Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts

Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.

   


Cosmopolitans and Roots

August 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of yesterday’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.
ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They're not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.
Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”
 Cosmopolitans:
  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation
Locals:
  • high on loyalty to the employing organization,
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.
Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one Website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing.


The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false.  For the anti-Semites, the Website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

Miller would of course understand this, and I think those more dedicated to The Tribe get the reference as well.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews. Second, Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And fJinally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

(Click to enlarge. The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949).

UPDATE: Jeff Greenfield says something similar and more at Politico. ( “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”) (I met Greefield once long ago at a party, back before he was on CBS, ABC, CNN, back when he did a morning show once a week on WBAI.)

Cleaning Up After the Jamboree

July 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, especially when that person will not apologize, does not even recognize his own impropriety, and is the president of the United States?

Traditionally the president’s address to the Boy Scouts jamboree is non-political. It stresses the good deeds of the organization and the virtues it espouses.* Trump’s speech, by contrast, was what he usually delivers when he goes off script – attacks on his enemies (Hillary, the media, Obamacare), recountings of his electoral victories, dog whistles shout-outs to White Christians, and stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies.

The kids in the audience loved it. They cheered, chanted, and booed in all the right places.  No surprise there. Trump’s persona, like that of Howard Stern, plays well to the adolescent-boy sensibility. But some of the grown-ups felt uncomfortable with the campaign-rally speech, and the organization received many complaints from Scout parents. 

Apparently, the Scouts were not prepared. It took until today, Thursday (Trump spoke on Monday), for the “chief Scout executive” Michael Surbaugh to issue a statement. Here’s the key paragraph.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

The problem is how to apologize for the president without offending him. (The president of the Boy Scouts, Randall Stephenson, is also CEO of AT&T. His company wants to gobble up Time Warner, and the deal needs the approval of the Justice Department. Trump’s remarks about loyalty  – “we could use some more loyalty” – may have caught his attention. Perhaps that’s why the statement came from the chief Scout executive.)

Surbaugh (i.e., his writers) hauled out two familiar rhetorical strategies to downplay Trump’s trampling on the norms of Jamboree speeches. First, rather than say that Trump’s speech was offensive, Surbaugh shifted the spotlight to “those . . . who were offended.” It’s not about Trump, it’s about those sensitive snowflakes who took offense.

Second, it wasn’t even Trump who made the speech, at least not as far as anyone would know from reading that paragraph.** Thanks to the passive voice, Trump disappears from sight. Instead we get “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree” and “politics were inserted” with no hint of who might have been the insertor-in-chief.

You have to have some sympathy for the Scouts brass. Trump dealt them a bad hand. What else could they have done? They could have claimed that Trump’s speech was not political, just good, clean American fun. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from Republicans in Congress. And after all, the credo does not say that a Scout is honest.

--------------------------------
*
A Scout is ...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent

Oh well, four out of twelve ain’t bad. Maybe five if you allow that our president can also be helpful, at times, to some people. Of course, if Trump himself were scoring this one, he’d give himself 100%.  At the jamboree he mentioned only one of these virtues – loyalty. He complained  that “we could use some more loyalty,” and since most of the speech was about his political accomplishments, it was pretty clear that he was using the royal “we” and that he was referring to Washington politics and perhaps more specifically to the Attorney General.

** In the entire statement – nearly 500 words – Surbaugh never mentions Trump by name. He refers once to “remarks offered by the President of the United States.” 

Ceci n’est pas trash-talking

June 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The reference in the title is to this canvas by René Magritte.



There must be a word for this – the statement that is self-contradictory – but what is it? (Of course you could argue that Magritte is technically correct. It’s not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe.)

Paralipsis and apophasis come close – emphasizing something by saying you’re not emphasizing it. In politics, for example: “I’m not even going to mention the rumors that my opponent has deep ties to the Russian Mafia and hires prostitutes to pee on him.”

I’m thinking of something a shade more subtle – the statement or image that is itself the opposite of what it claims to be.  It came to mind a couple days ago when a right-winger I know who likes to bait me sent an e-mail with this.

why should anyone on our side want Obama to succeed in “transforming” America into a cesspool of political correctness, creeping socialism, leftist thugs on campus, and appeasement of Islamic extremism?). 

By the way, are you down with programs to “re-educate” Americans who don’t see things your way? That’s what the left wants — clearly and openly. So resistance to all that brainwashing was the mission of Republicans under Obama, true. But I don’t remember any assassination fantasies.

Current climate different: Not only no hope for reconciliation, but rumblings of violence. Already one Republican Congressmen nearly assassinated. More politically motivated violence to come, no doubt. (Madonna fantasy “blow up the white house” / Depp actor assassination fantasy / Kathy Griffin beheaded Trump imagery / Shakespeare in the Park Trump vicarious assassination to hoots of delight, etc. — you have great friends, Jay.)


I said that I could do a similar caricature of conservatives, but why bother? It’s just trash talk. The point is to taunt rather than to discuss. Maybe on the basketball court trash-talking enhances the game (my correspondent does have a beautiful jump shot), but it doesn’t do much for understanding, and I just wasn’t interested in talking trash right now.

He wrote back. “Not trash-talking - just reality, unpleasant as it is.”  It’s a perfect example of the thing I’m trying to find the word for – trash-talking by saying that not you’re not trash-talking.

The same day, an even better example from Page Six showed up in my Twitter feed.



Did Comey Infer Or Did He Imply?

June 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language prescriptivists – the people who tell us when our choice of words is wrong – are always on the losing side historically. Words come to mean what people use them to mean regardless (or irregardless) of what experts say. But sometimes the fuddy-duddies have a point.

Infer/Imply. These words often appear on lists of terms that people misuse. To imply is to suggest something indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion from the available information. Most of the time, you can figure out from context what the speaker or writer really meant. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two words can be important.

Look at the this sentence in a story today at the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, (here):

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
(The link at “heavily inferred” does not go to a language Website.)


At first, I thought that Comey, using his powers of deduction and the information available at the FBI, had concluded that the special counsel was conducting an obstruction investigation. But no, what the writer meant, I think, was that Comey had implied that the special counsel was investigating possible obstruction of justice. 

The distinction is relevant. As written, the sentence means that Comey didn’t know and was just guessing. But if the writer meant imply rather than infer, it means Comey already knew and was dropping a big hint to the committee and to the world. That’s especially important because the main Republican talking point is that there is no case for obstruction.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe someone will explain why imply doesn’t rhyme with simply.

EdSpeak Deliveryman

April 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son lived at home, a favorite family game when we ate out was MenuSpeak – scanning the restaurant menu for meaningless adjectives and adverbs.

Tender moist morsels of succulent chicken sauteed to perfection and topped with a reduction of the finest white wine delicately seasoned with fragrant, aromatic spices and herbs carefully selected by our talented chef.

Restaurants are always cooking things “to perfection,” probably because the instructions on the pre-portioned, flash-frozen dishes tell the staff exactly how long to set the microwave for.

I was reminded of our game recently when I received* a copy of the Executive Summary of a report that a university prepared for an accreditation review. The Key Findings of the  Summary comprise seven “standards,” written to perfection in EdSpeak. I give you Standard III.

Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience.
The University provides students with rich and diverse interlocking learning experiences that include a revitalized General Education Program that reflects stronger coherence, rigorous and innovative academic programs that are relevant and integral to the generation of the flat global world, and a range of other high impact co-curricular activities that offer significant opportunities for students to enrich their learning experiences.

I took out the adjectives and similar verbiage. Here’s what was left.

The University provides students with a General Education Program and co-curricular activities.

I think this means that they offer a lot of courses and also credits for non-classroom work. As for the rest, I have no idea. I do see that if I were there, I would not be a teacher. I would be a Student Learning Experience Deliveryman. I would deliver tender moist morsels of learning experience.

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* In keeping with the political spirit of the times, I am not going to disclose my sources. 

Losing My Religion . . . And Its Swears

February 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Walking across campus yesterday, I heard a loud, long belch. About ten yards away were two girls, one drinking a can of soda as they walked.

“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed her friend.

Wow, I thought, that’s something I rarely hear these days – not belching, but “Jesus Christ.” We must have found some other phrase to express a mixture of surprise and disapproval. Or was this just my idiosyncratic sampling of language?

