Showing posts with label common usage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label common usage. Show all posts

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


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.  

13 December 2017

Couldn't Care Less


David Edgerley Gates

A friend of mine was wondering the other day why common expressions get dumbed down, in terms of usage being corrupted. It was because I'd used the phrase 'rhetorical question,' and he wanted to know exactly what that meant. Not that he hadn't heard it before, but how had it come to mean what it's now taken to mean, and were we even using it correctly?

I had to think about it. I decided it originally meant a question intended to spark discussion, a rhetorical device, in other words. Then why, Tony asked me, does it mean a question with an obvious answer, something that goes without saying? In this sense, Tony himself was posing a rhetorical question, something to encourage conversation or deepen our curiosity.

Why does language get less precise? We know English isn't static. It's full of borrowings, and disharmonies, and new constructions. Usage is a moving target. Leave it to the French, naturally, who being French have an Academy to settle these difficulties. The problem being that nobody under the age of four score and ten bothers to pay any attention. Younger people go right on using 'gigabyte,' or whichever neologism or borrowing fits the bill. If everybody else in the world is comfortable with the word, why complain that it lacks authenticity? Orthodoxy is itself suspect. Judgments are arbitrary. Who's being held to which standards?

It's curious, nonetheless, how vocabulary moves into common currency, and loses its specificity. Some of this is a broadening, or dilution, but some of it is almost willful misapprehension. Freudian, for example. Does it mean anything at all, other than being generally dismissive of self-examination, conflating it with self-indulgence? (You can be impatient of narcissism without discarding any and all inner reflection.) Another one is Darwinian. I'm thinking particularly of the expression 'Social Darwinism.' It's taken to mean a barbaric compact, brute force, the weak trampled underfoot, which describes the condition, but Darwinian it ain't. Survival of the fittest had never meant the biggest, baddest predator in the jungle, it's in fact more appropriate for the elusive prey animal who lives to see another day, and breeds for stealth.
Admittedly, we're talking science here, and complicated ideas get the pulp squeezed out. Marxist, there's a good candidate that's turned into a catchall. I think we might be talking about a general carelessness, or simple mistrust of ambiguities and contradictions, a constipation of our mental bowels. Thinking makes your head hurt, let's face it. Labels come easier. But that's almost presupposing a dumb gene, and dumb isn't a survival mechanism. Or what if it is? What if it's a social survival mechanism? Maybe it's about the aggregate comfort zone, not the individual's personal comfort at all. 

Getting into deep waters. Maybe all it is, is laziness. Do we hear a double-negative in 'I Couldn't Care Less,' and lean into the wind? Or is 'I Could Care Less' not a correction of grammar but a contraction, one less syllable, one less hesitation in our thought process, a slip of the tongue? Language is an amalgam, and impure, but all the same, we keep trying for accuracy. The purpose of language, the purpose of words, is to explain ourselves. We can obviously use language to misdirect, to deceive or obscure or conceal - our words may be false, but they still have weight - and does a cracked glass then ring true?

If we lose meaning, if we pretend a thing is what it is not, we're substituting a false equivalency. It all weighs the same. Nope. Look again. Your glass is empty.


"When use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty," which is to be master - that's all."