phrases as "the defendant said he had only a couple of drinks." Good question. The preposition appears to be fading away.

At one time, the usage was unchallenged: The noun "couple" demanded a supplementary "of." Then a passel of impatient barbers went to work, clipping a word here and a word there, and Gresham's Law on English Usage took its toll. Bad usage began to drive out good.

In his magisterial "Modern American Usage," Bryan Garner reports that in contemporary writing, the old "couple of people" is still "five times as common as the upstart "couple people," and "couple of things" is still six times as common in print sources as "couple things." Doom is not nigh, but it's sadly getting nigher.

Bob Morrison of Buffalo moves for a declaratory judgment on the contemporary usage of "lady." Apart from the British peerage, the Roman church and a guest speaker's "ladies and gentlemen!", has the gentle term for "woman" disappeared? The court is in doubt. Evidently many restrooms that once were uniformly labeled "ladies" and "gentlemen" have yielded to "men" and "women," but what of other contexts, such as "ladies night" at the ball park? The court seeks guidance and takes a few months' recess.

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is kilpatjj@aol.com

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