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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Nope, That’s Not by Marcus Aurelius

Not Marcus AureliusAn image appeared on Facebook purporting to be a quotation taken from Marcus Aurelius. Having read his Meditations more than once, I was baffled because it didn’t look at all familiar. The quote is:

Everything we hear is a opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

It’s a good line, but I can’t find it in any online version of the Meditations. And you can guess it wasn’t his because there is no book or section identified (authentic quotes have sources that identify the exact location in a work).

Using unverified quotations like this only discredits the person who posts them.

In the MIT version of the Meditations (George Long translation), the word perspective doesn’t appear even once, although the word opinion appears 67 times. I laboriously went through all 67 instances to make sure it wasn’t simply a different translation, perhaps a nuancing. None match, even closely. I also went through the Casaubon translation which has 74 uses of opinion and none of them match the quote, either.

The word truth appears 31 times (38 in Casaubon and 30 in Hays). Again, none of them match, even vaguely, the second part of the quote.

Aurelius did say, several times that everything is opinion. He has some good epithets about opinion, including:

Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae, bugbears to frighten children. (XI: 23)

and:

The universe is transformation: life is opinion. (IV:3)

But nothing matches the second part, even remotely. The word perspective doesn’t even appear in the Long or Casaubon translations, and only once in the Hays version, where he translates what Aurelius wrote as:

If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. (VI: 21)

It seems the epithet in the image is either a loose paraphrase or someone conflating two unrelated statements from different authors. Unfortunately, not even the Quote Investigator has unravelled this one.

I will comb through my modern translations of the Meditations to be sure, but I’ve pegged this one as another bad internet meme, Please remember most quotation sites are full of errors and mis-attributions. Be smart: verify the source before you share any alleged quotation.

Where Have The Real Heroes Gone?

Another hero
Another hero

Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.

The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.

Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”

A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.

It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.

Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.

Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome  – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy  – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.

And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.

Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic.  And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.

There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.

They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.

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Boccaccio’s Decameron

The DecameronI never read The Decameron in any original, or complete translation. I have a bowdlerized edition I read in part some time ago, perhaps the 1970s. I recall seeing an art film based on the book, in the 1970s (directed Pier Pasolini). But I can’t recall it in any detail, except that it was subtitled. I have an old Penguin edition upstairs, its pages yellowing, mostly unread, but saved for that time in my life I felt able to tackle it. Seems that time has come.

This week I found a copy of a recent translation of the Decameron at a local used book store, a revised Penguin edition,  It’s the same translator – McWilliam – as my old Penguin, but he has redone the book with a revised, updated translation and an enhanced introduction. For me, a comprehensive introduction is always a draw because I want to know about the author’s life, influences, style and times.

It occurred to me, as I stood there browsing it this week, that my literary education was severely lacking in not having read it. Which was all the justification I needed to buy it. Well, to be fair, I really need no justification to buy any book. Reading is such a great pleasure than it is its own reward. A life without books would be shallow, indeed. Oh how sad to have only the drivel in the local paper as one’s sole reading material!

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The Venereal Game

Pun
Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

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