Linkage: roasting Naomi Wolf on fry

Excellent post on language: a feminist guide making a few important points to Naomi Wolf in response to a recent article in which she restates the tired and tiresome old trope that certain features of the vernacular are “damaging” to speakers—in this case, young women—and that they need to stop using them for their own good. The money shot, perfectly expressing what I try to tell people on what may well be an equally tiresome basis:

It misses the point that negative attitudes to the language of subordinate groups are just manifestations of a more general prejudice against the groups themselves.

Have a read: A response to Naomi Wolf.

Got a fair amount of vocal fry myself, by the way. Never been suggested to me that my voice imperils my status.

On punctuation

There is within me a great, raging conflict, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, that keeps me awake at nights—neurological fuck-ups notwithstanding—and it concerns the matter of writing.

As a sociolinguist, albeit of the dismal, failed variety, I know that there is no such thing as “correct” or “incorrect” language use; that we acquire our habits of speech from our social environment; and that to assert that certain forms are truer, more accurate, or better is to impose a distasteful and discriminatory social elistism that sets the particular patterns and habits of the privileged few as an unjustifiable standard, and then uses them as a stick with which to beat people who never had exposure to these norms and cannot therefore be reasonably expected to reproduce them.

As an editor, however, I know that there is a right way to do things, and that you just did it wrong.1

The sociolinguist wins, almost all the time, but there is an interesting issue around punctuation where the waters are a bit murkier. Speech is, of course, punctuated; but the mechanisms of punctuation are very different to those of writing: pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues such as (in English) tone and intensity. Written punctuation is a very different matter: it belongs entirely to the realm of literacy, and literacy is a secondary skill that supervenes upon language use and is learnt rather than acquired.

We learn a great many skills as children, some formally (such as arithmetic), other less so (such as wedgie technique). In the context of formal learning, it does not seem as egregiously unjust to propose certain favoured norms, as it is no longer the case that the naturally-acquired habits of a few are being imposed upon and in contradistinction to the habits of the majority. We all must learn the norms of literacy and, as long as the proposed norms do not surreptitiously support or reinforce the spoken behaviours of the elite, then I cannot find it in myself to object too strongly.

Punctuation, then, seems a clear position where the editor in me can flex his muscles a little. Spelling, less so: we may have standardized spellings, but these could be seen to be imposing certain pronunciations over others. But punctuation is so arbitrary and independent of lexical content that here, at least, I feel I may be entitled to allow myself a little prescriptivism.

Does this mean, then, that I decry the grocer’s apostrophe—as more than a few people think I should?

Well yes, and then again, no. I cannot deny that I wince when I see it but—cursed egalitarian that I am—I rather feel that in this class-bedevilled society certain groups of people have access to higher-quality education than others, and that members of that group with access to only the poorest level of schooling are more likely to go on to be grocers than, for instance, Old Etonians. I don’t like to see the grocer’s apostrophe, but I find it very hard to lay the blame at the door of the individual who has written the sign.2 The putatively terrifying deficit aside, we are one of the richest nations on the world and, if we are to promote cross-dialectical norms in even this one small matter, it seems a piteous failure of our society if we cannot manage to educate everyone about it.


[1] In fact, of course, “you just did it wrongly.” Case in point, however: both forms are equally understandable, and the insistence on the “correct” use of the adverbial form just results in a cumbersome and ugly locution, not to mention ruining some of the effect by terminating an humourously over-emphasized phrase on an unstressed syllable.

[2] Though when the sign was written by a member of exactly that elite who do insist that the uneducated emulate the forms of the educated, the matter is maybe slightly different.

A to Z blogging challenge: P

On kvetching, klutzdom, and kibitzery

There is something wonderfully satisfying about Yiddish loan-words to me. As a mother-tongue monolingual, the consonant conjuncts they offer are meaty and enjoyable, and they seem to have an pleasurable specificity in meaning: providing that satisfying feeling of having found exactly the right term that you required. But the problem with them, as a Brit, is lack of exposure. Whilst these words may be common in American English, they are less frequent in British—I was well over thirty before I actually discovered that the initial sound in chutzpah, which I had only ever seen written, was not “tch.” Consequentially I only use a few of them, and then with care, because for many I am uncertain of precisely those specifics of inference that I so relish. This is a shame, because I would love to have a few Yiddish epithets that I could apply to myself: I was recently described as a mensch, which I had to look up, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it means an honourable or decent person; especially pleasing since the person using the term is in no small way responsible for my continued employment. However, I think that there are three that can almost certainly be applied to me with some level of accuracy.

Professionally, though I am no longer strictly an editor, I cannot stop myself from providing editorial input, which almost certainly makes me a kibitz. But, to be fair, the result is higher-quality books, so it’s also this that makes me a mensch.

