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On Snootitude

In his Usage Tip of the Day, Bryan Garner discusses the origin of the word “Snoot”:

In the April 2001 issue of Harper’s, the late David Foster Wallace introduced his family’s acronym for “syntax nudnik of our time” or, alternatively, “Sprachegefuhl necessitates our ongoing tendance.” (A fuller version of Wallace’s influential essay, purportedly a review essay of the first edition of this book, appears in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster [2006], at pp. 66-127, under the title “Authority and American Usage.”) The word denotes a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur. It aptly captures the linguistic snootiness of those who weigh their words, value verbal nuances, resist the societal tendency to blur useful distinctions, reject newfangled usages without strong redeeming qualities, and concern themselves with linguistic tradition and continuity.

Here’s what Wallace himself had to say about the subject:

There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is ‘SNOOT.’ The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what ‘dysphemism’ means and doesn’t mind letting you know it. . . . A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.” (Wallace, “Tense Present,” Harper’s, Apr. 2001, at 39, 41.)

As he suggested, the language needs a neutral-to-positive word for this idea, and Wallace’s deserves a permanent place in the language.

A well-executed usage book systematically records the linguistic predilections of snoots at a given time, as well as the reasons underlying those predilections. The great snoots of the 18th century were Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth; of the 19th, Lindley Murray and Richard Grant White; of the 20th, H.W. Fowler and Theodore M. Bernstein. Snoots have gotten better with time because, with the constant progress of scholarship and technology, they have become better-informed about the actual state of the language. Less guesswork is involved.

As in the quotation above, Wallace capitalized “snoot.” Actually, he used small caps. But his own capitalization practices throughout the essay were idiosyncratic, and the better approach — if the word is going to win its way — is surely to treat it more like “radar” or “scuba” and make it lowercase. Time and snoots will tell.

The corresponding abstract noun is “snootitude.”

If you follow me here and at Lawyerist, you know that I’m a big fan of both Fowler and Bernstein, two 20th-Century Snoots.

And I’m also a fan of Wallace, whose Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage was the inspiration for my column Beware of False Writing SnootsTense Present  should be required reading for any person who is serious about being a guardian of the English language.

You can subscribe to Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day here.

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