Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts

Of Schlongs and Schmucks

December 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cultural appropriation was in the news this week.  Students at a couple of universities had complained that their school, in a highhanded Eurocentric fashion,  had stolen and debased something – yoga classes, cafeteria food – from another culture. The news reports framed this mostly as yet another example of wrongheaded campus political correctness, something that sensible people regard amusement or alarm or both. In this view, the students and their ideas are silly but also pose a grave danger to freedom of speech if not universities and education as we know them. A good representative of this view is“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic (here), which notes the rise of terms like “microaggession” and “trigger warning” and a few instances of students protesting the invitations extended to certain speakers.

Cultural appropriation is different. With microaggressions and trigger warnings and other controversial issues, the goals of the politically correct align with widely held values – respect and equality for the vulnerable. It’s good to be against racism, sexism, cultural insensitivity, etc. Those are bad things. But cultural appropriation is a good thing. New sources and ideas, variations and combinations, keep the culture from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They make it vibrant and dynamic.

The trouble is that the appropriators, at least at the beginning, get it wrong.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” (Daily Beast)

It’s hard to be accepting of cultural variants, especially if you’re the one whose culture is being debased. And speaking of cultural debasement, here is Donald Trump misappropriating a Yiddish word.        


It’s a clear case of cultural appropriation, offensive and incorrect both politically and linguistically. Schlong is a noun, not a verb. It means penis. It does not mean to defeat badly, to rout, drub, shellac, trounce.  At least not yet. But in time, if enough people culturally appropriate it and use it to mean those things, then English will become richer by one additional meaning of one word, while the Yiddish purists out in the hall mutter and rend their garments. For the moment however, the consensus is that Trump misused the word.

Also that he’s a schmuck.

Personal note: The use of schlong that I best recall is in this scene from “Last Tango in Paris.”

Here’s the transcript.

 What's this for?    
 That's your happiness and
my... my ha-penis
 Schlong. Wienerwurst. Cazzo.
Bite. Prick! Joint!

I saw “Last Tango in Paris” in Paris – subtitles, no dubbing (v.o. comme on dit) – in a theater on the Champs-Élysées. When Brando says “schlong,” I laughed and was suddenly aware that nobody else in the theater had made a sound. The translation appeared on screen a split second later. General laughter. But for that moment, I felt a bit awkward in my solitary and unappropriated cultural knowledge.

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  Schlong in the cinema, one more time. Charlie Pierce reminds me that “My Favorite Year” has a great line built around this word. In fact, I blogged it two years ago in a post with the title “My Favorite Line” (here).

Magic Words

December 17, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Voldemort. There, I said it.

I can’t remember why all the characters in Harry Potter are afraid to say “Voldemort” and instead refer allusively to “He Who Must Not Be Named.” But I had the impression that if only someone did speak the name, then Voldemort would be finished. Like the Wicked Witch when Dorothy empties the bucket of water on her, he would dissolve into a harmless puddle. Of course, the person who speaks the name would have to be very powerful and brave. But if only we had such a hero would would dare say the magic word, evil would vanish from our world, and we would no longer live in fear.

Such is the power of language, at least in stories for nine-year olds. Maybe on Fox TV as well, and maybe for Republicans generally.  Here is a tweet last month from their most preferred candidate for president:

Other GOP candidates and right-wing Webistes offer a similar analysis. Only if our leader speaks the magic word will the problem be solved.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran this piece by Rudy the Brave.

Giuliani begins:

In 1983 when I was the U.S. attorney in New York, I used the word “Mafia” in describing some people we arrested or indicted. The Italian American Civil Rights League—which was founded by Joe Colombo, one of the heads of New York’s notorious five families—and some other similar groups complained that I was defaming all Italians by using that term.  In fact, I had violated a Justice Department rule prohibiting U.S. attorneys from employing the term Mafia.

See, I told you he was brave – defying the IACR and DoJ by using the forbidden word. He explains why this was both justified and essential in slaying the monster.

This hesitancy to identify the enemy accurately and honestly—“Mafia” was how members described themselves and kept its identity Italian or Italian-American—created the impression that the government was incapable of combating them because it was unable even to describe the enemy correctly.*

He goes on to make the same complaint about Obama that Cruz, Trump, et al. are making. Obama will not say the magic words “Islamic terrorism.”

