Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts "rangy furniture" provoked

"Do you know what 'rangy furniture' means?" a friend asked me.  I had heard of office furniture, patio furniture, lawn furniture, outdoor furniture, modern furniture, antique furniture, period furniture, and secondhand furniture, but never of rangy furniture.  But I liked that expression.  When I told my friend that I liked it, he began to laugh.  Then he showed me a newspaper article.  "The house has rangy furniture", read a sentence in the article.  What the writer meant was that the house had a wide range of furniture.

Rangy!  I tried to get my tongue round that interesting word.  It stayed for quite sometime inside the mouth until the tongue unwillingly loosened its grip on it and let it out with a vowel to accompany it.  And when it came out, it sounded nice.  Besides, it was crisp, laconic, and even Delphic. It made me think about the writer who had taken the idea of compression thus far. She must be as inventive as Shakespeare.  And her guiding spirit must be the unforgettable Humpty-Dumpty.  Remember what Humpty-Dumpty said in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."

Come to think of it, what is wrong with 'rangy'? Doesn't it mean 'having great range'?  When Richard Sullivan could talk about 'rangy considerations', why shouldn't our newspaper correspondent talk about 'rangy furniture'? 'Besides, 'rangy' has an illustrious forebear in 'hopefully', another describing word.  Michael Beresford, in his Modern English, points out that 'hopefully' was originally used to mean 'in a hopeful manner'.  But in the 1960s, when the word began to be used as a disjunct or comment adverb to mean 'it is to be hoped' or 'I hope', there was a great outcry against it, first in America, then in Britain.  The protesters pointed out that, in the sentence, "Hopefully, the plan will succeed", the plan was not full of hope.  But 'hopefully' as a comment adverb finally won the battle, as did 'thankfully', 'mercifully' and 'sadly' earlier.

'Reliable', a commonly used word now, had had a stormier passage a hundred years before 'hopefully' began its journey.  The objection was this: you don't rely something, but rely on it; so don't say 'reliable' but 'rely-on-able'!  Fortunately good sense prevailed soon enough.  Otherwise, we would now be using not only 'rely-on-able' but 'account-for-able', 'dispense-with-able', 'dispose-of-able' and a plethora of others.

Will 'rangy' in the sense in which our inventive writer used it gain the acceptability that 'hopefully' and 'reliable' did?  Why not?  If the newspaper the writer represents doesn't wince at the word 'rangy', as it unfortunately does now, and uses it liberally, the word will gain wide currency and become as commonplace as 'bio-data'.  It may not become part of Queen's English, but it will certainly be part of Rani English. With the emergence of World Englishes, the erstwhile native speakers have lost the exclusive prerogative to control the standardization of the language.

Heim, in his book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, says: "What is the state of the English language?  No state at all.  It is in process… If languages have states of health, sick or well, then ours is manic."  Manic indeed!  And rangy!


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