I am a freelancer in the publishing industry, so words are very important to me. I'm a leftist living in a world gone mad, so politics are very important to me. I'm an environmentalist living in a degrading world, so pick up your damn trash, get rid of your gas guzzlers, and don't touch ANWR, you self-absorbed capitalists!

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31 January 2007

Word Wednesday: Superfluous adjectives

Last week I found myself cranky for a while. I had to send a sympathy card. The crankiness was threefold.

First, I felt that I was ordered to do so. Even at the age of 39, I can still be bullied by my mother. And it constantly amazes me that a person who is so diplomatically adept when it comes to other people can choose the perfectly wrong way to phrase something when it comes to her own daughter. At heart, I am stuck at 13 years old. I acknowledge it.

Second, I had to do it in French, and I always worry when I have to compose anything in French. We spoke it at home when I was growing up, but taking French at school would have been considered an “easy A”, so I took Spanish instead. This means that I know much more about Spanish grammar and orthography than about the mass of French language rules.

Second-and-a-half (shush, this is my blog post, I’ll number it however I please), I am a perfectionist, and I would hate for there to be a spelling or grammar mistake in a letter. Plus, being an editor is my job (albeit in English, not French), so I would just die if I sent something out with a mistake. (Blog posts don’t count. They’re spur of the moment writing, and would be boring if they were perfect.)

Second-and-three-quarters, I don’t like to send generic letters of condolence. I feel that in this type of correspondence, you need to take the time to make the person you are writing about real. This usually means incorporating a shared memory with the recipient. I had met the woman who died twice in my life. (Well, maybe more when I was a baby and living in Belgium, but I don’t remember those times.) This was a family relationship that was practically nonexistent during most of my growing up years (just from busy-ness and living on separate continents), but in the past ten years or so (while I was living my grown-up life, separate from my parents, of course), my mother has rekindled a close relationship with her aunt and her cousins.

Third. The superfluous adjective part. I received an email, reminding me (and my sibs) that in French, the phrase is, “Nos plus sinceres condoleances” (with some accents that I won’t put in because I’m sure Blogger will munge them. Yes, I do know which ones they are, and where they go!). Translated, “our most sincere condolences.” My trip to the local card shop confirmed that this phrase is used in English as well. To which I say: Pshaw! (I put that in just for z, who enjoyed it when I used that word the other day.)

Why do we need the “sincere”? Shouldn’t you just assume that any (or, at least, the vast majority) of condolences you receive are sincere? What kind of boobs are we that cards have to reassure the recipient that—no, this isn’t a joke, we really feel bad for your loss, and wish we could give you a hug, but in our culture today, strangers coming up and giving you a hug might freak you a just a bit, so instead, here’s this card, made from a dead tree, and printed with inks that may or may not poison the waters near the factory, creating dead water plants and dead fishes, just to tell you we feel for you, really; truly; no, for real, Herb’s not in the back chuckling. We ARE sorry. We sympathize. We may even empathize, but we’re not sure we’re totally clear on what the difference is...

I searched. The definition of condolence is, “An expression or declaration of sympathy with a person who has experienced pain, grief, or misfortune.” I dug deeper and checked out sympathy, too, in case there was an implication of inveracity to either word. There isn’t. Why burden a perfectly good word with a hanger-on adjective that only serves to cast aspersions on the strength and character of that good word?

So I, being the rebel that I am, sent condolences to the family. I also told them I thought their mom was a cool lady, who was independent (she still mowed her own lawn at the ripe old age of 91) and always had a positive outlook on things. I told them her energy and vivaciousness is something I hope to be able to live up to in my own life. Sincerely.