Obama uses the acronym ISIL or ISIS. The IS stands for Islamic State, a phrase that Obama has no trouble uttering. In this, he is doing what Giuliani says he did with “Mafia” – using the term that they use to describe themselves. 
But with “Mafia,” Giuliani has picked the wrong analogy. What if instead of using the term “Mafia,” Giuliani had said “Italian gangsters” or “Italian criminals”? Why did he not use those terms? After all, as he says, the names in the Mafia membership book all ended in a vowel. Non-Italians may have worked with the Mafia, but none were “made men.”

Giuliani didn’t say “Italian gangsters” for the same reason that Obama doesn’t say “Islamic terrorists.” The terms imply something about all Italians or all Muslims. It is no more accurate to suggest that there is something inherently terroristic in Islam than it is to suggest that something about Italians makes them especially prone to become gangsters.Saying “Mafia” draws the distinction between Italian Americans on the one had and Italian-American gangsters on the other. That’s an important distinction.

Aside from the problem of inaccuracy, there’s the practical aspect. Had Giuliani spoken about “Italian mobsters” he might have pissed off lots of Italians, and not just the mobsters, who in any case were not his biggest fans. He would have alienated Italians whose votes and campaign contributions he would someday need. In a similar way, Obama does not want to alienate the billion or more Muslims whose help or at least neutrality the West needs in the fight against ISIS.  And for Obama and the US, the stakes are much higher than they were for Rudy and his political ambitions.

Yes, words are important, and a phrase that others find insulting can be especially effective in turning them into enemies. But ISIS is already a sworn enemy, and no phrases that we could come up with will change their willingness or ability to continue their war and terrorism.

Conversely, choosing the wrong words could make things even harder for us, and not just over there.  After all, when it comes to letting just about anybody get very deadly weapons, U.S.A., we’re number one. The shootings in San Bernardino showed us just how easy it is for an alienated, radicalized person to get a couple of assault rifles and then do what assault rifles are designed to do – kill a lot of people.

Shouting “Islamic terrorism” may be personally satisfying, even cathartic. It may play very well to the home crowd during its two minutes of hate. But for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the leader in the war against ISIS – maybe it’s not such a great idea.

*Giuliani does not explain why using the magic word “Mafia” made his prosecution successful or why the same evidence without the magic word would not have persuaded juries to convict. He says only that his predecessors’ avoidance of the word “created the impression” that they couldn’t get convictions.

Striking Discharges

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.” (Chicago Tribune)

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. (MPR News)

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:

(Click on the image for a larger and possibly clearer view.)

The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

Wheelhouse Rock

November 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

FiveThirtyEight has an nGram tool that shows the frequency of words on Reddit. The first word I tried it out on was wheelhouse.

(Click on the image for a larger view. My apologies for the faint font, 
but that’s the way FiveThirtyEight does it.)

I chose wheelhouse because it seems that this word has broken out. Literally, a wheelhouse is the enclosed place on a ship that houses the wheel.

Sometime in the 1980s, baseball players started using it to mean the area where a batter swung with maximum power.

But on a recent podcast someone said of a screenwriter that a particular kind of story was “in his wheelhouse.” I assume that Hollywood is a bellwether for trendy words and that wheelhouse has crossed over from sports to other worlds.

The FiveThirtyEight tool doesn’t tell you what the context is. Maybe these references were all in sports Reddits. Or maybe they weren’t. So I went to Lexis-Nexis, which showed the same rapid increase in recent years.

The early wheelhouses were nearly all in articles about baseball.

When Mitchell . . .asked him why he swung at a 3-0 pitch, the trainer replied, "It was right in my wheelhouse, Mitch." Contra Costa Times (California) June 8, 2000

But by 2015, about 75% of those wheelhouses were in other sections of the newspaper  – the popular arts, politics, and “Living.”

“Art and artists of any persuasion and any medium, whether it's performing artists, visual artists or poets, have always been in my wheelhouse.” (NY Times Sept. 8, 2015)

“This is a plan that is simple; that's a major reduction. I think people are going to be very happy,” Trump said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York City. “This is my wheelhouse.” (USA Today September 29, 2015)

Cocktails Are in My Wheelhouse
 By The Scenestress
(Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 5, 2015)

How do fashions spread, especially fashions in things where money is irrelevant – things like words? My impression is that sports are a popular source. People in politics, the popular arts, and business have injected game plan, curveball, track record*, playing hardball, etc., into their speech, presumably because the identification with the world of sports makes a person seem more down-to-earth and genuine, and perhaps tougher and more competitive.

