Mind your language

Mind your language . . . on commit

3 December 2015

3:00 PM

3 December 2015

3:00 PM

My husband struck out with his stick at an advertisement in the street that said: ‘Commit to winter.’ He doesn’t need a stick to walk with, but he likes threatening to cudgel Christmas shoppers out of his way in this joyful season.

I agree with his disapproval of commit used intransitively, not committing oneself or committing anything else. Yet stranger things have happened to the word in the past 600 years. It used to have a rival form commise, also meaning ‘entrust, perpetrate or commission’, which ran out of steam in the 17th century. We do still have commis chefs, but that was re-introduced in the 20th century from French, as indicated by its silent s.

The committing that we women are said to find so hard to extract from men has popped up in the past 30 years. ‘It can be “crazy-making” to love or care about someone who’s afraid to commit,’ wrote Melody Beattie in 1989 in one of her books on codependent relationships. She’s against codependency. And, as she reminds us in Playing It by Heart: Taking Care of Yourself No Matter What, she was, at the Minnehaha Academy, Minneapolis, ‘the youngest person ever to be allowed to work on the school newspaper’. But I suppose someone had to be.

The crime of introducing the objectless, unreflexive commit rankles with me. But it is one that the 2nd Lord Berners seems already to have committed in 1523 when he wrote: ‘I commytte never to lyve without thou shalte derely abye it.’ Abye means ‘pay the penalty for’, but the phrase we’re interested in translates the French ‘jamais je ne veulx vivre’. The Oxford English Dictionary puts this quotation in the category ‘of doubtful sense’, yet it seems to bear the meaning ‘pledge oneself’ that re-emerged only in the 1980s.

Milton employed commit in the 1640s in a stranger sense: ‘to place in a state of incongruity’. In a puff, he wrote that Henry Lawes taught us ‘not to scan/ With Midas eares, committing short and long’. The ass’s ears of Midas were attached to the royal bonce by Apollo for preferring the music of Pan.

I wish Apollo would perform a similar service for those who commit crimes against language.

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