Night of the Pirahã — It Could Have Been Any Night

Der Spiegel: “The language is incredibly spare. The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don’t exist. Apparently colors aren’t very important to the Pirahãs, either — they don’t describe any of them in their language. But of all the curiosities, the one that bugs linguists the most is that Pirahã is likely the only language in the world that doesn’t use subordinate clauses.” (via MeFi)

Equivocation: Are These Folks Really Aware?

Terry Teachout offers some interesting thoughts about the way politicians. publicists, and people for the most part fail to state what’s really on their mind, tying it all in to one of my favorite Orwell essays. I’ll agree that this is a peculiar problem and I’ll be the first to confess that I sometimes fall prey, in an altogether different way, to the manic possibilities of language. Often, something I should probably utter in a sentence is somehow stretched into three. Thus, despite repeat readings, Orwell’s valuable suggestions fail to latch into my noggin.

I would differ slightly with Teachout that these tendencies are “anti-human” or even unknowing. While it is true that politics, office or otherwise, often transform adept conversationalists into utter bores, it is, nevertheless, a very human impulse to seek approval by speaking with a sanctioned tongue. The results may be machine-like and the level of inventiveness may be slim to none — particularly with gerund-happy passive voice. But I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the way that speakers of the Time spokesperson variety, having mastered this dreaded equivocal-speak through careful practice, then go on to speak this way without effort or awareness. That’s the truly frightening thing here.

Which is why I’m happy to raise my hand as a rambler aware of his problem. So should we all. Guilty as charged, m’lord. And I’ve been looking for a twelve-step program for many years where I can weep in front of other elocutionary flunkies and declare that I (and they!) can beat the rap.

And All This Time I Was Thinking That Export Processing Zones Were the Chief Culprit

IHT: “Some 6,500 languages are spoken in the world today. And according to the 2000 census, you can hear at least 92 of them on the streets of New York. You can probably hear more; the census lumps some of them together simply as ‘other.’ But by the end of the century, linguists predict, half of the world’s languages will be dead, victims of globalization. English is the major culprit, slowly extinguishing the other tongues that lie in its path.”

Well, Fuck Me: The Swearing Festival Report

I had spent a few days recovering from a cold and general malaise. The time had come to get out of the house or die trying.

swearingcrap.JPGThe crowd drinks and swears.

Several people had mentioned a Swearing Festival that was going on at Edinburgh Castle, a fantastic little pub in the Tenderloin that hosts various artistic and cultural events. I had no idea what a Swearing Festival was. Was it in any way like a Ren faire? Or was it an excuse for strangers to shout “Fucking hell!” and drink beer? I had the feeling that various strangers shouting profanity would galvanize me and perhaps restore my senses. And since I tend to trust my gut instinct on these things, I decided to check it out.

I arrived at 6:45 PM. I sailed through the doors as effortlessly as a duck jetting across an expansive pond.

Since I had styled myself as some kind of half-assed journalist (many people, seeing the rinky-dink camera around my neck, approached me as I was some professional chronicler), a pint was regrettably out of the question. I was on the job. And besides I would need both hands to take notes. There was a panel to pay attention to.

The panelists included Dr. Jonathan Hunt, a Stanford man dressed in a crisp grey worsted suit and a slightly mistied red bowtie. His sartorial complement was so adorable that I wondered how I would react to him if I were gay. Plus, there was the neat economy of his name. It sounded as if he traveled to far off locales. Perhaps when he wasn’t teaching at Stanford, he was an adventurer not unlike Allan Quatermain or Indiana Jones. As I learned later, he was a married man. The other two panelists were Beth Lisick, of which more anon, and a British journalist named Andrew Orlowski, whose work from the Register I was acquainted with.

I alighted to the second floor, which houses a diminuitive theatre. By the time I got there, it was SRO. Amazingly, the folks at Edinburgh Castle had only anticipated about 20 people to show up for this panel and were quite astonished that so many people were interested in seeing the great local minds of our time discussing the use of “cunt” in mixed company.

