Don’t believe everything you hear about the humanities. There is still some important research being done.
This book makes a good case for seeing linguistics as “the universal social science”, one that teaches us not just about language but about how we live and make sense of the world. When we learn how the world is made through words, we also learn to be sceptical of our current iteration of reality and more tolerant of other perspectives. If life can be differently worded, it can be differently lived.
One is tempted to say, well, it’s the Guardian, what else do you expect? The house style pretty much calls for some vestigial gestures in the direction of power to the people! revolution! and the progressive arc of history, even in a linguistics book review. When efforts to remold stubborn reality through politics, cultural diktats and technology have all fallen short, I suppose the incantatory power of language is an obvious alternative, one which just so happens to promise a starring role for bookish intellectuals, imagine that.
Doctor Johnson, being rowed down the Thames by a sculler, was assailed from the shore (as custom then was) by a foulmouthed fellow with a very generous flow of invective. Having endured as much as a man decently could, he turned on the scurrilist and said loudly and deliberately, “Sir, your mother, under pretext of keeping a bawdy house, was a receiver of stolen goods.” The subordinate clause provides at once the balance and the dynamic of this insult. “Under pretext of” gives evidence of judicious discrimination between appearance and reality; yet it implies that the man’s mother, casting about for the most decent front she could find for her fencing operations, could imagine nothing better than running a bawdy house. There is no way to make pretext or pretense of running a bawdy house except by running one, so that implication stands too. It is an extraordinarily opulent sentence; yet balanced, objective, and perfectly simple. One would like to think the recipient took it home and thought about it for several weeks.
— Robert Adams, Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side
In the course of my
two minutes of Googling rigorous research, I learned that it was apparently considered good sport for boaters on the Thames to insult each other as they passed, but Adams suggests here that bystanders on the bank also took part. I find it much more amusing to imagine that some random weirdo just decided to verbally assault Johnson, whether he recognized him or not, just like I find it amusing to imagine a time-travelling Johnson taking part in a modern “Yo mama” fight. “Sir, it is a fact that your mother is so corpulent…”
One thing to add: Writers who are not so adept at linking their sentences habitually toss in a “But” or a “However” to create the illusion that a second thought contradicts a first thought when it doesn’t do any such thing. It doesn’t work, and I’m on to you.
Funny enough, I’ve recently encountered the mirror-image problem — using an agreeable word to preface disagreement. The Lady of the House has a cousin who works in marketing for a mega-corporation, and he was telling us how, in recent communication training, they were strongly encouraged to use the word “and” instead of “but” — the latter being too abrupt, too argumentative, too likely to shut down discussion and make people feel unappreciated. “And that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” you probably said, with an unwelcoming look of disdain on your face. See, that’s why you’re having trouble climbing the corporate ladder. You’re too belligerent and confrontational. Perhaps you need to try some trust-building exercises.
Elsewhere, in Sarah Lyall’s review of Dreyer’s new book, she says:
Meanwhile, the president of the United States thinks “seperation” is a word, once referred to his own wife on Twitter as “Melanie” instead of “Melania” and has explained his personal philosophy of capitalization by declaring: “I capitalize certain words only for emphasis, not b/c they should be capitalized!” (He also uses exclamation points like a text-crazed teenager, but that is another issue.)
As it happens, a reader emailed me last week, wondering if I had indeed meant to title a recent post “They Know What’s Best for You and I.” I greatly appreciated his discreet efforts to help me maintain a respectable appearance, like a pal calling your attention to the fact that you returned from the restroom with a yard of toilet paper stuck to your heel, but yes, I replied, I was quoting a lyric in that title and thus favored fidelity to the source over grammatical accuracy. (Later on in that same song, Mark Sandman sang, even more awkwardly, “They’re tryin’ to psyche us up for number World War Three.” I can’t begin to explain that one. It’s not like the modifier had to be misplaced in order to maintain the rhythm.) I added, just for the record, that I often disobey the conventional rules of capitalization in post titles as well. This is purely an idiosyncratic, aesthetic choice. Certain articles, conjunctions and prepositions just don’t look pleasing to me in lowercase, so I capitalize them. (I’ve served time as a paid copywriter, knowing and observing all the rules, so in my own space, I DO WHAT I WANT.) The alternatives — capitalizing each word or simply surrendering and going all-lowercase all the time — strike me as equally unattractive.
