Thursday, June 04, 2009

Neologisms and Peeves

I received one of those viral emails this week advertising neologisms from a Washington Post contest, including things like:
Esplanade -- v., to attempt an explanation while drunk.
I thought they were funny, so I tried to find the original source. Interestingly, there seems to be no page at the Washington Post that corresponds to the description:
Once again, The Washington Post has published the winning submissions to its yearly neologism contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words.
By googling the sentence above, one can find the whole list at many places on the web, except apparently at the Washington Post. With a little more work, I discovered this page on the Post's Style section site, with the list and attributions to the original authors. Here one can discover that "esplanade" is a creation of Kevin Mellema in Falls Church. These attributions are missing from the version circulating on the web. I have not checked to see if the whole word list is the same, but it looks so at first glance.

Now for the peeve. (Sorry, there's only one.) I got an email yesterday which say in effect
We've been asked to create monthly financial reports, which we will share with the bigwigs on a semi-annual basis.
Although one can make out the sense of the statement, the problem is with the word 'basis.' Everybody seems do to things on a basis nowadays. "I go to the store on a daily basis," instead of "I go to the store daily." It's an awful, pretentious circumlocution that ought to be execrated. But it isn't, and probably won't be. That doesn't stop me from complaining about it. Consider:
I'm paid weekly on an hourly basis.
This is precise and understandable. The speaker probably punches a time clock--hence the hourly basis, which is an accounting concept. But the paychecks come weekly. Now read:
I'm paid on an weekly basis on an hourly basis.
What a confusing mess! In the email I got, the 'basis' part gets applied to the periodic distribution, and the financial accounting part leaves it out--exactly backwards. What's intended is:
We've been asked to report semi-annually on finances, summarized on a monthly basis.
Now we know the reports go twice a year, and should include each month's activities in summary.

This problem is so bad--this unnecessary ubiquity of 'basis'--that evolution and information theory have begun to gnaw at it. By this I mean that the extra verbiage in saying "on a basis" instead of adding the suffix to make an adverb, takes longer to say. This economics fact competes with the (imagined) weight added to the speaker's words by the extra baggage. This sometimes results in pressure to shorten the circumlocution. That's how we get acronyms and abbreviations. So I've heard "on a daily" popping up. As in "I run this report on a daily."

In my nightmares, 'basis' takes over as the root of all adverbs, just like genitive seems to be eroding away in German, to the increased usage of dative (The car of Stanislav instead of Stanislav's car, for example). If you listen carefully you'll hear this happening in the wild. "Basis" is creeping out of the domain of purely temporal adverbs and into the general population, where it can breed like kudzu. Soon we'll be talking like this:
After the accident, I drive on a slow basis.

I spend my money on a careful basis now.

I love you on a complete basis.
The horror, the horror.

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