The Death of "Whom," and the Labor Market for Words

Apr 6, 2014

Enough with numbers and March Madness and Flight 370; let’s talk about words instead. John Merrow of Learning Matters, the Education Correspondent for PBS NewsHour, has written a nice obituary for the word “Whom.” He described Whom’s declining years, while its distant cousin, Who, survives. I take the whole sad story as an allegory for how labor markets work.

As a passing acquaintance of Whom’s, I, like John, mourn Whom’s passing. Unfortunately for Whom, he (she?) has met the same fate as railroad engine firemen, when steam locomotives got replaced by diesel and electric locomotives. The firemen fought valiantly, or at least violently, to keep their jobs, but struggling against irrelevance is a losing cause. It turned out that Who could do Whom’s job as well, so who needs Whom?

In contrast, As has more successfully navigated its way through the labor market of words by holding down several jobs. You may be old enough to remember when Like, that ambitious sycophant, sucked up to the American people with, “Winston tastes good LIKE a cigarette should.” Well, As survived by falling back on its many other jobs in the English language. Perhaps Whom is a candidate for a job retraining program.

Words that serve a purpose should stay. For example, even though “hopefully” as it is now commonly used is (was?) incorrect English, that new usage filled a need that no other single word addressed. On the other hand, the increasingly common use of the verb “impact” to mean “affect” sets my teeth on edge. Not only does that add nothing to the English language, lost in the shuffle is the former principal use of the verb “impact” as a useful and colorful word, as in, “When Abigail Witherspoon saw her husband enjoying an intimate lunch at Per Se with Beatrice Coleridge, the excrement certainly impacted the ventilating device.”

I hope that Whom is now in a better place. RIP.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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