To the passengers sitting in exit rows, a flight attendant — née stewardess — gives a little speech. She ends with, “Are you able and willing to assist in the event of an emergency?” She then says, to each passenger, “I need a verbal yes.”
It’s interesting, this word “verbal.” It used to mean related to speech — written, oral, whatever. Now it seems to mean only oral. The flight attendant means, “You can’t nod your head or something. You have to say the word ‘yes.’” Why doesn’t she say “I need an oral yes”? Probably because the word “oral” has a vulgar connotation.
I’m going to disagree on two counts with Mr. Nordlinger here. First, verbal as a synonym for oral has a long tradition. I myself was involved in a dispute over a verbal agreement (also known as an oral contract — the terms are interchangeable in legalese) in the 1990s. If that’s not venerable enough for you, both Dictionary.com and this fellow cite uses of verbal to mean “spoken” as early as the 1400s. (Perhaps Caxton was called out by our forerunner — Lexycyd, a Rebyuck of ye Eviferashon of WORDS Moft Damnyng.)
Another disagreement — we use oral in many contexts that don’t evoke oral sex (I’m assuming that’s what Mr. Nordlinger meant to say): oral hygiene, oral report, and oral history come to mind immediately. However, I concede that where flight attendants are concerned, any tactic to avoid innuendo is a smart one.
But wait! Jay’s not finished with you yet!
I’m reminded of the word “diction.” It used to mean — and surely still means, formally — word choice. Somewhere along the line, it got equated to “elocution” or “enunciation.”
To be sure, the first and formal definition of diction is the choice of words in a verbal composition (hence dictionary!). As with verbal, I suspect the secondary meaning has been with us for some time. At least stewardesses didn’t have to contend with that.
— Otto E. Mezzo