Language – God of the Machine
Dec 302006

“Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland; and the trial of the Knave of Hearts has justly remained the literary standard for injustice, since the book’s publication in 1869.

Being an idiot, I thought the expression originated with Lewis Carroll, until last night. I was reading Macaulay’s 1830 essay on Lord Byron, and ran across the following passage, on Byron’s failed marriage: “True Jedwood justice was dealt out to him. First came the execution, then the investigation, and last of all, or rather not at all, the accusation.” The term “Jedwood justice,” also new to me, implied that the concept is proverbial, and led to a slightly earlier citation, in 1828, from Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth: “Jedwood justice — hang in haste and try at leisure.”

Jedwood (or Jedburgh) justice, it turns out, goes under various aliases: Cupar (or Cowper) justice, Halifax law, Abingdon law, and Lydford law. Cupar and Halifax are dead-ends. A Major-General Brown, of Abingdon, is supposed to have hanged his prisoners and then tried them, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable appears to be the sole authority for the Major-General’s existence.

Lydford proves more fertile. Chambers’ Book of Days cites an “old English proverb”: “First hang and draw, then leave the cause to Lydford Law.” He also quotes a poem, by the early 17th century poet William Browne, in Lydford’s defense:

I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter.

They have a castle on a hill;
I took it for an old wind-mill,
The vanes blown off by weather.
To lie therein one night, ’tis guessed
‘Twere better to be stoned and pressed,
Or hanged, now chose you whether.

Ten men less room within this cave,
Than five mice in a lantern have,
The keepers they are sly ones.
If any could devise by art
To get it up into a cart,
‘Twere fit to carry lions.

When I beheld it, Lord! thought I,
What justice and what clemency
Rath Lydford when I saw all!
I know none gladly there would stay,
But rather hang out of the way,
Than tarry for a trial!

Browne lived in Tavistock, a neighboring town in West Devon, and he knew what he was talking about: Lydford prison was described in 1512 as “one of the most heinous, contagious, and detestable places in the realm” (here’s a rather bucolic picture of the ruins). Depending on how long one had to tarry for a trial, Browne’s reasoning may have been sound as well. It is amusing at the very least.

My patchy scholarship, abetted by some desultory Googling, can take me no further. Can my readers supply earlier citations, in English or another language?

Update: You can tell me or you can tell Language Hat.

Dec 082006

The first piece of advice in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style concerns punctuation — the proper use of the apostrophe. I learn that I must write “Charles’s execution,” but “Jesus’ crucifixion.” Already my prose is improving, though not at the rate I would like.

Items 2 through 8 also concern punctuation. I learn to balance my commas, and to handle colons, semi-colons, and em-dashes with aplomb.

Punctuation is important. Its abuse can be a source of unintentional hilarity. (“I would like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”) Some would go so far as to regard it as an index to character. On its wings a marginally literate Englishwoman has soared to international celebrity. But The Elements of Style purports to be a guide to writing English. A badly punctuated essay can be corrected in minutes. A badly written essay can probably never be corrected at all.

Strunk and White expand their range in Items 9 and 10, which advise, respectively, that subject and verb agree in number and that pronouns be proper case. This is unexceptionable: as most of these errors derive from being unable to determine the subject or the case, it is also useless. With a final warning against dangling modifiers, buttressed by several amusing, if unlikely, examples (“Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”), Strunk and White conclude their “Rules of Usage” and move on to “Principles of Composition.”

There are eleven of these:

1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
3. Use the active voice.
4. Put statements in positive form.
5. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
6. Omit needless words.
7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
9. Keep related words together.
10. In summaries, keep to one tense.
11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

A strange mix of the anodyne, the obvious, and the risible. Omitting needless words is a fine idea, certainly better than adding them. (And how much better to choose a suitable design than an unsuitable one!) To judge from White’s introduction, it appears to have been a particular favorite of Strunk’s:

In the days when I was sitting in [Strunk’s] class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Willy Three Times, with so many minutes to spare, might have mentioned, in order of increasing importance, omitting needless sentences, omitting needless paragraphs, omitting needless chapters, and omitting needless books of advice. He might have touched on how to judge what is needless, which is where the trouble lies. But this would be difficult to do in “a hortatory essay…. of sixty-three words.”

The cabal of linguistics professors at Language Log likes to laugh at Strunk and White. They go especially hard on using the active voice and omitting needless words. Sometimes they lose their cool. A “vile collation of stupid advice and false claims about grammar”? Stupid and false perhaps, but vile? Professor overboard!

At any rate, the merits of the particular principles are mostly beside the point. The list reminds me of the to-do lists I make periodically, which include items like “learn Spanish” and “blog more often,” and items like “take out the trash” and “pick up the dry cleaning.” I somehow never get around to blogging more often or learning Spanish. The Strunk and White reader will never get around to choosing, and holding to, a suitable design either — not that the book would aid him if he did.

The hyphen, parenthesis, quotation mark, and exclamation point — apparently the red-headed stepchildren of punctuation — are relegated to Section Three, “A Few Matters of Form,” along with a few desultory bits of advice about dates, titles, margins, headings, and syllabification that must have fit nowhere else. The Elements is not, shall we say, rigidly organized. What did I read somewhere about choosing and holding to a suitable design?

Section Four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” parades the usual suspects alphabetically: aggravate vs. irritate, irregardless, nauseous vs. nauseated, try to vs. try and, and so on. Such lists have historical interest at best. Strunk’s original, which included cranks like studentry for student body and forcible for forceful, might have made mildly diverting reading. But White, and subsequent editors (the franchise has fallen to his stepson and fellow New Yorker icon, Roger Angell), felt obliged to keep things current, so the section now reads like a transcript of Patricia T. O’Connor’s NPR show. Ambrose Bierce’s little book, Write It Right, is the same kind of collection, with two advantages over Strunk and White. Bierce is wittier; and he had only one edition to prepare. It is amusing to read his objections to “conservative estimate,” because “having been found to have several meanings, conservative seems to be thought to mean anything”; or to “United States” as a singular noun, because “grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.” It is edifying to learn that sideburns, in 1909, was still considered a vulgarism for burnsides.

Although Bierce’s book and Strunk’s original were almost exactly contemporary, they sometimes differ, and where they do Bierce always wins on points. For Bierce — and for me, and for Webster’s 2ndgratuitous means “without cost,” while for Strunk and White it means “unwarranted.” Strunk and White allow clever, in the sense of good-natured, to apply to horses, though not to people; Bierce says that “in this sense the word was once in general use in the United States, but is now seldom heard and life here is less insupportable.”

With Section Four Strunk’s contribution ends. For the first edition White added Section Five, “An Approach to Style,” in an effort not to shortchange his publisher. He begins by asserting that “style is something of a mystery,” which does not stop him from going on for another twenty pages in an attempt to unravel it. He takes as his text the first sentence of Common Sense: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Here we have eight short, easy words, forming a simple declarative sentence. The sentence contains no flashy ingredient such as “Damn the torpedoes!” and the words, as you see, are ordinary. Yet in that arrangement they have shown great durability; the sentence is now almost into its third century. Now compare a few variations:

Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it in any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion. We could, of course, talk about “rhythm” and “cadence,” but the talk would be vague and unconvincing.

Is this really so mysterious? A cursory consideration of the alternatives immediately removes the second, which sounds personal and petulant, as if Paine were short next month’s rent; and the fourth, with its grisly “soulwise.” The original is a perfect line of iambic tetrameter, with the first foot inverted — a common pattern in English poetry. None of the alternatives, except the hopeless fourth, scan naturally. Paine manages the buzzing sibilants brilliantly, bookending the first half of the line with “these” and “times” to produce a heavy caesura, and placing “men’s” next to “souls” to lengthen, and thus emphasize, the final foot. Strunk, who wrote a book about English meter, could have explained this easily. Unfortunately when White wrote this passage Strunk had been dead for a decade.

White continues with twenty-one more rules, which would be classed, if the book were properly organized, with Strunk’s Principles of Composition, and suffer from most of the same defects. I, for one, find it especially helpful to be told to be clear, to write naturally, not to overwrite or overstate, and not to explain too much. Before White, I used to try to be obscure, write unnaturally and floridly, exaggerate, and beat every point into the ground. White’s advice to write with nouns and verbs I will leave to Language Log. An admonition, contradicting the spirit of the previous eighty-four pages, that “style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition” brings The Elements of Style to a merciful close.

This sorry hash has become a modern American classic, selling more than ten million copies. High schools require it. Parents send their children off to college with a copy packed in the luggage. People who ought to know better continue to recommend it, whether out of ignorance or deference is difficult to say. My mother likes it, and she hates everything but Middlemarch.

The Elements of Style, at its birth, had the field to itself. Today writing guides litter the aisles at Barnes & Noble, largely because of its success; but in 1959, when Macmillan commissioned White to whip it up, there was Fowler, who was scholarly and British, and very little else. White was also famous, which is how Americans prefer their how-to authors. Famous mathematicians write primers on mathematics, and famous physicists write primers on physics, but for some reason primers on writing are traditionally consigned to obscurities. Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, who wrote Clear and Simple as the Truth, the best style book I know, are distinguished academics, but you’ve never heard of them.

The Elements of Style owes its success, above all, to its cramped and pedantic outlook. Strunk and White treat writing from the point of view of the copy editor, as if there were nothing that a vigorous line edit couldn’t fix. In fact there is very little that a vigorous line edit can fix. It certainly would not fix The Elements of Style.

I know only two infallible rules for writing well. First, read good writing: take it apart to see how it works, where it succeeds and fails, and then imitate it as best you can. Who would produce must first consume. (Faulkner recommends reading bad writing as well, but I have tried reading Faulkner, and it did me no good.) Second, write exactly what you think. Certain authors, like Céline and Henry Miller, have survived despite prose that lacks every virtue but this one. Most of us suppress our best material, in the interest of job security or domestic tranquility or not being forced to flee the country.

These rules, in guidebook form, would not sell ten thousand copies, let alone ten million. They require diligence, persistence, and courage to follow. Don’t bother. Spend your time balancing commas, double-checking apostrophes, eliminating adverbs, rewriting passives, and rearranging conjunctions. You’ll make teacher happy, and you won’t have to go into exile.

Update: Maxine Clarke comments. It is odd that in England, of all places, they seem not to have heard of the Oxford comma, but there it is. Frank Wilson comments. Derek Lowe comments. Battlepanda comments. Thudfactor comments.

Jun 262004

While my back was turned blogs again united to take the power back, this time over the English language:

Prior to the arrival of the Blogosphere, the Academics controlled the media. Not directly, of course, but the standards in which the media and journalists conformed to the literary fads. Journalists self-regulated, in consultation with their former professors, to rule on the standard use of “is.”

We reject it. We reject the intrusion. The people are no longer willing to surrender the media, the press, to today’s journalists. Now unfortunately, the Chomskys of the world didn’t get the memo. They’re finding out that the people have rejected their view, their standards, and their hold on the common tongue. It is OUR language.

The next time someone attempts to dismiss your message, your opinion, or your right to speak by attacking the structure or style you’ve used, tell them to stick it. This will get a lot worse before it gets any better. The fortresses of those ivory towers are pretty powerful. They’ll not surrender their power and position without a fight. And a fight is just what they are going to get.

Vox populi vox dei; but we might ask, before storming the barricades, what the enemy’s position really is. A brief multiple-choice quiz may clear this up. Who said “No native speaker can make a mistake”?

A. Me
B. The people
C. A famous 20th century linguist

The answer, of course, is C (Allen Walker Read). Mrs. du Toit has hold of the wrong end of the telescope. “Correctness” has been very much out of fashion for the last hundred years or so, since Saussure promoted philology and grammar to “linguistics.” Descriptivism dominates academic discourse. It may take a prole to speak Ebonics but it takes a professor to suggest that it be taught in school.

The popular reaction, understandably, veers wildly toward prescriptivism. The language column is the most popular feature of every newspaper and magazine; William Safire got several books out of his. The local bar is thick with grammarians. A badly punctuated guide to British punctuation becomes an American best-seller. (thanks to Our Girl in Chicago.) The phone lines clog every time Patricia T. O’Connor appears on NPR, every caller with his tiny axe to grind.

Carol from Woodbridge boldly comes out against “irregardless,” which is ugly, has a needless and confusing prefix, is not in the dictionary (except as vulg.), and differs from “inflammable,” which no one complains about, only in the last respect. Malik from Staten Island objects to “whom” where “who” is meant. But as the great language historian Otto Jesperson points out, flexion tends to disappear as languages age. “Habaidedeima” becomes “had.” “Cut” loses its endings, serving as present singular, present plural, past singular and plural, and past, present and future perfect, and we’re better off for the fact. “Whom” will eventually land in the dustbin with “whomever,” now rarely used and never correctly. Spelling “night” and “light” as the advertisers do sends Tony from Brooklyn into a towering rage, lest the words no longer betray their Old High German origins. These are the people on language; hear them roar.

Alleged vulgarisms are sometimes not merely harmless but useful. Second person singular and plural are identical in Standard English, which causes no end of confusion. The Southern “y’all” distinguishes them nicely. “Ain’t I” was a perfectly acceptable and euphonious usage 150 years ago — it shows up in Henry James — until the schoolmarms got wind of it and began to insist on “am I not,” or worse, the illogical “aren’t I.”

Languages evolve, for good and ill, though mostly for good: natural selection applies. They are spontaneous orders, like markets. “The people” cannot take English back, never having surrendered it in the first place. Educated speakers exert disproportionate influence over its evolution, and as more people can do their own publishing there will be more educated speakers. This is the kernel of the truth in Mrs. du Toit’s remarks. But her counter-revolution is wholly imaginary. “Blog” will shortly appear in the OED, though I won’t hold my breath, as she seems to be doing, for “blogosphere,” let alone “Instalanche.”

H.W. Fowler, a moderate prescriptivist, adopts a sensible mediate position:

Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, not to say what they are nevertheless well understood to mean. Fastidious people point out the sin, and easy-going people, who are more numerous, take little notice and go on committing it. Then the fastidious people, if they are foolish, get excited and talk of ignorance and solecisms, and are laughed at as pedants; or, if they are wise, say no more about it and wait. The indefensibles, however sturdy, may prove to be not immortal, and anyway there are much more profitable ways of spending time than baiting them. It is well, however, to realize that there are such things as foolish idioms; an abundance of them in a language can be no credit to it or its users, and drawing attention to them may help to keep down their numbers.

Best, as Fowler suggests, to say no more about it and wait. But if you’re spoiling for a fight, fight for precision and clarity, and flog a live horse, not a dead one. “Shall” and “will” used to make subtle distinctions between prediction and intent. The whole business proved too complicated, and they have gone, mostly unregretted, the way of the dodo. But “masterful” and “masterly” may yet be saved. There is hope that “amazing,” “phenomenal,” and “awesome,” on the one hand, and “horrid,” “horrible,” “terrible,” and “awful,” on the other, will (shall?) be resuscitated before they congeal into synonyms for “good” and “bad,” respectively. Mrs. du Toit herself employs “academic” and “academician” interchangably. Doubtless she would consider me pedantic for saying so, but an academic has a job while an academician has a style. “Academician” has pregnant historical associations and is worth preserving. These are some of mine; you have your own. And don’t wait around for the revolution, it won’t be televised and it won’t be blogged either. It isn’t coming.

(Update: Jim Henley comments. Alan Sullivan proposes several principles for rating linguistic innovation, all of which I endorse.)

May 042004

Eve Tushnet posts a list of great book titles, which you ought to read, like most everything else she writes. It is surprising how scarce great titles are, once you get to thinking about it. She marks some of them “in context,” which means you have to read the book to appreciate them, and this strikes me as a bit of a cheat. A great book title, like a great wine, ought to be glorious at first and improve upon acquaintance. Still, I mostly agree — who could knock A Clockwork Orange or Pale Fire? — though she veers more toward the prolix than I might. I am mildly discomfited by the absence of Wyndham Lewis, who is responsible for probably half of the top ten book titles in English. Consider:

The Apes of God (which used to be the name of my fantasy baseball team. Not that I have a thing about omniscience.)
Snooty Baronet
Malign Fiesta
Revenge for Love
The Vulgar Streak
The Doom of Youth
Men Without Art
The Art of Being Ruled (The last three are non-fiction, so they may not be official, but I mean, come on.)

Lewis, I note impartially, can also lay claim to possibly the worst title ever, The Jews, Are They Human? His answer, incidentally, was yes.

(Update: Eve has more, noting that she meant “in context” as meaning only that you know a bit about the book, actually reading it not being necessary. So there turn out to be three categories of great titles. Hey, I’m not false dilemma for nothing!

(She also wonders if there’s a philosophy of titling. I doubt it. I looked through my bookshelves and couldn’t pick out more than a couple dozen really distinguished titles from a thousand books or so. It seems to me mostly a matter of happy chance. The best title for an autobiography, by the way, was proposed by Preston Sturges, who never finished his, and remains unused, to my knowledge: The Events Leading Up to My Death.)

Another: Ian Hamet comments. The Dancer from Atlantis? Someone wean Ian off the sci-fi already.)

Feb 062004

“In his first 100 days as President, John Kerry will sign an executive order to end influence peddling and secret deals,” Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said.

Senator John Edwards proposes new restrictions on lobbyists in an effort to end “the nasty business of influence peddling” in Washington.

Howard Dean doesn’t like influence peddling either. Neither does Bush.

Whatever influence peddling is, everyone’s against it. But what is it?

peddle, v.t., To sell or offer for sale from place to place. Dope peddlers sell dope, toy peddlers sell toys, ribbon peddlers sell ribbons. Pushcart peddlers sell out of pushcarts. “Influence peddlers,” uniquely, buy influence.

“Influence” is also a euphemism, for “bribe.” “Special interests” offer bribes, in the form of campaign contributions; politicians accept them. Lobbyists broker the transaction.

“Special interests” is itself a nice turn of phrase. Where the State can arbitrarily redistribute wealth, where virtually every federal law robs Peter to pay Paul or vice versa, every interest becomes “special” and politics becomes a Hobbesian war of all against all, a race to stick your snout in the government trough. Grandpa Charlie’s interest in free prescription drugs is as special as Archer Daniels Midland’s interest in ethanol subsidies — more so, really, since ADM employs thousands of people while Grandpa Charlie’s operating solo. Oddly, though, ADM is a “special interest” and Grandpa Charlie is not. I have no love for ADM, an especially vile corporate welfare recipient; but under these circumstances every sizable prudent business employs lobbyists to insure, at a minimum, that its own ox is not constantly gored.

One evening a lobbyist for chemical companies tried to explain his job to me. This man was a moral idiot; the interests of his clients circumscribed his universe. He could not, or would not, distinguish between robbing and being robbed, between, say, supporting a subsidy and opposing a regulation. He was no less instructive for that. So many vastly complicated bills come before legislators that they have no idea what they’re voting for most of the time. His job, he insisted, was to inform. He said that it was no secret that he represented chemical companies, that anything he said was discounted accordingly, and that lying is a long-term poor strategy for being listened to. Grossly self-serving; might still be true! And whether it’s true or not, surely the lobbyist, a pathetic figure scratching out his equivocal living, is the least responsible of all the parties involved. To legislate against him is to shoot the messenger.

The problem, if there is one, is that politicians take bribes. The remedy is supposed to be “campaign finance reform.” The abuse of the term “reform” requires an essay in itself, but here it means giving more tax money to political candidates. In other words, legislators, to prevent themselves from taking bribes, vote to pension themselves off, at public expense. This is absurd. Political euphemism makes absurdity plausible.

And not just absurdity, but evil, as Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” sixty years ago:

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bomabrded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labor camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

By comparison “campaign finance reform” is not very serious, and if Orwell were alive he would laugh. Yet the mental fog that surrounds it is very serious indeed. Easy to sneer at “People’s Republics”; harder to put one’s own lingustic house in order.

Dec 132003

Bad academic writing is called by its perpetrators “difficult” in the same way indulgent parents call their rotten children “difficult.” “Delinquent” would be apter in both cases. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb have proferred the standard excuses in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, which I haven’t read and doubt I could bring myself to read, and on which John Holbo has done a far better demolition job than I could in any case. Holbo quotes a paragraph from Culler’s introduction that gives the flavor:

The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themselves. Eve Sedgwich has described the “epistemological privilege of unknowing,” whereby “obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies.”

Pot, kettle. As Holbo says, “If these jerks are going to pretend not even to understand why some people are a bit cheesed off about how badly Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler write, just turn that trick on its head. Don’t even offer the courtesy of a fair debate, if that courtesy will only be abused by willful refusal to respond seriously to serious points. Thank you for being such a pain.”

Few ideas are so difficult that they can’t be expressed in a few sentences or a couple of equations. One doubts that these deep thinkers are up to anything so recondite as, say, Gödel’s theorems of formal undecidability, the proof for which David Berlinski managed to summarize clearly in three pages and about which Ernest Nagel wrote a very short and lucid book.

Legendary bad academic writers like Butler and Bhabha are quite capable, when the chips are down, of turning a respectable English sentence. In fact they tend to reserve their best prose to reply to complaints about their bad academic writing (Butler’s New York Times op-ed on the subject; costs $2.95, but trust me, it’s clear, if silly). They write that way on purpose. They’re hiding something.

Humanities departments are trade unions, and trade unions exist for two reasons: to restrict the supply of their labor, and to increase the demand for it. Of course there is no ultimate demand for Bad Academic Writing, in the sense of actual readers. Yet there is ongoing ancillary demand, from Bad University Presses and Bad Academic Quarterlies. They have quotas to meet and space to fill, while being generally exempt, thanks to generous endowments and still more generous taxpayer sponsorship, from the tiresome obligation to turn a profit. New and cogent thoughts on literature and philosophy will not float these subsidized outlets, not by a long shot. What is needed, and supplied, is a formula for generating an indefinite number of ways to say the same thing. Bad Academic Writing, like so many other bad things, is your tax dollars at work.

There remains the problem of supply: literary criticism and philosophy require no special training, unlike, say, pipe fitting. Modest erudition and a little elbow grease suffice. When T.S. Eliot, asked what a suitable method for criticism might be, answered “to be very intelligent,” he was making the same point in a more flattering way.

To the professionals in the field this state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory. Doctors have medical boards, lawyers have bar exams, what’s a poor humanities academic to do? The First Amendment unluckily prevents the issuing of licenses to practice philosophy or criticism, so other means are resorted to to keep out the amateurs like, say, T.S. Eliot. These means are tenure and an arcane lingo. If you don’t use the lingo you don’t get tenure, if you don’t get tenure you’re not a professional, and if you’re not a professional you can be safely ignored. Better luck next time.

No matter how you scramble the language of “rearticulations,” “social relations,” “structural totalities,” and “enunciatory modalities,” it always comes out the same: as a critique of post-industrial capitalism. Try this yourself at home. The words are father to the thought, and it is seemlier to make writing a certain way, rather than thinking a certain way, a requirement for guild membership. If it’s hegemony you want, well, I got your hegemonic power structure right here.

Nov 042003

George Wallace, standing athwart the history of language yelling “Stop!”, proposes to replace “blog” with “web journal.” He enlists David Giacolone, who argues:

Nurturers and caretakers of language do not have to accept the mindless process that begat the word “blog” and its progeny, even though it may be too late to keep teenyboppers, the hipster insiders, and the trivial users of web log technology from chronically belching “blog” and “blogging.” We can still choose meaningful nomenclature — terminology that best suits the actual format of our web sites and that actually communicates a meaning. “Blog” is the equivalent of slang: yes it belongs in the dictionary, but it should not crowd other (and better) terminology for the same concept.

I’m not clear who died and left David a nurturer and caretaker of language, but when I appoint one, you may be sure he will not use the phrase “nurturers and caretakers of language,” or misplace adjectives either. (I’ve got no quarrel with “hipster insiders” myself; it’s those hipster outsiders who get my knickers in a twist.)

As for “choosing meaningful nomenclature” — actually, we can’t: too late. Neologisms for old things come and go, but a blog is a new thing, and with new things first out of the gate nearly always wins. In diction wars you have to pick your battles carefully. If you must complain, complain about something that drains meaning from the language. For years I objected to the coalescence of “amazing,” “awesome,” “remarkable,” and “phenomenal,” as if English were short on synonyms for “good.” This battle was worth fighting because it was over shades of meaning; there is no English word with the precise meaning of “amazing” except “amazing.” But popular usage has bulldozed me, and it has bulldozed David and George, for better reasons.

What’s wrong with “blog” anyway? It is short. It is more or less Anglo-Saxon. It lends itself easily to back-formations for writing a blog (no ugly “-ize” required) and for the author of one, not to mention felicitious derivatives like “blogrolling” and less felicitious but still useful ones like “blogosphere.” The dispute over whether the verb is transitive will sort itself out in time. “Blog” reminds me a great deal of one of the best neologisms of the 20th century, “blurb,” coined by Gelett “I never saw a purple cow” Burgess. It rolls off the tongue less easily, and lacks its onomatopoeic qualities, but has all of its other virtues.

I look forward eagerly to George’s, if not David’s, future blogging; less eagerly to his description of it.

(Update: David Sucher comments. George Wallace replies. Aaron Armitage comments. And I sold Terry Teachout.)

Aug 212003

I liked Eve Tushnet’s list of words she overuses; all bloggers should be required to post one. Here’s mine:

distinguish (also the adjective, “distinguished”)
dispositive (twice is too often)

There’s a glass and concrete tower in Manhattan, 9 West 57th Street, with crossed steel supports on the outside, over the windows, “exposing structure” that it doesn’t need. I write like that. I won’t even get into my colon and parenthesis habits. I can quit any time I want to.

(Update: Mg takes me up on it.)

Aug 022003

Poor Thomas Nashe. He is credited with one of the most famous lines in English poetry, and he never wrote it.

From Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Metrically the poem is brilliant. It is nominally in iambic trimeter, but Nashe produces a dirge-like movement by beginning most lines with a trochee, which emphasizes the line breaks. The repeated double trochees that conclude each stanza give the unmistakable impression of death bells tolling, and for thee.

It is also extremely unfashionable. Its grim theme of the inevitable procession to the grave will not resonate with the modern reader, who expects to live forever. Gold buys a lot more health now than it did in 1600, the plague full swift stopped going by in Western countries about a hundred years ago, and there is a good deal that can be done about wrinkles nowadays. The consolation of the afterlife Nashe offers in the last stanza will not persuade many today; indeed Nashe himself seems unconvinced. (He did haste to his welcome destiny nonetheless: like many other Elizabethan poets, including his posse, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, Nashe lived fast and died young.)

The poem’s structure is also alien. It is syllogistic, with an argument that might have been taken, as J.V. Cunningham points out, wholesale from Aquinas:

They are such propositions as might have been translated from the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, and they are located in that general tradition. St. Thomas, for instance, discusses the following questions: That human happiness does not consist in carnal pleasures; that man’s happiness does not consist in glory; that man’s happiness does not consist in worldly power; that man’s happiness does not consist in the practice of art; that ultimate happiness is not in this life, “for if there is ultimate happiness in this life, it will certainly be lost, at least by death.” But these are the propositions of Nashe’s lyric, some literally, some more figuratively put.

The Elizabethans often wrote syllogistic poems — Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Ralegh’s The Lie come to mind. Moderns never do. The best modern poems proceed associationally, by coherence of feeling rather than coherence of argument. One may doubt whether this is an advance.

Notwithstanding all of this, Nashe’s poem is famous for the line “Brightness falls from the air.” It’s evocative, it’s ambiguous, it’s thoroughly modern. In Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus has a page-long meditation on the line, which he first misremembers, characteristically, as “Darkness falls from the air.” T.S. Eliot dilated on it. At a less exalted level, James Tiptree and Jay McInerney borrowed it to title their novels, and astronomers are very fond of it.

Trouble is, the line makes no sense in context. All of the other metaphors in the poem are homely and literal. Nashe’s 20th century editor, McKerrow, writes, with a practically audible sigh: “It is to be hoped that Nashe meant ‘ayre,’ but I cannot help strongly suspecting that the true meaning is ‘hayre,’ which gives a more obvious, but far inferior, sense.” What is obvious, once you read this, is that “Brightness falls from the hair” is the correct reading. It is literal, sensible, and on the same order as the rest of the poem. It’s not modern, but neither was Nashe.

Should the line be corrected in future anthologies? Too late; the question is irrelevant. The poem will survive in its current form no matter what Nashe intended. The great literary critic John Ford had the last word on the subject: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(Update: Glenn Frazier comments. Eve Tushnet posits Philip Larkin as a modern who proceeds logically, not associationally. I don’t quite agree, but I will write about Larkin soon at some length and will take this up then. Terry Teachout points out that Constant Lambert set this poem to music.)

Jul 312003

“In the adversity of our best friends we always find something that is not displeasing,” La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665, identifying Schadenfreude — “joy in adversity,” an almost literal translation of his aphorism — for the first time, although more general strictures against envy date back to the Ten Commandments and beyond.

The word, however, is inexact. Imagine one of your friends coming down with a terminal illness, or having a miscarriage, or being hit on the street by a falling piano. There certainly exist some people who are envious enough to wish, or bring, such catastrophes on others. Helmut Schoeck gives several grisly examples in his magisterial book Envy, like the German nanny who pushed a pram off a pier, drowning her charge because, according to her own account, she couldn’t bear the fact that she was childless. But I retain enough residual faith in human nature to doubt that the emotion is general, or even common.

It is failure, not mere bad luck, that universally gladdens the human heart. I have a friend who is a prolific and hopeless writer. Secretly I root for him to fail: his success would be further discouraging evidence of the inability of the world to distinguish bad writing from good. If he were a better writer I am sure I would root for him to succeed. I am rooting not for failure but for justice: the fact that my friend is involved is immaterial. Would I rather he fail then improve? Probably. Which is the ignoble part. Similarly, Michael Blowhard (yes, it’s all Blowhard all the time over here) marvels, with an unseemly touch of glee, in the improved attitude of waiters and store clerks in the wake of the crash. Mostly I think he just wants better service.

Schadenfreude runs especially high among professional colleagues, the best judges of what their fellows do and don’t deserve. On Wall Street hearts leapt when John Meriwether’s Long-Term Capital Management busted — and sank again when the government bailed them out. Other hedge fund managers rooted against Meriwether because he had been claiming to make 40% returns for years on virtually riskless bond arbitrage, which is impossible. In fact he had been gambling. To make 40% per annum you have to leave certain risks unhedged, and LTCM happened to be hugely exposed to the risk that a government would default on its own bonds. The Russians did so, and ka-boom. Now Meriwether was widely envied, among other things for being the hero of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. (In the famous scene from the book, Salomon chairman John Gutfreund proposes a game of liar’s poker for a million dollars. Meriwether counteroffers a game for ten million, and Gutfreund folds.) But so far as I could tell, the Wall Street celebrations, though tinged with green, were mostly for his chickens finally coming home to roost. The feeling seemed to be that it was just that he finally went broke.

If we must import from the German, then, I propose Fehlschlagenfreude, or “joy in failure.” It would be more accurate, if less euphonious.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)