Answer Man

The word ‘the’ is getting the short shrift

Q: Your recent column on the propriety of saying “graduated college” vs. “graduated from college” brought to mind another language foible that bothers me: Why do young people now say “going prom” instead of “going to the prom”? Also, the same with “playing piano.” Why has the word “the” been eliminated?

M. Linton, of Belleville

A: It may (or may not) be further indication of the increasing influence of texting on the evolution of the English language. To the horror of many, youngsters (and probably many not so young) are spending the better part of their day communicating with “OMG!” and “UR2 much!” on their phones and tablets. Perhaps it could be argued that this is carrying over into spoken English as we condense sentences to the bare minimum just as we try to use as few keystrokes as possible to save our tired thumbs.

With some tortured logic, however, I can justify the use of “going prom,” but I think it still will sound like putting lipstick on Petunia Pig. Here goes:

If you didn’t realize it, the word “prom” itself has been drastically shortened through the ages. Originally, it was promenade, which evolved from the 16th-century French word “promener,” meaning “to take a leisurely walk.” By the early 1800s, the English were simply saying “promenade” when they referred to a promenade deck on a ship or a promenade concert, a musical event without seating. Then, they took it one step further by calling a famous series of promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London as simply “The Proms.”

Soon, colleges were following suit as the word apparently made its debut in the Ivy League in the late 1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, offers this example from an article in the 1879 Harvard Crimson that criticizes the miserliness of its Yale rivals: “Full many a dollar they have ... which neither the Ball Club nor the Boat Club nor the Junior Prom. Com. can from their pockets tear.”

So technically, I suppose, you could say that when a daughter tells her mom that she is “going prom,” it’s short for “going promenading” much as you’d go walking or swimming. But to my ears it’s like listening to my CD of William Shatner singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It’s just so wrong on so many levels.

Your other example reminds me of how conflicted I am with one of my own BND colleagues. This person argues that it’s correct — preferable, actually — to write “He attends University of Missouri.” We don’t say “He attends the Wheaton College” so there’s no reason to say “the University of Missouri.” I can see the point, but it certainly is jarring to me.

However, call me wishy-washy, but I have no problem with “playing piano.” (I play sax myself.) Perhaps the argument is weak, but if a student says “I am going to the prom,” he or she is referring to one specific prom. Even “I’m going to the store” usually implies a specific store as opposed to going shopping.

On the other hand, playing sax can be seen as a more generalized action, meaning I am able to play any sax handed to me as opposed to playing MY sax. In my mind, it’s similar to saying “I paint landscapes” or “I bake cookies” when I’m speaking in generalities.

I can only hope that may provide some music to your ears. Finally, a couple of leftovers:

▪  Charity case: In case you missed it, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson recently released a 300-page report highly critical of the New Jersey-based charity Kars4Kids, whose singsong radio jingles drive many crazy.

Swanson found that of $3 million the charity raised in her state from 2012 to 2014, only $11,600 was spent on programs for her state’s residents. She also found that just 44 percent of the $88 million the group raised through 160,000 car donations nationally went to what she called good works. Most — about $40 million — went to an affiliated nonprofit called Oorah, which promotes Orthodox Judaism, primarily among children in New York and New Jersey.

I’ve always had a problem that the ads are not clearer about the charity’s primary mission, leaving instead a warm and fuzzy feeling that you’ll be helping needy or worthy kids in general. The charity says the ads’ time constraints preclude such an explanation and that listeners can go to its website for full information.

▪ It’s official: My recent answer about the accordion being chosen as San Francisco’s official instrument drew a chuckle from author Bill Christine, who has written books on Roberto Clemente and jockey Bill Hartack.

“San Francisco has a thing about official this and official that. In 1984, after a furious argument among the city supervisors, they voted to co-honor two songs — Tony Bennett's ‘I Left My Heart and San Francisco,’ and ‘San Francisco,’ sung by Jeanette MacDonald in the 1936 movie of the same name.”

He will discuss it all in his coming book, “They Left Their Hearts in San Francisco: The Lives of Songwriters George Cory and Douglass Cross,” due out later this year.

Today’s trivia

What is the only chemical element in the periodic table that was discovered someplace other than here on Earth?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1990, Arthur Scargill, the president of Great Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers, found himself on the hot seat, accused of mishandling money that had been donated for striking miners during a walkout in 1983-84. Without his permission, the makers of Mitchum antiperspirant used his picture with the tagline, “Mitchum — for when you’re really sweating!” Scargill complained to the country’s Advertising Standards Authority, which subsequently panned the ad as “highly distasteful.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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