My shoes became instantly glued to the sticky floor. I tried my best to sway my body around to allow other people to pass. But alas, one only has so much maneuverability when one’s legs are locked in an inert position. Sure enough, my right foot went fast asleep on me about halfway through the panel.

Concerning the theatre, there were no lights in this room to speak of, save two small China globes and what looked to be two meager 650 watt arcs cross-lighting the area, angled and positioned stage left and stage right. (And indeed these lighting conditions should explain the rather grainy quality of the accompanying photos. For this, I apologize.) Behind the table was a red curtain that suggested a bawdy cabaret act. And as the crowd pushed their way into this small room, I got a distinct 1962 Cavern Club vibe. I briefly considered the possibility of a Great White-style conflagration. Would I roast alive? I didn’t even have a last will and testament prepared. Should I scribble an impromptu version down on my notepad and let the lawyers sort it all out?

Fortunately, these fears passed as I saw a chair raised up into the air from the front row and passed back over two aisles to accommodate two very nice women standing next to me, both of whom I had apologized to, because I am a tall man and I was occluding their view of the front, because I was in a fixed position, because of the sticky floor.

There were at least three people in the crowd who I thought I might know. But the soles of my shoes had by now settled into the glutinous floor. I wondered if I had something in my bag that would help extract me. Or perhaps I would have to improvise like MacGyver and use the cover of the hardback I was reading to scoop my feet up like two dignified pancakes. Oh well. Such solutions would have to wait for later.

There were at least two podcasters in the crowd, not counting myself. One dark-haired and bespectacled young lady, with headphones affixed to her ears and a minidisc recorder in her hands, was trying to plug into the unmanned sound board at the back right of the room to capture the discussion in full. I offered brief technical advice. Apparently, she worked for a program called “Weekend America.” The other podcaster sat at a table about seven feet in front of me. He was explaining to his friend that he had recorded a podcast in which he had explained for ten minutes what the purpose of the podcast was. He was apparently still mystified about what his podcast was all about. But it sounded quite lovely. We should all be so gracefully confused. That is one of the podcast medium’s virtues.

The other notable individual was a stunningly attractive blonde to my right. She was alone. And I was too shy to talk to her. So I smiled. She responded with a look of contempt, presumably to ward me off. Perhaps I resembled a unpleasant man she had once known. Or perhaps the fact that I was wearing a dark wool coat in a somewhat salacious locale made her think that I was a flasher. Not impossible, given that I was in the Loin and you see a lot of interesting things in that area. But she warmed up to the “Weekend America” gal. Oh well. The next time I cover one of these things, I’ll have to strap audio equipment to myself and not be so shy.

The panel sets up.

The crowd was almost entirely Caucasian, presumably because Caucasians enjoy swearing the most. They could be easily split up into two groups: tidy metrosexuals and scruffy-looking folks clad in grunge chic. You could tell the difference between the two groups in the way that they held their pints. The metrosexuals tended to curve their fingers delicately around the pint glass, as if they were attending a reception for some event of cultural importance. Their fingers remained locked in place. It seemed a faux pas for them to even place their glasses on a table. The grungy crowd valued function over form and emphasized that point between thumb and forefinger as the major source of strength in the hand. Or perhaps they were simply more experienced drinkers.

Many of the latter group of pint graspers had their origins in the United Kingdom. It was now approaching 7:15 and the audience was starting to get antsy.



“START THIS SHIT UP!” (I should note this third remark came from an American. Perhaps “fuck” was not in his regular vernacular. Or perhaps the ferocity of the first two statements, which had came from Scotsmen, intimidated him. Whatever the case, I think I preferred the first two cries to the third.)

The delightful coordinator of Edinburgh Castle, whose name unfortunately escapes me, apologized for the delay. He was instantly called a prick. “Thanks very much,” he replied, “I’m Scottish, not English.”

The panelists were introduced. Many of them were decried with “fucks” of all calibers.

The moderator, who held a black Moleskine notebook with prepared questions, asked the panelists what would happen if we loosened television restrictions on bad language. Would television improve?

Hunt and Lisick field questions from the audience.

Beth Lisick answered this question. And it became immediately apparent that she was a bit tipsy. (Where the other two panelists had settled upon pints for their panel drinks, Lisick had a martini and two bottles of Calistoga. What kind of person drinks a martini at a Scottish pub?)

She was distraught over the fact that the bleeps over the words had become shorter. It begs the question: why bleep at all? Lisick called for more innovation in swearing.

Hunt noted that cussing began in medieval times and there was some discussion about how profanity would evolve without God. After all, with the advent of cell phones in public places, we’ve become a sound-oriented culture.

Orlowski suggested that if swearing would disappear, there would be a new lexicon of swearing. With the Internet, there was an abundance of swearing. Would swearing lose its impact?

Hunt remarked that in the early 20s, someone proffered the suggestion that swearing will die out, possibly in collusion with the League of Nations.

The moderator asked now that “fuck” was increasingly permissible, what were the new taboos?

Hunt pointed to an interesting 1934 essay called “An Obscenity Symbol,” in which it was pointed out that “fuck” had quite a fascinating history and that certain taboos were instrumental in the formation of other substitutes (“ass” and “cock” were presented as chief examples). When pressed for a substitute for “fuck,” he daringly responded, “Use your imagination.”

The moderator noted how class played into the acceptability of use, singling out the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Hugh Grant utters “fuck” multiple times. There were several examples proffered by Lisick about how swearing is on the decline: people, for example, using “fucking” as a modifier ad nauseum: “My fucking iPod broke down. And I went to the fucking Apple store to fucking replace it.”

Is there any real reason to use “fucking” in this context? There’s simply not as much punch.
Still, as one audience member pointed out, there was a colossal difference between using “Fuck me” versus “Fuck you.” The former was acceptable and used in the context of genuine surprise. The latter was threatening.

Orlowski pointed out that in the UK, it was fairly common to refer to a friend as a “cunt.” He noted that unless you had a watershed, “there’s no distinction between adults and children.” He observed that on British television, one could find all manner of anal sex jokes after 10:00 PM.

Hunt remarked that every book on swearing had a chapter devoted to Scottish swearing.

It was agreed by all the panelists that the lower your stature, the freer one is to swear.

It was then posited whether swearing represented some cheap artistic shock value. Lisick noted that she took great care in her writing to place a “fuck” at the right moment.

She then relayed an anecdote about a friend of hers named Bucky Sinister and realized that she had made a colossal mistake in allowing her mouth to flap off. Now I wouldn’t have revealed his name, but I’m committed to telling the truth here. Besides, Lisick had a troubling tendency to interrupt the other two panelists with inebriated swerves for the mike, all this with staccato bursts of adenoidal slurs, when not propping her slightly drowsy head up with an arm, that quickly got on my nerves (and I suspect several others), particularly when these wild interjections disrupted Hunt and Orlowski when they had things very interesting to say. Further, Lisick prefaced her story with a pugnacious warning, “If anybody is a blogger, fuck you.” Clearly, diplomacy and sangfroid are not Lisick’s strong suits.

Anyway, Sinister met a woman in a bar, got lucky, and, the morning after, found pillows with the words FUCKING COCKSUCKER and the like needlepointed on them. This suggested then that swearing can be creepy and psychotic when applied to a throw pillow.

Hunt suggested that the rise of “fuck” and “cunt” in everyday discourse might have something to do with its inclusion in several dictionaries during the 1970s, thus giving it a sort of mainstream acceptance.

swearingandrewpuzzled.JPGOrlowski, apparently puzzled by Lisick’s response.

Lisick offered another anecdote of a friend of her father’s who suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Throughout the 1960s, the Tourette’s sufferer would repeatedly ramble “Goddam.” During the late 1960s, this had shifted to “Shit” and during the 1970s, it had become “Motherfucker.” She suggested with this empirical tale that the Tourette’s sufferer had subconsciously picked up the words that were suddenly acceptable.

