Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Message From General Use

One day last week, Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac page had this timely note:

The first mass inoculation of the Salk vaccine against polio began on this date in 1954, at the Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The year before, there had been 35,000 reported cases of the highly contagious disease — and by 1962, after the vaccine came into general usage, there were 161.

In 1954 I was a schoolboy some thirty miles away from Arsenal Elementary, and we soon were lining up for the vaccine. We knew of children with the dreaded disease of polio, and saw photos of the iron lung. Dr. Salk was a hero to us.  So I've got no problem with highlighting his achievement.

What I have no use for however is that phrase "after the vaccine came into general usage."  In standard English usage as I learned it, that's a wrong use of usage, or it used to be.  Not only that, the phrase "in general use" is itself a standard description.

"Usage" used to be used almost exclusively for the standard or traditional way to use something--most familiarly, a language.  Now the misuse of "usage" is part of a trend of using extra syllables or words, especially as abstractions or passive-voice constructions, to give the impression that the user is pretty damn smart.  A similar example is using "closure" to mean "closing,"  as in a road closure.  As one language website puts it, "some people use the word 'usage' as though it were just a fancier form of the word 'use.'"  Such misuse demeans both words and impoverishes the language.

But usage these days is determined by how people use words at this moment. And once again we clot up the language and eventually change the standard, so that usage replaces use just because we get used to it.

It pains me that a website for writers misuses this word, especially captained by the plain spoken Garrison Keillor (who repeats this misuse in his audio portion.)
Of course, I still love the site.  I'm not one of those churlish users who cries, "I used to love his site but he's betrayed me! I've been used!" over one usage disagreement.  But I still hold out the possibly vain hope that this misuse of usage does not come into general use.

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