Maybe someone with better computer/statistical chops than mine will scrape the databases and trace the paths of diffusion.

And with apologies to The King:

Captain threw a party at the downtown pier.
The band was playin’ loud so everyone could hear.
Now folks who don’t know anything about a ship
Are talkin’ ’bout the wheelhouse ’cause it sounds so hip,
Let’s rock
Everybody let’s rock.
Everybody up and down the dock
Was dancin’ to the wheelhouse rock.

* Track record as used by everyone today (except horseplayers) really just means record. This is far different from its meaning in sport of kings, where it originated. For more details on the misuse of track record, see this post.

What’s Up Doc? (or What’s Uptalk?)

November 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s up with Matthew Yglesias and uptalk?

On The Weeds, the new podcast from Vox, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff talk politics and policy for an hour or more. The talk is often informed by research and data even to the point of wonkitude (anyone for Consumer Price Index vs. Chained Consumer Price Index?). But what struck me on listening for the first time was not the content. It was Yglesias’s uptalk or upspeak. Here he is discussing gerrymandering and the drawing of Congressional district lines.

Because what the Democratic incumbents had been doing?
they’d been doubling down on safety for themselves?
and the independent commission forced the Democratic incumbents?
to take on districts that were a little bit riskier?
I mean still D-leaning?
because it’s California?
But so they picked seats up.
When I read the transcript by itself – no audio – I hear it without the rising inflections mid-sentence.

Here’s another example just few moments a later.


I mean, I think the Canadian case is interesting because one subtle psychological thing they do?
is the districts have to have names?
rather than numbers?
and so that that encourages, I think, subtly but really an idea of community coherence?
because you get districts with names like Edmonton Centre.

I think that what they do there
with that naming?
with that sort of principle? right
that the district should represent a place,
and the place should be something you can give a name to?
because it should have some kind of tangible relationship?
I think that lines up very well with the way most people think it should be done?
Y’know I think it’s like authentic to the values?
of the American people?
I also think it’s a little bit dumb?
because it allows for a ton of disproportionality?
And actually Canadian elections?
have awful disproportionality?
in part because they have multiple parties?
running in these seats?
Where did Yglesias acquire this inflection? Possibly it’s generational, and younger ears hear nothing noteworthy in Yglesias’s speech. Yglesias is under 40. I am well over 40. But the other two podcasters, Klein and Kliff, are younger than Yglesias but are not uptalkers. Or is it regional? I had thought that uptalk had started in California in the 1970s. But Yglesias grew up in New York city in the 1980s and has remained on the East Coast.

What is the meaning of these rising intonations? They don’t suggest uncertainty, nor do they seem to be asking “are you with me on this?” Some linguists see them as ways of saying, “I’m not finished with this sentence, so don’t interrupt me.” That’s one reason uptalk is more prevalent among women – they want to forestall interruptions from men. 

I’m not complaining (uptalk – not that there’s anything wrong with that). The time for handwringing over uptalk as the end of civilization as we know it has come and gone. I’m just curious as to why Ezra Klein, the Californian, speaks with barely a trace of uptalk, and Matthew Yglesias, the New Yorker, saturates his speech with it.

That Thing Thing Again

September 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing . . . [I] overhear from somewhere, ‘Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh’.” That was part of a rant posted in 2011 on YouTube by a UCLA student complaining about Asian students using their cell phones in the library when she was trying to study. The video went viral, and the PC police swarmed in with justifiable accusations of racism. She soon deleted the video.

My comment (here) was not so much about racism as about a single word –  “thing.”  Turning “the tsunami” into “the tsunami thing” says in effect, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.” Even The Language Log took note.

So I couldn’t help but notice this headline in today’s New York Times.

The story is about public relations agents whose efforts to get their clients’ events widely noticed these past two days were swamped under the flood of Pope coverage in the media.

But spare a thought for that handful of souls for whom the papal visit on Friday was less pleasure than plight. We speak of those who toil in public relations, and struggled to have their entreaties heard on this holiest of busy news days.

