Category Archives: Words

Bright blesses Graham’s heart — I’m glad Southern courtliness still survives to that extent

bless heart

Had to smile at the latest release from Lee Bright. As nasty as things get in politics these days, it’s nice to see that even a Tea Party guy (and you know how angry they can be) can express himself with civility, Southern style.

Yes, it’s a condescending expression, but it’s a sweet condescending expression. And that counts for something.

As for the content of the release — well, I didn’t read it. I saw it was another of those “Obamacare, yadda-yadda” things that those folks are forever churning out…

Someone tell Tyler Durden: Marketers have appropriated ‘Fight Club’


Back when I was in college, I read James Michener’s book Kent State: What Happened and Why, which came out the year after four students were shot and killed there by the Ohio National Guard. This was a time when memories of the event were still pretty raw. That one semester I attended USC before transferring to Memphis State, I used to wear a T-shirt (I forget where I got it) with a big target on the back under the word “Student.” It was less a political statement than me just being edgy, ironic and immature.

Michener’s book went into a lot more than what happened that day in May 1970. It painted a portrait of student life at that time and in that place. At one point, he interviewed a campus radical who was complaining about how the dominant white culture kept appropriating and mainstreaming, and thereby disarming, countercultural memes, particularly those that arose from African-American culture. (I would say he was making some point vaguely related to Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” but I’ve always tended to understand Marcuse as meaning something other than what he meant. By the way, my version makes sense; Marcuse’s didn’t.)

Anyway, to make the point that there was no limit to the dominant culture’s ability to absorb culture from the edge, he said, “I’ll bet that within two years Buick will come out with full-page ads claiming that the 1972 Buick is a real motherf____r.”

Well, that still hasn’t quite happened. But I saw something today that comes close. I got an email from the travel site Orbitz with the headline:

The first rule of Flight Club is – Columbia deals from $200 RT

Wow. Think about it. “Fight Club” was all about characters who were utterly, savagely rejecting mainstream consumer culture and everything that went with it. But now the best-known line from the film is being appropriated to sell airline flights. Are you digging the irony here?

It doesn’t even make sense, since the first rule of Fight Club is that you do NOT talk about Fight Club. Presumably, Orbitz would like us to talk about this deal.

But the line got me to look — and that was the point.

I can’t wait to see how next year’s Buicks are marketed.

Around the nation, or across it?

What’s the news across the nation?
We have got the information
in a way we hope will amuse… you.
We just love to give you our views:
La da de da!
Ladies and Gents, Laugh-In looks at the news!

– “Laugh-In”

Just a little verbal peeve I need to get off my chest.

This may be my imagination, but it seems to me that starting, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, I started seeing stuff like this:

In two-dozen interviews, the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation said they are still plenty worried about the shift in tone toward top earners and the popularity of class-based appeals. On the right, the rise of populists including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz still makes wealthy donors eyeing 2016 uncomfortable. But wealthy Republicans—who were having a collective meltdown just two months ago—also say they see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting back their way and hope the trend continues.

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Yes, as Slate, which called this passage from Politico to my attention, says, this is a billionaire comparing people concerned about income inequality to Nazis. I suppose. Frankly, I find what he’s saying a little hard to follow, based on that snippet.

But that’s not what I’m concerned about. I leave the class warfare to others. I’m bothered by that phrase, “around the country.” I suppose it’s pretty harmless, but it still bugs me that increasingly, it seems, people say it when they mean “across the country.”

“Around the country,” to me, suggests an area that runs along the inshore parts of the Atlantic from Maine to Florida, runs around Key West and comes up along the Gulf coastline to the southern tip of Texas, then up the Rio Grande and through the northern states of Mexico, runs up the Pacific past Seattle, then passes through the southern territories of Canada, back to Maine.

Whereas “across the country” involves the physical land mass of the country itself. New York, L.A., St. Louis, Kansas, New Orleans, Chicago, Nashville, Wyoming, etc.

Yeah, I know we’ve always said “around town” and understood it to mean here and there within the town, and not just its perimeter.

And I also realize that “around the country” may be an attempt to say here, there, and everywhere in the country, rather than just hopping across the country from one coast to the other, leaving out “flyover country.” They’re trying to say that the country is more than just a straight axis drawn from one point to another. Or something.

