Watching Your Language — Gerunds and the Fantasy Echo

August 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gabriel Rossman has a very funny Twitter thread today detailing the mistakes he found when he reviewed the transcription of his lectures made by UCLA software (Kaltura). One llecture included a reference to the Trojan War and the Greek warrior Diomedes.

Similar human mis-hearings (officially “mondegreens”) are so common in rock music that they fill countless webpages. Many of these mondegreens — e.g., “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”  — make perfect sense. So does diabetes. They’re just out of place.

But Kaltura also transcribed “emergent from norms of gerontocracy” as “emergent from ruins of gerund talk receipt,” which makes no sense.

But is Kaltura so much more ignorant than the students. How many undergraduates would recognize the name Diomedes? And how many would have a good idea of just what “norms of gerontocracy” are? Or even what a gerontocracy is?

I was reminded of a story from my undergraduate days* — so we’re going way back before transcription software or, to be honest, 8-track tape. The poet Allen Grossman was grading the final exam of his course on (I think) modern poetry, modernism defined as beginning around 1890. In one of the first blue books he read through, he was struck by the phrase “fantasy echo.” What a striking coinage for an undergrad to come up with, and yet it captured the feel of some early modern poetry.

But then the same phrase appeared in the essay of another student and then another. They couldn’t all have separately invented the same unusual metaphor. He thought back over the readings and his lectures. No fantasy echoes there. But then he realized that he had spoken frequently about the fin-de-siècle, and he had given the term his best French pronunciation. I don’t know whether in subsequent semesters he resigned himself to “turn of the century.”

And now I can’t stop think about “ruins of gerund talk receipt.” I hear a fantasy echo of grumbling, of the crumpling of a receipt, strewn on the ground by a language student who has passed the orals, or at least the part on gerunds.

*The story has become something of an urban legend, ascribed to various teachers on various campuses. The OG prof may well be George Mosse, with the phrase cropping up in a history course he taught at the University of Wisconsin in 1964. (See here.) The Brandeis version I heard dates back to roughly the same time, so that’s my narrative (comme on dit), and I’m sticking to it.

Miracle Cures and Doing the Math

August 25, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Jill Lepore, in an article on police,  misreported a percentage from a research study, I said (here),  “If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check.”

On Sunday, FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn cited a Mayo Clinic study showing that blood-plasma treatment for Covid-19 yielded a 35% reduction in mortality. Here’s how Dr. Hahn explained it.

So let me just put this in perspective. Many of you know I was a cancer doctor before I became FDA commissioner, and a thirty-five percent improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit. What that means is . . . 100 people who are sick with Covid-19, thirty-five would have been saved by the administration of plasma.

Not just pretty substantial, very substantial. So substantial that maybe we should double-check. When we do, this is what we find:
The Mayo Clinic study measured 7-day mortality rates.
  • Of patients who did not receive plasma, 11.9% died
  • Of patients who did receive plasma, 8.7% died

If you lower  something from 11.9 to 8.7, that’s a 35% reduction (11.9 - 8.7 = 3.2. and 3.2 is about 35% of the original rate). Dr. Hahn mistook the reduction in the percent of mortality for a reduction in number of patients who died. For 100 Covid patients, the number of lives saved by plasma would be closer to 3, not 35.

Hahn made his statement at a press conference Sunday night. Trump and HHS secretary Alex Azar were also there and emphasized the 35% figure (see this Bloomberg story). But other scientists who heard about the claim quickly pointed out the error. Within twenty-four hours, Hahn admitted his error, saying in a Tweet, “I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified.” 

I wonder if President Trump and Secretary Azar will offer similar corrections. No I don’t. Trump keeps promising Covid miracles, so he will continue to tout plasma as a miracle cure along with his other pet miracle cure hydroxy chloroquine and whatever other miracle cures come along until Covid 19 disappears. Like a miracle.

Hold the Moral Judgments About Transactional Sex — This Is a French Movie

August 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Une Fille Facile” (it can be translated as “An Easy Girl” or “A Simple Girl”) opened on Netflix recently. A glamorous and self-assured 22-year old girl from the big city comes to visit her younger cousin who has just turned sixteen. Through the younger girl’s eyes, we see the cousin blatantly using her sexuality (she has already had breast implants). She uses sex to tease boys her own age, and with men twice her age to gain access to their world of wealth. A yacht, wealthy art collectors, Italian villas, expensive jewelry, sex.  The younger girl rejects her high school friends and tags along, fascinated at this new world that her cousin has brought her to. 

We know how this will end, or at least we know how it would end if it were an American movie. By summer’s end, the glamour will show its tarnish, Naïma, the younger girl will come to see her cousin Sofia’s life as empty, unfulfilling. The movie may inflict some punishment on Sofia. It might have her attempt suicide, or she might suffer ill treatment at the hands of the wealthy. Naïma will return to her simpler life and be grateful for it. (Surely there must be American movies that follow this template. I just can’t think of any.)

