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

“Black People”or “The Black People”

May 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a subtle but important difference between talking about “Black people” and taliking about “the Black people. Here’s Trump yesterday. (I’m usins Sarah Cooper’s version because she’s physically so much more expressive than Trump playing his invisible accordion.)



“By the way, they love African American people. They love Black people. MAGA loves the Black people.”

Does anybody really believe that Trump was being sincere? Or accurate? Does team MAGA love “the Black people”? The definite article, that the, gives him away.

During the 2016 campaign, when some suggested that Trump presidency would not be good for women, Trump said, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

At the time, I wondered how “I’d be phenomenal to the women” is different from just “I’d be phenomenal for to women.”  The blog post (here) continued:   

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.

This construction using the definite article fits well with the MAGA notion that America is their country. In their view, they are, as Sarah Palin put it, “the real America.” Republicans, when they are out of office, talk a lot about “taking back our country,” as though the Democratic party were a bunch of foreign usurpers. (See this post from when Obama was in office and running for second term.)  Now that they have taken back the country, they may allow others — the Blacks, the women, and others — to live in it.

Brides and Names, New York Times Edition

February 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“She’s keeping her name,” a friend said the other day. We were talking about a girl we know who got married last year. Is that still a thing, I wondered, keeping your name. What I really meant was: how much of a thing is it? Then I remembered Wedding Crunchers , the corpus of all words in New York Times wedding announcements — sort of like Google nGrams but with a much narrower focus and far fewer filters for researchers. 

Unfortunately, the database goes back only to 1981, so we can’t kow when the name-keeping trend started. It was underway by the eighties. By 2000, more than 20% of Times brides announced that they were keeping their names, so many that several of those who were changing their names felt it necessary to proclaim their traditionalism in the announcement.

(Click for a larger view.)

I’m not sure what happened in 2015. Maybe that was the year that the Times instituted the current policy, which finesses the politically tinged proclamations of the keepers and the changers. Instead, the Times puts the maiden name in the headline and the married name in the text. Finding out who’s keeping and who’s changing requires a closer reading, but those who are interested will figure it out.
Here are two weddings from Sunday’s paper. (I edited out the photos to save space.)

(Click for a larger and clearer view.)

Adrienne is becoming Mrs. Adams. Elle will remain Ms. O’Sullivan.

There’s another change in the language, though you have to go back to the eighties to see it. Adrienne graduated from UNM, Elle from UCSB. In fact all brides and grooms these days “graduate from” their schools. But in the old days, a student “was graduated from” the school. The Times, and many of the people whose wedding announcements they accepted were traditionalists.


Even as late as 1980, nearly 60% of the wedding announcements included someone who “was graduated from” a school.*

The wedding announcements in the New York Times are hardly a representative sample of anything, But they do offer a glimpse into the world of the elite. For more on that, see Todd Schneider’s excellent post from 2013. As for those at the other end of the social spectrum, graduating from college is not so much an issue, and as marriage rates decline, neither are wedding announcements in the newspaper or the question of whose name to use.

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*Nowadays, you sometimes hear, “I graduated college in 2015,” much to the dismay of language prescriptivists, who insist that the correct expression is, “I graduated from college.” They don’t realize that their presciptivist counterparts of 150 years ago would have been just as appalled and in despair for the language because people were not saying, “I was graduated from college.”

Impostor Syndrome, an Idea Whose Time Has Come . . . Again

January 8, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The impostor syndrome is the dancing partner of pluralistic ignorance. That was the point of the previous post. In pluralistic ignorance, each person thinks that others are doing better at living up to cultural ideals. On campuses where “hook-up culture” rules, most students think that everyone else is having more sex and better sex than they are. Two axioms from Goffman account for this misperception. First, norms require that people present more or less idealized versions of themselves and keep contradictory, self-damaging information to themselves. Second, absent any contradictory information, we accept and ratify the self that the other person presents. These norms make it easy for real impostors to go unchallenged for so long.*

Unless we are playing Humiliation (see the previous post or David Lodge’s novel Changing Places), we don’t tell our colleagues which classics in our field we haven’t read. Instead, when the conversation turns to Weber’s Economy and Society, we nod and keep our silence, assuming that most of the others in the room have read it at least once. Maybe we make a tangential comment, or ask a general question, and the others for their part, observing our wisdom, assume that we too have made our way through all 1700 pages. We, meanwhile, feel like an impostor. (And by we in this paragraph, I mean me. And maybe you.)

The phrase in the seminal 1978 article** was “impostor phenomenon,” but “impostor syndrome” quickly became the more popular choice. It was a phrase just waiting to be coined.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The sharp increase of “imposter syndrome” in print did not reflect an increase in the thing itself. It was already widespread; it was just hiding in plain sight. It was the feeling that could not speak its name. But once someone did speak its name, people were seeing it everywhere.

Did impostor syndrome have a precursor? It did indeed. In the 1920s and 30s, “inferiority complex” followed a similar trajectory.


The person most responsible for putting the concept in play was psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. He used the term “inferiority feeling,” but in the same way that phenomenon gave way to syndrome with imposter, Adler’s feeling was soon swamped by complex. Wikipedia describes it as “feelings of not measuring up to standards, a doubt and uncertainty about oneself, and a lack of self-esteem.” Which sounds a lot like impostor syndrome.

From the sociological perspective, the trouble with both these versions is that they emphasize the individual. That’s obvious with “inferiority feelings,” which assumes that these are a matter of individual psychology. But even the studies that look at gender, class, or race take these as permanent characteristics of the individual. What these ignore are the structural, situational conditions that make the feelings more likely or less likely.  And these conditions may matter far more than the psychological or demographic characteristics of the individual.

I hope to explore this idea in a later post.

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* Frank Abegnale, the impostor played by Leo DeCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” once got a university adjunct position in sociology. He said he was a sociologist, and nobody tried to prove him wrong. He moved on after a semester, probably to keep ahead of the law. But apparently his student evaluations were good. The department chair asked him to stay for another semester.


** The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.

Mrs. Maisel Gets One Right

December 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Since the new season of Mrs. Maisel dropped not long ago, my post from nearly two years ago about its language anachronisms (here) has been getting some action. It’s still the most frequently viewed and commented-on item on this blog, and some of the newer comments made it clear that the anachronisms were still in bloom.

I watched first couple of episodes recently, and sure enough, in Episode 2, “It’s the Sixties, Man!” we got contextualize.



In a blog post (here) about trendy words at the ASA meetings, I  cited contextualize, but that was a report from academia in 2013, not New York family life in the early 1960s.

To the show’s credit, it did have a period-perfect language moment. Joel has been speaking with the older Chinese couple who own the Chinatown space he has rented, planning to turn it into a club. He discovers that the space includes a Chinese gambling parlor. Worried about trouble from the police, he meets with the owners. After some back-and-forth to deal with Joel’s fears, the couple — through their translator,* the young med-student Mei — allude to a murder, significantly raising Joel’s level of anxiety.

After the Chinese couple leave, Joel is discussing the matter with Mei. What about the murder, he asks.


Talk of the “put-on” and “putting you on” came on the scene in the late 1950s, starting among young, hip people like Mei and eventually spreading throughout the society. I thought that its use had declined in the 21st century, but Google nGrams shows that at least until 2000, it was still found in books.


Still, my impression is that we rarely refer to “putting people on” these days. But what has replaced it?

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* Another anachronism for anyone still keeping score — a language anachronism of sorts : the owners are speaking Mandarin. In the early 1960s, the language spoken in Chinatown was Cantonese. Immigration from Mandarin-speaking areas of China did not begin until the 1970s at the earliest.

Whatever Happened to “Broken Homes”?

December 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Just think about the last time you heard someone use the term “broken home” or “single-parent household” to explain the misbehavior or misfortune of a person in your social circle.” That’s from an Times op-ed (here) by Christina Cross, a sociology post-doc at Harvard.

I think the last time I heard “broken homes” was before Ms. Cross was born. It’s so 1950s, with its judgmental pronouncement on families that didn’t look like “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best.” In the 70s, as more middle-class people were getting divorced, we needed a less value-laden term. Enter “single parent.”

(Google nGrams shows the frequency of words in books, so the change in the use of these terms in the media and everyday talk probably happens a year or two earlier.)


“Single-parent” is not as blatantly stigmatizing as “broken homes,” but when we hear it, we still think that something is wrong. The more important point the Ms.  Cross makes is that broken homes — the harmful outcomes they bring — may be much more consequential for Whites than for Blacks. I hope to get to that in a later post. But for now, I'll just point out that the sharp decline in mentions of “single-parent” starting in the early 90s tracks with the decline of teen crime and teen pregnancy in the same period.

Alumn. . .us / a / i / ae / x?

December 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Welsey Yang, a writer by trade, must have been browsing messages from his alma mater, Rutgers, when this caught his attention. He posted it to Twitter.

(Click on an image for a larger view. I have added the blue oval for emphasis.)

English has a problem with words that are imported from Latin and Romance languages. What do we do about the gender and number that require Latin to have four different forms of the word? Alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae. It’s just too many to keep track of, especially since the plurals, masculine and feminine, sound alike.

The simple solution is to use a single form of the word to cover everyone, and that’s what many people have done. For that single form, there are two choices. One is alum, plural alums, which conveniently gets rid of those gendered endings in the Latin versions.

The other is the all-purpose alumni, which many Engish speakers now use indiscriminately for either gender and for singular or plural. It must drive Latin scholars up the ivy-covered wall. Both of these have been getting more popular lately. I searched for them on Nexis-Uni’s database of news sources.


(Some of the increase in these numbers may be attributable to the increased size of the Nexis database. But I doubt that it has grown by the multiple of 20-30 since the 1990s that we see for an alum and an alumni.)

A Google search for “she is an alumni of” gets 177,000 results, slightly less than the 191,000 for “she is an alumna of.” For men, “an alumnus” still outscores “an alumi” by a factor of 10, but that includes a lot of old sources. I would bet that the ratio decreases with time.

Personally, I would avoid the problem completely and go with graduates or, in less formal settings, grads.

The Rutgers Linguistic department has a different solution to the problem of gender: the very recent coinage alumnx, the word that inspired Yang to tweet. It’s a different sort of solution. The ungendered alum and the all-purpose alumni seem to have cropped up unplanned and without any ax to grind. But alumnx is a deliberate effort to change the language. What’s interesting here, as one of the Yang’s commenters points out, is that as linguists the department members are descriptivists, more interested in describing how people actually use language than in telling people which words to use. But here they are prescribing alumnx as the correct way avoid the less woke Latin forms.

My guess is that these x-words will have a short life. Most people don’t care much about the politics of speech and have little interest in changing. Remember “Freedom Fries”? Worse, alumnx and Latinx don’t resemble real words in English or in any other language.* It’s one thing to replace the “man” in policeman or fireman. “Police officer” and “fire fighter” were already part of the language well before the feminists of the 1960s called our attention to the sexism of the more frequently used terms.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these x-words will become as much a part of the language as Ms. In any case, I expect that the members of the department will, as descriptivist language researchers, monitor how well they are doing as prescriptivist language changers. (Or is it changerx?)

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* Latinx has similar problems. It’s not very popular among the people it is meant to designate, probably because neither English nor Spanish has words in this form. Terry Blas suggests (here) that a better gender-neutral solution would be an “e” rather than an “x” — Latine and Latines.

Brought to You by the Number 九十二

November 23, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

We were at 79th and Broadway, and I wanted to tell the French couple that they had to go up to 98th St. I had overheard them looking at their phone and puzzling about directions. I don’t get much chance to speak French, so I asked, in French, if I could help them.

Il faut aller jusqu’au . . .” I started, but it took me an extra moment to remember how to say “98" in French. “Au quatre-vingt dix huitième.”

I remember that my brother, a statistician by trade, once commented that France has had a disproportionate number of noted mathematicians, and he wondered if the difference might have something to do with how kids learn to count. Compared with English, counting in French involves more sophisticated mathematical operations. Once you get past 69, you can no longer use the base-10 template that worked for numbers in the 20s, 30s, and so on. Seventy is soixante-dix (sixty-ten); seventy-nine is soixante-dix neuf (sixty ten nine).*

After that you have to throw in some multiplication. Eighty is quatre-vingt (four twenty), and ninety-eight is quatre-vingt dix huit (four twenty ten eight) — 4 x 20 +10 +8.

In a recent BBC article (here), Anand Jagatia discusses the idea that how we count affects our ability in math. English, French, Dutch, Welsh all have slightly different ways of naming numbers. The biggest contrast is between Western systems and those of East Asia. 
 
In Mandarin, 92 is written ji shí èr, which translates as “nine ten two”. Japanese and Korean also use similar conventions. . . . Psychologists call systems like these “transparent”, where there is an obvious and consistent link between numbers and their names. There’s growing evidence that the transparency of a counting system can affect the way we process numbers.

The point is clearer if you use numbers rather than words — not “nine ten two” but “9 10 2.” To translate the Western “92” into math, you have to know about the tens place and the ones place. The Asian “9 10 2” shows more simply how the larger number is constructed from the smaller ones.

Does it make a difference?

Children who count in East Asian languages may have a better understanding of the base-10 system.

In one study, first-grade children were asked to represent numbers like 42 using blocks of tens and units. Those from the US, France or Sweden were more likely to use 42 individual unit blocks, while those from Japan or Korea were more likely to use four blocks of ten and two single-unit blocks, which suggests that the children’s early mental representation of numbers may have been shaped by their language. [emphasis added]


I’m not sure what the evidence is on the stereotype notion that Asian students do better in math than do Western students. But if there is any factual basis, maybe the language of numbers accounts for some of the difference.

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* Belgians speak French, but they have simplified the numbers. Seventy and ninety are, respectively, septante and novante --- yet another reason for the French to look down on les belges. For some reason, eighty remains quatre-vingt.

You Read It Here First

September 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today, the Facebook group Nerds With Vaginas posted this:


(Note the number of Likes, Comments, and Shares the post had already gotten in the first five hours.)

Four years ago, in a blogpost about swear words (here), I cited the work of Jack Grieve, who had been using Twitter data to discover regional and historical variations. Here is the final paragraph of that post.

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. [Emphasis added.]

Convenient Language

August 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes words change because of the way they sound when linked to other words. A “napron” (from the French naperon) was a protective cloth. It still is, but we call it “an apron.” The same process of “rebracketing” gives us a nickname, from the Old English an eke name (an additional name). More recently, I’ve seen “bake potato” on the diner menu and  “whip butter” at the supermarket — the “d” sound of the past participle dropped or blended into the next word.

Currently, I’m out of the city. Yesterday, I needed something (calamine lotion if you must know) and did not want to drive a half hour to the nearest supermarket and CVS. I was told that the gas station / convenience store in our small town, two minutes away, might have it.

I couldn’t help noticing the sign on the row of parking spaces.


It makes perfect sense. It is, after all, a convenient store. Very convenient since it did have calamine lotion.

Ethnic Slaughter, Gang Rape, and Jil Sander Pants $1,120

May 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What is the right word for this?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s a page from the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine, which the Times calls “T,” (for Travel, I think.)  This issue is “Everything Old Is New Again: Adventures in Ancient Lands.” It has articles on the Draa Valley in Morocco, the Greek island of Ithaca. The fashion section is embedded in an article about Myanmar.  The text that appears on the page under the photo:

effectively pushing out about 300,000 citizens. Streets and cities were renamed. A law was established in 1982 that rendered many ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims — an ancient tribe descended from Arab traders, sailors and migrants who had lived in the Rakhine province of the country for generations before the British arrived — as ineligible for full citizenship. Just as the Burmese had been made British subjects by fiat, so, too, were the Rohingya Muslims rendered not Burmese by decree.

In August 2017, Myanmar initiated a round of ethnic slaughter, mass gang rape and the burning and razing of hundreds of villages. Despite the installation of a nominally democratic government headed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the previous year, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were driven from their homes by Myanmar’s military forces and Buddhist mobs. This latest conflict began when security posts and an army base were attacked by Rohingya insurgents, killing 12 officers. It was apparently reason enough for the military to initiate a massive genocidal campaign. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the country’s de facto leader but does not control the military, has been criticized for her inaction during the crisis and for her refusal to call it ethnic cleansing. That is Myanmar’s truth, and everyone from the military to government officials has doggedly stuck

Here is a better view of the photo and the caption that on the page appears in the middle of the text.



When The New Yorker in 1963 published Dwight MacDonald’s four-part series “Our Invisible Poor,” based on Michael Harrington’s The Other America, critics were quick to note that MacDonald’s words about dire poverty amid affluence shared the magazine’s pages with advertisements for expensive perfumes, watches, and other baubles for well-heeled consumers. I’m sure that others have called out this same irony in many other places in the decades since. So yes, this blog post is something of a cliche of culture critiques, but I found the juxtaposition just too striking to ignore.

It’s the sort of thing that might be tagged with keywords like neocolonialism or cultural appropriation or exploitation. But is there a word that embodies not only the idea that the commerce of wealthy nations is exploiting poor nations but also that wealthy consumers fail to see that exploitation, even when the contradictions stare back at them in black and white print and color photos on the pages of T?

That Word Again — More Taboo, Less Taboo

April 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The latest issue of the Hasbrouck Heights High School journal, The Pilot’s Log, reports on their student survey.
  • 98% of students polled hear or see the word used on a daily basis
  • 85% of those students say the word was used in a non-derogatory manner
  • 70% of students polled admit to using the word in a friendly manner
The word, of course, is nigger, or in the Pilot’s Log version “the N-word.”

OK, this survey isn’t the GSS. The editors make no claims for their sample (n = 160) as representative even of their school. As for Hasbrouck Heights, it’s an upper middle class suburb eight miles from New York City, median family income greater than $80,000. The high school students are mostly White, with some Hispanics, and fewer Asians. Less that 4% are Black.

Still, the results, whatever they’re worth, suggest contrary motion. At the same time that nigger is becoming less acceptable and more deplorable, it is also changing its meaning and becoming more widely used and accepted in places where it was once largely unspoken.

In the world controlled by grown-ups, the word is basically taboo — powerful and dangerous. It must be treated with special circumspection. Steven Pinker told the Pilot’s Log that their survey results surprised him.

In the public sphere . . . the word is more taboo than ever. . . Writers have been excoriated for simply mentioning the word as a word, commenting on how it is used . . . I notice that not even you spell out the word . . . but use the euphemism”’N-word” — that is an indicator of how taboo it is.

Note the important caveat Pinker starts with: “In the public sphere . . . .” He’s talking only about the world ruled by grown-ups, the world where even when Whites are not in control they are still within earshot. In private, of course, things are different. African Americans speaking among themselves do not accord nigger a sacred/taboo quality; maybe they never did. And now, among White kids as well, the word is apparently losing its strong overtones of denigration and hostility.

I would guess that the main cause of this change in usage among young Whites is hip-hop. The historical arc of rap resembles that of earlier Black music like the blues and R&B. Those too began as Black musicians speaking to Black audiences. Eventually, White folks listened in, especially White folks who wanted to be hip or cool. That’s true of rap as well, But rap, with its wordy and uncensored narratives, gives White listeners (and maybe Black listeners) the impression that this is how Black people really talk among themselves, or when they just don’t care what White people think.

As in the past, White people, especially young White people are adopting the  sounds and rhythms and moves of Black culture. Also its language. Not just new coinages (bro, 24/7). But some words that have been around for a long time are losing their White meaning and coming to be used the way they are used among Blacks. I’m not a linguist, but my guess is that dude and bitch fall into this category. Sixty years ago, a dude was a “city slicker” — a too-nicely dressed urban dandy, the guy who showed up at a “dude ranch.” Only among Blacks was it a generic term for men.*

Now, it seems that White kids are using nigger not with its White meaning — a nasty racist epithet — but with something more like its Black meaning. I noticed this five years ago seeing a bunch of middle-class White and Hispanic girls at a Sweet Sixteen party in the Bronx.