But it still seems awkward to me, and almost as though it were something being said by a person whose first language isn’t American English. It’s not, to my ear, the accepted idiom. Or it wasn’t. That seems to have been changing lately.

Is this just me? Probably…

So are you truly, unambiguously going to support this guy?

This is a good day to be Nancy Mace or Det Bowers. Because they are the only two of the crowd of people running against Lindsey Graham in the GOP primary who did not just sign a pledge to support the guy who called the senator “ambiguously gay.”

Here’s the money quote, which caused enough of a splash that Chris Cillizza of The Fix retweeted me when I mentioned it yesterday, leading to 17 other retweets and 8 favorites:

Feliciano said, “It’s about time that South Carolina (says) hey, We’re tired of the ambiguously gay senator from South Carolina. We’re ready for a new leader to merge the Republican Party. We’re done with this. This is what it’s about, all of us coming together and saying, one way or the other, one of us is going to be on that ballot in November.”

It was said by the (formerly) most obscure of the candidates, the suddenly-famous Dave Feliciano of Spartanburg, at a presser in which he and three others — Bill Connor, Lee Bright and Richard Cash — signed a pledge promising to support any one of their number who gets into a runoff with Graham.

Dave Feliciano, in an image from his campaign website.

Dave Feliciano, in an image from his campaign website.

Put another way, Bill Connor, Lee Bright and Richard Cash just pledged to support Dave Feliciano over Lindsey Graham.

Just when you thought they couldn’t take ideology far enough…

After the presser, Connor and Cash both denounced Feliciano’s characterization of the senator, but both confirmed they would still stick to the pledge, according to The State. Bright reportedly left the event before Feliciano spoke, which shows he’s not named “Bright” for nothing.

I wrote to Bill Connor via Facebook a few minutes ago to ask him again, “would you really support this Feliciano guy over Sen. Graham?” Because I still find that hard to believe. But then, I find the attitude of the kinds of Republicans who would oppose Graham sort of hard to believe, so this is not surprising.

Krauthammer: ‘Ya gotta love’ Graham for adding fuel to Democrats’ fire

Charles Krauthammer is getting a kick out of Lindsey Graham’s reaction to Dianne Feinstein’s accusation that the CIA has been spying on the Senate.

On FoxNews last night, the columnist said the following:

What I like the best about this is that Lindsey Graham, a Republican, comes upon the brawl, and he says that if true, the Congress should declare war on the CIA.

Interestingly, we haven’t declared war on anybody since Pearl Harbor.

Lindsey comes across a fight and he hands out Molotov cocktails to all the participants.

Ya gotta love that guy.

You can see the video above. Graham has said “This is dangerous to a democracy. Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it’s true,” and that “this is Richard Nixon stuff…”

That is a twist. You’ve got Democrats in the Senate flinging accusations at a Democratic administration, and a Republican eggs them on by saying it’s as bad as Nixon. One gathers that Republicans like watching a fight between Democrats the way schoolboys like seeing a couple of girls come to blows on the playground. (I can see Lindsey yelling down the hall, “Democrat fight!”)

Oh… and apparently Graham is enjoying the fact that Krauthammer is enjoying it. The Krauthammer clip was brought to my attention by Graham’s office.

On Haley and Sheheen on the ethics bill

This could be a moment to pause and celebrate something. Not the ethics bill that passed the state Senate yesterday (I’ll let Cindi Scoppe tell you about its inadequacies, as she did in this column and this one), but the fact that both candidates for governor are vocal in calling it inadequate:

COLUMBIA, SC — An update to S.C. ethics laws – more than a year in the making – passed the state Senate on Thursday only to be blasted by Gov. Nikki Haley and her likely Democratic challenger for governor in November, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, as not being good enough.

In particular, the two rivals faulted the proposal for not including an independent body to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers.

“Let’s be clear, what the Senate passed tonight wasn’t ethics reform – it’s an income-disclosure bill, and while that’s a positive step forward, it’s really only a half-step,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said….

Unfortunately, there’s a sour note in this duet:

“Some reform is better than no reform, but this bill is pretty close to nothing,” Sheheen said, before turning his criticism toward Haley. “In order to have open and accountable government, we need full income disclosure, an independent body to investigate ethics violations, and to finally put an end to the governor’s continued misuse of the state plane and vehicles for campaign activities.”…

In defending Sheheen from criticism from our own Doug, I’ve said that a challenger needs to define what’s wrong with the incumbent, in order to give the voter reasons for replacing that incumbent.