No, my impression was correct.  Linguist Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, says that “Jesus Christ” doesn’t even make it into the top 20 among swears these days. as religion ecome more powerful and able to impose its taboos? Just the opposite. Religion is declining in importance, especially among the young, and as a consequence, religious swears have lost the power entwined with taboo.

Religious swears – words once deemed blasphemous – are now perfectly acceptable.  The Hollywood Production Code of 1927 banned damn, hell, God, Jesus, Christ, and even lord (unless used in a religious sense). The Code faded in the 1950s, but television adopted many of its rules. That was then. Now, if you told young people told that invoking the lord’s name was once unacceptable, they would probably text back, “OMG, why?” 

Some of those no-longer-powerful religious curses are being replaced with sex-based terms. In earlier generations, you might have said that a room was “hot as hell.” Now, it’s “hot as fuck.” As a simile, it makes no sense, but fuck emphasizes the heat in a way that hell no longer does.

I’m not sure what most college-age people would say these days when a friend unabashedly emits a loud belch. I am not a religious Christian; I’m just old. So I found it comforting to hear America’s youth repeating the familiar words, “Jesus Christ!”

The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.


Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.



I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 

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* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)


This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.


Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.



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* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).

Unprecedented

November 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him.

This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here).



The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass.

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* “Unorthodox” bills itself as a fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember.

The Genuine Article

October 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump has a tell – an unconscious tic that divulges genuine ideas and feelings that are different from the views he consciously wants to convey. His tell is the word “the.”

“I will be phenomenal to the women, I mean I'lI want to help women,” said Donald Trump back in August of 2015, when he was one of many Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination. John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” had asked him why women should vote for him.

I bring this up not because women voters reject Trump’s own self-assessment, though reject it they do.  Here is Nate Silver’s estimate of what the election would look like if only women voted.



What struck me was Trump’s use of the definite article. “Phenomenal to the women,” rather than just “phenomenal to women.” On the surface, Trump was saying that when it came to women voters, he was on their side. But the definite article subtly the contradicted that assertion. As I blogged at the time (here),

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.. . . turning them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Linguist Lynne Murphy (here) heard something similar during the most recent debate, regarding not women but minorities.

One of the littlest words in the English language gives the biggest clue about where Donald Trump’s head is at: his use of the word “the.”

Trump promised, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

By using the definite article, says Murphy, the speaker builds a wall between himself and the group he is talking about. “The” turns them into the “other.”

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Nate Silver has not offered maps showing what the election would look like if only Blacks, Hispanics, and inner-cities voted, but I suspect they would resemble that of the women.

Murphy, a “reader” in linguistics at the University of Sussex, notes a similar “the” othering among her fellow UK linguists. This same tell reveals how they feel about those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Are we “Americans,” or are we “the Americans”?

British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

Trump Unrestricted

September 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Commas are important. Sometimes.
  • I waved to the young man who was wearing a gray suit.
“Who was wearing a gray suit” is a restrcitive clause. It’s called that because it limits the subject. There could have been a lot of other young men, but I waved to the one in the gray suit.
  • I waved to the young man, who was wearing a gray suit.
With the comma added, the clause becomes nonrestrictive. The young man is the only possible one, and he was wearing a gray suit.

Today we have this statement from Donald Trump’s doctors.

We are pleased to disclose all of the test results which show that Mr. Trump is in excellent health, and has the stamina to endure — uninterrupted — the rigors of a punishing and unprecedented presidential campaign and, more importantly, the singularly demanding job of President of the United States.

With no comma, the clause “which show that Mr. Trump is in excellent health” becomes restrictive. It implies that there may other test results which do not show Trump to be in excellent health. Was the copy editor being cagey or merely careless?

Today’s statement is a bit more specific than the previous medical records released by a Trump doctor — “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” which sounds almost as if the Donald himself could have written it.

Of course Mr. Trump is in great health, the best – believe me. I know his doctors, the finest really. I admire them, and they say his stamina is great. I can’t believe that people are complaining about a comma. Don’t get me wrong. I love commas. China – by the way, a very great country – China doesn’t have commas, and we’ve let them get away with that. China is incredible in many ways. I eat Chinese food. I mean, my Chinese chef is tremendous, tremendous. But many people say that there are no commas on the menus. No commas at all. Sad.

Who’s Shameless?

