May 1, 2013, 12:01 am
Four decades ago, Fredric Jameson analyzed structuralism and formalism in an important book he called The Prison-House of Language. The title alluded to an aphorism in which Nietzsche cautioned that we’re stuck thinking within language’s limits (“in dem sprachlichen Zwange”).
The phrase “prison-house of language” seeped into the scholarly aquifer, perhaps getting an unintended assist from Foucault, whose own landmark work cheerfully directed us to similarities between social organization and prisons.
Since then the constraints of language have taken on new and interesting wrinkles, thanks in no small part to the digital reconfiguration of communications (I’m avoiding the word revolution here). Our mental structures have arguably shifted, but what is certain is that the Internet has given us access to an unimaginably vast corpus of words and thoughts, ideas and suspicions, truth and…
April 19, 2013, 12:01 am
My last post was on correspondence closers—those expressions of fidelity and endearment on which the seamless fabric of academia depends. In that post I paused to admire the French use of elaborated closers.
At the front end of academic correspondence, however, nobody baroques it up like the Germans. Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt is a mouthful, but it’s standard issue in the world of male German academics. We couldn’t easily translate that gesture into English. The honorable Professor Schmidt, who also holds a Ph.D., would just be snark. Even Professor Schmidt, Ph.D., might be fatally misread as sarcasm.
But let’s not feel superior to Teutonic stiffness. We’re not so good at negotiating the naming business here in the Anglophone academic world. The terms in which academics address one another, or choose to be addressed, are what I call a first word problem. For the …
April 10, 2013, 12:01 am
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
As a result,…
March 19, 2013, 12:01 am
Periodically, I experience a sinking sensation roughly verbalized as, “The person who wrote what I’m reading isn’t a writer by trade, but does what I do better than I do. Damn his eyes.” When I had such a reaction to the memoirs of Alec Guinness and Bob Dylan, and the diaries of Richard Burton, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that they are, or were, creative types.
But not so with my most recent sinking feeling. It came a couple of weeks ago, while I was reading Warren Buffett’s annual state-of-Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders. The text had “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech”—to quote Mark Twain on the memoirs of another nonprofessional writer,…
January 28, 2013, 12:01 am
“The Timbertoes,” from “Highlights” magazine
My ophthalmologist’s office was crowded. The doctor was behind, there would be a real wait. The place was packed with people (including myself) in unfashionable shades, post-op wear. I found a seat then realized that I had not brought a book or a newspaper. I was at the mercy of the magazine rack and a meager rack it was—Sports Illustrated, Highlights for Children, and a glossy publication about bat conservation.
As a child, I had never cared for Highlights. I’ll not address here the multiple issues of “Goofus and Gallant” but will mention another feature of the magazine, “The Timbertoes”—it’s a cartoon about “a little wooden family and their adventures.” The adventures are dull by any standard. I’d not thought of “The Timbertoes” for years until…
January 22, 2013, 12:01 am
Screenshot from the film “Catfish.”
Catfish: An online impostor posing as a romantic object. To deceive by posing in such a manner. See also the 2010 film of that name.
The continuing drama of the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the woman who did or did not exist has provided one of the stranger distractions in contemporary campus life.
A quick recap: Manti Te’o did or did not believe that someone reportedly named Lennay Kekua was or was not his online girlfriend. Whether or not she existed, and if having existed she did or did not die, Te’o did or did not wish to misrepresent an event that had or had not taken place.
At least that much is clear.
If, as has been claimed, Mr Te’o was catfished, he was the object of a double deception in which a virtual presence posed first as the extension of…
January 9, 2013, 12:01 am
O politics, you are the gift that keeps on giving, and maybe especially to those who keep an eye out for language.
Last month the German race for Chancellor took an unexpected linguistic turn. The candidate Peer Steinbrück complained that Chancellor Merkel, who is running for reelection, enjoyed a Frauenbonus.
By deploying the term Frauenbonus, Steinbrück means (I assume) that Merkel has an advantage in being a woman since a) women would vote for her because she is one of them, and b) since she is beliebt (loved, popular, favored), this must in some sense derive from her being female.
Where there’s a frau, there’s usually a haus, too. The online Oxford Dictionaries page defines hausfrau as “a German housewife” and gives as an informal definition “a woman regarded as overly domesticated.” Hausfrau dates from the end of the 18th century, which would I suppose…
December 17, 2012, 12:01 am
Here we are again, in the wake of a horrific mass murder 45 minutes from my home, discussing whether or not we can discuss the question of guns. Writing in The New York Times on Saturday, Nate Silver pointed out a shift in our language to which any who wish, finally, to engineer this public discourse should pay attention. Gun rights and Second Amendment, as he demonstrates, are on the rise, whereas gun control and gun violence are on the decline.
As George Lakoff has so convincingly demonstrated in his articles and books (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think), language controls political debate: “Any political message about policy can be understood only in terms of moral values,” he writes in The Little Blue Book; moreover, “Traditional liberal discourse strategies are not consistent with the science of how reason really works.”
Nate Silver’s analysis back…
December 10, 2012, 12:01 am
Apollo, god of poetry, courtesy of Stephen Vincent
My friend Stephen Vincent, a Bay Area poet and raconteur, was in Turkey last summer and snapped a picture of the sculpture of Apollo at Nemrut just as the sun was coming up. Beardless Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, healing and plague both, and music. And poetry. Shelley wrote (in “Hymn of Apollo”), “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” At a poetry reading in San Francisco last week Stephen said, of his encounter with the god, “I thought I should ask him, Do you have any thoughts about creative-writing programs?”
In the creative-writing industry one commonly comes across metaphors for and references to the mercantile. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs—the venerable old AWP—is the…
December 6, 2012, 12:01 am
Read any good stories lately? Maybe not, but Facebook thinks you read a lot of them—thousands, in fact—though “reading” may not be the term to describe what you’re doing.
I check Facebook with an unseemly regularity. I’m not sure what I check it for, though a lot of my academic friends have accounts, and a good thing, too.
If they didn’t I’d miss out on many important things. Their locations at airports. Pictures of sunsets. Kids in costumes. Cats (not in costume—costumed animals are almost always dogs). HuffPo repostings. A variegated display of political outrage. Birthday wishes. Plus the occasional announcement of a forthcoming lecture.
I don’t object to any of this. Facebook isn’t a news ticker; it’s more like a grocery store or one of those sushi bars with little dishes on conveyor belts.
Facebook knows I don’t have to take everything, or read…