Grant McCracken mourns the replacement of the word “several:”
“Somehow, while we were not really paying attention, “multiple” stole into our language and displaced “several” in a bloodless coup.”
And why? Dignity.
Police spokespeople like to dress their remarks in extra dignity and they do this by reaching for their “best” vocabulary. People become persons or perpetrators. Guns become firearms. And they are not fired; they are “discharged.” The victim has multiple wounds. It just sounds more official, more commanding, more large and in charge. Don’t worry. Your city is safe with us.
At once I agree and disagree. While the use of “multiple” may, in fact, be an attempt to make fancy a fairly ordinary adjective, I’m curious if the use here is just an intuitive grasp for a word with a good intention. Consider this passage in Lamott’s Bird by Bird:
If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it. if your character suddenly pulls a half-eaten carrot out of her pocket, let her. Later, you can ask yourself if this rings true.
Clearly this is the difference between writing fiction and actions unfolding in real life, but the concept of control is no less relevant. I wonder if dignity is what’s ringing true for these folks, and therefore, making them intuitively reach for their best vocabulary. Their job is to be official — and language is part of that. Or are they just overextending, complicating, going against what the Plain Language Movement set out to do?
It doesn’t seem a straightforward case of jargonese to me. I can’t be sure — perhaps others are.