7.15.2019

Politically Healthy Language

During David Remnick’s interview with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on his recent New Yorker podcast, he asked her why she calls herself a “socialist” when her ideas sound very much like New Deal liberalism. I was exasperated by her reply just as I’m exasperated by the way Bernie Sanders does likewise and also by the way he calls his advocacy of a program of reforms a “revolution.”

The insistence by these very smart people in trying to reclaim their opponents’ accusations by adopting their terminology and redefining it to suit their own views strikes me as politically obtuse. Bernie belongs to the generation that thought moving from “protest” to “resistance” to “revolution” was a boldly courageous stand when instead it fractured the overwhelmingly non-revolutionary anti-Vietnam War movement and helped to promote opposition to it. Ocasio-Cortez should know better.

Merriam-Webster’s note on “socialism” makes clear that these politicians are being more provocative than accurate:
In the many years since “socialism” entered English around 1830, it has acquired several different meanings. It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal. In the modern era, "pure" socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.
Neither of them advocates nationalizing American industries. At best they are Western European-style democratic socialists, advocating a system in which capitalism generates the wealth which can then be taxed and shared for social purposes.

The exception is the private health insurance industry, which both candidates have said they want to abolish.

I can’t help sympathizing, since I wish we had a single-payer government system like Britain’s; but the fact is the overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to this notion, and embracing it as an immediate goal just confirms in the public’s mind that the Republicans may have a point in claiming “The Democrats want to take away your health insurance.”

Ezra Klein analyzes this problem thoughtfully in his Vox piece “Abolish private insurance? It depends.”

In my opinion a smarter answer to the question would run along these lines:

Private health insurance companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, have plenty of problems that need to be solved to provide affordable health care and reduce the amount Americans spend on it. Medicare and Medicaid have their own problems, but they are far more efficient than the private industry, and would be even more so if conservatives had not legally barred the government from seeking lower prices for drugs.

I prefer the proposal to open a program like Medicare to the general public as an option and let it compete on an even playing field with private insurance. Then we could see which was more attractive. "Free market" advocates don’t like government competing in the marketplace, but this is one instance in which the evidence is pretty strong that it would be healthier both economically and medically for the US to provide such an option. That would be a truly free market.

Just don’t call it “socialism.”

When It Rains, It Pours

A member of a Facebook photo-editing group I belong to writes that he did not like the “pail sky” in one of his shots, so he created a substitute sky with some wispy clouds in it.

Musing on what a “pail sky” might be, I realized it must be the kind from which it “rains buckets.”

Then I wondered if anyone had used the spelling “pail face.” Sure enough, there’s a “pail face” hashtag on Instagram that brings up images of people with very light complexions.

Some people have used “pail face” deliberately as a pun, but this doesn’t seem to be a very common usage.

A sarcastic contribution to The Urban Dictionary defines “pailface” as “One who is shamed by having a pail or bucket placed on their head.”

“Beyond the Pail” gets more action, however. The Lucky Bucket Brewing Co. brews a pale ale which some people claim goes by that name, though I’ve unable to confirm that on their own Web site.

For my discussion of this latter phrase, see p. 36 of Common Errors in English Usage (3rd ed.) or check out the online version.

3.27.2019

Putting the “It” Back in “Anti-Semitism”

With the recent upsurge in anti-Jewish speech and acts there has been a great increase in the use of the words “anti-Semite” and “anti-Semitism” in broadcast news. These terms have long been widely used in as a polite synonym for "anti-Jewish," perhaps somewhat influenced by nervousness about the word “Jew” which I discuss in my Common Errors entry on that word.

But I have noticed that many pronounce the fourth syllable in “anti-Semitism” as if it were spelled “met,” with a distinctly soft “E” sound, even though “antisemite” should remind us that it should sound more like “mitt.”

“Semitic” as a term designating certain people and languages has an interesting history. It originated in the 19th century as a term to designate a group of Middle Eastern languages including Hebrew, Aramæan, Arabic, Ethiopic, and ancient Assyrian. The name was derived from the name of Noah’s eldest son Shem, considered in Jewish tradition to be the ancestor of the Hebrews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Lydians, other related groups called “Ishmaelite,” after Shem’s eldest son Ishmael.

Muslims consider the Arabs to be descendants of Ishmael and therefore qualified to claim the term “semite” as well. Some have argued that the term “anti-Semite” should therefore apply also to prejudice against Muslims. This is a bit of a stretch since most Muslims are not Arabs, and neither group has traditionally identified itself with the term “Semitic.”

Currently there is also a heated debate about the use of the term “anti-Semitic” to designate attitudes and speech which oppose the politics of the state of Israel. This is a political debate, not really a linguistic one, abundantly explored elsewhere.