Orlowski offered a rhetorical question: When God was out of swearing, what do we swear by? Is hate speech all we have left?

Hunt noted that up until the 19th century, censorship was limited to subversion or sexuality. But he noted that what the state censors doesn’t necessarily match what is considered profane in everyday conversation.

Just as Hunt was about to cite some interesting examples of this, Lisick cried out, “We’re going to take back the cunt!” to a largely bemused audience reaction, who had not expected this gruff segue. I suppose she assumed the crowd hadn’t heard of Eve Ensler or the many books that had announced this noble goal in the 90s.

Was it possible to eliminate swearing altogether?

Hunt noted that you had to swear to testify. So he didn’t think so.

Lisick suggested that the words would simply shift if you removed the taboo on the current words.

Orlowski offered an interesting example of how soccer referees in the UK were often called wankers or cunts when making a call that the crowd didn’t care for. But he noted that Italy had gone one step further by saying, “That ref’s a cuckold,” which seemed to him a more diabolical thing to impute.

There was some brief discussion of the origin of the word fuck, which, as all scatological philologists know, originates from the German “fleichen.”

Lisick noted that assfucking was the new blowjob.

Hunt remarked that the word “to occupy” once had obscene connotations during the 18th century, before reemerging as a more benign word years later.

I then got a chance to ask a question based on something I had once read in Ashley Montague’s great book, The Anatomy of Swearing. In that book, Montague makes the case that saying “What the fig” instead of “What the fuck” was just as profane. And did the professor (Hunt) have any thoughts on this?

Hunt was very clear to tell me that he was not a professor, but a lecturer. Stanford is apparently quite specific about these things. And I realize now that you can’t always judge whether a man is a professor on his bowtie and worsted suit alone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of an answer from him, in large part because the audience and panelists alike were mystified by the idea of anyone saying “What the fig.” Although Orlowski did bring up Norman Mailer’s use of “fug” in The Naked and the Dead.

At this point, the lights went down and my notes become illegible. But the crowd was then urged to disperse.

I was then faced with a predicament. How could I leave the room? My right foot was asleep and the soles of my shoes were stuck to the floor.

I asked a gentleman to my left if he could push me.


“I’m afraid I can’t move,” I said. “My feet are stuck to the floor.”

Thankfully, the gentlemen, who seemed to take far too much pleasure in helping out a stranger, did indeed push me. Much harder than I expected. There is now a welt on my left arm from his blow. But this did manage to knock me off balance and release my left foot, which was not asleep, and I was able to pry my right foot off the floor with some effort.

After repeatedly stomping my right foot into tactile sobriety, I made my way downstairs to see what other marvels the Swearing Festival would offer. I figured that a pint of Newcastle would restore my feet to a healthy and agile condition. While obtaining my drink, I met a very beautiful go-go dancer who was being accosted by a gravelly-voiced man who called himself “The Devil” as well as a gentleman who introduced himself as “Curtis Mayfield.” Mayfield proceeded to ogle the poor go-go dancer and I then attempted to save her by getting involved in a tete-a-tete. The Devil and Mayfield, who apparently had some shared yet difficult to parse history of conquests and sundry debauchery that they hoped would impress the go-go dancer, soon became enamored of their respective bravado and backed off. Copious amounts of alcohol will sometimes do this to men. Unfortunately, once the Devil and Mayfield disappeared, so did the go-go dancer, whose name I never learned.

“And I say….fuck that.”

The main center of action was up the staircase, where a screen projected various images of words. Not long after this an ecclesiastical figure appeared and proceeded to deliver a number of benedictions to the audience, concluding each passage with the words, “And I say….fuck that.”

What was particularly interesting about the Swearing Festival was that I noticed that people were using “fuck” far more frequently in their regular vernacular than usual. And that’s saying something, given the denizens you’ll encounter at Edinburgh Castle.