I may, also, be a kvetch. I certainly am when ill—of course I am, I have a Y chromosome—and when cold, but it is possible I am also so in my wider life. Not for no reason does this blog have a category entitled “Rants.” But this is where a knowledge of the detail of the semantics is necessary. Can one only kvetch about insignificant or trivial matters? Or can one kvetch about great and important affairs? I fancy to myself that it is these for which my ire is usually reserved: in my personal life, when neither cold nor ill, I like to think I am relatively easily satisfied: as long as you give me good book, somewhere soft to fall over, and plenty of lime in my gin and tonic, I’m quite a happy chap. So I am uncertain whether I’m a kvetch, though I am certainly capable of kvetching.

But there can be little doubt that I am a klutz. I spent a significant portion of the first twenty years of my life training my fingers to be really remarkably precise and rapid—nowadays my playing is rusty and awkward, but at the age of twenty-one I could knock a piano about with not unimpressive skill. However all that seems to have been at the expense of any other level of spatial awareness or precision; I suspect that we all have a finite quotient of dexterity available to us, and I squandered all mine on the Waldstein sonata and Schoenberg’s opus 33a. My absurdly underlong limbs seem to crop up with regularity upon this blog and one might presume that, giving me as they do a fairly limited range of contact with the external world, I would be compact in my effect upon my surroundings. Yet this is not the case. My blast radius is vast: I merely need to sit in a chair one side of a room to cause widespread devastation upon the other. To be frank, even if you’re simply reading this, I’d move the family china a safe distance away. I can only suppose that I exude a field that disrupts gravity in my proximity, and there is no reason not to speculate that it may be transmitted electronically.

So there it is: a kvetching, kibitzing klutz I am: confessions which amply satisfy the K requirement of this blogging challenge; though they are, I suppose, nothing to kvell about.

A to Z blogging challenge: K

On feminism

I am a feminist.

To be precise: I am a white, middle-class, over-privileged male, and I am a feminist. No caveats: none are needed. There is, in my view, very little necessary to be a feminist. You just need to assent to three related propositions:

  1. Women and men are fundamentally equal.
  2. The current structures of society deny this equality to women.
  3. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

There is a fourth position—that if you consider a wrong to require mass social movement to rectify it, it is unethical to exempt yourself from participating on the grounds that “one voice has no effect.” This is the free-rider problem and, though I don’t think you have to assent to this fourth proposition to be a feminist, if you don’t then you’re a pretty piss-poor one—and, indeed, a fairly parasitic member of society in general. I have also been careful to express the propositions shorn of as much explicitly moral language as possible—partly due to a heated debate about what “moral” means anyway, and partly because even if you are an utterly self-interested man, you can still be a feminist. Again, I may think you are a feeble, unethical one, but the point is that feminism doesn’t even have to be an ethically-driven position, though it is for (as far as I am concerned) all decent people.

Of course the response to this from many people will be that this is no longer what “feminism” means. You will be cited aggressive misandrists, pointed to the likes of Angela Dworkin, who coincidentally died a decade ago, and whose appearance made her a convenient lightning-rod for the denigration of feminism, though she apparently did not adhere to the anti-male views often ascribed to her (I will be honest, for once, and admit I have not read any of her writings). There may well be some feminists whose views are unpalatable to most people simply concerned with equality, but none of you who are Christian avoid saying “I am a Christian” because of the vile activities of the Westboro Baptist Church, the abominations perpetrated by ISIS and al-Qaeda do not (I hope) prevent you from identifying as a Muslim if such is your religion, and I will staunchly and proudly declare myself an atheist despite the fact that one of our most vocal proponents—Richard Dawkins—increasing looks like an intolerant bigot who presumes that being an Oxford-educated middle-class white male is the default state of humankind. What has happened is a species of synecdoche whereby a term has been allowed (or encouraged, by the male-led media) to become associated with properties only applicable to a minute subset of its referents.

I do not deny the current negative connotations of “feminist.” And as a sociolinguist, I endorse the position that the meanings of words derive from their usage in the speech community and cannot be defined by fiat—indeed, those who seek to do so are exercising exactly the kind of privileged presumptuousness that is the fundamental problem here. But it is one thing to descriptively accept that, at present, the word “feminism” carries many connotations that discourage people from identifying as such, and entirely another to assert that this does not mean that we cannot seek to change that fact; merely that the change must come, as all language change does, from a shift in general usage, and not from some declaration on high. Other words which were once used to denigrate have, to a greater or less extent, been re-appropriated either by the deliberate, ironic application of the word for self-reference by the denigrated group or by a shift in wider societal usage.