August 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can Donald Trump, with his 39 Pinocchios from Fact Checker, continue to make false and outrageous claims? How could he denigrate the gold star parents of a Musliim US soldier killed in Afghanistan? Why has he no sense of shame?

Trevor Noah, interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, suggested that it started with bankruptcy. For most people, declaring bankruptcy is a matter of shame. It is a public admission of failure. But for a business, it’s not really so bad. American bankruptcy laws allow business persons to pick themselves, dust themselves off, pay their creditors and suppliers a fraction of what they are owed, and start all over again. Which is what Trump has done at least four times. Even if he might have felt a slight touch of shame the first time, it quickly wore off in subsequent bankruptcies. Trump the businessman might have taken a financial hit, but Trump the public person suffered no loss of social standing.

Before looking for other explanations – surely they must be out there – I wanted to  see the extent of the image of Trump as shameless, I went to Google.



Nearly 700,000 hits. The difference between him and other polticians must be huge. For comparison, I tried the Democratic nominee.



Hillary, by this measure, is not quite so shameless as the Donald, but 500,000 seemed like a lot. Then again, her opponents could reel off a list of scandals dating back to her days in Arkansas. I tried a few successful presidential candidates.



Obama and Bush were not so far behind. The toll was high even for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, who served before shouts of “shameless” could be echoed around the Internet. Besides, Reagan and Carter, whatever you thought of their policies, seemed like decent human beings. Yet their quotient of “shameless” pages runs to hundreds of thousands. I confess I am ignorant of the ways of the Google algorithm and what those numbers actually reflect. Still, nearly half a million seems like a lot.

Maybe this is not about the politicians themselves. It’s about reactions to those politicians, especially in a polarized polity. Partisans strongly committed to their own point of view often believe that those who disagree with them are acting in bad faith. (See this earlier post about politics and perception.) They think that their own views are so obviously valid and true that a person who sees things otherwise must be denying reality and deliberately lying. These denials and lies are so blatant, so transparent, that most people would be ashamed to utter them. Who could say things that they know are factually and morally wrong?  The politician who is shameless. But the shamelessness may be mostly in the eye of the beholder

Police-Speak, Again

July 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A recent post (here) noted that police departments often resort to contorted and vague language rather than say that a cop shot someone. “An officer-involved shooting occurred.”
The Washington Post this morning has this story.



The the man sitting up is autistic. He wandered away from his assisted living facility. The Black man lying on the ground is a therapist there and was trying to bring him back. The police showed up, heavily armed. The Black man lay on the ground, hands raised, and tried to tell the autistic man to do the same. He also shouted to the cops that the autistic man was holding a toy truck, not a gun.


One of the cops shot the Black man. Or as the statement from the North Miami PD put it,

“At some point during the on-scene negotiation, one of the responding officers discharged his weapon, striking the employee of the [assisted living facility].”

As someone (OK, it was me) tweeted, “I discharged my weapon striking the sheriff, but I did not discharge my weapon striking the deputy.”

Language is one of the less important aspects of this incident, but the other important details have not yet been reported, We do know that the bullet hit the man in the leg, that the police handcuffed him and kept him on the ground, still bleeding according to the Post, for twenty minutes.

Language-involved Blog Post

July 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The simple active-voice sentence is good reporting. It tells you who did what.

There are worse ways of saying it.

Last September, McSweeney’s published a piece by Vijith Assar – “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar (here – that riffed through increasingly mealy-mouthed formulations of the fox and dog. One of the last versions was:

A quick brown fox and a lazy dog were involved in a jumping-related incident.

It sounds ridiculous, but it also sounds familiar. That’s what satire does. It makes you aware of inanities (and worse) that you have often seen but not noticed or thought about, so that in the future (or as we say now, “going forward”) you cannot miss them.

Today, I clicked on a link to a WaPo article from July 11 (here) about the numbers of Blacks and Whites shot and killed by police. Like most journalistic accounts, it begins with a single case. The third sentence says, “When [the police] tried to pull [the driver] over, the 19-year-old led police to a nearby gas station and then exited his car.” The story continues with a quote from the police department.

“The driver then turned towards officers with one hand concealed behind his back, and told officers he hated his life,” the Fresno police department said in a statement. “As he continued to advance towards officers, an officer-involved shooting occurred.”

No quick brown foxes in the Fresno PD.