But Doug has a point, and once again, Sheheen’s criticism of Haley is coming across as grating. I don’t know how much of it is the content, and how much of it is just a matter of this tone not being natural coming from Vincent Sheheen. This drip, drip, drip of talking points about Nikki feels like the work of consultants; it’s just not the way Vincent naturally speaks. He’s a more affable, get-along-with-people kind of guy.

It would be far better if Sheheen said something like this:

It may not always feel like it, especially when the Senate drops the ball this way on a needed reform, but we’re slowly making progress in South Carolina. Both the incumbent governor and I are taking the same position, which is that our state politicians need to be held to a higher ethical standard. When those who would lead this state are unanimous in calling for more ambitious reform, that’s progress; we’ve moved in the right direction. Now, you’ve heard me say in the past that the incumbent governor has through her own lapses helped illustrate why we need ethics reform. I stand by that, and the record stands for itself. If I thought she did everything right, I’d be voting for her instead of running against her. But today, I want to thank the governor for her leadership in trying to make sure lawmakers don’t commit such lapses in the future, and are held accountable if they do. Whatever she’s done in the past, she’s taking the right position on this now. And I will stand squarely beside her and help with the heavy lifting of trying to move us further forward, and pass real ethics reform. And if I am elected to replace her, I hope she will continue to support this effort. Because all of us who understand the problem — and I think both of us do now — need to work together to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

OK, that’s a little wordy — if I were writing a statement for him I’d tighten it up — but that’s the tone I think he should be striking…

Dang. When you’re on your own, you have to think so HARD

So this morning, I was trying to post a quick reply to something Doug had said, and I was trying to think of a word. I was trying to think of a word for considerations that exacerbate a situation (I never have trouble remembering “exacerbate,” because, you know, it sounds dirty).

When I was at the newspaper, I would have gotten up, walked next door to Cindi Scoppe’s office, and said, “I’m having trouble remembering a word that should be easy. What’s the opposite of extenuating, or mitigating, circumstances? You know, like committing the offense within the context of another crime or something.”

And she would have said, “aggravating,” and I’d nod, say “of course,” and go back and type that, assuming I didn’t get distracted on the way.

But without her and all those other people to check with, just sitting here blogging alone (is that redundant?), I had to think of it all on my own, which took several seconds.

Having to remember stuff on your own is hard

Remembering teachers for what they did to (I mean, for) you

Had to reTweet this item from The Onion today:

Unemployed, Miserable Man Still Remembers Teacher Who First Made Him Fall In Love With Writing

AUBURN, CA—Explaining that she introduced him to the literature that made him the man he is today, 41-year-old Casey Sheard, an unemployed and fundamentally miserable person, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that he still fondly remembers the high school teacher who first inspired him to fall in love with writing. “Mrs. Merriman was the one who put a copy of The Sound And The Fury in my hands when I was 16 years old, and it totally changed my life,” said Sheard, who has reportedly been unable to hold down any semblance of well-paid, full-time employment, constantly struggles to stay financially afloat, has thus far failed to make a living off of writing as a career, and has frequently spiraled into long periods of severe depression and unhappiness….

A couple of other word guys liked that. Mike Fitts just added, “Yep.”

The thing that makes Pope Francis special


Sometime over the last few days, someone shared the above quote on Facebook, which caused me to have three thoughts:

  1. Yes, that’s a nice quote, which speaks to what the Church is supposed to be. Here’s some context.
  2. There’s nothing new in it. If you had asked Pope Benedict whether that was a sound assertion, he would have agreed. Probably. Surely John Paul II would have.
  3. Why do people post things like this as images, rather than text, so that you can’t just copy and paste them? Is this another sign that we are moving toward a post-literate society? Drives me nuts…

And then I moved on.

But I ran across it again later, and had another thought:

Yes, other popes would have agreed with it, but Pope Francis chooses, unbidden, to assert this over and over. This is his chosen message. This is what he wants you to hear, and understand, about the Church and about Christianity.