And so, because I think it’s unethical to be a free-rider, and because I think this is a crucially important issue, I think that people like me, and you—because my readership is, for some reason, not so staggeringly vast that I don’t still know most of you, and will browbeat you about this when I next see you—need to reclaim “feminist” as a positive expression of a will to gender equality in our society. It is time for this word to be used in a simple, clear manner and the only way that this is going to happen is by the tiny little incremental changes of ordinary, everyday people using the word in an ordinary, everyday way.

So, I encourage you, say it with me. Don’t caveat it: “I’m a feminist, but not…” defeats the point, it allows for the pejorative connotations to remain the default. Have the, ahem, balls and just say it:

I am a feminist.

There, that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?

A to Z blogging challenge: F

Literally speaking

There has fallen into my lap today a volume from that august organ, the Daily Telegraph. It is a small book, written by two of their journalists, and concerns the matter of infuriating language use. Taking the form of a phrasebook, it lists some of these “spoken insults to the intelligence,” setting us right on their usage, and in passing declaring to be “idiots,” “tin-eared,” or even simply “insecure” those who use them. The authors, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, have decided to set us right, and are doing so in stridently indignant terms. The book is called She Literally Exploded, a title which indicates both a paradigm objection of theirs, and the fact that the book is expected to drive those of us who are right and proper in our use of language to paroxysms of rage at these foolish abuses.

Would you be surprised to learn that, though the book does indeed have me quivering with fury, the source of my ire is far less the expressions collected within, than the bigotry, sneering arrogance, and sheer laziness of the authors? One may make stylistic judgements, and defend them—preferably with reasoning based upon clarity of expression or similar criteria. This in itself is fine; I have been verbose on this very blog about my objection to redundant and obscurantist use of Latin. But this book is nothing more than a collection of largely modern terms, which the aggressively conservative authors consider to be self-evidently awful, saving them from having to explain their reasons in the majority of cases. In those where they deign to offer us some justification, it is spectacular in its ill-informed presumptiveness.

I’d like to treat you to a few selected citations, if I may. We might as well start with the headline term. Here, according to Messrs Howse and Preston, is the objection to this linguistic affront:

Literally Distinguishes the literal from the figurative meanings of a phrase, but is now used at random as an intensifier or a synonym for really, by those with tin ears.

Our erudite and authoritative authors, it would appear, do not approve of the use of literally as an intensifier. Literally, literally, means literally. The word’s meaning, one presumes, is not permitted to change, and however much it is used and understood by virtually the entire speakership of English in a different, complementary sense, this is apparently unacceptable. The authors require us to be ineluctably tied to the etymological origin of the word.

Following this principle, they will, of course, be delighted rather than insulted when I suggest that they are pair of dunces. Being vastly superior, as the tone of the entire book indicates, they will no doubt be aware that this was originally a term which, referring as it did to the thirteenth-century philosopher Duns Scotus, indicated nothing but admiration for the intelligence of its attributee. This gentleman was from Ireland, a fact which will be wholly apparent to them, for this is the original Latinate reference of Scot, and I can only presume it is an oversight on their part they have not included a similar entry decrying our modern and foolish reference to the peoples of that other great land.

Their use of the word “now” indicates to me that they consider this a modern phenomenon, so perhaps it is the case that modern innovations are to be decried but established ones accepted. (I use the phrase “modern innovation” advisedly, because they are firm in their rejection of new innovation as a pleonasm.) As it is unthinkable that these authoritative and expert language users were so lazy in their research as to not check up and discover that, for instance, no less a stylist than William Makepeace Thackeray[1] used literally unliterally as long ago as 1847,[2] we must presume that the cut-off date lies before that. It is regrettable that the date for permissible linguistic innovation is so early, for I cannot now say that I find nothing to chortle (Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871) at in this book; that their condescending attitude towards harmless vernacularisms gives me the creeps (Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850); or that I can’t see any merit in this book to save my life (Trollope, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, 1848).

Given this commitment to literally literal accuracy in the use of words, some of the other entries seem simply bizarre. They object to pan-fried, presumably on the grounds of informational redundancy as the entry reads “Instead of being fried in an old dustbin-lid.”[3] One can only assume that they have never heard of deep fat friers. Similar inaccurate accusations of pleonasticity crop up frequently. New-laid eggs is apparently a pleonasm, but I rather like to know that my omelette is not being made with ones laid a month ago. Line-caught is out too; do we not use fishing nets any more? First invented by is unacceptable, because “the second inventor is deservedly less well-known.” This extensive list of examples of Steigler’s Law, not to mention the small matter of a dispute between Newton and Leibniz concerning the infinitesimal calculus, would seem to call this into question.