Ceci n’est pas the Active Voice

June 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

My brother volunteers as a reader of audiobooks. His latest assignment was a methods text –  Research Methods in Social Relations, 8th edition (Geoffrey Maruyama and Carey S. Ryan, Wiley, 2014).  In the last chapter, on p. 511, he read this:

The use of the first person and the active voice is now preferred over the third person and the passive voice. The past tense is used when reporting the past research of others and in describing your own procedures. The present tense is used to discuss results currently in front of the reader ...




Breaking the Rules of Writing

June 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ah, litotes: “a figure of speech which employs an understatement by using double negatives.”

 I recently came across this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith.*

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

Orwell, in his famous essay on politics and language, decries the “not un-“ construction because it tries to make the banal sound profound. But it also sacrifices clarity. Saying what something is rather than what it is not makes it specific. Also, we grasp a positive more quickly than two negatives. (See here, here, here, or here.)

Galbraith uses “not without” because he wants to understate. Saying that yes wealth does have some advantages makes those who would deny that idea seem even more ridiculous. 

The negative construction in the punch line –  “has never proved widely persuasive” – uses the same strategy of understatement. He could have said, “but nobody really believes it,” but Galbraith’s phrasing – the “widely” is crucial to the wit of the line –  implies that there are actually some people foolish enough to believe the myth.** 

Who are these people? Identifying them is not important, which is why the passive voice (“the case. . .has often been made”) here works perfectly well.

In a sentence of 23 words, Galbraith uses two constructions that I usually try to avoid – the passive voice and the double negative – but here they work wonderfully. Apparently, the rules don’t apply when you are using irony, especially when you are using it to undermine the essential folly of “the conventional wisdom” (a term coined by Galbraith, by the way). In this case, that conventional wisdom is the idea that money can’t buy what’s important in life – happiness, for example, or elections.

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* Howard Wainer uses a slightly different version in his recent book Truth and Truthiness.

** A famous Sophie Tucker quote expresses the same idea; “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” As with the Galbraith quote, its wit depends on some people having tried to make the case to the contrary. 

Sometimes I Feel Like . . . a Muddledness Child

May 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Molly Worthen* is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates.  It’s a tyranny without a tyrant (sorry, Obama haters; you can’t pin this one on him). Instead, it’s like the Yeerks in the Animorphs books my son used to read – worm-like aliens that slip in through a human’s ear, wrap themselves around his brain, and take over his thought. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:

“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.

Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees..

“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. (I almost always dislike the phrase “in terms of,” but in this case, it is apt. I am talking about words.) The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend  when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.

In an earlier post (here) I reported that “needs to” began its rise in the late 1970s. “I feel like” is more recent, says Worthen, going back only a decade or two.

[Update: After I originally posted this, Philip Cohen ran “I feel like” through Google nGrams, as did Mark Liberman at Language Log, and found that, like “needs to,” the phrase “I feel like” began its rise in the late 1970s,not in the 90s as Worthen seems to think. Here is my own nGrams version. To ensure that “I feel like” excludes phrases like “I feel like taking a walk ” or “I feel like a motherless child,” I added a pronoun so that “I feel like” has to be followed by a clause, e.g., “I feel like he is too idealistic.” To get both lines on the same grid, I had to multiply “I feel like” uses by 500.]

Regardless of when the tide of “I feel like” starts its rise, Worthen finds it more insidious. She says that the phrase defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel.

Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who does not agree and is much calmer about the whole thing. When you say, “I feel like. . .” people know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that you are not speaking about your actual emotions.

The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ”

Worthen nevertheless insists on the Yeerkish insidious of “I feel like.”  “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”

“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:

We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.

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*Worthen’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is here.

Image or Brand

April 22, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

One word in today’s headlines seemed like a throwback to an earlier era: image.



It was in the 1960s that politicians, their handlers, and the people who write about them discovered image. The word carries the cynical implication that voters, like shoppers, respond to the surface image rather than the substance – the picture on the box rather than what’s inside.  A presidential campaign was based on the same thing as an advertising campaign – image.  You sold a candidate the same way you sold cigarettes, at least according to the title and book jacket of Joe McGinnis’s book.

 (That pack of Nixon’s should have carried the Surgeon General’s warning.) 
 
