Poetic License and Registration

I was having one of those grammatical OCD moments earlier this evening. A sort of no-holds-barred cage match inside my brain over the usage of the words optimal and optimum. When I re-read what I’d written, the word optimum used as an adjective just looked a little out of place. A quick lick of the thumb and a gentle ruffling through a dictionary or three proved fruitless. In Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage, and Oxford, the word optimal is listed only as an adjective, while optimum can be either a noun or an adjective. So it would appear that I was not incorrect. But it was still bugging the bejesus out of me. On-line dictionaries (I actually looked at print versions first) turned up the same thing, with no guidance on preference. I saw a few discussions on the Internet on the subject, with some people stating that the preference should be to use optimal as an adjective because it can only be used as an adjective, and to use optimum as a noun. But these were clearly just opinions. The Associated Press Stylebook that I have had no entry regarding this. I’ve  decided to go with my gut and use optimal as an adjective because it just sounds better — at least to me. Now that I’ve settled that great inner debate, I can move on to more important things, like the AP Stylebook itself. It had been a while since I’d opened the thing, and I’d forgotten what a fascinating read it is. Seriously. It’s a real page turner. One can always find something that has been previously missed. For example, I found out that, at least according to AP style, one can only take poetic license with poetry. And all this time I thought I could take poetic license wherever I damn well pleased. “Sir, do you realize why I stopped you?” “No, officer.  I don’t.” “You were taking poetic license in a prose zone. I’m gonna have to see your poetic license and registration, sir.” And then there was the hillbilly entry. I realize, of course, that the term hillbilly can be (and is often) used derogatorily. What I didn’t realize was that the guide offers the use of the term mountaineer as an alternative to the use of hillbilly. In all fairness, most dictionaries do give two definitions for the term, one being a person who climbs mountains for adventure, and the other, a person who lives in a mountainous region. I would argue, however, that the latter definition is rarely used now. And it just doesn’t seem to fit. I’m at least a quarter hillbilly on my father’s side and one-eighth on my mother’s, so I’ve known a few hillbillies in my day. I can assure you that none of them owns a pair of crampons or an ice axe. As things sometimes work on the Internet, this all somehow led me to an exploration of the portrayal of stereotypes in various media, and how bad it used to be in the U.S. Especially with cartoons. The depiction of African Americans in cartoons in the earlier part of the 20th Century will blow your mind in a surreal, “Did that really happen?” sort of way. The portrayal of white Southerners and hill folk (there’s a term I can get behind) wasn’t much better. For an excellent example, try “Musical Mountaineers.” It’s a Betty Boop cartoon from 1939. I’m guessing the producers weren’t being sensitive or using any particular style guide when they came up with the title; the alliteration probably just had a better ring than Musical Hillbillies. The stereotyping in the video is interesting. And I apologize for using the word hillbilly so freely, especially when I have a family full of them.


About kimetime

Kimetime has lived some of his life in motion, some of it sedentary, all of it in hiding. Some people call him Jonny.
This entry was posted in et cetera, Literary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Poetic License and Registration

  1. Gonzo says:

    Here’s something I just thought of to throw into the “optimum” vs. “optimal” debate:

    Try converting both words into adverbs.

    “Optimumly” just doesn’t work, does it?

    So, while “optimal” can’t be a noun AND an adjective, as “optimum” can, “optimum” can’t be converted to an adverb.

    Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing optimal or optimum about either of these two words!

    • kimetime says:

      According to some linguists, anything that can be uttered by one and understood by another is essentially language. How about optimumality? Optimability?

  2. Pingback: Enter the Octagon « Bourbon and Ginger

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