These are their lamentations.

Consider the 11 a.m. announcement of a new dog park in Astoria, Queens, a $1 million project sure to delight local canines and their owners, but less able to compete for headlines alongside Francis’ visit to the National September 11 Memorial, which was scheduled for roughly the same hour.

“It didn’t really cross my mind until yesterday how many reporters were going to be covering this pope thing,” said Shachar Sharon, communications director for Councilman Costa Constantinides, who hosted the event. [emphasis added]

“That kind of put a damper on things,” she added.

Adding “thing” to a noun insults those who take that thing seriously. You’d think that a public relations specialist would show some tact. But Ms. Sharon probably didn’t think that her choice of phrases would get into the newspaper. After all, she was merely talking to a reporter, not doing the PR thing.

The Donald and The Women

August 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
There’s so much to say about Donald Trump and about the reaction to Donald Trump. So it seems trivial to focus on one little word – “the.” But I found Clyde Haberman’s tweet fascinating.

The word Trump used was not “great” but “phenomenal.” [Added, 8/12: And the preposition he used was to, not for.] Either way, the point is that “I’d be phenomenal for to the women” is different from “I’d be phenomenal for to women.” But why? Why is that definite article so important? In many languages this distinction would never arise.

In English, “for the women” has always been the less common, at least according to Google n-grams.

In 1850 the “for women” appeared about twice as frequently as “for the women.” By 1965 that ratio had increased to about 8:1. Then came the resurgence of feminism. In 2000, that ratio had risen to more than 20:1.  True, the women’s movement did pay attention to language, but it focused on nouns – firefighter instead of fireman, for example – and honorifics (it’s Ms., not Mrs. or Miss).  I doubt that anyone was writing articles about articles.

What Haberman is suggesting, I think, is that when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.  Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.*

I don’t know why. But that’s the way it sounds to my ears.

UPDATE, August 12:  At Language Log Mark Liberman, who is a real linguist, agrees with me about the use of “the” here, but points out that I ignored the larger context of Trump's comments, which he provides in both audio and transcript. True. I was not interested in how Trump actually feels about women. I was not interested in whether or not he would in fact be phenomenal for them.  I was interested only in the linguistic question of how “phenomenal for women” differs from “phenomenal for the women.” 

The comments on Liberman’s post are worth reading.


* Among Jews of earlier generations, the cardinal question that might be asked of any issue was “Ist gut fuer yiddin?”  Translated as “Is it good for the Jews?” it suggests a lesser degree of integration and assimilation. There are “the Jews,” and there are the others (“the goyim”).  But “Is it good for Jews?” reduces the barrier. They are people who happen to be Jewish, not a special and separate group.

Where’s the Swear?

July 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

1.  “Asshole is a wonderful word,” said Mike Pesca in his podcast, The Gist, last Friday. His former colleagues at NPR had wanted to call someone an asshole, and even though it was for a podcast, not broadcast, and even though the person in question was a certified asshole, the NPR censor said no. Pesca disagreed.

Pesca is from Long Island and, except for his college years in Atlanta, he has spent most of his time in the Northeast. Had he hailed from Atlanta – or Denver or Houston or even San Francisco – “asshole” might not have sprung so readily to his mind as le mot juste, even to denote Donald Trump. The choice of swear words is regional.

Linguist Jack Grieve has been analyzing tweets – billions of words – and recently he posted maps showing the relative popularity of different expletives.

Every county in the Northeast tweets “asshole” at a rate at least two standard deviations above the national mean. To my knowledge, Grieve has offered no explanation for this distribution, and I don’t have much to add. I assume that as with regional accents, historical factors are more important than the literal meanings of the words. It’s not that tweeters in the Northeast are generally more willing to use foul language, nor is this about anal imagery since the Northeast looks nearly prudish compared to other regions when it comes to “shit.”

2. Less surprising are the maps of toned-down expletives. People in the heartland are just so gosh darned polite in their speech. When Donald Trump spoke at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, what got all the attention was his dissing of John McCain ( “He’s not a war hero. ... He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”)

But there was also this paragraph in the New York Times’s coverage:

Mr. Trump raised eyebrows with language rarely heard before an evangelical audience — saying “damn” and “hell” when discussing education and the economy.

“Well, I was turned off at the very start because I didn’t like his language,” Becky Kruse, of Lovilia, Iowa, said. . . .  Noting Mr. Trump’s comment about not seeking God’s forgiveness. “He sounds like he isn’t really a born-again Christian.”

Aside from the insight about Trump’s religious views, Ms. Kruse reflects the linguistic preferences of her region, where “damn” gets softened to “darn.”

Unfortunately, Grieves did not post a map for “heck.” (I remember when “damn” and “hell” were off limits on television, though a newspaper columnist, usually in the sports section, might dare to write something like “It was a helluva fight.”)

You can find maps for all your favorite words at Grieve’s Website (here), where you can also find out what words are trending (as we now say) on Twitter. (“Unbothered” is spreading from the South, and “fuckboy” is rising). Other words are on the way down (untrending?).  If you’re holding  “YOLO” futures, sell them now before it’s too late.

Data Is Like Spaghetti

June 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I used to say, “The data are.” Pretentious I know. But no more.  Now I’m a “the data is” kind of guy.

I’m not alone. Here’s the chart from Google n-grams, which also shows that we’ve become steadily more data-conscious.

For much of the twentieth century, most people who wrote about data preferred the word as a plural. Even as the references to data increased, the pluralists maintained their lead. Then in about 1985, the tide turned.

When we talk about “the data,” we are referring to a whole -- a large thing made up of lots of smaller similar things. The word data is plural only in the most technical sense – it’s plural in a foreign language. The trouble is not that the language is foreign or that nobody speaks it. The problem is that data is a plural of a word that in English has no real singular. Nobody talks about a datum. When we select a particular instance in our data, we call it a “data point.”

It’s like spaghetti, another plural word in a foreign language. Spaghetti refers to a lot of similar things all combined to create a whole thing, a dish. We speak of that ensemble as a singular thing. We don’t say, “The spaghetti are delicious.” If we were speaking Italian, then yes, we would follow Italian grammar and use the plural “Gli spaghetti sono deliziosi.” And in Latin we would use the plural conjugation for data. But we’re speaking English. 

With spaghetti, for a single instance analogous to a data point, we refer to “a strand of spaghetti.” I would bet that even in Italian cookbooks authors do not use the singular. They do not say, “to check for al dente, bite into uno spaghetto.”*

I have two Italian cookbooks on my shelf – gifts from people who thought my Italian is much better than it actually is – but I’m not going to try searching for something that probably is not there.

No, No, a Thousand Times No

May 21, 2015 
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Financial Times wants me to tweet this quote from Martin Wolf, “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (Wikipedia).

I admit, there is tweet temptation. But not for the reason the FT thinks.  No, what strikes me in this quote is the multiple negatives. They leave me utterly confused as to what the passage means. Here’s a simplified version.

It is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments . . . that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. If that were not true, the UK would be finished.

The first sentence has three negatives. The next sentence not only has another negative, but it throws in a mysterious pronoun – that. If you can figure out what that is referring to, you’re a better reader than I am.

I have posted before (here most recently) about the confusion of negatives that carom about, reversing and re-reversing the direction of the sentence. Yet here we have one of the word’s most influential writers tossing one negative on top of another, and another. Personally, I find it impossible not to believe that writers can’t learn not to avoid simplifying their prose by using positive constructions.

Odd “Even”

April 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Mad Men” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image shows how scrupulously Matt Weiner and company sought historical authenticity. They are proud of their period-perfect props, objects that we will glimpse for a split second or not at all – the lunches in the office fridge, the driver’s license in Don Draper’s wallet.

Why, then, does nobody check the script for linguistic anachronisms? I’ve noted some of these before (here). In this seventh and final season, “even” has popped up ahead of its time.  In an episode before the mid-season break, Bert and Don have this conversation. The year is 1970.

Here’s the transcript:
Bert:  You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis and we'd pull you off the bench, but in fact, we've been doing just fine.
Don:  So, why am I even here?

To my ears, that “even” sounded odd, a bit too recent.  Mark Liberman at the Langauge Log agrees. In a 2011 post (here) on the history of “even,” he says that this use of “even” for emphasis is very recent.

The specific phrase "what does that even mean?" has become fairly common in the news media and in books, but most of the hits are from the past decade. . . . I don't remember this expression from my youth, and I can't find any convincing examples before 1993.