I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. (The full blog post is here.)

I expect there may be some conflict during this evolution, some people insisting that it’s wrong to for certain people to use the word this way.**  But from being on the losing side of language battles too often, I expect that political arguments about what’s right will be just as ineffective as my shouting, “It’s ‘for you and me,’ not ‘for you and I,’” at the people on television.

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* In the early 1960s, a Black co-worker — we were shampooing rugs on site, and the boss, for purposes of future sales, wanted information on the homes we went to. My co-worker, filling out the form later, asked me, “How many rooms did that dude have in his crib?”

**See the famous 1975 SNL sketch (here) with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, where a job interview morphs into a tense battle of racial epithets.

Billionaire? Moi?

February 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had no problems with the word rich. He did not sing, “If I were a person of wealth, Ya da deedle deedle. . .” He laid it on the line.

Howard Schultz is more squeamish, especially about people saying how much money he actually has — i.e., at least a billion dollars.

The moniker “billionaire” now has become the catchphrase. I would rephrase that and say that “people of means” have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair, and I think that speaks to the inequality but it also speaks to the special interests that are paid for people of wealth and corporations who are looking for influence. [from an interview yesterday with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, emphasis added]

“People of means” sounds dated to my ear, especially for a guy running for president in 2020. Ditto “person of wealth.” So I went to Google nGrams to see how the frequencies of these terms had changed over the years, at least in published books. I threw in another term that could also be used to indicate someone with large amounts of money.



Schultz’s preferred terms are indeed a throwback. They were at their peak back when Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” Or as Mr. Schultz might say, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been a person of wealth, and believe me, being a person of wealth is better. Rich makes me sound so greedy.”

These were also the years when you could still get a cup of coffee for a dime. Since then the popularity of “person of means” and “person of wealth” has been on the skids. As for the cost of that cup of coffee, maybe you should ask Mr. Schultz.

Mrs. Maisel — Expletives Then and Now

January 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the words that usually catch my attention are the anachornisms (see earlier posts here and here).  On Episode 7, which I watched last night, handsy, skill set, poster boy, and a few others sounded jarringly modern. But I also noticed a word that people in 1959 really would have used – goddam. The word stood out because on the show, it’s so rare.


The writers on “Mrs. Maisel” far prefer the word fucking. In fact, in the above scene, Susie’s brother-in-law has just said, “Give me the fucking chips.” The episode has just one other goddamn, but characters say fucking a total of sixteen times. That’s not unusual. Here are the totals for series.


In 1959, when educated, middle-class people wanted an expletive, fucking was not their go-to negative intensifier — especially among women and especially in mixed company. Think of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, stories set and written in the mid 1950s. (The Glass family lives just across Central Park from the Weissman apartment we see so much of in TMMM.) I found an extensive collection of excerpts from the Salinger stories (here ) – thirty goddamns and not a single fuck. Google nGrams searches all books and finds something similar.


In 1959, goddamn and variants appear ten times as often fucking. (The fucking boom that begins in 1965 continues. The lines cross in 1970, and by 2000 fucking is three times as frequent as goddamn. It’s possible that legal changes affected this trend. )

Apparently, goddamn, like damn and hell, is an intensifier that has lost its intensity. Two years ago, I speculated (here) that these words derive their power from the power of the religion they blaspheme. As religion fades as a dominant force in American life, so do religion-based swear words. As I say, I just guessing. What the heck to I know about it?

Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 1950s. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris. But he is not so keen on getting back together.


I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been early enough to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”



The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re old enough, it’s easy to spot language anachronisms in period TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m old enough. I notice the terms that we now take for granted but were nowhere to be heard in the wordscape of a few decades ago. (Earlier posts on these shows are here and here.) It’s much harder to remember the opposite — words and phrases from the period that have since disappeared, words that place the scene firmly in its historical context.

I’ve been watching “The Deuce” on HBO. It’s set in the  world of West 42nd Street circa 1970, with its pimps and hookers, strippers and porn merchants, cops and gangsters, and assorted others who plied their trade in that neighborhood. Nothing in season one seemed out of place, maybe because the episodes were written or overseen by people old enough to have been bar-mitzvahed by 1970.

In Season Two, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), has gotten into porn as a way to escape the dangers of life as a street hooker. She has gone from being on camera to writing scripts. In Episode 4, we see her at a shoot where an actor complains about his lines, and others support him. The script is bad even by porn standards, they say. Candy agrees.

“I’m gonna try to tweak it,” she says.

No, no, no. In 1970, people didn’t tweak scripts. They didn’t tweak much of anything, but if they did, it was an actual thing you could pinch with your fingers. In porn, it might have been a nipple. Anywhere else, it was most likely a nose. Nothing had changed in the 370 years since Hamlet.* It was only towards the end of the 20th century that people began tweaking less tangible things like systems, colors, or designs.