But this is a French film, and the film’s morality is not so simple, not so easy.

The trailer outlines the plot and sketches the settings.

On the last day of school, the day she turns sixteen, Naïma comes home to her modest apartment in Cannes to find her cousin Sofia just arrived from Paris.Sofia is six years older than Naïma, but much more worldly. Also more sexual. And she uses her sexuality.

Early in the film, in a club, Naïma and her high school friend Dodo watch as Sofia picks up a wealthy art dealer (Andrès) and his advisor (Philippe). Andrès invites them all back to his yacht. Dodo and Sofia get into a small argument, and Dodo turns to leave the yacht. “Come on, let’s go,” he says to Naïma. She looks torn, but decides to stay. That is the turning point. She leaves her simple world and, with the film taking her point of view, she follows Sofia into the world of the Riviera wealthy.

Sofia is not interested in love, she tells Naïma, only sensation and adventure. She has a tattoo on her lower back — “Carpe Diem” written in fancy script. That first evening on the yacht, she has sex with Andrès (Naïma — the movie is from her POV — opens a door for a moment and sees them. Sofia coolly returns her gaze, seemingly indifferent to what Andrès is doing.) The next day, she takes Naïma to a jewelry stylish boutique and tells Naïma to select something. There’s a watch that costs 1500€. “Is that the most expensive?” Sofia asks the boutique owner.  “No, we have this one at 3500€.” It’s too small, says Naïma. “That doesn’t matter,” says Sofia, “take the most expensive.” She tells the boutique owner to charge it to Andrès’s account.

What’s notable, and perhaps notably French, about the film is its refusal to condemn Sofia. Despite her calculated use of sex and her materialism, she has integrity. She is self-aware, and she is smart. The wealthy who try to put her down wind up looking foolish or worse. They are condescending to Sofia, indifferent or cruel to the workers who serve them, and dishonest. When Andrès wants to get rid of the girls, he falsely accuses them of stealing a valuable antique sextant which he himself has hidden.

Their adventure ends. Summer ends. Sofia goes back to Paris. Naïma will go back to her normal life, her friends, her internship in the kitchen of a fancy hotel. She will keep a fond memory of Sofia, with no regrets, just as she will keep the Chanel handbag Sofia has given her and the Carpe Diem tramp stamp that she has gotten for herself.

It’s hard to imagine an American version of this film. A girl who trades on her sexuality purely for her own amusement might be the object of our fascination, just as Sofia is for Naïma and for the audience. But the American version would take a more critical view of such a Jezebel.

* The actress who plays Sofia, Zahia Dehar, was in fact a prostitute, starting at age 16, mostly for the wealthy (they could afford her  €1,000 - €2,000 fees). There was a scandal when it was revealed that several soccer players had paid for her services when she was under 18, the minimum age for legal prostitution in France. She has leveraged this notoriety into a line of lingerie, a career in modeling, and now film.

And jazz fans, in case you were wondering, Coltrane’s classic recording of his composition “Naïma” does make a brief appearance.

Smart Names — Test Scores and Social Class

August 19, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“You’re still crushing it on the bac,” I told my friend Adele [not her real name].


“Well, not you, but your namesakes over in France.”

The bac is a national test taken by all high school seniors,. Each year, sociologist Baptiste Coulmont, publishes a graph showing the percentage of très bien for each name. (The other categories are assez bien, bien, and not passing.) Here are the results for 2020.

(Click for a larger view. Or view the graph on Coulmont’s site.)

Of the 550 or so girls named Adele, about 33% got très bien.* Only the Josephines did better. Every year, Adèle is in the top 10. In five of the last nine years, she’s been #1 or #2. My friend Adele (who lives in New York state, not France) told me I’d mentioned this to her before, “my name coming up over and over in France — it seems really odd though.”

But it’s not odd that the Adèles are always on the high end of the x-axis and the Kevins always at the other end. That's the basic idea of sociology — that society is a thing in itself with qualities and properties that are different from those of the individuals who make up that society. The individuals who take the bac are completely different from one year to the next — none of the 2019 Adèles and Kevins took the bac in 2020 —  but the rates are a property of the society, and unless the society changes, we can expect the rates to remain fairly consistent. 

To see this consistency, go to this page that Coulmont has created, enter a name into your browser’s search box, and click on the years going back from 2019 to 2012.

“But why,” asked my friend, “would having a certain name make you do well on an exam?”

