Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Another Archy Poem

Archy and MehitabelMost of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).

But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the  Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period

archy period

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Me, Myself and I Redux

T-shirtAt Collingwood Council meetings, you will always hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.*

Argh! Where did these people go to school? Clearly our education system has failed us if people were raised to say that. And this is in the public record, too.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. It’s like saying “I seen…” and “yous.”

The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…”

So why the mistake we so frequently hear at the table – and in fact in many other councils across the province?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears are the cause, at least according to the grammar sites I read.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” or “I got me a pickup truck…”). But this is misplaced.

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean (or should say) “between you and me…”

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Me, Myself and I

T-shirtAt council meetings across the province, you will hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…” So why the mistake?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears, according to the grammar sites I read today.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” of “I got me a pickup truck…”).

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean “between you and me…”

“I” is the subjective pronoun, not the objective one. That’s “me.”

So what about myself? That’s called a reflexive pronoun and to be used properly, it needs a reference back to the speaker (reflect = reflexive) – i.e. a use of the subjective pronoun.

For example, when someone says “I made it myself”  they are being grammatically correct. “Myself” reflects back to the subject, “I.” When they say “It was made by myself” they are incorrect and should say “It was made by me.” Same with “Please contact me” – correct. “Please contact myself” – incorrect. Why? because in these two sentences, “myself” has nothing to reflect.

Reflexive pronouns are always the object of a sentence, never the subject. So “Bill and I played ukulele last night” is correct. “Bill and myself played ukulele…” isn’t because “myself” cannot act as a subject. Just like you would never say “Bill and me played ukulele…” or use the pronoun by itself: “Myself played the ukulele…”

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Feetish or Fettish?

Crazy English
I was surprised to recently read in David Crystal’s book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that fetish – which I pronounce “feh-tesh” –  was once pronounced “feetish.” In fact, in the 1920s, Crystal writes, the BBC had that pronunciation in its guide for radio broadcasters.*

It makes sense, of course, when you think about it. Usually when there is a single consonant before a vowel, that vowel is pronounced long. It usually takes two consonants to shorten it. For example:

  • Holy and holly;
  • Mater and matter;
  • Scared and scarred;
  • Hater and hatter;
  • Pater and patter;
  • Diner and dinner;
  • Coping and copping;
  • Caning and canning, and so on.

So logically, it should be written as “fettish” or pronounced “feetish.” One or the other. But it isn’t. And who would ever say “feetish” today? It sounds rather prurient.

English is a wonderfully exceptional language – in that it has so many exceptions to the rules. Fetish-as-fettish is just one of too many to list. Part of the joy of learning and mastering English resides in these exceptions. And part of the frustration.

Locally we have a similar example: Paterson Street. Some folk pronounce that name “Pay-terson” – others “Pah-terson.” Which is correct? Both will be found in pronunciation guides. What’s right is whatever the locals call it, I suppose. To me, it’s logical to make it a long “a” because of the single consonant: Pay-terson. But the city of Paterson, New Jersey makes it short.

So you pronounce it however the natives pronounce it, and the logic of double consonants be damned. After all, how do you pronounce Worcester? That’s English for you.

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Words, words, words

Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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Kill the Apostrophe? Rubbish! Keep it!

Kill the ApostropheA site has popped up with one of the stupidest ideas about English I’ve read in the past decade or two. It’s called Kill the Apostrophe. Subtle.

At first, I thought it was a joke, a spoof. After all, how can one realistically get rid of perhaps the most significant element of punctuation based on the rantings of a website lunatic? And some of the counterpoint sites like Humbleapostrophe seemed created in a sense of camaraderie humour.

But no, on further reading, it’s as real as any of the other wingnut sites, from chemtrails to “psychic” readings to UFOs. Most of which just add to the background noise online, rather than contributing to something useful or encouraging public engagement.

The site’s author writes,

This website is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.

Well, it may confuse poorly-educated and illiterate people, or even ESL learners new to the task, but that’s really just a minority. Most of us understand that when Fats Waller wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ he included the apostrophes for a reason (and didn’t mean to have his title changed to “Am Not Misbehaving’ by anti-apostrophe-ites).

We know Bob Dylan didn’t mean to sing, “It is not any use in turning on your lights, babe” or even “It aint no use in turning…” When you drop the apostrophe, you have to replace the missing letters the apostrophe represents, otherwise you’re just making spelling mistakes. Egregious ones at that.

Clearly the author of this website was stung by a rebuke from someone over misuse, and feels pouty.

