Thursday, April 08, 2010

Don't be Such an Anxious Beaver

My wife doesn't often present me with unexpected gifts (my latest respiratory virus notwithstanding), so I was delighted when she picked up for me the Modern Library edition of Letters From The Editor, a compilation of communications from the New Yorker's brilliant founding editor, Harold Ross. Sure, she got it at a thrift store for 99 cents, but it's the meager thought that counts. In any case, I find myself dipping into it for awhile most nights to transport myself to Jazz-era New York and a time when a magazine and its editor were regarded with the kind of reverence we now reserve for the likes of Paris Hilton.

Within the milky-smooth pages of the volume (thank you, Modern Library, for your attention to tactile detail), in a letter to longtime New Yorker contributer Alexander Woollcott, a brusque and comically distracted Ross tells Woollcott he's going to try to visit soon, signing off with:
I don't know how to get to Vermont, or to the lake after I get there, but will take this matter up later. I am very anxious to see you.                                                                           Sincerely,                                                                           Ross
I know that anxious, over time, has in many quarters become an acceptable synonym for eager, but the fact remains that many usage mavens--Bryson; Bernstein; Garner; Barbara Wallraff; the American Heritage Dictionary; my high school English teacher, Mrs. Thompson--will point out that the word derives from anxiety and is best used when an element of worry or trepidation, and not merely anticipation, is involved. Considering that the above missive comes from the famously punctilious Harold Ross of the famously punctilious New Yorker, I feel justified in taking the legendary editor to task. Luckily for him, he's been dead for sixty years, and has mercifully escaped the sting of my critical lash.