(Click on the image for a larger view. 
The graphs show the last few years of each period and the 
most frequent completions of the phrase "tweak the” for the entire period.)

Candy has ambitions beyond grinding out low-budget, poorly written fuck films. She wants to produce a film with multi-layered story, with characters, and with a woman’s point of view. She has come up with the idea — a porno version of Little Red Riding Hood — but she realizes that she doesn’t have the talent to write the script. So she meets with a writer. When she reveals what the film will be, she fears that he’ll reject the project. But she’s wrong. “It’s genius,” the writer says.


The trouble is that in 1970 (the year the writer of this episode was born), genius was not an adjective. It was a noun and only a noun. Even today, Webster online does not recognize genius as an adjective.

I know what people did not say in 1970. But what did they say? What is the language equivalent of the disco suit? The only thing I can think of is groovy.  Yes, there was a brief period — a few weeks back in the late 1960s — when people actually spoke the word without a trace of irony. But what else?

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* Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? (II, ii)


Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump’s speaking style must infuriate the teachers of communications and public speaking, the professional speechwriters, the instructors in the required composition course, and anyone else who values logic and coherence, not to mention factual accuracy. Trump, unless he  sticks to a script someone has written for him, jumps from one topic to another, sometimes leaving sentences unfinished and interjecting irrelevancies that seem to be the product of the free association of a disordered mind.

But obviously, Trump is doing something right. It’s not exactly “method in his madness”  — “Trump is not crazy, nor is he methodical. But he is using a strategy, a technique for connecting with his audience.

Gabriel Rossman summarized it perfectly in a tweet yesterday responding to the question, “Who is our Alcibiades?”

“A lot of people tell me I could have seduced Socrates, who by the way was a very 
famous philosopher I studied with. [begins to lose the crowd] Hey, who here likes 
Aristophanes? There's gonna be so much winning in Sicily you’ll get tired of it.”

Aside from the resemblances between Trump and Alcibiades, aside from the rhetorical style (“people say,” “by the way”) and egotism, there’s the quick change of topic when the crowd fails to respond. Reporters who followed Trump during the campaign and now in his presidency note the same thing. Trump is like a stand-up comedian with a variety of bits. When one routine isn’t working, he shifts topics until he finds some material that the audience responds to.

Martin Luther King did something similar in the early years, as Taylor Branch writes in Parting the Waters. He describes King in 1955, twenty-six years old, not yet sure of what will ignite a crowd, speaking at a YMCA on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott.

“We are here this evening — for serious business,” he siad, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch. When he paused, only one or two “yes” responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them.

“And I think I speak with — with legal authority — not that I have any legal authority . . . that the law has never been totally clarified.” This sentence marked King as a speaker who took care with distinctions, but it took the crowd nowhere. “Nobody can doubt the height of her character, no one can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”

“That’s right,” a soft chorus answered.

“And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested,” King repeated. The crowd was stirring now, following King at the speed of a medium walk.
   
He paused slightly longer.

“And you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

A flock of “Yeses” was coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath that cheer — all withing the space of a second. The startling noise rolled on and on, like a wave that refused to break, and just when it seemed that thr oar must finally weaken, a wall of sound came in from the enormous crowd outdoors to push the volume still higher. Thunder seemed to added to the lower register — the sound of feet stomping on the wooden floor — until the loudness became something that was not so much hears as sensed by vibrations in the lungs. The giant cloud of noise shook the building and refused to go away. One sentence had set it loose somehow, pushing the call-and-response of the Negro church past the din of a political rally and on to something else that King had never known before.

King had tried giving the crowd the legal angle. He had tried giving them the nobility of Rosa Parks. The crowd merely waited. He had called, and there was no response. But “there comes a time when people get tired,” had opened the floodgates, and the crowd let him know. He used the phrase at least twice more.” “There comes a time when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation,” and “There comes a time when people get tired of being people get tired of getting pushed out the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.”

Maybe there’s a lesson here for teachers – sensing when you’re losing the class and figuring out a way to get them back.

Monkey Business

August 30, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is a “monkey” idiom used, however tangentially, in connection with a Black person always racism?

After he won the Republican primary for governor in Florida, Ron De Santis made a statement about the coming general election. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, is Black. Here’s what De Santis said.

Florida elections are always competitive, and this is a guy who, although he’s much too liberal for Florida, I think he’s got huge problems with how he’s governed Tallahassee, he is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views, and he’s a charismatic candidate. I watched those Democrat debates, and none of that is my cup of tea, but he performed better than those other people there. So we’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction, let’s build off the success we’ve had on Governor Scott, the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work. [emphasis added]

People on the left accused De Santis of using a racial dog whistle to get Florida racists to the polls. Those on the right disagreed.

