David Edgerley Gates
I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.
I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.
There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.
Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin.
So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)
The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.
Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture.
English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit.
I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.
25 September 2019
11 September 2016
by Leigh Lundin
|James Lincoln Warren|
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren
Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.
I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.
report typos and other errors.
Story v Storey
Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:
|“||The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.
For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.
Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?
We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.
Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.
But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?
Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!
Lede v Lead
Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:
|“||Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.||”|
In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.
Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:
|“||Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.||”|
“Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.
If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.
The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.
Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:
|“||Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).||”|
Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.
20 December 2014
The following story is true. And it may explain the slightly manic sense of humour I have been displaying on these pages over the past six months.
Most of my life, I have been confused about Christmas.
This is because I am the quintessential Canadian mutt. Four parts Italian, one part Irish, one part English, one part Chippewa, and the final bit was a surprise. It overlaps with the English part (wait for it.)
The Italian part is easy to explain. Every year, my Sicilian grandmother put the plastic lighted crucifixes (made in Japan) in glaring rainbow colours, on the Christmas tree. I was a bit confused by that, not only because it was gawd-awful tacky and fought with my budding interior designer. But the part in the 10 Commandments about ‘no graven images’ seemed to be at risk here.
Nevertheless, we all looked forward to the blazing orange, green and red crucifixes, unaware that it was a sort of macabre thing to do to a Christmas tree. Did I mention Halloween is my favorite holiday?
The Chippewa part was a tad more elusive. I first got a hint that there might have been First Nations blood in our family when someone asked why we put ground venison in our traditional Christmas Eve spaghetti sauce. True, we had a freezer full of deer, moose, salmon, and not much else. Later, it occurred to me that I actually hadn’t tasted beef until I was ten, when for my birthday, Dad took us to the A&W for a real treat. “This tastes weird,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “It’s made from cow,” Dad said.
Of course, if I had been more on the ball, there were other clues. But at the age of six, you don’t necessarily see things as out of the norm. That summer in Toronto, I loved day camp. They split us kids into groups named for First Nations tribes. By happy coincidence, I got placed in the Chippewa tribe. When I got home and announced this, the reaction was: “Thank God it wasn’t Mohawk.”
The camp leaders were really impressed with my almost-authentic costume. (Everyone else was wearing painted pillow cases.)
But the real confusion about Christmas and my provenance came many years later.
I spent most of my life not knowing we were part Jewish. I was about forty, when the designer shoe (a bargain on sale at David’s) finally dropped. Dad and I were eating pastrami on rye at Shopsy’s Deli one day (which we did on a regular basis, once a month – a reasonably intelligent person might have considered this the first clue) when Dad wiped a drip of mustard off his face and said:
Dad: “I haven’t heard from my cousin Moishe Goldman in a long while.”
Me: “We have a cousin named MOISHE GOLDMAN??”
Of course, if I had been thinking, all this made sense. We had lived in a Jewish neighbourhood. Our last name is Hebrew for antelope. And I was only the only kid in school who got Halvah in their Christmas stocking every year. (Damn straight. I really did. I still do.)
So I’m hoping this may explain why we have a five foot lighted Christmas peacock on our front porch this year, and a lighted Christmas palm tree in our back yard. “A Peacock in a Palm Tree” may be confusing to you folk who know the song and are expecting a partridge with pears, but to those of us who have been confused about Christmas all our lives, it is mere icing on the proverbial Kugal.
Melodie Campbell writes funny books. You can buy them at Chapters/Indigo, Barnes&Noble, Amazon, etc. Sometimes even at the discount table at Zehrs and Walmart.)
The Peacock. You thought I was kidding.