Of course it’s not the name that causes kids to do better. It's who gives their kids which name. In France, Anglo boys names are popular among less well-off, less educated, and maybe less smart parents, who watch soap operas imported from the US or other anglophone countries. The French elite do not watch the soaps or at least are not so taken with the names of the characters. Instead they prefer names like Eleonore and Garance. Those names are fairly rare, but the few girls with these names do well on the bac.  Other elite names have frequencies too low to make the chart (<200): Guillemette, Quitterie, Domitille — very upscale and with a high percent of très bien.

My friend, though not a sociologist, is very smart, and I wondered why she didn’t immediately see that it was all about social class. The link between social class and test performance is well-known. But what about the connection between social class and tastes in names? It’s possible that names in the US do not divide along class lines as rigidly as in France, but the distinctions still exist.

“Suppose you looked at a professor’s class list on the first day and had to guess which students would do well. What would you predict for Tiffany, Brandi, or Taylor? How about Sarah, Claire, and Margot?”

“I get your point,” said Adele.


(Earlier posts on Coulmont’s bac data are here (Jacques and Diane)  and here (Jordan, Ryan, . .  Back of the Bac)

Whose Stutter Is This Anyway?

August 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago the American Sociological Association gave its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life. The name of the award in this case is a bit off the mark. We gave them the award because they provide so much great material for our classes.  Sean Cole’s piece “Time Bandit” in their most recent episode, for example, is pure Goffman.

“Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men,” says Goffman in the introduction to Interaction Ritual. In eleven words, he summarizes his “dramaturgical” approach to interaction. But I don’t think that we realize how radical this view is. Much of it is not radically different from our everyday thinking about interaction. Concepts like impression management, audience segregation, backstage areas and the rest merely shine a light on what we are already dimly aware of. In a course I taught long ago, an undergrad assigned Presentation of Self commented, “Goffman has a keen sense of the obvious.”

What’s radical about Goffman is that he sees even everyday interactions as bounded by the scenario for that interaction. Most of us, by contrast, think about what we’re doing as unscripted,, Nor do we think we are creating structures and rules that constrain ourselves and others. In a few formal settings — highly predictable scenes like a church service or a school classroom — we might realize that we are following the outlines of a script. Or in a long and deep relationship, we might feel limited by its history, a history that we and the others involved have created. But from Goffman’s perspective, even in fleeting encounters, we are all in it together. In moments of embarrassment, for example, the gaffe becomes part of our situation regardless of who committed it.

The central figure in “Time Bandit” was Jerome Ellis. He has a “glottal block” stutter, and he says of the stutter what Goffman says about embarrassment: it becomes a property not of the stutterer but of the situation.

Here is a transcript.

JEROME ELLIS: Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.”

SEAN COLE: The stutter.

JEROME ELLIS: Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

SEAN COLE: And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

JEROME ELLIS: Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

SEAN COLE: And we are both contending with it.


SEAN COLE: And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The Poetry Project is a marathon of performances — poetry, dance, music, stand-up — over 150 performers, so there’s a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Ellis’s performance, which is excerpted in the clip (you can hear the difference in sound quality)  was a plea that stutterers be allowed more time.

Stuttering also illustrates many of Goffman points in Stigma. This next clip shows the dilemma about disclosing a stigma or using different strategies to hide it. Listen to it, don’t just read the transcript.

SEAN COLE: : And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life — taking too much of someone’s time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there’s a line behind him. But this wasn’t that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter — synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he’s blocked on for one that’s easier to say. He didn’t want to do that on stage.

JEROME ELLIS: : And I didn’t realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

SEAN COLE: : Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

JEROME ELLIS: : Yes. To their customers with — So there’s the Portuguese word — With.
distúrbios na temporização

which I had literally translated to — in my text, I translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it to just — to “disturbance.” And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was —
Customers with
I said, “breaks.” —
Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.
--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn’t like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I — I just did with — with you, is just wait.

SEAN COLE: : Wait for the word.

JEROME ELLIS: : Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D’s, they can be really painful.


EROME ELLIS: : So that’s why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened — like “breaks” to me, it doesn’t capture what I wanted to capture.

*This is an imperfect transcription. There is another sound before distúrbio, but my Portuguese is very limited, and I could not figure out what it might be.

It was this moment, his speech blocked at the same word over and over again, that brought home what he had said before — that the stutter becomes part of the situation. It becomes our stutter. For while I was listening, I kept suggesting alternative words. I thought that the “t” of “to” was the problem. “Translated as. . .” I said out loud.

Social facts, says Durkheim, include thoughts, feelings, and actions that have the strange quality of being properties of the situation, not just of the individual. Here I was, at home by myself, listening to an event that I had not attended and that had taken place at least a year ago. Yet that situation was co-opting what seemed like my very personal reactions. And the stutter — not Jerome Ellis’s stutter, but the stutter — was an crucial part of that situation.