To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. Theodore M. Bernstein, a former assistant managing editor of The New York Times,, a journalism educator and an authority on use of the English language, died of cancer yesterday in his home at 2 Fifth Avenue. He was 74 years old.
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Theodore M. Words and the strange sorcery that has been visited upon many of them will form the subject of this letter. Not syntax, not idioms, not style--all of which I hope to take up with you in later letters--but just words. Probably the most prolific source of word bogies is the stubborn notion that it is only the "original" meanings of words that can be permitted to exist.
An editor of my acquaintance objected to using ghetto to describe urban Negro slums. I am certainly no radical when it comes to usage, but I made the point that although the word originally meant the Jewish quarter of a town, it had been justifiably extended to refer to any section in which a racial or national or religious group lives or to which it is restricted.
Justifiably, because the word is appropriate and because there is no other single word that conveys the new meaning. Applying new meanings to old words is one of the ways in which the language is kept viable and adequate to its tasks. Usually we notice changes in meanings only when they occur within our own lifetimes. It would not be known to most of us that a simple word like nice began with the meaning of foolish or stupid and has since undergone perhaps half a dozen mutations. Or that a more complicated word likesophisticated in its early stages meant such things as wise, adulterated and corrupted.
Sometimes, of course, the changes arise from ignorance, but the fact that the ignorant usage catches on and hangs on indicates that it is filling some need, large or small. Occasionally such a need is supplied by the coinage of a new word. And that, too, often meets head-on resistance. When convicts were first put to death in the electric chair, the word electrocute, combining the ideas of electric and execute, came into being, but instantly and persistently it encountered hostility, which was overcome only after the passing of many decades.
There can be no doubt, however, that new things frequently require new words to describe them. In this age of startling scientific developments we have grown somewhat more accustomed to the advent of such terms.
Still another bugbear arises whenever common usage employs a word as a different part of speech from the one we are accustomed to. Above and following are now frequently used as nouns whereas they previously were adjectives, and there has been a great deal of hubbub about that development.
But such conversions are not unusual: In medicine we have prophylactics and sedatives, in military life we have privates, regulars and offensives, and more recently in broadcasting we have documentaries, visuals and specials. The list could go on and on. Nor would it be confined to the conversion of adjectives into nouns. It is just as common to find nouns doing duty as adjectives, beginning with such inconspicuous ones as rail road and stock yard and going on to population explosion and atom bomb agreement.
The Careful Writer
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The Careful Writer
A little about Theodore Bernstein November 17, — June Bernstein was also a professor at Columbia J School. Today, no one would even notice. Besides covering basic good grammar, Bernstein addresses the idiomatic words that are more difficult to classify and covers them with the same rigor as he does the traditional words. American English is nothing if not adaptive. I love this. Others may have an educated opinion, but Bernstein is the trump card.
The Careful Writer