But I had somehow formed the impression that the Swearing Festival would be more theatrical and audience participatory. Yes, it is true that the moderator guy (whose name I still don’t know) did invite the audience in a profane round robin. But the Festival relied far too much on shownig video clips of Rowan Atkinson’s “Headmaster” sketch and George Carlin, playing such obvious music as Prince’s “Sexy MF.”

Co-Ed Prison Sluts.

Then there was a gentleman named Dennis McIntyre and another actor who performed a scene from Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which I know as being a long-running musical that played in Chicago. Unfortunately, the delivery was amateurish. They led the audience in a half-hearted singalong of “Shit Motherfucker” (the chief chorus being “Shit. Motherfucker. Fuck you, you cunt or prick. Blow job. Suck my dick!”). The song didn’t come across as particularly musical or even amusing from a puerile perspective. Or perhaps I was still thinking about the go-go dancer.

Shortly after all this, I took my leave, in large part because it seemed that most of what was prepared involved prerecorded clips from movies and standup acts. And if I wanted to watch television, I could always do that at home. But I’m not much of a television watcher.

When I left, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Hopefully, they got some fucking thing out of it.

[2/21/06 UPDATE: A reader writes in suggesting that I mischaractertized Ms. Lisick. This individual, who is acquainted with Ms. Lisick, notes that Ms. Lisick is quite naturally ebullient. I have never met Ms. Lisick, but if this is the case, then I contend that it is within the realm of possibility that alcohol was not as severe a factor as I have described and that Ms. Lisick and I might share a common personality trait. You see, I’m one of those idiots who tends to interrupt people with the crazed ideas running around in his head — and all this without alcohol. I’ve been working on this problem for years.]

[UPDATE 2: The SFist has a report up.]

The Oxford Comma

Booksquare has written a passionate defense of the serial comma, pointing to Brenda Coulter’s equally vivacious endorsement of a puncutation mark too frequently used by investment bankers.

While I admire their brio, I must respectfully disagree with these two lovely bloggers. The serial comma (also referred to as the Oxford comma, the Harvard Comma, the pretentious comma, the party-pooping comma, the humorless comma, the comma with the chip on its shoulder, the comma that won’t put out, the comma that would never join a Bunny Hop, the monastic comma and the comma that won’t sing “Comma Chameleon”) takes the fun out of a lengthy list. It is utterly redundant. It insults the readers’ intelligence. Most importantly, in nearly every circumstance, it comes across as the most lifeless and stiffest puncutation mark ever devised.

Consider the fun of a sentence like:

The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly.

Now did the gigolo order bananas and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Did the gigolo order a bananas served with a side of peanut butter and jelly? Or did he order three separate items? It’s the kind of amiguity that makes life (and the sentence) quite interesting. Do people order bananas in an unusual manner? That’s fun!

Of course, when we add the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes disappointingly clear:

The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter, and jelly.

Now granted, as pointed out by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, there are some instances in which being explicit is necessary. The sentence, “On his journey, he encountered George Bush, a genius and cunnilingus expert,” is of course quite problematic. But given that the English language is already a troubling bundle of inconsistencies, why prohibit its use in toto? Why not keep the reader guessing? Can not a reader figure out that George Bush is entirely discrete from the other two parties!

While it is true that Strunk & White endorse the serial comma (under Section II, Rule 2), I contend that this particular puncutation rule does not apply, because their hearts are not completely into it. They write:

This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

And while I’m normally a big Elements of Style booster, let us consider that even the most virtuous and adorable authorities are capable of slip-ups. The Government Printing Office, folks! Was ever a more lifeless entity ever cited by Strunk & White?

Let us also consider that the hard-core serial comma boosters are found most frequently in law firms and investment banking firms. And what business do such lifeless husks have dictating the English language? What we have here is a clear war on fun and ambiguity.

Now a person by the name of Miss Grammar concludes, “Except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma,” and remains puzzled by the fact that a substantial chunk of writers and English mavens still rebel against this. Consider that Vassar has issued a supplement to Strunk & White. AP Style is against the serial comma. So perhaps this isn’t a case of total prohibition or complete sanction, but rather a situation in which, like any helpful tool, you can use the tool or not use it.

But it’s certainly reassuring to know that, on this grammatical point, the earth will continue to rumble.

A Question for Language & Audio Geeks

In the course of engineering audio, I’ve noticed that the bilabial plosive (meaning the b sound when voiced and the p sound when voiceless) is sometimes recorded with too much gain, even when I have placed the microphone at a reasonable distance from the mouth. Meaning that when I open up an audio file, whenever someone says “book” or “picture,” I must meticulously correct it in postproduction. Not having an expensive processing unit, I am wondering if there is a workaround that would save me such time. (I am guessing that switching to condensers is probably the answer.) I am also curious why the bilabial plosive is so prominent (particularly in deep-voiced male speakers). Could it be the not bad yet dynamic microphone I am using? Or perhaps the signal is simply coming in too high.

[UPDATE: It may in fact be audio compression (PDF), but if other podcasters are having sibilance issues, please offer your thoughts, theories and solutions in the comments.]

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Net

If, like me, you are obsessed with dialects, then William Labov’s project, Atlas of North American English is a really handy tool. You can click on interactive maps to determine just what portions of the United States and Canada speak with glides or specific open vowels and hear excerpts of precisely how they speak. This is a godsend if you’re an actor, an impressionist, or you’re just plain crazy about language. And Labov’s work has justifiably earned him a writeup by John Seabrook in next week’s New Y0rker.

Strunk and White: Now Available for Prada Regulars

The Elements of Style gets an illustrated edition, baffling high school students and English majors everywhere who were denied the purty colors when they went to school. Hard-hearted writing instructors, however, have pledged to permanently ban this new volume from their classrooms, as they remain convinced that teaching grammar involves inflexible rigidity and a dry and humorless approach that bores most sensible people to tears. More importantly, the new hues don’t fit in well with the grey and asbestos-ridden squalor of contemporary classrooms.

A Short List of Words That Inexplicably Turn Me On

From today’s edition of TMI Linguistics:

  • librarian
  • sizzle
  • crackle
  • Molly (and yet, strangely enough, I’ve never dated a Molly; likely because I’m terrified that the frequent use of this word in my presence (“Can I get you something, Molly?”) might cause me to move too fast)
  • Almost any word with two Ls, except “Lolita” and “flagellation.”
  • muffle (but not “muffin,” which sounds vaguely pederastic)
  • pink slip (Fortunately, I’ve never been handed one. Or else the prospect of termination would become strangely alluring.)
  • recherche
  • splendiferous
  • lap
  • stipple
  • comfort (in both noun and verb form; it is often confusing when women in particular refer to “comfort food,” as I suspect that these folks may have some interesting fetish that I’d like to find out about)
  • wrinkle (only in verb form and in a highly specific context)

[SIDE NOTE: Would it be too much to ask for them to come up with a sexy word for intricate and orante? “Baroque” sounds like someone has just replaced the washcloth with a Brillo Pad without your knowledge and “rococo” reminds me of a certain cereal I didn’t care for as a child (that had an obnoxious bird mascot nonetheless).]

In Defense of Conversational Adverbs

Apparently, some folks are taking offense to using “actually” in conversation. Actually, there’s something very nice about using adverbs in regular conversation. Realistically, it beats the tongue-tied swagger or the awkward pauses because, actually, the brain gets an extra second as the beads of sweat form hideous spoors on your forehead while hot lights, cameras and an audience are upon you and you hope to hell that you’re coming across as articulately as the perfectionist producers demand (yes, even on CSPAN!). Actually, it’s not quite like that at all. But having been on camera, it’s close. Inadvertently, in print, adverbs stick out long sore thumbs but, actually, adverbs announce a moment of discovery, a sense that one is discovering a point or a thesis in the process of response and, actually, if someone has a problem with this, well then we suspect that they may not have many ideas to contribute to the world, save complaints over very minute things. Actually.

Palabra About Paizogony, Baby

Gymnosophic grounds for gyniolatry. Solo, saccadic jerks before saltire, abbreviated waldflute for Waldgrave Wiggins, committing randy wales, always wanchancy before his own private obeliscolychny, if you catch my drift.

Wiggins, perhaps a pyroballogist (in a sense), pyrexic to the last about his xanthippe, afraid of xeransis qua “Oh!” and, were quacksalver transposed to quadrimular English degrees, a stolid pettifogger.

Certain dactyliologist, the Waldgrave ruminated further, facinorous in his fantasies. But not to be, the incident ended with neither paideutic progress or pumped penis.

Take That, Birnbaum!

Today’s Word of the Day is “jejune.”

jejune \juh-JOON\, adjective:
1. Lacking in nutritive value.
2. Displaying or suggesting a lack of maturity; childish.
3. Lacking interest or significance; dull; meager; dry.

Were I to make this public now, it would be dismissed as the raving of a mind at the end of its tether, unable to distinguish fiction from reality, real life from the jejune fantasies of its youth.
–Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance

By the inflection of his voice, the expression of his face, and the motion of his body, he signals that he is aware of all the ways he may be thought silly or jejune, and that he might even think so himself.
–Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things

A while ago, Michael Kinsley wrote that Jewish Americans envied Israelis for living out history in a way that made the comfort and security of life in New York or Los Angeles seem jejune.
–Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “The Big Kibbutz,” New York Times, March 2, 1997

Jejune derives from Latin jejunus, “fasting, hence hungry, hence scanty, meager, weak.”

As I Drank My Morning Coffee

Why I Am Avoiding DBC Pierre

Not one motherfucker in the States says “fucken.” What was the point in spelling it this way? If we are to look at this from a phonetical standpoint, it comes across as “PHUCK-EN” (not to be confused with “PHUCK-IN,” aka “PHUCK-EEN,” often used in tandem with the first letter of the alphabet in expressing surprise and very good in a sentence like “I was fuckin’ Joaquin Phoenix”).

If DBC Pierre had substituted “fuck me,” “fuck you” or “motherfucker” instead of “fucken,” then there’d be no problem. There would instead be verisimilitude. But the conundrum stands: Pierre/Finlay/Whatever the Fuck Pseudonym That Booker Winner is Using Today seems to think that we Yanks say “fucken ‘ell” a lot, or some truncated version thereof, which is a very Brit thing to say in terms of phrasing and pronunciation.

And besides, when it comes to intransitive verbs, Americans are inclined to shorten “ing” to “in.” We just hate those fucking Gs. Plus, the idea of following a great word like “fuck” with something as dour as “en” just doesn’t mesh with the American character. And, as such, the “en” thing is about as American as pronouncing the last letter of the alphabet “zed.” Perhaps because deep down inside, we Yanks want to “fuck in,” implying a desire for indoor copulation. Whereas “fuck en” implies entropy, sex begrudgingly begun to appease the s.o. and get through the night, the obligatory task.

Well, fuck that. And fuck fuckin’ Vernon God Little.

The Case Against First Person Plural

I’ve been very annoyed by the rise of first person plural. The use of “we” is an unfortunate component of McSweeney’s house style that shows no signs of waning. Several sharp, witty people use it — indeed, cannot refrain from stopping — and I shake my head in sorrow. Unless you’re a schizophrenic or you’re writing on behalf of a group of people (academics, a committee, or some giddy ensemble of lunatics), or you’re relaying an anecdote with another person in the room, there just isn’t a damn compelling reason to use “we” in place of “I.” “We” implies one of two possibilities: either that the reader and the writer are one (a legitimate use in small doses), or the writer is duking it out with several voices inside her head. But what sane mind can relate to the latter in a tete-a-tete?

“We” implies familiarity, but then it’s a bit like some server killing a good restaurant conversation by announcing, “So how we doing?” The server is likely hustling for tips, but in the worst possible way. The “we” label, accentuated by a perky smile that only digs the blade in deeper, is enough to transform highly rational people into near-barbarians. No one appreciates this stroke of familiarity before even so much as a “Hello,” but this doesn’t stop marketing zealots from communicating this way at conferences and seminars.

