y eighth-grade English teacher was a man named Mr. Grossman who sported a natty mustache and spoke wisely about words and phrases. The familiar line, “The reason is because” was a tautology. “The reason is that,” or “It’s because,” pick one, he told us. Things happen “for a reason” or “because of something,” not both at once. Next came the word “unique.” On a planet of predatory modifiers it should be left in peace. Festooning it with “very” or “extremely” did only harm. The matter of quantity was also discussed. “A few” and “several” had an actual meaning, more than two and less than four, leaving three, and making it unwise to thank “a few good men” when seven hauled in the Christmas tree. More than three and a writer’s best friend should be “many,” that unvarnished staple of 13th-century Middle English.
This last detail mattered since the word “many,” no longer in Mr. Grossman’s keep, has recently if unwillingly been forced into hibernation. It also mattered because 21st-century American English has seemingly chosen to belch and byte its way into the future.
Since about 2000, coinciding with the welcome mat handed to the digital age, “many” has all but vanished from daily usage, replaced by the callously anti-melodious “multiple,” a word suited to the tongues of only the glummest of statisticians.
For decades, “multiple” resided almost exclusively in the rank realms of biology, ballistics mental illness and, as an aside, exams. “Multiple organ failure” meant a collective withering, often through cancer, and conveyed the antiseptic snarl of medical surrender. The phrase “multiple gunshot wounds” suggested a spent revolver or machine gun, weapons of minor destruction that released penetrating rounds and smacked of unprocessed police-speak. It sounded great at the movies — particularly to Alfred Hitchcock, who could also turn “multiple personality disorder” into a script. “Multiple choice questions” appeared on college entrance exams, but ventured no further.
Normal people — you and me and Mr. Grossman — did not use the word “multiple.” It just did not come up in spoken or written speech.
“He asked many questions,” not “multiple questions.” “I called him often,” not “multiple times.” “Many projects,” or “several projects,” or “a few projects,” or “a number of projects” — depending on the specifics — were all a considerably clearer and more precise way to express quantity than “multiple projects,” which like failed organs or gunshot wounds emanated leadenness.
“Darling, I’ve thought about you so many, many times” transformed (2.0-style) into “Darling, I’ve thought about you multiple times” would have incited Mr. Grossman into revolt.
This little composition isn’t a defense of static language. Language is always in flux, and should be. Instead, it’s about the sound of music, with language able to withstand only so much broken-flute normalcy before abandoning grace and turning to wholesale burping.
More than most languages, English has been browbeaten by the recent technological upheaval, with the voracious vocabulary of programming unknowingly behaving as a heathen army. That vocabulary, “multiple” included, spilled mostly from the tongue-tied mouths of code writers into user-manual text and later into podium speech, with the likes of Steve Jobs spewing the verbal iconography of shortcuts. Consumers were so taken by the spirit and ingenuity of inventions and products that they gladly absorbed the bastard language of its non-verbal makers. “Processing” displaced “thinking.” So-called conceptual language made few allowances for nuance or gradation, preferring instead to lean on the dungeon-speak of bytes and drives, ports and uploading — sexy and sophisticated by virtue of newness and popularity — pushing the whole of the sterile upholstery into the public arena and labeling it an “upgrade,” royalty among software-era words.
The small poetics of common speech stood no chance. In a nanosecond, or, to be precise, a second the size of a dwarf, “many” was gone, the pot stuffed with all things multiple and linked in. Now, the multiplication table sounds somehow wrong (if not irrelevant, since a device does that arithmetic), and what on earth to do with a printout of multiple multiplication tables?
Maybe just do the math, stick some loose few vowels in Mr. Grossman’s treasure chest, and get out of Dodge for multiple moons.