Google nGrams too shows that the sharp rise does not begin until after 1980.

In another Season 7 episode, teenage Sally, briefly home from boarding school, has a confrontation withe her mother. Echoing Dad she says, “Why am I even here.”

For the final episodes, Weiner has brought legendary screen writer and screen doctor Robert Towne on board. Towne was born in 1934, and he has an ear for dialogue. Maybe he will be able to keep the language suited to the historical period.

My Sweet Old et al.

February 15, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some fashions trickle down through the social class lattice.  It’s as though people look to those just above them to see what they’re wearing or what names they’re giving their kids. I see the same process with some words, though the crucial dimension is not wealth but apparent intelligence or education. You hear someone use the word fortuitous. It sounds so much more sophisticated than fortunate, and it seems to mean the same thing. So you swap out the more pedestrian term, and the next time you catch a lucky break, you say that it was fortuitous.

When something is perfect, why say that it’s merely ideal when you could say that it’s idyllic? It sounds similar, and you hear people use it in a context where ideal would also work, so it probably means the same thing. It just sounds so much more like a word the very well educated would use.  That’s why when I serve the salad, I ask my guests for their choice of dressage, which has the added advantage of sounding French.

And now we have Gwyneth Paltrow trying to jack up the tone of her advice just a notch. Here is a report from The Guardian.

(Click for a slightly larger view.)

It wasn’t the Mugwort the got me. It was the Latin. What happened to etc.Et (and) cetera (the rest of these things).  Et al. is for when the too-numerous-to-mention are people rather than things. They are alia – others. In the footnotes, et alia (“and other people”) gets abbreviated to et al. 

Needless to say, et al. is the province of the very educated –  the kind of people who talk about articles that have multiple authors. Etc., by contrast, seems so ordinary. Everyone uses it. So to give your Mugowrt advice a more scholarly aura, use et al.  Like idyllic, it’s gotta mean the same thing as the ordinary version.  Except it doesn’t. Steaming your vagina to “cleanse your uterus, et al.

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?

No Pass on the Passive

February 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The idea that the passive voice must be avoided at all costs is of course wrong-headed. Still, passive voice remains a refuge for writers who would rather not say who’s doing what.

Ross Douthat, in his column today (here) on the causes of political correctness, twice says that liberal economic policy proposals “are mostly blocked.”

the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have.* Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

In that first phrase, Douthat allows that it’s the Republicans who are doing the blocking, but then he adds a clause about the “liberalism’s inability” to pass economic legislation as though this inability were something different from the Republican Party. This is a little like talking about “the Colts inability to score points” without mentioning the Patriots defense.

A few paragraphs later, when Douthat repeats this idea, he doesn’t even bother to go beyond the passive voice: “because the paths to economic distribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way . . .”  How about this rewrite: “Because Republicans block all tax and spending proposals that might discomfit the rich. . . .”

I am not saying that Douthat is wrong about the relation between the Republican’s disproportionate** dominance and the cultural left’s attention to political correctness – I think it goes beyond even what he’s talking about. But I hope that Douthat’s attempt to obscure the role of Republican legislators, in part by using the passive voice, has not gone unnoticed.***

* Douthat announces this “we can’t afford it” view of Medicare and Social Security (which account for most of “welfare state we already have”) as though it were undisputed fact. It isn’t. Nor is there agreement as to how long it will be until these programs become unaffordable if nothing is changed.

** At the national level, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans.

*** Yes, I am well aware that this sentence breaks not only the rule against passive voice but also the rule outlwawing “not-un–” construction.

What You Mean, “We”?*

January 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word? 

The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.

(Click on thechart for a larger view.)

The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything.  “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more. 

Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans.  (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)

Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring. 

As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government.  Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes. 

Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah** calls “utilitarian individualism.”  As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government.  In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well. 

That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.

I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the US is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.

God, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of an Almighty-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.

That is the end of this post. Thank you for reading. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.***

* For those who are very young or have led sheltered lives, this title is the punch line spoken by Tonto in an old joke, which you can Google.

** See his Habits of Heart, written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton.  Or get a brief version in this lecture.

*** Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God).  FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely a matter of a one God-bless or a two God-bless at the end of the speech.

This  audience factor might account for some of the increase in the use of we. A president addressing the nation rather than reporting to Congress might use we far more often.