As recently as four years ago, I was still a practitioner of “logical punctuation,” an affectation I have since outgrown, as you can see by the fact that the previous comma resides inside the quotation marks. I simply decided I preferred aesthetic tradition to logical precision in this instance. Sometimes my aesthetic compass leads me off toward uncharted frontiers, other times back to the warm embrace of accepted standards. That’s not to say I’m a grammatical anarchist, of course. As I told my correspondent, I tend to be a descriptivist in linguistic matters, though not a contented one. I have one client who lives in Italy, for whom English is a second or third language. Swell guy. Very gregarious and communicative. The problem is, his emails read as if they were assembled by a combination of Google Translate and a thesaurus. The words are spread across the page like highway rumble strips, or even speed bumps, which rattle my eyeballs hard enough to nearly detach my retinas as I traverse each line. Nothing makes me appreciate the rules of syntax more than staring into that abyss in my inbox. And yet we hear and read native English-speakers every day who are scarcely any more coherent. There may be no one true way to use language, but I’m convinced that some ways are more false than others.
Despite the occasional marketing hurdle, however, clearly these books are selling just fine. That’s the surprising thing about all of these supposedly irreverent titles. The premise of their humor is that they’re shocking, but they’re now so prevalent that it’s hard to imagine being shocked by them. They are “the product of a culture in which transgressing social norms has become an agreed-on social norm,” as essayist Dan Brooks wrote of the “naughty” card game Cards Against Humanity a few years ago. That game has been so successful that G-rated board games like Taboo and Cranium now tout “dark” or “adult” versions for people who enjoy dirty jokes, but can’t conjure them unless they’re printed on a deck of glossy cards. Profanity is now utterly basic.
As I said recently, I do identify as a person of colorful language, though I mostly only use it privately, typically toward inanimate objects. I have a rule of thumb for cursing around friends and acquaintances: never be the first one to start working blue, as it were. If they feel uninhibited enough to swear in my presence, then I might reciprocate, but otherwise, I’m happy to never cross that line. Not because of any middle-aged squeamishness, but because I prefer to avoid overly-easy familiarity. I value modesty and restraint more as a rule, keeping a reticent arm’s-length. But, yes, there’s also the fact that profanity is just unimaginative and boring as currently used. As Melissa Mohr suggested, there are some words and phrases that could be artfully deployed to cause actual shock, but we aren’t that brave yet. Personally, I’d rather unearth some forgotten classics. Let’s all try to bring back “swive,” shall we?
Yet despite multiple attempts over the centuries, including a valiant effort by Hobbes, there’s no English word for “joy in another’s sorrow.” And so the German term “schadenfreude” — literally, damage-joy — which first appeared in English writing in 1853, was adopted.
Given that the previous paragraph in this review mentioned the Greek word epichairekakia, I thought it was odd that “epicaricacy” was ignored here. Searching inside the book on Amazon, the only mention of it was on page three, where the author dismissed its attempted introduction into English by “someone” in the 1500s. A quick Google search turns up a few citations including Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Joseph Shipley’s Dictionary of Early English, but Wiktionary claims that “there is little or no evidence of actual usage until it was picked up by various “interesting word” websites around the turn of the twenty-first century.” Ah. That explains the inevitable charge of “pretension” toward those who use the word, along with the selective rationales justifying its exclusion (too many syllables! Anglo-Saxon>Greek and Latin!). Just as “consumerism” is always the stuff that other people buy, “pretension” often seems to be the display of knowledge that I don’t have. “The bitterness of not perceiving oneself in the vanguard, the fear of missing out, and the leveling urge, all combined” — perhaps there’s an earthy, guttural Anglo-Saxon word for that.
It reminds me of something I said years ago: “Protestant simplicity for the transfer of essential information, Catholic grandeur for the playful spirit of creativity. Wouldn’t that be a good balance? Unfortunately, it feels like too many people are possessed with the spirit of Martin Luther when it comes to language these days, seeing the devil of artifice behind every unfamiliar word and an obfuscating fog in every wisp of incense smoke.”
Solomon emphasized how the dictionary wants the choice of “mis” over “dis” to be a call to action. The dictionary hopes selecting misinformation as the word of the year can teach people not to blame others, but to look at their own actions.
“Disinformation is a word that kind of looks externally to examine the behavior of others. It’s sort of like pointing at behavior and saying, ‘THIS is disinformation.’ With misinformation, there is still some of that pointing, but also it can look more internally to help us evaluate our own behavior, which is really, really important in the fight against misinformation,” Solomon said.
“It’s a word of self-reflection, and in that it can be a call to action. You can still be a good person with no nefarious agenda and still spread misinformation.”
That’s adorable. By contrast, their Word of the Year for 2016 was xenophobia, so perhaps this is a sign that they’ve moved into the “We’re not angry, just disappointed” stage of their post-Trump trauma. Like modern-day John Harvey Kelloggs, today’s progressives hope to cure political vice and improve intellectual hygiene through a strict diet of bland platitudes and peer-reviewed conclusions. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Voxplainer droning on into a human ear — forever. Unfortunately for them, human communication has always been a game of Telephone. The law of noospheric entropy states that ideas and concepts are forever decaying into clichés, slogans and buzzwords; likewise, even a conversation that begins with Just the Facts will degenerate into rumor, propaganda and fantasy by the time it reaches the end of the circle. Earnest proselytizing can only go so far among an audience without the ears to hear it.
I tend to prefer the idiosyncratic in style to survive and flourish, even at the cost of irregularity and even, on occasion, barbarity. Yet in practice, I tended to be an editor of the hands-on sort. I found I couldn’t bear to have certain words, phrases, even syntax in any magazine I edited. I would go prowling around other people’s prose, unsplitting those split infinitives, sweeping prepositions from the ends of sentences, removing certain over-and ignorantly-used words. I have conducted search-and-destroy campaigns against “lifestyle,” “impact,” “process,” the pretentious “intriguing.” Just now I am quite nuts on the matter of “focus,” a word that shows up in journalism more frequently than Jesse Jackson at the funerals of the famous. I also didn’t permit ideas, movements, or anything except people in a car to be “driven,” nor anything other than large physical objects to be “massive.” I have scores of other tics, quirks, and downright prejudices. I can’t help myself; I have to clean it all up. Anality, you may say. “Anality,” I respond, in the words of a character in a Kingsley Amis novel, “my ass.”
— Joseph Epstein, “C’mon Reiny, Let’s Do the Twist,” In a Cardboard Belt
My first reaction to his linguistic enemies list was to think, “How quaint!” Most of those seem harmless and inoffensive to me; it’s like working up anger against oatmeal or the color beige. My second reaction was to realize that yesterday’s atrocities become today’s status quo, that the words and phrases I find intolerable today will likewise become standard tomorrow, and soon enough (if not already) the correct use of “begging the question” will look as outdated as a hyphen in the word “to-day,” or a capitalized noun in 18th-century correspondence.
So, yes, when I checked the Accuweather site this morning, I was greeted by the above banner announcing a “snow event.” Now, I dimly recall noting that department stores no longer seem to have “sales,” they have “sales events.” But when did this euphemistic bubble-wrap start getting applied to weather as well? What does it clarify to add the word “event” in there? By the way, a prediction of one-tenth of an inch doesn’t even qualify as “snow,” let alone an “event,” so this is a double-scoop of useless verbiage.
In general, I have no problem with some rococo flourishes and aesthetic curlicues in language. Telegram-terseness is not the Platonic ideal of prose. I try to have fun with my own writing, and I love reading dictionaries of forgotten words to see if I can bring any of them back from the dead. I’m not one of those dour fundamentalists who quote Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” like scripture, nor do I look to apply a coat of Strunk ‘n’ Whitener to every patch of purple prose. But there are certainly categories of superfluous speech that make me grind my teeth. Business and marketing jargon, for one. Occasionally, I listen to the local alternative radio station while working, and there’s one vapid commercial in particular that stands out for its inane chatter. The tagline goes something like, “Helping streamline the process of finding solutions to your window needs!” Yes, it’s for a window installation company, though you’d be forgiven for getting the impression that it’s for some sort of consultant service in between you and the people who actually install glass panes in your home or office. If this kind of empty, corporate buzzword-babble has infiltrated the trades, how much further will it go?
Therapy-speak, also known as psychobabble, should of course be eradicated — I would like to have voodoo dolls of people who use the word “journey” to mean anything other than the band. George Carlin already said everything necessary about the insidious nature of euphemisms. I assume it’s a law of nature that the slang of any generation other than one’s own will always be annoying. Journalists and their hangers-on, being highly over-represented on Twitter, have made it so that articles, essays and even posts have become “takes” and “pieces,” as if we needed any more incentive to hate social media. But strangely, one thing that I’ve become increasingly irritated by is casual swearing.
I say “strangely” because I am by no means squeamish about salty language. My everyday speech is still peppered with profanities, though I don’t care for using it in writing very much anymore. But I still remember the thrill of being around twelve or thirteen and testing the boundaries to see when I could finally get away with using bad words around my parents without them scolding me. It was a rite of passage, a way of feeling recognized as more than a kid. However, once that boundary had been crossed, there was no need to exult in it. Like many thrills, the pleasure was mostly in the anticipation. Even in high school, a 2 Live Crew cassette was like samizdat acquired through someone’s older brother. It was only shockingly funny to us because there wasn’t any other music so offensively profane at the time. Après nous, le déluge, though. Now it’s just boring, and I find that I despise hearing something good referred to as “the shit.” Again, not because of any, ahem, anality, but because it’s just so lazy and reflexive. “The new Dead Can Dance music is the shit, man!” Oh, is that supposed to be complimentary? Are you barbarians happy now that you’ve sacked the capital of restraint and decency? Now you’re just amusing yourselves by taking the charred corpses of words and arranging them in grotesque parodies of their former meaning? Like Ismo, I’m perplexed by the way the word can mean almost everything and nothing. Apparently literal meaning is too strenuous for us; we’d rather just rely on tone and emotion to make our point. It’s linguistic nihilism, that’s what it is. Anarchy is loosed upon the words.