For well over a century the word “Semitic” has most commonly been used as a synonym for “Jewish” and “anti-Semitic,” and those who argue that it should be extended to Muslims may be suspected of harboring anti-Semitic attitudes.

I don’t expect broadcasters to pay any attention to the distinction I’m making here, but it would be nice if more of them would put the “it” back in “anti-Semitism.”


1.26.2019

Who Was that I Met Last Night?


I've noticed that more and more often people at informal gatherings are liable to introduce themselves by given name only, presumably because that seems more friendly; but if you want to establish any kind of ongoing connection you’ll need to provide a family name as well. There are times I have suspected that the other person is thinking “I don’t expect to ever see this guy again, so I’ll just go with my first name.’

Once the pattern is established, it’s awkward for a later speaker to give his or her full name instead—though that might be genuinely useful, especially if one anticipates working on a project with the new acquaintance.

The Japanese generally exchange cards upon meeting, which seems very formal to Americans but can be quite useful.

In a purely casual social gathering—such as encountering someone at a bar—one person may want to preserve her/his privacy by going with given name or nickname only, whereas the other person may hope to establish an ongoing connection by offering their full name. I see no way around this except to be conscious of what each pattern may imply.

If you intend your new acquaintance to get in touch with you, it’s best to go with full name. The same goes for praising individuals in a public speech, where you should try to make clear just who it is you’re talking about if not everyone in audience knows the individuals already.


12.15.2018

Alan Moore’s New "Jerusalem"


One of my earlier podcasts explored a single dense, complex sentence by George Eliot; and contrasted her style with the modern preference for short, simple sentences with a minimum of modifying adjectives and adverbs, figures of speech, and other verbal filigree.

I’ve just finished reading a massive contemporary novel which upends all the rules of contemporary straight-ahead prose. Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, published in 2016, is a highly experimental work, with each chapter told from a different character’s point of view, jumping around chronologically to visit times as long past as the early Middle Ages and as far distant as the projected end of the universe. In these ways it resembles quite a few modern novels.

But its prose is a marvelous tangle of description, simile, and wordplay.

Let’s begin with a feature that may well be off-putting for many readers—the obsessive specification of the exact streets and landmarks among which the action takes place: the grubby London Northampton area of London which Moore refers to as “The Boroughs.” A map is provided in the endpapers of the book.

Here’s a typical paragraph:

He gestured drunkenly around them as they reached the bottom of the rough trapezium of hunched-up ground called Castle Hill, where it joined what was left of Fitzroy Street. This last was now a broadened driveway leading down into the shoebox stack of ’Sixties housing where the feudal corridors of Moat Street, Fort Street and the rest once stood. It terminated in a claustrophobic dead-end car park, block accommodation closing in on two sides while the black untidy hedges representing a last desperate stand of Boroughs wilderness, spilled over on a third.

You can follow the action along on the map if you wish, but it doesn’t add a great deal to understanding the novel. Moore specifies street names when a character goes for a walk, including each and every turn. No one ever just walks down a generic street. This pattern is the one thing that annoyed me about his prose because it is so repetitious and mostly irrelevant. But it’s all of a piece with his desire to embed his fantastically baroque story in a thickly woven web of specific detail. His style reminds me of those Medieval illuminated manuscripts in which a text is ornamented with scrolls, flowers, and fantastic beasts crowding all the margins and other spaces into which something decorative can be inserted.

Note how it’s not just a driveway, but a “broadened driveway; not a simple parking lot, but “a claustrophobic dead-end car park.” The vast majority of nouns are modified, often multiply: adjectives and adverbs abound.

For the right sort of reader, the densely ornamented prose is not a forbidding dark hedge, but a maze of wonders. His writing flows nicely, even though reading some of his sentences aloud requires two or more breaths.

He scatters metaphors and similes in profusion throughout the text. For instance, consider the next paragraph:

When this meagre estate had first gone up in Mick and Alma’s early teenage years the cul-d-sac had been a bruising mockery of a children’s playground, with a scaled down maze of blue brick in its centre, built apparently for feeble minded leprechauns, and the autistic cubist’s notion of a concrete horse that grazed eternally nearby, too hard-edged and uncomfortable for any child to straddle, with its eyes an empty hole bored through its temples. Even that, more like the abstract statue of a playground than an actual place, had been less awful than this date-rape opportunity and likely dogging hotspot, with its hasty skim of tarmac spread like cheap, stale caviar across the pink pedestrian tiles beneath, the bumpy lanes and flagstone closes under that. Only the gutter margins where the strata peeled back into sunburn tatters gave away the layers of human time compressed below, ring markings on the long-felled tree stump of the Boroughs. From downhill beyond the car park and the no-frills tombstones of its sheltering apartment blocks there came the mournful shunt and grumble of a goods train with its yelp and mutter rolling up the valley’s sides from the criss-cross self-harm scars of the rail tracks at its bottom.

