In the readers’ letters page of the current issue of the New York Review, a bad linguist called Sam Abrams writes to complain about the use of the word inchoate in an article by Tony Judt. Here is Mr Abrams’ text:
To the Editor:
It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic”. [Words, NYR July 15th]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?
If Mr Abrams had written this snotty put-down about my use of inchoate, I might well have replied with a long essay about why Latin etymologies cannot determine 21st century English use. I would have insisted that I don’t need anyone to teach me what inchoate means, and I would have told him that the sooner he and his ‘sensitive to etymological resonances’ ilk shuffle off this mortal coil, the better for us all. In short, I would have been immoderately cross.
But Professor Judt’s reply to Mr Abrams, which the NYR prints immediately below the complaining letter, is so measured, so elegant and so perfect in its absolute crushing of this smug pedant, that I reproduce it in full for your admiration.
Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant– the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say they were “chaotic” I would have said so.
At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.
Tony Judt was an internationally renowned historian and Professor at New York University. He died on August 6th 2010, just a few days after writing this reply to Mr Abrams. He had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008 and by the time of his death it had completely paralysed everything except his mind. He was a remarkable man whose obituary you can read here: