Jul 212003

(With apologies to Flaubert.)

< ...>: A form of emphasis employed by bloggers who wish to show that they understand HTML. The ellipses are usually replaced by “SARCASM” or “RANT” but anything will serve. Rendered as […][/…] by bloggers who do not understand how to escape characters in HTML.

â„¢: May be appended to anything except an actual trademark.

call your office: A directive not intended to be followed addressed to someone who will never read it.

cool kids: Other people.

crickets chirping: A colorful synonym for “silence.” Often set off in its own paragraph for extra color.

even the: Always succeeded by “liberal,” if you are conservative, or “conservative,” if you are liberal.

fascist: See idiotarian.

heh: The soul of brevity is to use one word where none will do.

idiotarian: A particularly dull-witted commentator, and thus deserving of special attention, who disagrees with you. Thunder against.

indeed: See heh.

literally: Figuratively.

meme: Anything that anyone else has ever referred to on the Internet.

read the whole thing: Always preceded by “As they say,” or “To coin a phrase.”

shocked: Always succeeded by (shocked!).

the “Q” word: Quixotic.

Jul 132003

All solicitations guaranteed overheard.

Frank: “Spare five bucks so I can go get high?” Whimsical: “I’m trying to get together the down payment on a Gulfstream.” Proletarian: “Help the homeless?” Fiduciary: “I borrowed ten bucks and I need to pay it back.” Aggressive (works only on the subway): “Either you give me money now or I play my tenor saxophone solo from outer space.” Bold: “Got fifty bucks?” Meek: “Could you please spare a nickel…a penny?” Nostalgic: “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Therapeutic: “Spare some change and improve your karma.” Primal: “I HAVE AIDS HELP ME PLEEEEEASE!” Hopeless: “Want to hear a poem I wrote?”

Jun 272003

Richard Dawkins will stop at nothing. Not content with foisting on the Internet the SARS-like “meme” — which doesn’t mean what you think, look it up sometime — he plumps for “Bright” to describe “a naturalistic worldview…absent any presumption of forces or entities beyond what can be observed/measured.” Few things inspire in me a sympathy for the religious; here is one.

To begin with, there are obviously forces that are far from mystical that cannot be measured, human ends for instance, which are notoriously ordinal, not cardinal. Ends can be observed, but not directly, only in their manifestations. Unfortunately our Bright employs a slash so we cannot be sure if he meant “and” or “or,” which demonstrates the same feeling for language that “Bright” itself does.

As Andrea Harris points out, “bright” is, in ordinary usage, the antonym of “clever.” It describes children who get A’s in Deportment (do they still give grades for Deportment?) and Play Well With Others. It is a word from which any genuinely intelligent child instinctively recoils. This was as true in Dawkins’ time as in my own; he must have forgotten that “bright boy” is a term of abuse, and not the way “geek” and “grind” are either.

He may intend to hijack the word, the way statists hijacked “liberal” and radical homosexuals hijacked “queer.” If he succeeds, it will merely impoverish the language. There are perfectly good English words available to describe a naturalistic worldview. Rationalist, scientific, and non-religious have all performed this homely service adequately for quite some time.

Most offensively, it is a transparent attempt to win an argument by changing the terminology, which is as unscientific a procedure as can be imagined. You may as well adopt the word “right” to describe your worldview. What does that make your opponents? Wrong, of course! Dawkins is quite frank about this, imagining the following bright snatch of dialogue. There is really no other word for it, and if the Brights have their way, there will be no word for it at all.

“Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s a bit like ‘gay’. So, what’s the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?”

“What would you suggest?”

Count me dim.

(Update: Andrea Harris comments. Jonathan Wilde comments. Mark Wickens defends Dawkins doggedly but not altogether convincingly.)

Jun 142003

There is pleasure in the wet, wet clay,
When the artist’s hand is potting it.
There is pleasure in the wet, wet lay,
When the poet’s pad is blotting it.
There is pleasure in the shine of your picture on the line
At the Royal Acade-my;
But the pleasure felt in these is as chalk to Cheddar Cheese
When it comes to a well-made Lie.–
To a quite unwreckable Lie,
To a most impeccable Lie!
To a water-tight, fire-proof, angle-iron, sunk-hinge, time-lock, steel-faced Lie!
Not a private hansom Lie,
But a pair-and-brougham Lie,
Not a little-place-at-Tooting, but a country-house-with-shooting
And a ring-fence-deer-park Lie.

–Rudyard Kipling

What’s a lie, anyway? The question is not so obvious. One might say it’s an untrue statement, which seems a bit harsh, as it makes habitual liars out of all of us. A while back I wrote that the Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell was unanimous, when it was actually 8-1. Was I lying, or was I merely mistaken?

Or one might say that it’s a statement that one knows to be false. In this case I’m off the hook for Buck v. Bell, which I thought was unanimous. Of course you will have to take my word for that, and therein lies the difficulty. You have no access to my inner life, or anyone’s except your own. The Bedlamite may really believe he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Predictions, by any standard, cannot be lies. As a rule any statement in the conditional or future tense is disqualified. When Bush says that we will find WMDs in Iraq, he can’t be lying if we turn out not to find them. When Max Sawicky writes that “the biggest lie…is the Bushist denial that a successful Iraqi occupation would require many more troops than it is currently within the power of the U.S. to station,” he is discussing a policy disagreement, not a lie, unless Bush has personally informed Max that he knew better all along, which I rather doubt. When Howard Owens lists among anti-war lies that “there will be 500,000 dead and wounded,” “Saddam will destroy his oil fields,” “the Arab street will revolt,” and “there will be more terrorist attacks on the United States,” sorry, but those aren’t lies either.

This is not to say that Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell et al. weren’t lying. Maybe Powell really did fabricate evidence of Iraqi WMDs for his UN speech, although that would be pretty foolish, and Powell has been accused of many things but rarely foolishness. Maybe all of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s talk about Iraqi-sponsored terrorism was calculated to distract the public from their secret plans for world hegemony. Maybe. The point is I don’t know, and neither do you.

In general trying to catch politicians lying is a fruitless exercise. They are expert in avoiding it. Even the First Golf Cheat had to be subpoenaed before he was finally nailed in a ring-fence-deer-park lie. Error is objective, and for the most part we would be best off sticking to that. It makes for less catchy slogans though.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

Mar 222003

Tom Wolfe coined “plutography,” which deserves to be in wider use, to describe television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and magazines like Architectural Digest. Our new weapons are mind-blowing, to be sure, and I’m happy we have them, but there is something unseemly about the way the TV reporters slobber over them. So what’s a suitable analogous coinage? Paging Dr. Weevil

Jan 312003

Jim Ryan stands up for “he” as the universal antecedent. Cinderella learnedly notes how vastly the status of women in Iran has been improved by the fact that Persian possesses a unisex substitute. Jacques Barzun, in the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, has the absolutely last word on the subject:

[I]t is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611, and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climactic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root of man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for “I think.” In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious — spokesman, chairman, and the like — man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically “wife-human being.” The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application…

In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply “grown-up,” and the ending -ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best to let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.

…To repeat at frequent intervals “man and woman” and follow it with the compulsory “his and her” is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like the French on. But on is only the slimmed-down form of hom(me) — man again.

…The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue — an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.

Any questions?

(Update: Dean Esmay comments. At length.)

Jan 032003

I await this Internet quiz, which is bound to be more instructive than Christian theologian or Euroweenie. Colby Cosh admits to weaknesses for the em-dash and the semicolon. This is small-time. The semicolon is obsolescent, and its users evince a harmless nostalgia for those glorious days when which was which and that was that and shall and will kept to their proper place.

The em-dash denotes an inability to stick to the point, but far less pathologically than the parenthesis, which I favor. Perhaps the most distinguished contemporary exponent of parentheses is Renata Adler, half of whose really rather good book on the Sharon and Westmoreland libel trials, Reckless Disregard, is between them. (It’s hard to decide which half is better, the inside or the outside. Overuse of parentheses often gives rise to this difficulty.)

The colon is favored by poets, and poetasters, who are obsessed with how their deathless prose sounds when read out loud, like that’s going to happen any time soon. Would-be epigrammatists like it too. Few can write something as good as “Man proposes: God disposes”: many can punctuate it. Wallace Stevens was addicted to the colon. So was Niezsche. I will justify my own addiction to the colon — and I’ve caught myself using as many as three in a single sentence — when I learn to write like Wallace Stevens or Nietzsche.

Question marks, oddly, signify the quarrelsome. Questions in prose are nearly always rhetorical, and writers who employ them are affecting the manner of the high school debater in cross-examination. The truly querulous, like Kierkegaard, rarely use question marks. (Yes, I like question marks too. Yes, I was captain of the debate team in high school.)

The exclamation point used to be for emphasis. But now that teenage girls have hijacked it for use in their diaries — or on their blogs, probably — certain literate devotees, like Mickey Kaus, have begun to use it, half-ironically, to sound less emphatic. A judicious exclamation point gives a sentence some helium, cuts it loose from its moorings. This will be effective until more than three or four people in the world start to do it, when it will grow tiresome.

At least one typographical tic is the exclusive province of the subliterate. Ellipsis Men can often be seen shuffling on the streets, hunched over, muttering to themselves, “Kennedy… radio machines…. Ted Turner Viet Cong… whose job anyway…”