He piles one figure of speech atop another, explores them in detail, indulges in word-play and creates prose that resembles less a walk along a path than a complex ballet with the reader bewildered in its center. Nothing much “happens” for long stretches, but the verbal action is relentless.

In the world of Jerusalem the images of the dead are often accompanied by a string of after-images trailing and fading out behind them. Time after time Moore comes up with a new simile for this effect, clearly delighting in displaying his fertile imagination. The idea never “goes without saying.”

Many readers will find this sort of thing off-putting; but if, like me, you find it delightful, there’s plenty of it: the novel is 1,262 pages long.

At times it seems as if the novel is aspiring to the qualities of film. We are told which way characters turn, what is going on in the background, and we are given vividly detailed descriptions of the settings. Perhaps a better analogy is that this is a graphic novel without pictures.

So exquisitely mundane is most of the early narrative that the moments of fantasy leap out shockingly from the page, and even after these have accumulated for hundreds of pages it is stunning to find ourselves halfway through the novel plunged into an extraordinarily detailed and original afterlife world where most of the characters are “dead.”

Much of the subject matter is grim, threatening, haunting (in both figurative and literal senses); but the prose is exuberant, playful, often amusing. Whereas most modern fiction pares away tedious description to immerse us in the action, Moore immerses us in the funhouse of his prose where we’re sometimes in danger of losing track of the plot altogether. In this book the point is in the telling, more than in the tale.

Moore plays all kinds of linguistic games, writing in varied styles including Victorian gothic, Chandleresque hardboiled detective, and the sort of experimental punning mish-mash that makes up James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in a chapter that embodies the tale of the author’s mad daughter, Lucia:

Awake, Lucia gets up wi’ the wry sing of de light. She is a puzzle, shore enearth, as all the Nurzis and the D’actors would afform, but nibber a cross word these days, deepindig on her mendication and on every workin’ grimpill’s progress.

I count at least ten puns or other sorts of wordplay in these two sentences alone which open the chapter allusively titled “Round the Bend.” It goes on like that for 48 dense pages.

One chapter is written entirely in verse, beginning thus:

Den wakes beneath the windswept porch aloneOn bone-hard slab rubbed smooth by Sunday feetWhere afternoon light leans, fatigued and spent,Ground to which he feels no entitlementNor any purchase on the sullen street;Unpeels his chill grey cheek from chill grey stone Then orients himself in time and space.

The desire to be oriented in time and space is constantly challenged. Although the novel is structured something like a mystery, there is no culminating Big Reveal. One major hanging plot thread never gets wrapped up at all. The last chapter brings together many scenes and characters earlier touched on, but not in a way that explains everything.

Moore is best known as a writer for DC superhero comic books and as author of the similarly playful historical fantasy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the graphic novel, much better than the awful movie). But this is his masterpiece: dazzling, diverting, and utterly delightful.






12.11.2018

Hyphenating Dilemmas (and Nothing about Baseball)

A front office change over at Fangraphs: Meg Rowley has taken over as managing editor and podcast host at the popular baseball site. Carson Cistulli, who was managing editor and podcast host for years, is moving on to work for the Toronto Blue Jays.

I'm interested in the podcast because I like baseball, but what I've always appreciated is Cistulli's approach to the project. The podcast has never been only about baseball; there has been a fair amount of French philosophy and pop culture in the mix, for example (and trash culture, too, as you could count on professional wrestling to come up now and then).

In the handoff episode, where outgoing host Cistulli played guest to incoming host Rowley, they talked a bit about their disagreements on hyphenation:


I've written about hyphenating previously, but that was an unusual circumstance. Rowley and Cistulli are talking about a traditional rule of hyphenation, one that says you need to insert a hyphen into a compound adjective when placed before a noun, so you're good to go with "grass-fed cows" and "cows that are grass fed."

The case of "front-office decision" vs. "front office decision" is trickier, if you are open to the idea that the matter is open to interpretation. The Chicago Manual of Style has, in recent editions, backed off from their stance that the hyphen rule applies across the board. They now promote leaving out a hyphen if the reader will not be confused. This introduces ambiguity, to be sure, but dropping the hyphen can reduce clutter.

Cistulli makes his case that hyphens can clarify things (is it an office decision that has a front, back and sides, perhaps?), while Rawley believes dropping the hyphen would not cause confusion, so this is a case where it could be dropped.

It's subtle, and most often you just have to go with the traditional rule. Where do I stand on "front-office decision" vs. "front office decision"? Please refer to the first sentence of this post to see.

___________

You will find a good summary of basic hyphenation rules in the Common Errors in English Usage book and on the Web site. You will find interesting discussion on bending and even breaking rules responsibly in Far from the Madding Gerund. Both books are on sale this month—$15 with free shipping.

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