Other entries provide a fascinating insight into the mindset of Telegraph journalists. Diversity is sneeringly and loadedly written off as “an obligatory agenda that penalises those who do not seek multiculturalism,“ and inappropriate is “used by officials who want to blame people for behaviour that is not illegal or forbidden.”[4] This latter definition seems perfectly reasonable to me; I was left wondering why it should be considered so irritating until I realised that whilst most of us have a general idea of a substantial moral grey zone—behaviours that whilst undesirable do not necessarily mandate illegality such as, for instance, the writing of nasty, lazily researched, and presumptive books—in the world of the Telegraph everything that is not utterly blameless should be outlawed. The use of their as a gender-neutral singular possessive is prohibited by Messrs Howse and Preston, for it breaks the sacred rules of agreement; presumably a matter of higher import to them than addressing the entrenched gender attitudes in our language—except even this claim is problematic, for they assert that the word gender applies solely to grammar, contrasting it with the fact that the biological term is sex. No room in the world of the Daily Telegraph for this modern nonsense about personal identity, it seems.

On occasion their need to lay claim to classical erudition in order that we be awed into accepting their judgment lands them in a bit of a pickle. Having said that is considered guilty because it is “a version of aporia,” a device which they lower themselves to glossing for us as “a rhetorically useful expression of doubt that may be feigned.” Surely this is an admission that the phrase in question has worth? Aporia is not to be avoided; quite the contrary: it is part of the arsenal with which the rhetorician indicates their assessment of a given viewpoint. Hence the word “useful” in that definition; a definition about whose provenance I aporically wonder, given its remarkable similarity to that of Wikipedia. Yet their rhetorical expertise apparently fails them when they scoff at talk of a train terminating: they wittily point out the service terminates but the train does not. What an opportunity to crib Wikipedia’s definition for metonymy they have missed here—or, if they object so strongly to this particular rhetorical device, I hope they regularly scold their colleagues in the same insulting terms that they use in this book for such affronts as this.

Look, I’m an editor. If you asked me to edit something you’d written then it is quite likely that I would strike out a number of phrases that are included in this book: but the grounds would be appropriateness and register, not intrinsic merit. She Literally Exploded denigrates the vernacular for being the vernacular; the writers sneer at and mock harmless idiosyncracies of modern speech, as well as imposing some altogether antiquarian notions of communication. They demand that speakers adhere to out-dated, arbitrary, and formalistic rules, whilst managing the odd epic fail of their own. (What’s that stranded preposition doing in the entry for Escherichia coli,[7] guys?) It’s a nasty, small-minded book for people who seek to use linguistic formalism to assert intellectual superiority.

What’s your take on . . . Invitation to dress up an unresearched opinion as fact.

Indeed. This entire book, I rather feel, is Howse and Preston’s response to the question “What’s your take on language use?” in precisely the terms they set out.


[1] Author of one of the 20 best British novels in a list by none other than the Daily Telegraph; a list which includes novels by James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, John Banville, and Henry James; strangely our book does not include an entry on the wildly inaccurate use of British by imperialist and appropriative journalists.

[2] The relevant passage is in Punch (30 October 1847) and reads “… yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit.” I found this by the arduous and time-consuming method of looking up literally in Merriam-Webster.

[3] Sticklers for prescriptive grammar that they are, I hope that they can justify that hyphen in “dustbin-lid,” because to me the lid is the modified element, not the modifier, and attributive hyphenation is used within the predicate, not between the predicate and subject.

[4] “Is not illegal or forbidden,” hey? No highly-trained Telegraph journalist I; but I might suggest that “neither illegal nor forbidden” would avoid the ambiguity in the scope of the negative in their wording, though it would still leave open the largely tautological nature of the expression—is there anything that is illegal that is not also forbidden? Given the recurrent objections to purported pleonasms above, and the fact that Aims and objectives is also cited as an affront for its tautology, a less charitable man than me might wonder whether they are guilty of exactly the kind of writing that they seek to denigrate.[5]

[5] Oh wait, I’m so not a charitable man,[6] and it is all the easier to denigrate them since they have not baulked at throwing around insults themselves. So let’s add ”careless hypocrisy” to my list of affronts that they have committed.

[6] That intensifier so was just for you, chaps. I hope you enjoyed it.

[7] Yes, they insist that one should not use E. coli until one has first glossed it, otherwise the reader would not know “the bacterium which you are referring to” [sic]. Personally, not being a microbiologist, I know that when someone says E. coli they are referring to a species of bacteria[8] that gives food poisoning. I and the majority of the population—including, I suspect, Chris and Rich—have no knowledge of the other members of the genus, or of other bacteria of other genera with a species term of coli, and do not know or ever use the full name. If it were to be used in a non-specialist text then this would not aid understanding but risk obscuring it. It is worth noting that several times they use BBC without feeling the need to gloss it to British Broadcasting Corporation, so they don’t seem to feel that all abbreviations should be glossed as a matter of course. Perhaps this is just more intellectual one-upmanship, a hint to the reader to believe that they are scientifically literate?

[8] Type/token distinction, guys. This is basic stuff.