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.”


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.


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.


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.

https://wmjasco.com/william-james-co/8-common-errors-in-english-usage-3rd-ed-9781590282632.html                  https://wmjasco.com/william-james-co/55-far-from-the-madding-gerund-9781590280553.html


Hacking the Etymology of “Hack”

Everybody’s talking about “life hacks” lately.  This is not something that’s really grabbed my interest until recently, but today when I read this Betty comic strip contrasting positive and negative meanings of the word “hack” I decided to investigate it further.

Merriam-Webster online defines “life hack” as “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” The citation of the first use of the phrase in this sense is dated 2004.

How did a word traditionally associated with crude and destructive behavior come to connote ingenuity and efficiency?

The earliest meaning of the word in English cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is “To cut or chop with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion; to mangle or mutilate, esp. with jagged cuts, so as to damage or destroy.”

The first citation puzzled me a bit at first until I realized bad is a variant spelling of “bade,” the past tense of the word “bid.”
A maiden bad te kinge his heued, and he hit bad of acken.
So this means "A maiden asked the king for his head, and he asked for it to be hacked off.” This is from a early 13th century collection of sayings, so there’s no context given; but it sounds like an excerpt from the story of Salome, King Herod, and John the Baptist.

The other earliest citation, from the Ancrene Riwle, also denotes decapitation, with a very different spelling:
Hahackede of his heaued [hacked off his head]
Hacking is mostly associated with rough, crude cutting, as in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, where the cowardly Falstaff falsely claims to have fought ferociously: “My sworde hackt like a handsaw.” (He had actually deliberately damaged it by hacking at a stone in order to create evidence of his courage.)

Certain sounds have been associated with hacking: chattering teeth, stuttering, quibbling—but the one that persists is referred to in the phrase “a hacking cough.”

People could also hack unwanted trees and weeds, and hack through brush to get somewhere, leading to a whole tradition of positive meanings having to do with working one’s way through obstacles to reach a goal. By the 1930s, Americans were using the term to mean “manage,” “accomplish,” “cope with,” or “tolerate,” especially in negative contexts: “I don’t know if I can hack it.”

Some speculate that this may be a variation on the earlier expression “to cut it” as in “cut the mustard” (see my comments on this on p. 74 of Common Errors in English Usage  “cut the muster/cut the mustard”).

"Hacking" became a computer term in the mid-1970s. The OED cites three successive meanings which are still current:
 To engage in writing computer programmes or software, esp. purely for personal satisfaction. 
To modify (computer software, code, hardware components, etc.), esp. in order to provide a (typically inelegant) solution or workaround to a problem, to provide (a solution or workaround) by doing this. 
To gain unauthorized access to or control over a computer system, network, a person's telephone communications, etc., typically remotely. 
It is this last definition that has stuck in the popular mind: computer hacking is seen as definitely a bad thing, whereas hackers themselves often have more complex attitudes toward the word. They often insist on using the word in positive senses. They tend to view hacking not as crude and destructive, but as creative and elegant, which leads by analogy to the expression “life hacking.”

Those unfamiliar with any of these positive connotations for the word are mostly likely to use it negatively. People are always announcing on Facebook that their account may have been hacked because people they are already friends with are receiving fake friend requests. It doesn’t take advanced computer skills to set up a fraudulent FB account with your picture and name and send notices out to all your friends.

“Hack” can have a host of other meanings.

For instance, in American slang to hack someone off is to annoy them.

But how about “hackneyed”?

To understand this word we have to go back to an unrelated meaning of the word “hack” as traced in the OED. In the renaissance a hack was “a horse used for hire. Also: an inferior or worn out horse, a nag.”

But the word was modestly upgraded in the 18th Century:
A horse, esp. one of a calm disposition, used for general riding on a road, path, etc., as distinct from cross-country, military, or other kind of riding; a road horse. In later use also: a ridden show horse of any of several breeds and sizes, with a pleasing appearance and excellent manners. 
So a carriage horse, particularly one pulling a vehicle for hire, could be a hack, as could the driver, and he could drive a hackney coach. Hackney cabriolets (two-wheeled carriages with a folding roof, drawn by a single horse) were commonly used for paid transportation: hence the word “cab” for such a vehicle. After the invention of the automobile, the term was transferred to taxis and their drivers, both being called “hacks.”

But another variation of the word’s etymology branched off around 1700:
Originally: a person who may be hired to do any kind of work as required; a drudge, a lackey . In later use: spec. a person who hires himself or herself out to do any kind of literary work; (hence) a writer producing dull, unoriginal work, esp. to order.
Journalists, sometimes considered an inferior species of writer, also began to be called “hacks” and their writing “hackneyed.”

Wondering whether  I had any life hacks to share, I thought about my technique for preparing green beans for cooking, but a quick search demonstrated that it’s pretty common knowledge, if not yet hackneyed.

I can hack this disappointment—not really hacked off at all.


Stuck on Macs

Recently I was stuck on the tarmac at JFK in New York for about forty minutes waiting for my plane to take off and began musing on the word “tarmac.”

It’s an abbreviation of “tarmacadam”: a mixture of tar and crushed stones originally used for paving roads. It was invented by Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836), but very early on the spelling mutated to “tar macadam” and other variants using the spelling “macadam” rather than the original “McAdam.”

The French adopted the word with the same spelling of the inventor’s name: "Mac Adam" and “Mac-Adam.” It looks as if non-Scots were reluctant to use the original “Mc” form and resorted to the more phonetic spelling (though both spellings are common in Scotland).

When you are “immortalized” by having your name misspelled it’s a mixed blessing.

Newscasters love to use the word “tarmac” when discussing flight delays, though the airlines themselves are more prone to say “runway”; but the press did not invent this usage. By the second decade of the 20th century airport runways were commonly referred to as “tarmacs.”

Even when runways began to be made principally of concrete, they continued to be called “tarmacs” in both the US and UK. However, in Britain “tarmac” is commonly used to denote ordinary road surfaces as well, whereas in the US the word has become restricted to airports and used almost entirely in the context of flight delays.

Feeling stuck on my plane with the minutes ticking by, I felt a bit like Br’er Rabbit stuck to the tar baby in the 1880 Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus story. Harris may well have collected the tale from authentic African-American sources. Wikipedia notes that variants of this story occur in many cultures, including West African, Native American, South American, and even Indian tales.

Further musing on UK uses of “mac” I remembered that  raincoats are commonly called “mackintoshes”—abbreviated “mac” or “mack” in Britain. The process by which such waterproof coats were originally made was invented by Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), according to the Oxford English Dictionary “consisting of two or more layers of cloth cemented together with India rubber dissolved in naphtha.”

”Mac” became an informal name for any random Scot in England and was adopted in the US in the early 20th century as a generic term for any man whose name was unknown by the speaker, usually in an insulting or threatening context, often with the spelling slightly altered: “What’s it to you, Mack?” (Compare with “Bud,” used similarly.)

I’m typing this on a Macintosh computer, commonly referred to as a “Mac.” You can always tell non-Mac users when they spell the word in all caps: “MAC.” (See my entry on MAC/Mac for more details.)

Steve Jobs originally wanted to name the successor to the Apple II computer “McIntosh” after the apple thus named, but that spelling was already being used by the McIntosh Laboratory which built high-end audio equipment. The company refused to give him  a release to use the name, so the spelling was changed before the computer was marketed.

Well, I've been stuck on my Mac for long enough and I need to think about lunch—maybe a tasty bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese?