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Sunday, April 5, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Writer's Art

Court Agrees: `Tragedy' Is Overused

Universal Press Syndicate

The Court of Peeves, Irks and Crotchets resumes its spring assizes with a complaint from A.B. Greeves of Des Moines, Wash. His complaint is against the misuse of "tragedy." The court rules in the plaintiff's favor, and the court probably will get in trouble for doing so.

This is the gentleman's point: "Tragedy" is too powerful a word to be used in describing everyday misfortunes, accidents and deaths. Precisely employed, "tragedy" in volves some element of moral failure, some flaw in character, or some extraordinary combination of elements that produce a tragic consequence.

The court takes judicial notice of "the tragedy of Bjorn Borg's premature retirement" and "the tragedy of the chef's fallen souffle." Well, no. Not every death of a young person is tragic. Not every fatal auto accident is tragic. Heavy words should be reserved for heavy lifting.

Norman Foster of Las Vegas asks an injunction against the use of "construct" as a noun. In evidence he offers an item from the Las Vegas Review-Journal about a small espresso table, no larger than a bread box, that is "a handsome little construct of steel and Douglas fir." Sorry, sir, the injunction is denied. "To construct," the verb, dates from 1663; "construct," the noun, from 1871.

Such verb/noun combinations, requiring a shift in the accented syllable, come along fairly often. During Operation Desert Storm a year ago, a few soldiers deserted in the desert. Perhaps they were rebels who rebelled. But the court digresses. Back to the docket!

Alfred Pfaff of Asheville, N.C., brings a complaint that 10,000 others will bring in the next few years. The complaint goes to the date on which the century will end. Says the plaintiff:

"The same ninnies who espouse the cutesy `decade of the '90s' will probably declare the current century to be over at the end of 1999. My question is, Who lopped off a year and from which century? Or has there been a late insertion of a year Zero?"

The are times, the court will observe, when common sense proves impotent. Manifestly, when you think about it, the 20th century will not end until 100 years - not 99 years - have elapsed. Thus the new century will not begin on Jan. 1, 2000, but on Jan. 1, 2001.

Ten thousand plaintiffs know this, and the court knows this, but the gentleman's injunction must regretfully be denied. As we approach 1999, be prepared for an avalanche of reviews, reminiscences, chronicles and awards to the man, the woman, the poet and the statesman of the century. By Jan. 1, 2000, the fun will be over.

William R. Penrice of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., is peeved by the misuse of "graphic." The court takes judicial notice that during recent rape trials, reporters often spoke of "graphic" testimony when "explicit" might have been more descriptive, but the requested injunction will be denied. Something that is "graphic" is something that is described in vivid and dramatic detail, such as a graphic account of a tornado. The adjective cannot be confined to graphic arts.

(Copyright, 1992, Universal Press Syndicate)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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