Grammar: A myriad of uses

Louisa May Alcott

The playwright Noel Coward once said, "People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what's wrong with it."

His quote springs to mind when I hear folks lament that English isn't what it used to be. Often, I think, English is precisely what it used to be. And that's what's wrong with it.

Take "literally," for example. If I had a dollar for every note bemoaning the misuse of this poor word, I'd be writing this column from a seaside cabana in Belize.

Sure, it means "in a literal or strict sense." Sure, it's often used to say the exact opposite: figuratively. ("I literally died of embarrassment.") But as Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, once pointed out in a Slate column:

"Such abuses have a long and esteemed history in English. The ground was not especially sticky in 'Little Women' when Louisa May Alcott wrote that 'the land literally flowed with milk and honey,' nor was Tom Sawyer turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as 'literally rolling in wealth,' nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that 'he literally glowed,' nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was 'the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat.'"

Which brings us to myriad.

I'll admit to harboring an irrational bit of loathing for what I long perceived as the misuse of myriad. Believing it to be an adjective synonymous with "many" ("myriad books in her collection"), I would wince when I heard it used as a noun. ("A myriad of books in her collection.")

"Would you say 'a many of books?' I don't think so!" (I actually said this to certain people. I'm sorry, certain people.)

It turns out "a myriad of books" is just fine. "Myriad," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, can be an adjective meaning "constituting a very large, indefinite number; innumerable: the myriad fish in the ocean."

It can also be a noun, meaning "a large, indefinite number: a myriad of microorganisms in the pond; myriads of stars in the galaxy."

These examples—literally, myriad—illustrate not a slow erosion of proper English, but a natural evolution of a living, ever-changing language.

After all, the original meaning of myriad, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is derived from ancient Greece, meaning "ten thousand; a set of ten thousand of anything; especially a unit of ten thousand soldiers."

And that's rarely how we're using it, points out Jay Heinrichs, author of "Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever" (Three Rivers Press).

"One should never check the language of a peer; it is far more noble to live with the silent pleasure of eternal correctness," Heinrichs says. "If I did give in to the temptation to edit your usage of 'myriad,' however, I would point out that the original Greek meaning — ten thousand — severely limits the term's punctilious deployment."

His solution?

"When in the presence of fellow language snobs and needing a term for 'lotsa-kindsa,' I prefer the more accurate if obscure synonym 'divers' (pronounced DIVVERS). A close relative of the politically correct 'diverse,' divers connotes variety as well as plenitude."

"Ah, English," he says. "It's a divers-splendour'd thing."

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Louisa May Alcott
Comments
Loading