And that’s what makes him special. It’s why the world welcomes him so joyfully. It’s why the guy can’t even leave an ordinary voice message for some nuns without it going viral. People love the guy. And that’s because the message he chooses, first and foremost, is that of love…

My linguistic map, according to the NYT


I took this quiz to which Bryan drew my attention. It’s one that places you regionally in terms of, well, your terms — not your accent, but by the regionalism expressed in your choice of words.

I’m a little suspicious of the result. For the most part, it shows some influence from the places where I’ve lived. Almost everywhere I’ve ever lived is within the “more similar” areas, with the exception of Woodbury, NJ, which I think had a significant impact on the way I use language.

I think the reason I seem so Southern on the map is that I said that I use “y’all” as a second-person plural pronoun. Other than that one answer, which rang the Southern bell so loudly, I usually found myself distributed more widely across the country (the quiz gives you a map for each answer). And that would have been watered down if the test had allowed me to answer both “y’all” and “you,” which would have been accurate.

But hey, today, I’m going to be dismissive of anything the NYT has to say

UPDATE: Suspicious of the “y’all” bias in the test, which I felt anchored me as Southern no matter how I answered the other questions (two of the three Southern cities in which the test placed me — neither of which I ever lived in — were based on “y’all”), I went in and took the test again. This time, I answered “you,” which is accurate because I say that for the plural as well (when I lived in New Jersey in the 2nd grade, I would say, “youse guys,” so I could have stretched a point and answered that way).

This time, the test threw me a couple of curves and asked questions about two other words. I was asked how I pronounce “lawyer” and whether I call soft drinks “soda” or “pop” or whatever. I knew that “soda” would place me in the South, but that was the obvious answer. What shocked me was that pronouncing “lawyer” properly — clearly enunciating “law” and “yer” — also marked me as Southern (specifically, as being from what Memphis calls the “Mid-South” — could that be because I used to cover courts in that region?). Two of the three cities in which I was placed (Birmingham and Columbus, GA) were based on that. Which is weird, because Memphis would have made more sense, it being the dominant population center of the region that lit up when I answered the way I did.

Oh — and it also asked me about a pet peeve. I HATE it when I hear people call nighttime attire “puh-JAM-uhs.” Obviously, it is “pa-JAH-mas.” But answering that correctly also made me Southern. Go figure (which I’m pretty sure is Yankee talk).

My second result.

My second result — if anything, I came out more distinctly Southern.

How Americans and Brits came to sound so different

As a New Year’s present, my old high school friend Burl (and Ha’ole Makahiki Hou to you, too, Burl!) passes on a couple of links that he knew would interest me.

Here’s one, and here’s the other. The first one, headlined “When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?,” is the more informative.

The main idea communicated by both is that General American (the way they talk in Nebraska) is in important ways closer to the way Brits spoke before 1776. For instance, their speech patterns were rhotic, meaning they pronounced their Rs back then. Sometime in Jane Austen’s (and Jack Aubrey‘s, had he existed) youth, upper-class Brits started dropping their Rs.

The coolest thing in the article is the way it explains why some Americans also went non-rhotic after that:

Around the turn of the 18th-19th century, not long after the revolution, non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. It was a signifier of class and status. This posh accent was standardized as Received Pronunciation and taught widely by pronunciation tutors to people who wanted to learn to speak fashionably. Because the Received Pronunciation accent was regionally “neutral” and easy to understand, it spread across England and the empire through the armed forces, the civil service and, later, the BBC.

Across the pond, many former colonists also adopted and imitated Received Pronunciation to show off their status. This happened especially in the port cities that still had close trading ties with England — Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. From the Southeastern coast, the RP sound spread through much of the South along with plantation culture and wealth.

After industrialization and the Civil War and well into the 20th century, political and economic power largely passed from the port cities and cotton regions to the manufacturing hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Midwest — New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, etc. The British elite had much less cultural and linguistic influence in these places, which were mostly populated by the Scots-Irish and other settlers from Northern Britain, and rhotic English was still spoken there. As industrialists in these cities became the self-made economic and political elites of the Industrial Era, Received Pronunciation lost its status and fizzled out in the U.S. The prevalent accent in the Rust Belt, though, got dubbed General American and spread across the states just as RP had in Britain…

So, assuming this is all correct, that’s why many Charlestonians and denizens of South Boston don’t pronounce Rs today — because of the affectations of their ancestors.

There’s a lot more to the differences between General American and Received Pronunciation, starting with vowel sounds, but I liked the way the rhotacism thing was explained.

Burl, by the way, has a fairly typical military brat’s speech pattern — which most Americans would regard as accentless. But he and I both, in our youths, enjoyed tinkering around with other people’s ways of speaking. We loved accents, the more outrageous the better.

Much of that plasticity is gone from my tongue today, but with practice I can get it back. If I warm up the proper mouth muscles on Sunday morning (I do this by reading the passage aloud over and over before Mass), I can do a Scripture reading in Spanish in an accent that gets me about 80 percent of the way (to my ear) to sounding like a native speaker, of some vague nationality. And during rehearsals for “Pride and Prejudice,” our diction coach asked me where I was from, and complimented me on my use of Received Pronunciation. But I’d been practicing for weeks by that time. If you ask me to do it at the drop of a hat, I’ll probably fall flat.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve gradually started sounding a bit more Southern than I once did — taking on the coloration of my surroundings.

But my speech is still rhotic.

Thoughts on the president’s presser? Share them here…

I’ve sort of been listening along during the president’s pre-holiday press availability while doing other stuff.

I liked the question — I forget who asked it, and pressed it, but he was pretty insistent — that amounted to this: Mr. President, several months ago you said the NSA wasn’t doing anything wrong. Why do you think the procedures need to be changed now?

It was a good question. The president was right — there was nothing wrong with our surveillance programs then, and there isn’t now. What has happened is that the drip, drip, drip of details — which haven’t revealed anything significant regarding policy itself, but have merely attached names and specifics (things we did not need to know), and it has had an erosive effect on public opinion. Exactly as Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald intended.

And while he sort of danced around it, the president essentially said that: There’s nothing wrong with these programs, but political opinion has changed, so we’re reacting to that. And the way we’re reacting is that we’re looking for ways to get the intel job done with some procedural changes that make people feel better.

Which is not terrible in and of itself. But I would much, much rather that the president stand up to this propaganda campaign by two people who are trying to harm this nation, and argue against the public impression that their efforts have created. Because by reacting by making changes — or even reacting by trying to make it appear that we are making changes — tells any other minor players with a God complex that if they betray this country by disclosing classified information with which they have been entrusted, they will achieve their goals.

That creates an extremely dangerous precedent.

Now, as to the Obamacare comments, two things jumped out.

I reacted initially the way Ali Weinberg did: “Has Obama ever said before that he was only meeting with health care team ‘every other week, every three weeks’?”

But about two seconds later, I reflected that hey, having a meeting every two or three weeks with a bunch of underlings to make sure they’re doing their jobs is fairly often, given that a POTUS does have a few other responsibilities. It’s way short of micromanaging, but it’s more than “only.”

Then, I noticed that CBSNews reported, “Obama takes blame on health care rollout: ‘Since I’m in charge, we screwed it up’.”

Ummm… no, not really. In fact, when I heard him say it, it struck me as a case of verbal contortion, in an effort to fall just short of taking the blame personally.

That’s really a bizarre construction: “Since I’m in charge” sounds like he’s about to take the blame, but “we screwed it up” rather startlingly shares the blame with others.

I haven’t heard an acceptance of responsibility that tortured since “Mistakes were made.”

Any other thoughts on the president’s remarks today?

This year’s One Book: Conroy’s “My Reading Life”

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year's selection.

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year’s selection.

Last night, I dropped by Richland Library for the unveiling of the chosen book for the 2014 “One Book” program.

It’s My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Everyone was pretty pumped about it, in part because the author himself will be participating in the program.conroy

I look forward to reading it myself, and joining in discussions of it. As you may recall, I moderated a discussion at the library for this past year’s selection, A.J. Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August, a book I enjoyed much more than I had thought I would.

Which I suppose is kinda the point of participating in a program that gets you to read something you might not have. It’s broadening to get pulled away, however briefly, from my obsessive re-reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (I’m currently on about my sixth trip through some of the books — I still haven’t allowed myself to read the very last two in the series).

