Thursday, September 16, 2010

The mystery of Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman, popular NBC newsman and language crank, died last month at 91, his family has announced. The New York Times obituary recaps some of his peeves:
Among the sins that set Mr. Newman’s teeth articulately on edge were these: all jargon; idiosyncratic spellings like “Amtrak”; the non-adverbial use of “hopefully” (he was said to have had a sign in his office reading, "Abandon 'Hopefully' All Ye Who Enter Here" ... and using a preposition to end a sentence with.
This "Abandon 'Hopefully'" tidbit was new to me; the anti-hopefully sign I've always heard about is  the one that the writer Jean Stafford boasted about as a member of the language panel for Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975), which duly quoted her:
On my back door there is a sign with large lettering which reads: THE WORD "HOPEFULLY" MUST NOT BE MISUSED ON THESE PREMISES. VIOLATORS WILL BE HUMILIATED.
Did Newman also post a ban on hopefully? In his 1974 book, "Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English?" there's a paragraph bemoaning the new fad for "hopefully," but no mention of the "Abandon hopefully" slogan -- which Newman, an unrepentant punster, would surely have used if he'd thought of it. There are many online references to the existence of such a sign above his office door, but so far I haven't found any firsthand testimony -- which seems odd, given that his office was at NBC, not at some small-town English department.

(My earliest cite for the Newman connection comes from the Canadian magazine Saturday Night, allegedly volume 92, dated 1977: "Edwin Newman, the curator of words for NBC, has a sign over his door: "Abandon 'hopefully' all ye who enter here." The year/volume numbers seem plausible, but I have only Google's iffy metadata to go on.)

Meanwhile, the Canadian journal Archivaria, in a piece published in 2000, commemorated the magazine's founding with a similar anecdote set in 1975:
Twenty-five years! How much has changed since that sweet and pleasant summer day almost a generation ago when a dozen or more archivists and friends gathered at a cottage at Lac McGregor in Quebec to discuss what Archivaria could be. Above the door to the cottage was a stenciled, hand-coloured, nearly two-metre-long banner that read: ABANDON HOPEFULLY ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
That paragraph itself gets a footnote explaining that one of Stafford's fellow Harper panelists inspired the banner:
The word “hopefully,” employed as “it is to be hoped,” became something of a trope for the journal’s staff reflecting the intellectual commitment and editorial rigour they wanted to bring to Archivaria. We accepted F.G. Fowler’s* disdain for the usage and the words of a panelist** for the 1975 Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage: “I have fought this for some years, will fight it till I die. It is barbaric, illiterate, offensive, damnable, and inexcusable” (p. 311). As a morale booster for what became a very demanding avocation, it was invaluable.
"Abandon hopefully" is of course just the sort of witticism that could have been coined and re-coined in that heyday of hopefully resistance, and nobody's attributing it to Newman. But his or not, did he ever post the admonition in or near his office? Or is this another story that's just too good to check?

*F.G. Fowler is H.W.'s younger brother, who died before the publication of Modern English Usage in 1926. Nobody else seems to know anything about either Fowler's opinion of hopefully; the OED's first example of the modern hopefully usage is from 1932.

**Hal Borland, once a well-known journalist and author. Sic transit ...


Jonathon said...

"The non-adverbial use of 'hopefully'"? Shouldn't the New York Times know that disjunctive sentence adverbs are still adverbs?

Jan said...

Yikes! Of course they should. I also found the opposite problem, at

"Sep 15, 2010 ... Don't dare use hopefully as an adverb. A sign in his office read 'abandon hopefully all ye who enter here.' Edwin Newman was 91."

Anonymous said...

And how is this for a bit of unfortunate ambiguity mongering?

"Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? is a 1974 critique of the decline and abuse of the English language by journalist and former NBC News correspondent Edwin... Newman."

Kevin Morrison said...

Presumably the New York Times managed to set Mr. Newman's followers' teeth articulately on edge by reporting that he didn't like using a preposition to end a sentence with.

That's a pretty good example of a preposition ending a sentence, a schoolmarmish prohibition that most writers seem to consider perfectly acceptable.

There's a story that Winston Churchill had one of his notices in the House of Commons altered by one such purist, to which he responded by saying that tampering with his usage was something "up with which I will not put". Fowler spoils the fun in that case by pronouncing that the 'with' in the Churchill example is in fact the adverbial participle of a phrasal verb, which "cannot be wrested from its partner". So there!

Jan said...

Kevin: Ben Zimmer tracked down the real story of the Churchill quote a few years ago. Read about it in the Language Log archive:

nosebagman said...

I enjoyed reading your blog and agree with your sentiments.

Too many people these days neglect proper grammar and think it is unimportant. Young people are especially guilty.

Maybe I'm old fashioned but standards should be maintained even in text messages, e-mails and blog comments.

Mary Witzl said...

Kevin has beaten me to the Churchill comment on ending sentences with prepositions.

I feel so modern! I know it's not right, but I occasionally use 'hopefully' to mean 'I hope'. I split infinities with reckless abandon too.

APC said...

@Kevin Morrison: Surely the "with" at the end of the sentence was quite deliberate on the Times' part.

The peevish attitude that "jargon" is among the things language-lovers should be peeved by is itself peeving to me. The term's not pejorative; it means simply the specialized vocabularies of trades and professions, which enable speedy, precise communication among their practitioners. Nothing wrong with that. If you want to complain about a specific infiltration of technical or professional terms into everyday language, be more specific than just calling it "jargon"--is it redundant? needlessly unclear? mawkishly euphemistic? cliched? just plain pretentious? (Or all five: e.g., "cremains.")

Al Wood said...

"Abandon 'Hopefully' All Ye Who Enter Here" sounds like a pretty good example of non-adverbial use of 'hopefully' to me.

Anonymous said...

last week our group held a similar talk on this topic and you show something we have not covered yet, thanks.

- Laura

billy bob said...

Proper language goes hand in hand with expression and freedom of thought. If we dilute language we dilute our ability to think and express ourselves. Emma Thompson mad this point recently as did George Orwell in 1984