Kill the Apostrophe claims the punctuation is redundant, wasteful, “one more tool of snobbery,” “timeconsuming” (sic – apparently hyphens are snobbery too),”impede communication and understanding” and “a distraction for otherwise reasonable and intelligent people.

What a load of codswallop. It’s like a four-year old having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to have a nap. He’s not sleepy. We’re being mean to him. He wants to play with his friends. He doesn’t like lima beans. Wah, wah, wah.

Stop whining and educate yourself. English is tough, sure. Suck it up.

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Foolish words that still resonate

FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

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Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?

Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

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English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation

Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?

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You really think they’re, like, linguistic pioneers? OMG!

Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores girls pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women? I tend to believe the latter.

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Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores’ starlets pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women of dubious talent? I tend to believe the latter. Writer Douglas Quequa suggested the former in the New York Times this week. He opens with this line:

“Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.”

Well, of course, yes. If you speak like an idiot, people naturally assume you are one. Language conveys the speaker’s intelligence, education, upbringing, experience and communications skills. Anyone who sticks “like” into every sentence does not come across as a particularly well-educated or even bright communicator. Anyone who thinks the Kardashians are brilliant orators is, like, oh-my-god, a moron.

It doesn’t have to be women: men do it too albeit usually with different words and cadence (the affected pseudo-“homie” talk of young men is particularly painful to listen to), but the cultural stereotype of the mindless, barely literate babble has been rather unfortunately pinned mostly on young women. Sadly, a few, it seems, deserve the label:

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

I agree that these verbalizations fulfill a stylistic function, but interactional? It’s difficult to interact properly with someone who peppers “like” throughout a sentence. When someone says “I’m, like, happy,” should I ask what being similar to happy means to them?

If you mean “um”, say “um,” and not “like.” Basically both are an interruption of thought, but “like” has become an accepted stylistic form among some groups, spread like a virus, without deliberate effort. The abuse of the word “like” in speech is a bad gene on the language chromosome we need to expunge. Quequa writes,

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) …while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women… The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

Making it into any dictionary does not convey credibility or even acceptability. Dictionaries document use, but don’t make any effort to correct usage. They are tools for mapping the language, not arbiters of its use. Words also disappear from dictionaries, but not because they’re worthless. They may be expunged simply for lack of space. How many dictionaries still carry the word “mumpsimus”?

As an editorial note, Quequa doesn’t qualify his statement as to how (or even if) his quoted sources, “once promoted theories consistent with that attitude.” We never get any inkling of what those those earlier theories say. Or even if they are theories (they could be mere hypotheses…)

I suppose if I really wanted to be hip (wait, does that colloquialism show my age?) I’d write Valley “Gurlz” because the rage among the marketing and advertising illiterates is to replace a proper ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and pretend they’re actually the same sound (they’re not, but it’s like arguing cosmology with goldfish…). These are the same dimwits who brought us “lite” instead of light and “E-Z” instead of easy. Pay no attention to them and they will probably slink back into their caves.

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

Oh, puh-leez. That’s codswallop. That’s akin to saying my dog is pioneering veterinary treatments because she got better after the medicine. The spread of linguistic forms is often little more than mimicry based on popular culture and pressure from peer usage. It’s just like fashion and popular culture. Just look at Internet memes and viral videos. Pioneering requires someone or some group to actually do the pioneering, not simply repeat what others do. I am not a pioneer of the telephone simply because I use one.

In the Sixties we talked about “rip offs” and said “cool, man”; in the Fifties it was “Daddy-oh” and “hipster.” Were we language pioneers or just parrots? These young women are products of their age and pop cultures, influenced by TV, the Net and movies to absorb these aspects.

Every generation has its own language, its own slang. But slang and sociolects age like political humour, losing their relevance within a few years and get dropped. Who today uses terms that were once in daily speeeh in the 1920s? Who says twenty-three skidoo or  see you later alligator?

What Quequa overlooks is that the patois of Valleyspeak and its ilk are not evolving languages as much as they are variant sociolects that have become a cross-pollinating meme. A sociolect, or social dialect, is, according to Wikipedia:

…a variety of language (a dialect) associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc… interaction in written and other media can also lead to sociolects, and many can be found in online communities.

There’s nothing wrong with slang or sociolects; they’ve been around since language was invented. But there’s a world of difference between pioneering language forms and merely using them. And certainly a difference between pioneering and parroting.

Language is a tool. It can be used with finesse, like a scalpel, or bluntly and coarsely, like a chainsaw. Girl slang is certainly closer to the latter than the former as a mode of communication. Shakespeare was a pioneer of language, introducing many neologisms and developing new forms of expression. I simply cannot countenance putting the Kardashians on the same level as Shakespeare.

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