I had learned the phrase “obiter dicta” in my readings over the years — I especially remember Roger Kimball and Theodore Dalrymple using it — and thought it would make a good name for a continuing series of short posts. Recently, though, George Santayana introduced me to the phrase “obiter scripta,” which struck me as more apt given that I’m writing, not speaking, so I changed the title of the series. This is what happens when your knowledge of Latin consists of a smattering of words and phrases acquired secondhand. Maybe I need to crack some more books.
Ah, progressivism. Where gender and biology are fluid, but language is static. To quote the Red Queen, “It’s too late to correct it. When you’ve once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.” If the word was once associated with racism, it will be forever tainted and irredeemable, a linguistic landmine lying in wait to macroaggressively maim the unwary. We saw this with beards as well. No, wait, come to think of it, pronouns change with the wind these days, too. Maybe it’s only proper nouns that work like this. Yeah, that must be it. Otherwise, the only logical conclusion is that this is all just a society-wide game of Calvinball, where the only consistent aim is to be the group in charge of declaring when and how the rules change, and that’s just too awful to contemplate.
Thomas Sowell put it most clearly in one of his books — the characteristic thing about this progressive crusading is its desire to not only end suffering and injustice here and now, but its desire to erase the past as well. He didn’t mean “erase” in the Orwellian memory-hole sense, although that tendency certainly exists too. He meant that they’re attempting to cancel the past out, by re-creating what they imagine to be the original Edenic conditions that would have existed had not patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and all the other assorted evils from Pandora’s jar escaped to wreak havoc throughout history. They postulate an original world intended to resemble a maudlin John Lennon song, tabulate all the ways in which it fell short, and then attempt to create the conditions of that world in the present through social engineering. From affirmative action to privilege-checking via language-policing and all points in between, the goal is to reduce “unjust” disparities, but, as you may be noticing, in this worldview, it’s an axiom that all disparities are unjust. Had things been truly fair and equal from the start as they should have been, no disparities would have arisen to begin with.
It should go without saying that this is the type of idea normally found inhabiting pungent clouds of marijuana cannabis smoke. In the commonly-recognized reality, all we can do to atone for shameful actions is to learn from them and do better from this day forward. What’s done can’t be undone. The end of racism will be when we stop practicing racist behavior, not when we expunge every last object, habit, word or idea that may once have been tangentially connected to something racist, however much they may have evolved since then. But unfortunately, the Handicapper General ideal is what underlies the aggregate logic of progressivism, in which a poorly-conceived-and-defined “equality” requires that all officially-recognized victims be “raised up” to wherever they would “naturally” be, had they not been victimized. In practice, though, it’s much easier to remove existing privileges from those who possess them, especially as they didn’t “deserve” them in the first place. To end unjust discrimination, we’ll need to “progressively” discriminate for “better” reasons until, by smoke, mirrors, and dialectical magic, we finally arrive at a point where no one ever needs to unjustly discriminate against anyone. In this instance, it’s not enough that pot legalization has become a mainstream issue; it doesn’t matter that absolutely nobody uses the word “marijuana” to conjure up racist fears of Mexicans; we still can’t be allowed to move forward until we have completely obliterated all traces of previous injustice, as if it never existed; hence, we need to stop using the contaminated term altogether. Again, to just go ahead and put too fine of a point on it, this is an idea so incoherent and delusional that it doesn’t deserve a rebuttal so much as a pillow held firmly over its face.
It’s amusingly ironic to me that a residual respect for the archetypal Old Testament-era prophet should be one of the aspects of our religious heritage to survive deep into our secular liberal age. What I mean is, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should take this social justice nonsense seriously. It’s self-evidently ignorant and counterproductive. And yet, articles like this are published every day and cheered by substantial numbers of influential people, because the authors are given the benefit of the doubt as to their “good intentions.” Sure, they may go a little too far in their zeal, but they mean well, and it’s good to have people filling that role as the moral conscience of a community, nation, etc., calling us to a higher standard and reproving us for our flaws. In reality, this has never been anything but the subtlest of power plays, in which a new class of aspiring mandarins realized that by declaring even the most innocuous things “problematic,” they could present themselves as the cure to their invented disease, and best of all, we’re supposed to believe that they will remain uncorrupted by the power that they refuse to trust anyone else with. It turns out that a “just” society requires their constant supervision and permission to function. Who’d’a thunk it?