Then, sometime around 1980, image began to fade. In its place we now have brand. I went to Google N-grams and looked at the ratio of image to brand in both the corporate and the political realm. The pattern is nearly identical.



The ratio rises steeply from 1960 to 1980 – lots more talk about image, no increase in brand. Then the trend reverses. Sightings of image were still rising, but nowhere nearly as rapidly as brand, which doubled from 1980 to 2000 in politics and quadrupled in the corporate world.

Image sounds too deceptive and manipulative; you can change it quickly according to the needs of the moment. Brand implies permanence and substance (not to mention Marlboro-man-like rugged independence and integrity.) No wonder people in the biz prefer brand.

Decades ago, when my son was in grade school, I met another parent who worked in the general area of public relations. On seeing him at the next school function a few weeks later, I said, “Oh right, you work in corporate image-mongering.” I thought I said it jokingly, but he seemed offended. He was, I quickly learned, a brand consultant. Image bad; brand good.

In later communications, he also said that a company’s attempt to brand itself as something it’s not will inevitably fail.  The same thing supposedly goes for politics

“One thing you learn very quickly in political consulting is the fruitlessness of trying to get a candidate to change who he or she fundamentally is at their core,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who did polling for Rubio’s presidential campaign before he dropped out of the race. “So, is the snide, insulting, misogynistic guy we’ve seen really who Donald Trump is? Or is it the disciplined, respectful, unifying Trump we saw for seven minutes after the New York primary?

These consultants are saying what another Republican said a century and a half ago: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

This seems to argue that political image-mongers have to be honest about who their candidate really is. But there’s another way of reading Lincoln’s famous line: You only need to fool half the people every four years.

Based – Off and On

March 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston


“This is based off of self-interest . . . .” wrote one student. Another wrote, “It’s an idea based off others from past years.” 

This construction sounded wrong to my ears. What happened to “based on”? Was this some local North New Jersey variant, like the New Yorkers’ waiting on line when everyone else in the US waits in line? But then I saw it in The Guardian last week:
Kang and her colleagues sent out 1,600 fabricated resumes, based off of real candidates, to employers in 16 different metropolitan areas in the US.
Lexis-Nexis turned up a few others just since the start of the year, and it wasn’t just New Jersey, or even the US.
  • “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl “ is based off of the book by Jesse Andrews, (Berkshire Eagle) “We should set a baseline, and that's what the salaries should be based off.” (Chicago Daily Herald)
  • . . .little should be read into the upcoming Capital One Cup game based off this result. (Manchester Evening News, UK)
  • . . . schools estimated the number of children in their zone based off a ballot sent out in September (Manawatu Standard, New Zealand)
“Busy prepositions, always on the go,” said “Schoolhouse Rock.”* But it seems to me that prepositions are remarkably stable – those New Yorkers are still waiting on line, even though “on line” has added a much different and widely used meaning.



How did we get “based off” and “based off of”? How did this diffusion happen? It’s not like some fashion in clothing. It’s not created in Language Central and sent out amid a big publicity campaign. Nor did any celebrities start using it. Nor is it like the words that people are fully aware of and consciously choose, the phrases that are groovy for a minute or two and then become old hat, or those that are totally awesome and become part of the language and that nobody has an issue with.

My Lexis-Nexis search for “based off” turned up about 300 hits for 2016. (Lexis-Nexis does not consider “of” to be worthy of counting, so adding it to a word or phrase – “based off of” – is useless.) In the same period for 2010, the count was 100. In 2000, zero.

The Google nGrams database of books tells a similar story of the rapid rise of “based off of.” Of course, it is, by several orders of magnitude, still dwarfed by “based on.” But this graph, with “based off of multiplied by 100,000, shows its recent and rapid rise.



The change is probably generational. Older speakers like me will cling to “based on”; but “based off” or “based off of” will be the choice of an increasing number of younger people. It won’t catch up to “based off” immediately. It’s not the faddish kind of change that will happen in a couple of days. Or do I mean “in a couple days”?


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* The song is here. It was written by jazz pianist/composer Bob Dorough, and he performs it with trumpeter Jack Sheldon. Other jazzers, notably Dave Frishberg and Blossom Dearie, contributed to “Schoolhouse Rock” as writers and performers. Busy jazz musicians.