Gifted and Talented – Academics and Athletes

January 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can women be brilliant?  Apparently, academics don’t think so, at least not according to some research reported in The Chronicle (here). 
New research has found that women tend to be underrepresented in disciplines whose practitioners think innate talent or "brilliance" is required to succeed.
Women might be successful in those fields, but while the top men in those fields will be seen as having some ineffable je ne sais quoi – in the words of the survey questionnaire, “a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” – women achieve their place the old fashioned way– hard work.  The Chronicle interviewed Sarah-Jane Leslie, one of the authors of the study.

It’s easy to find portrayals of men with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes or television’s House, M.D. But accomplished and smart women—think Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series—are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

That reminded me immediately of a similar issue in sports, where the key variable is not gender but race. (See this HuffPo piece.) The observation has become almost a cliche. Blacks are perceived to have natural talent while Whites achieve a place on the All-Star team through diligence and perseverance. Or to paraphrase Ms. Leslie and The Chronicle:

It’s easy to find portrayals of Blacks with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like Michael Jackson or Magic (note that name) Johnson. But accomplished Whites – Larry Bird or Steve Nash – are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

Horton Hears a Whom?

December 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In discussions of  language and grammar the word correct should usually be in quotes.  Either that or it should be amended to “currently correct.” That goes for pronunciation and spelling too. The trouble is that language prescriptivists seem to think that what is currently correct has always been so and always will be. They’re wrong.

NPR recently asked listeners for their language gripes – “the most misused word or phrase.” Topping the list was “I and “me.”  (The full list is here.)

Strictly speaking, “the gift is for you and I” is wrong. We have objective pronouns (me) and subjective pronouns (I). Putting a couple of words between the preposition (for) and the pronoun doesn’t change that. If you wouldn’t say, “The gift is for I,” then don’t say, “The gift is for you and I.”*

Strictly speaking, it should be “between you and me.”  But we don’t speak strictly. Language changes. Yesterday’s solecism becomes today’s standard usage. I don’t like “between you and I,” but wishing people would stop using it is like wishing they’d stop texting. (Need I point out that text as a verb did not exist until very, very recently?)

At #9 on the prescriptivists list is
Saying someone “graduated college” instead of “graduated from college.”
They don’t have too much to worry about. Their preferred form is ten times more common, at least in books if not in speech.

But not too long ago, “he graduated from college” was itself a grammatical error. NPR, in the very next sentence, says,
A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The “from” makes a big difference.
But while NPR sees why this makes “he graduated college” incorrect, it fails to note that by this same logic, “he graduated from college” is also wrong.  If it’s the college that graduates the students, we should say “he was graduated from college.” And in fact, we did say it that way.

Imagine a newspaper in 1900 asking the NPR “most misused word or phrase” question. High on the readers’ list of grammar gripes: “Even our best educated are now saying, ‘I graduated from Harvard,’rather than the correct, ‘I was graduated from Harvard.’”

“Was graduated from” was never the most popular way of saying it, but it held its own up until about 1950. Since then “I graduated from” became the clear winner and is now, at least among the NPR complainers, the “correct” form.

Coming in at #5 on the list is
Ongoing confusion over “who” vs. “whom.”
The confusion is easily cleared up: get rid of whom. Reserve it for a few special occasions.  In fact, that’s what’s been happening.

The graph from Google Ngrams shows the frequency in books, i.e. formal writing. The misuse of whom can escape copy editors even at the Times :
The defenders of the interrogation program say little about two men whom are portrayed especially harshly by the Senate report

Surely whom is fading even faster in everyday speech. I’m surprised that NPR could find even a few dozen people who mourn its passing. I am certainly not among them. (Or should I say that I am not amongst them?)

* The root of the I/me problem is that English lacks a disjunctive pronoun. The French, thanks to  moi, toi, etc., never make these mistakes.

Negative Negativity

November 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Negative statements are harder to evaluate than are positive statements, though the difference may be only a microsecond of thought.
1.  True or False: Barack Obama is not president.
2.  True or False: Barack Obama is president.
When multiple negatives keep switching the sign from positive to negative and back, a reader sinks into the mud and struggles to find the meaning of the sentence. 

In previous posts (here, for example) I’ve made up my own examples (“The Supreme Court today failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”).