Now, to digress…

After the announcement, I got involved in a discussion of the strong-mayor referendum with Mike Miller, Tim Conroy (the author’s brother and a longtime Columbian), and City Councilman Sam Davis. All of us, except Mr. Davis, had been deeply disappointed by the outcome. He listened patiently to us, and we listened patiently to him, but I don’t think any minds were changed.

We were joined late in the discussion by our old blog friend James D. McAllister, a writer and owner of Loose Lucy’s. He was against strong-mayor, but Kathryn would probably discount his opinion, since, like me, he doesn’t live in the de jure city.

Anyway, back to the book… maybe we should all read it and have a good discussion of it here on the blog. Whaddya think?

No, that is NOT me. That's Mike Miller with Tim Conroy.

No, that is NOT me. That’s Mike Miller with Tim Conroy, later in the evening at First Thursday on Main.

A wonderfully temperate and respectful speech on an emotional issue

Andrew Sullivan embedded this video from the Scottish parliament earlier this week because he saw it as “The Conservative Case For Marriage Equality.”

I was impressed with it for another reason: It was so thoughtful, mature and respectful to people who might disagree.

We don’t see a lot of that on this side of the pond when it comes to these Culture War issues. For that matter, we seldom see politicians sincerely addressing themselves to people who disagree with them about anything — the parties are so far apart that speeches are just about lambasting the opposition, and gaining the admiration of those who agree.

Unlike the rhetoric I routinely see in press releases, or in commentary on the Web, there is no name-calling, no castigation of those who disagree as narrow-minded bigots, as the spiritual heirs of lynch mobs.

Instead, we have thoughts such as those contained in this passage:

I therefore commend all of the contributors to this debate over the past few months and years who have sought to make thoughtful contributions, to elevate the ideas and to temper the language, displaying a respect for beliefs which differ from their own, but recognizing that those beliefs are just as sincerely held.

And I hope that that temperance will continue this evening, demonstrating that while this may be a fledgling parliament, that it has a maturity too….

If this woman, Ruth Davidson, is a representative sample, hers is a mature parliament, indeed.

Hey, that’s what I think about the left and the right

For some reason — I forget why now — I was about to use the phrase “begging the question,” and I thought I’d better make sure I remembered what it meant.

So I looked it up. I did not find the Wikipedia explanation helpful. I thought I understood it from the definition, but the actual examples confused me, rather than clarifying, as examples are supposed to do. I must admit that after reading that, I doubt I could tell an instance of begging the question from “circular reasoning.”

But I was intrigued to read about another related fallacy, the “complex question.” To wit:

Begging the question is similar to the complex question (also known as trick question or fallacy of many questions): a question that, in order to be valid, requires the truth of another question that has not been established. For example, “Which color dress is Mary wearing—blue or red?” may be fallacious because it restricts the possible responses to a blue or red dress. Unless it has previously been established that the dress is one of those two colors, the question is fallacious because it could be neither of them…

Aha! Now I have a new name for the thing that I hate most about the way most of us engage politics.

Practically every political proposition set forth in our era is couched as red or blue — left or right, Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. Whereas to me, the correct answer is almost never blue or red.

But most people today will not allow you to answer any way other than “red” or “blue.” I mean, you can answer “green” or “brown” or “gray” or “khaki” or whatever you like — they just refuse to hear it.

This is the bane of anyone who tries to think about issues, rather than buying a prefab set of “red” or “blue” answers right off the shelf, and present honest conclusions based upon that thought. If you’re disagreeing with someone of the red persuasion, everyone assumes you are blue, and tells you so — and vice versa. The idea that you are neither red nor blue simply isn’t admitted. Because our public debate is not couched in terms that make it possible.

“Complex question” is misleading terminology. Yeah, I get that the question is complex, in the sense of having a complicating additional element, but the effect is to force the world into a binary choice — which is oversimplification.

But hey; I didn’t come up with the term…

Taking all the arrant pedants to task

It takes a lot of nerve to correct other people’s grammar, if only because of number 13 on the following list of 12.

It takes gall to the nth power (an expression which, I fear, may not make sense grammatically) to correct those who correct others.

So it is with admiration that I point to the following list (brought to my attention by Stanley Dubinsky), from a blog with the wonderful name “Arrant Pedantry.” You know, the thing up with which Churchill allegedly would not put.

