May 31, 2012, 12:01 am
Alas, we have little control over the language we are born into. Whatever language we happen to learn, we have little to say about the vocabulary. It’s already there, and if we want to be understood, we have to use it as others do.
This is despite the famous declaration in Through the Looking-Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “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.”
Mr. Dumpty is indeed the master of words, as he has explained to Alice:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down…
May 30, 2012, 12:01 am
We’re still slamming around in the gale unleashed by my lighthearted survey of last week. But since results are still trickling in, I will not yet attempt any synthesis of results or responses to the very nature of the game. Instead, please consider this an extended footnote from my peculiar domain of academe, which is the doing and teaching of fiction writing.
I fully expect comments that question what the academy is doing messing around in the realm of creative writing in the first place, but I hope the discussion doesn’t get pulled in that direction. Here I’d like to stick to word choice, syntax choice, grammar choice.
In Sunday’s Modern Love column in The New York Times, I ran across the sentence “He didn’t even know I hadn’t smoked or drank in 10 years.” I read it aloud over breakfast, and it didn’t jar my partner. But it jarred me. Strictly speaking, the…
May 29, 2012, 12:01 am
Let me tell you how Ben Yagoda and I met. Or sort of met, anyway: We’ve never seen each other, or spoken: It’s a purely Internet-based relationship, though closer and more voluntary than my relationship with Scott Reed.
In February 2003 I read a delightfully whimsical piece here in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations.” It was a cunning excuse for reciting a series of treasured family quotations: eminently quotable lines that would never appear in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations because they were uttered by family or friends of the Yagodas, and the Bartlett’s editors weren’t there. One came from an anecdote about a man who (a long time ago, when there were still telegrams) suggested to his lover that 2 a.m. was, for him, not a good time to discuss their relationship, which of course sparked a big 2 a.m. fight with her. Yagoda relates:
The next day…
May 25, 2012, 12:01 am
Following up on my colleague Ben Yagoda’s post on the latest battle in the –iptivist language wars, I’d like to play a game, or take a survey—call it what you will. Below is a fairly random selection of sentences from The New York Times, a publication chosen mostly because I read it every day. (Not out of elitism, but because I live not far from New York, and because it contains some of the best newspaper writing in the country.) Because these sentences were published in one of the “registers” to which Ben referred, I suspect they rub some folks the wrong way. But maybe not. Here they are, with various options for your response:
1 = This sentence commits an egregious grammatical, vocabulary, or syntactical blunder, and the copy editor should be chastised if not fired.
2 = This sentence contains a grammatical, vocabulary, or syntactical error that is a symptom of our…
May 24, 2012, 12:01 am
Language use in early human societies, tens of thousands of years ago, was very different from what we have today. Essentially all linguistic communication was face-to-face, symmetrical, and personal, conducted within a hunter-gatherer band or tribe or clan of at most a few hundred mutually acquainted people. Humans typically talked only to other members of their group. They used unamplified voice, eye contact, and perhaps hand signs. No writing, no mass communication.
Have things ever changed. For a year or two I have been receiving continuous, unsolicited, unwanted, asymmetrical linguistic communications from a stranger on another continent whom I have never met. A robot in the service of someone named Scott Reed has been hounding me with e-mails telling me that Scott has invited me to join his professional network on LinkedIn and wants me to accept the invitation and sign up.
May 23, 2012, 12:01 am
My walk to work takes me down a charming 1890s street that is under constant renewal, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the restoration of several frame cottages and a couple of large Victorian beauties. Yesterday I stopped to watch some workers tear off a roof, and I wondered why it was being done several months into the rehab instead of at the beginning. Does that mean water was leaking all this time into the new interior? Maybe someone can enlighten me.
In any case, it reminded me of a question I get from nearly every writer early in the process of publishing a book, sometimes before the manuscript is even edited: When will I see the book cover?
The answer is always disappointing: “Much later.”
There are reasons why a book’s cover design comes late in the publication schedule. First, designers know from experience that a book cover’s central visual…
May 22, 2012, 12:01 am
The sign that got a kid suspended last year. HMU="Hit me up," i.e., "Get back to me, if you would, through your favorite means of electronic communication."
I was all ears when this story came on public radio’s Marketplace on Friday (and not just because the correspondent has killer vocal fry). Rather, the piece confirmed to me that, when it comes to formal high-school dances in the spring, the definite article is definitely not the bomb.
Back when Archie Andrews was in the first blush of youth and starting to roam the halls of Riverdale High School, his thought was always to escort Veronica to the prom. But over the years, the the has been jettisoned. That was certainly the case with my kids, when this odd institution came on their radar about 10 years ago.
At this point, among the actual…
May 21, 2012, 12:01 am
Adam Naming the Creatures, 1847 Currier & Ives print
It has been vulgarly claimed that prostitution is the oldest profession. Wrong! It’s lexicography.
As we have learned, perhaps in elementary school, a word isn’t a word unless it’s in the dictionary.
If it’s not a word, you can’t use it.
Therefore, you need the dictionary before you can utter a word. So dictionary making has to be among the oldest of professions, if not the oldest.
This logic, incidentally, solves the question of the origin of human language, a question that has vexed linguists ever since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution.
Linguists know that languages change drastically over the course of a few thousand years, so drastically that there’s no telling what the original human language was…
May 18, 2012, 12:01 am
The opening of Thomas Carlyle's 1836 novel (in English "The Tailor Re-Tailored"). Language and clothing are more alike than they may at first appear to be.
I have a friend who holds a named professorship at a prestigious liberal-arts college. He owns a sharp-looking black suit, with thin lapels, that he often wears to conferences. My friend enjoys good beer. One day, in search of a six-pack, he journeyed to a nearby working-class tavern that sells a wide variety of beer. As he was paying for his purchase, another customer looked him over and said, “Are you an undertaker?” My friend said, “Excuse me?” The man repeated, “Are you an undertaker?” Recounting the incident to me, my friend had no idea if his interlocutor was being funny or serious.
I was reminded of this story by Joan Acocella’s New Yorker review of Henry…
May 17, 2012, 12:01 am
No, that’s not the four-letter word in decline. It’s “ain’t.”
Unlike other proscribed four-letter words, “ain’t” isn’t obscene, blasphemous, or insulting. And yet in its heyday, not too long ago, in some circles it could provoke a reaction even stronger than the f-word.
What reaction? Well, according to one version of the jump-rope rhyme:
Don’t say ain’t or your mother will faint,
your father will fall in a bucket of paint,
your sister will cry, your brother will die,
your dog will call the FBI.
Why? Well, according to another version of the rhyme,
Don’t say ain’t, your mother will faint,
your father will step in a bucket of paint,
because there ain’t no word such as ain’t.
So proscribed was “ain’t” that like other four-letter words having to do with certain intimate activities, supposedly it wasn’t in the dictionary….