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A grateful jangle

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 25, 2008 04:10 PM

Reader Amy Kaufman is puzzled, she says in an e-mail, by a usage in the book "How Starbucks Saved My Life," by Michael Gates Gill. The sentence in question: "Fortunately, a train came quickly, and I rode up to Ninety-sixth Street in a grateful jangle of swaying noise and screeching rails."

Ignoring for the moment the mystifying "swaying noise," what I am wondering about is the "grateful jangle." I'm sure the author means that he, not the jangle, was the grateful one.

Grateful applied to a thing rather than a person sounds odd to me too -- a bit poetic or archaic -- but according to my dictionaries, grateful meaning "gratifying" is still standard usage. Says American Heritage, 4th edition: "Affording pleasure or comfort; agreeable." Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate: "affording pleasure or contentment; PLEASING."

As it happens, the inanimate grateful came up in a recent Language Log post about the use of the word "welcome" in a quote from Barack Obama: "I'll be welcome to ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle."

Such "role-shifting" by words is not unusual, wrote Mark Liberman, who cited grateful -- though he too was under the impression that its application to inanimate things was obsolete: "Thus grateful used to be used to mean not only "feeling gratitude", but also (alternatively) "engendering gratitude", i.e. (OED sense 1) "Pleasing to the mind or the senses, agreeable, acceptable, welcome." He gave the OED's 1814 quote from Sir Walter Scott: "Enjoying the grateful and cooling shade."

Ungrateful, not surprisingly, behaves the same way. The OED quotes, among other examples, "Certain foods are recognised, consciously or not, as grateful or ungrateful" (1897).

It may be ungrateful news in some quarters, but Gill's "grateful jangle" is good -- and current -- English.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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