It’s understandable that Black people would be offended. But the issue here is De Santis’s intent. If “monkey this up” is a common idiom – like “going ape shit,” or “monkeying around” with something – then maybe there was no racist intent. For example, in his response to De Santis’s comment, Gillum said, “What we’re trying to offer in this race is a north star for where we want to go as a state. [emphasis added]” Was this a dog whistle to Northerners who had moved to Florida or to other Floridians who want the state to be less Southern?

Unlikely. I’ve heard people use “north star” in this way, though I think its synonym “pole star” is more frequent (but then, Gillum is running in Florida, not Buffalo). But I don’t recall ever hearing “monkey this up.” Why would De Santis come up with it, especially when so many other words come readily to mind – mess this up, screw this up, undermine this, spoil this, and so on?

Mark Kleiman, a liberal, had a similar reaction. Responding to conservatives David French and Ben Shapiro. Shapiro (here ) had called the dog whistle accusations “wildly dishonest stuff.”


Was it just liberals like Kleiman and me who’d never heard “monkey this up”? I checked Google nGrams to see how often the phrase appeared in books. Instead of the usual graph, Google returned this.

Apparently “monkey this up” was as unfamiliar to Google as it was to me. (NB: our president has assured us that Google is biased against conservatives, and perhaps Google’s book-search function is similarly slanted. Fake nGrams.)

But that is not the whole story. I tried again, leaving out the pronoun.

Turns out “monkey up” really is a phrase. Its use has been falling since 1920, but only since about 1960 has it been outpaced by “muck up.” Maybe De Santis is old fashioned. Or is there regional variation? Maybe “monkey up” is more common in the South, like “coke” as a general term for soft drinks.

Gillum took “monkey up” as racist, but he also said that the problem goes far beyond ambiguous metaphors. “In the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls – they’re now using full bullhorns.”

Trump has taken us beyond the subtleties of language.  And yet, it’s probably unwise for Democrats to make accusations of racism. Trump supporters, understandably, don’t like being called racists, and if you point out the racism in their policy preferences, they probably won’t vote for you. So race becomes the issue that is hugely important but that can’t be talked about – the 800-pound gorilla.

I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say, “I’ll Have to Get Back to You on That.”

August 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen was in a colleague’s office when the phone rang. It was a man in the department asking the colleague to serve on a committee. She ran through the list of things she was already burdened with — thesis supervision, an overloaded teaching schedule, other committees. “There’s no way I could responsibly join another committee. Of course, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it, but honestly, I don’t see how I could add it to what’s already on my plate.”

When the conversation had ended and she had hung up the phone, she turned to Tannen. “I can’t believe it. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he put me on the committee anyway.”*

The problem, as Tannen sees it, is not that the man was inconsiderate but that the two people were speaking in different “conversational styles.” He was listening in a “direct” style; she was speaking in a more “indirect” style. The only “No” he would hear was a direct one – simple and without qualification or exception.

It’s as though they were speaking different languages. Language is a part of culture, and cultures have different ideas about directness. When I was in Japan long ago, people would sometimes comment on how “frank” Americans were. At the time I took it as a compliment. Only much later did I realize that what they meant was that Americans, including me, will just barge in and tell you what they think or what they want with not a thought to anyone else’s feelings or preferences. They are too obtuse to consider the harmony within the group.

Japanese culture and language are indirect. There are countless stories of Americans doing business in Japan thinking that they had been told “yes” when the Japanese had thought they had clearly told the Americans “no.” The Japanese, with their comment about frankness, were telling me to be more sensitive and circumspect. But they were saying it indirectly, and I just didn’t hear.

Even within our own frank culture, getting to No is hard. We all are reluctant to give an unequivocal No. “Not really,” is often as close as we get. But there’s a gender difference. Men are more comfortable with the direct style than are women, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. Women are more indirect. Tannen’s overburdened colleague thought she was being direct, and maybe she was — for a woman. A better example comes from a McSweeney’s list last week.

Nelles-Sager’s list includes, in part:
1. “Hmm… maybe.”
2. “We should look that up.”
3. “Totally.”
7. “Yeah, for sure, I mean, actually, it’s [right answer], but you’re right that it could be [wrong answer] if it wasn’t [right answer].”
8. “It’s possible.”
In many situations, gender overlaps with another variable that affects directness — power. In saying  “no” to someone higher in power, it’s probably better to be less direct.  Alternatively, those in power may take care not to be too harshly direct to those below them. Nelles-Sager doesn’t mention it, but three years earlier, McSweeney’s had another list : “Ways Teachers Avoid Saying ‘No.’” At least one entry — “I suppose it’s possible” — is identical to one of Nelles-Sager’s. Others include “I see where you’re coming from” and “I guess that’s an interpretation.”

The general point may be that when we are thinking about the feelings of others, we use the indirect style. The reason may be based in culture, gender, or power. It may even be a matter of personality, as illustrated by the passage that I cribbed the title of this post from.

The truth was that Pinchuck had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. “I want to be liked,” he admitted to Blanche. “Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no.” (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I'll get back to you.” This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)

 — Woody Allen, “By Destiny Denied”


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* This anecdote appears in Tannen’s recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.