And yet the same concerns don’t apply on page.

Here’s the opening pargraph to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Ring Twice — in my view, one of the finest examples of first-person clarity:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Great clean stuff, ain’t it? You’re immediately hooked into Frank’s world. You know that he’s a drifter, that he has some experience on the road, and that he’s rumbled a bit.

Now let’s see how the same passage plays out in first person plural:

They threw us off the hay truck about noon. We had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as we got up there under the canvas, we went to sleep. We needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and we were still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw our feet sticking out and threw us off. We tried some comical stuff, but all we got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave us a cigarette, though, and we hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Infuriating from the first sentence, no? It comes across as consummate bullshit, rather than the authenticity we saw in first person singular. From the get-go, the reader has nothing to relate to. Because the narrator feels the need to be a pushy wiseacre. The passage fails because the reader isn’t invited to become part of an adventure. He’s forced.

So I implore all people who use first person plural: Since when the hell are you Queen Fucking Victoria? I double-dare all columnists, writers, storytellers, hack journalists, essayists, bloggers and related parties to make the hard choice of sticking with first person singular. Resist the temptation the same way that you avoid telling a story in second person. The output will be clearer and more interesting. And readers will learn to love you more.

Their Threat Fatigue and We Need To Do My Things On Your Alert

What Tom Ridge Said: “I don’t think we’ve got to worry about threat fatigue. We need to be on the alert and America needs to know that those who need to do things are doing them, that their government is working 24-7 to protect them against terrorist attack.”

What Tom Ridge Might Have Meant:

“threat fatigue” — A little known cousin to “chronic fatigue syndrome.” Either that or, as Wordspy notes, “ignoring or downplaying possible threats because one has been subjected to constant warnings about those threats.” So if Tom Ridge tells us that we don’t have to worry about threat fatigue, am I to infer that he’s telling us to be scared shitless? And it all sounded so benign!

“We need to be on the alert.” — In Homeland Security vernacular, one cannot be alerted, nor can one be prepared for alert. One is “on the alert,” which, for some strange reason, conjures up imagery of Donald Rumsfield on the rag. Nonetheless, this might mean that, collectively, the nation is close to the alert button, or about to be alerted, but not quite there yet.

“America needs to know that those who need to do things are doing them.” — As opposed to wanting to know? Do we citizens not have “to do things?” Can we sit in our La-Z-Boys and eat Cheetos? Can we really trust “those who need to do things” to do them?

And then there’s troubling shift in perspective. Ridge goes from “we” to “those who need to do things” to “their government” in one sentence! Which suggests to me that “we” (the citizens) are sorta involved in any potential alerts, ad hoc, but are not people “who need to do things.” Additionally, Homeland Security and the U.S. citizens are joined at the hip, but “their government” implies that “they” are either the U.S. government or some unidentified government we are at battle with. (Perhaps Canada unknowingly?)

All I know is that Tom Ridge is full of shit, couldn’t speak intelligibly to save his life, and really has me worried about the DHS’s ability to communicate. I haven’t seen government language like this since the Nixon Administration.

The Reluctant Tries to Remain Impartial Too, But…

The BBC has banned its journalists from writing newspaper and magazine columns pertaining to current affairs. The m.o.? “Impartiality.” The ban extends to both staff and freelancers. There is at least some consolation: voicing vitriolic opinions on things like food is considered impartial. Whether such a restriction will trickle over the Atlantic to the “fair and balanced” networks remains to be seen.

Mayor Cleese? (via Tom)

New OED words: “fuckwit,” “non-homosexual,” “Norman Rockwellish,” “no-talent,” “cut and shut,” “fist-fucker,” “gang-bang,” “huevos rancheros,” and “super-unleaded.”

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity’s Rainbow (via MeFi)

Mary Shelley’s original MS. for Frankenstein has been saved thanks to a grant. The draft, with Shelley’s handwritten corrections, can now be found at Oxford’s Bodleian library.