I thought I was exaggerating. But try this.
“Bad acts should not long remain without an insufficient tax.”
Three negatives – should not, without, insufficient. Four if you count bad, the negative of good. Five if you count tax as the negative of reward

I am not making this up. It’s a variant on something from Robin Hanson’s blog, Overcoming Bias . Here is the verbatim quote
“good acts shouldn’t long remain with an insufficient subsidy. Or bad acts without an insufficient tax.”

An author shouldn’t refuse to leave unedited a sentence with so many negatives. Or do I mean the opposite?

Hope and Bugs, Of Course

November 15, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since I read Andrew Gelman’s list of words to avoid, I’ve been more conscious of the simple “of course.”  I still use it, but more sparingly and cautiously.  (Gelman’s list, here, includes obviously, clearly, interestingly, note that, and their variants like “it is interesting to note that.”)

But then there’s the ironic “of course,” the one that points to some gem that is far from obvious. Done correctly, the casually tossed in “of course” makes us admire the author for spotting this sparkling insight. Maybe it makes us feel a bit inadequate for not seeing it ourselves, especially since the author is saying, “Aw shucks, anybody would have seen that.”

Adam Gopnik’s essay on Bob Hope in a recent New Yorker  shows you how it’s done:

The real parallel to Hope—the great American comedian whose career most closely resembles his—is, of course, Bugs Bunny.

Of course. 

Even if you’re old enough to remember the “Road” movies with Bing Crosby and the Oscars, the USO tours and  the decades of TV appearances, you would not have come up with the Bugs-Bob parallel. Gopnik goes on to explain.

Like Hope, he arrived in Hollywood in the late thirties and became a huge star with the war. Like Hope, he was usually paired with a more inward character who loves to sing (Daffy Duck is Bugs’s Bing [Crosby], though blustery rather than cool), and, like Hope, his appeal rises entirely from the limitless brashness and self-confidence with which he approaches even the most threatening circumstances. Together, they are the highest expression of the smart-aleck sensibility in American laughter. Their fame in wartime may have something to do with the way that, as A. J. Liebling documents, the American Army itself was essentially an urban creature dispatched to deserts and jungles: Bugs, with his Bronx-Brooklyn accent, has somehow been sent out there in the countryside, among the hunters, as Hope ends up in the sands of Morocco with no weapon but street-corner sass.

Once Gopnik clears away the rough, we see the previously unnoticed diamond. Hope, Bugs – of course. 

But I wanna tell ya’, the entire essay is worth reading, both for Gopnik’s aperçus and Hope’s funnier lines.

Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass. It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference. Or at least it used to. In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors rewrite Douglass’s words; their books then become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 

Language evolves. But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

Folk Festival

August 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Folks used to be simple, ordinary people. They were the folks of folk music – not urban and certainly not urbane.  Folks were down-homey – the folks who live in my hometown. Or folks were literally homey; they were family – parents – as in  “We’re spending the holidays with my folks.”

One of these paintings of has folks in it, the other has just people.

Folks do not wear neckties or high heels.

That was then (“Saying Grace” is from 1951, “Nighthawks” 1942).  Now it seems that anyone can be folks.

Here are two of the folks we tortured.

Abu Zubaydah, waterboarded 83 times, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, 183 times. 

I don’t think that Obama planned to use the word folks rather than people. That’s just the way it came out.  He obviously did plan to use the word torture. He wasn’t going use bureaucratic language to paper over what has been clear to everybody. He wasn’t going to do a Dick Cheney and say something like, “We may have used enhanced interrogation techniques on known terrorists.”  Obama was speaking plainly, and it doesn’t get much plainer than just plain folks.

It’s not just Obama. Bush too used folks in the same way and for the same people.

We’re going to get the folks who did this. [Sept. 11, 2001]

[The US is engaged in] a war against a extremist group of folks, bound together by an ideology, willing to use terrorism to achieve their objectives.

Other public figures are less folksy.  I doubt that John Kerry or Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan would use the term so freely. Nor would Hillary; Bill didn’t.  But the trend is general, as Google Ngrams data from books shows.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Through the 1940s and 50s, folks seemed to go out of fashion.  Then in the 80s, folks began to come back into public discourse.  It’s very tempting to jump from this one bit of data on linguistic trends to a broad characterization of the changing American psyche, but I’ll leave that for other folks.