The Tristesse of No Bonjour

July 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several years ago, I went to Paris with my family. When we got out of the airport, I couldn’t find the RER, the express train from DeGaulle to Paris. I went up to a man standing on the sidewalk and asked, in French of course.

 “Bonjour,” he said.

I repeated my question. “Bonjour,” he said again, this time as if cuing a dim-witted child. I got it. “Bonjour,” I said and again asked about the RER. This time he answered.

I had chalked it up to this guy just being a stickler for formalities. But now that I’ve started reading The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, I realize how wrong I was. Bonjour is not just a greeting. It’s like eye contact – a necessary start to any interaction. It acknowledges that you are in the same situation with the other person. Without bonjour, communication cannot begin.

As I read this first chapter about bonjour, I recalled a much earlier visit to Paris. I needed some Velcro to make a small repair on something. A piece of clothing? A bag? I don’t recall. A friend told me that I could find Velcro in the mercerie section of a department store.  I went to La Samaritaine and found the mercerie. Two sales girls were standing talking to each other. I stood there, waiting to be waited on. Any clerk in an American store would have turned to me and asked if she could help. But the two girls continued their conversation, facing one another and ignoring me as if I weren’t there. I can’t remember how I managed to interrupt and finally get the Velcro.*

The rudeness of the French, I thought, or at least young French women. But now, decades later, I wonder what would have happened if I had said, “Bonjour.”

Of course, it’s not just a matter of words. The bonjour requirement is the visible tip of an underlying difference in the way we think about service workers and customers and the relation between them. The definition of those roles in France is not the same as it is in America. Barlow and Nadeau explain:
When you enter a French store ore a restaurant or even walk up to an information kiosk, the first thing you have to do in France is acknowledge that you are entering their turf. That’s because you are asking for something from an employee who may have something more important to do. Whether or not that employee actually does have something better to do is not the point. You are interrupting him to ask for something. He does not owe you anything in exchange for you giving him your bounces. The French just don’t think that way. When you address a merchant or a clerk or a hostess or even a waiter, bonjour is not a word. It’s not a greeting or even a form of courtesy. Bonjour is code for “please allow me to indulge in your services.”


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* The French word for Velcro, I discovered, is Velcro. It was invented by a francophone Swiss. According to Wikipedia, the word is a portmanteau of velour and crochet (hook).

Multiple Negatives and Believable Lies

July 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Language Log (here ), Mark Liberman posted this sentence from a CNN interview with Michael Hayden, CIA director in the Bush 43 administration, about the Mueller investigation.
I would not be surprised
if this were not the last indictment we see
that- that doesn't mention
an American

[emphasis addded]
Does this statement mean that Hayden thinks more Americans will be indicted?

Jake Tapper quickly translated
so in other words there will be another indictment, and you think there'll be Americans involved
Oh those multiple negatives, cancelling each other out. Hayden has three nots.

You have to cut Hayden some slack. He was speaking extemporaneously. But what about writers? I’ve blogged before about problem of multiple negatives in multiple-choice test questions and even the GSS (here).

In today’s New York Times, Mark Landler (here) matches Hayden’s three-in-a-sentence construction. Here’s the second paragraph of Landler’s piece.

Mr. Trump’s declaration that he saw no reason not to believe President Vladimir V. Putin when he said the Russians did not try to fix the 2016 election was extraordinary enough. But it was only one of several statements the likes of which no other president has uttered while on foreign soil. [emphasis added]

I won’t say that Landler’s sentence is not less than incomprehensible. And maybe “Trump said he found Putin’s statement believable” is imprecise and overstates Trump’s credulity. Maybe — but not by much. Here’s what Trump said,

My people came to me, Dan Coats [Director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. . .  So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.


Trump does not use multiple negatives. That may be because they pose problems of logic for the speaker, not just the listener. But whatever the reason, this avoidance may be one of the things that fosters the impression that he is a “straight talker.” What he says on a topic may change from one day to the next, but when he voices his view of the day, he states in absolute terms – no reservations, no qualifications.

Double negatives are ambiguous. If we say that someone is “not unfriendly,” we leave open the entire spectrum. from  “possibly somewhat friendly” to “absolutely the friendliest person in the world,” as Trump might put it, especially if he were talking about himself. Trump’s world has no ambiguity. Things that are not good are the worst. Things that are good are the greatest.

Maybe Putin’s denials to Trump about election meddling were similarly uncomplicated — no multiple negatives — allowing Trump to ascribe to Putin’s lies the same credibility that conservatives in the US give to Trump’s lies.

UPDATE:  The press conference happened yesterday. Today Trump issued a clarification that reinforces my point that he doesn’t know how to state ideas involving multiple negatives. In the press conference Monday, on the matter of who was responsible for the hacking and other meddling in the election, Trump said, “ I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Today, Tuesday, Trump corrected himself, reading from a script probably written by Stephen Miller:  “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,”

He’s probably lying about what he meant to say. But even if he’s telling the truth, he’s saying that the logic of that double negative is a bit too complicated for him, which is why he couldn’t speak it correctly at the time.