This list won’t make a lot of sense without the explanations of each item, so I urge you to go to the original. But here’s a taste:

12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes

1. Confusing grammar with spelling, punctuation, and usage….

2. Treating style choices as rules….

3. Ignoring register….

4. Saying that a disliked word isn’t a word….

5. Turning proposals into ironclad laws….

6. Failing to discuss exceptions to rules….

7. Overestimating the frequency of errors….

8. Believing that etymology is destiny….

9. Simply bungling the rules….

10. Saying that good grammar leads to good communication….

11. Using grammar to put people down….

12. Forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from users….

13. Making mistakes themselves. It happens to the best of us. The act of making grammar or spelling mistakes in the course of pointing out someone else’s mistakes even has a name, Muphry’s law. This post probably has its fair share of typos. (If you spot one, feel free to point it out—politely!—in the comments.)

I’m not saying I agree with all those assertions. For instance, I disagree with No. 8. Contrary to the writer’s belief, “decimate” does have a definite meaning, one that is obvious from its Latin root, and the fact that many people use it to mean something worse, something more devastating, simply proves that they are wrong. And I don’t bloody care that the OED blog disagrees with me.

But this writer is right to say that most pedants need to chill on the absolutes. After all, there’s only one absolute rule that a true wordsmith will never violate: Don’t ever use “impact” as a verb.

Follow that one, and you’re OK in my book.

The Word of the Year, and a picture to go with it

I learned this from listening to NPR this morning:

Good morning. I’m Renee Montagne announcing the word of the year: Selfie. The Smartphone self-portrait. The Oxford Dictionary says it perfectly captures 2013. Selfies lit up social media and dirty ones derailed political careers. Teens even took one with the Pope. The word’s come a long way since popping up on an Australian message board a decade ago. It beat out binge watch, meaning marathon TV watching, and twerk. You can look that one up.

But what really made me enjoy the news was this Tweet from NASA’s Curiosity Rover:


By the way, as a guy who has had occasion to shoot a number of pictures of himself over the years, what with blogging and the avatars needed for social media, I really don’t like the way that word sounds.

Is ‘Common Core’ the ‘whole language’ of 2013?

Maybe I should have gone to that anti-Common Core rally yesterday. Maybe I’d understand better what the beef is.

So far, based on news coverage of the event, I can’t tell. As an issue that stirs people’s (at least, a few people’s) passions to the point of marching, it seems lacking.

People seem to dislike it because it’s federal — except that it isn’t. Or they seem to dislike it because it’s a standard, preferring to leave curriculum up to teachers. I think. Or maybe they just don’t like the word, “common.” I got that last impression from the woman quoted in The State today who asserted, “My kids are not common.”

I haven’t been perplexed this way over an education issue since the phonics-vs.-whole language wars.

Remember those? People who favored the teaching of reading and writing by the phonics method were really, really angry that this thing called “whole language” was being taught in schools.

I always thought it odd that this would be an issue, particularly a political issue. Like there was some deep ideological or even moral principle at stake in whether a kid learned to read “cat” by sounding it out or by recognizing it by context, or on sight.

In learning most Western language, the phonic method is useful. Especially a simple, straightforward language such as Spanish, in which letters usually (but still not always) represent the same sounds.

It’s even useful in English, for “cat” and “hat” and “bat” and “rat.”

But then, it’s not useful at all for recognizing, and knowing how to pronounce, “rough” and “bough” and “though” and “through.” There might be some other ways that “ough” is pronounced, but those are four that come to mind immediately.

You just sorta need to know a lot of words on site — I mean, sight. Or infer them by context (which, as I go and look it up while writing this, seems to be more what “whole language” is about). Phonics can be a big help when you’re trying to make out an unfamiliar word (which makes it a good tool to have in your box), but then, it might not.

I remember having a tremendous argument, when I was a first-grader, with a kid in my neighborhood who insisted that there was no way that “said” was the word we pronounced as “sed.” Phonics were all he knew, which limited his ability to come to grips with the language. What he had learned was valuable, but not everything he needed.

I digress. My point is, I didn’t understand why there was such a battle over phonics, and I don’t get the passionate objection to Common Core, either. Can anyone help me out here?

I’m feeling rather inarticulate today…

This is embarrassing.

Whatever my flaws, and they are legion, I thought I could comfort myself that I had an excellent vocabulary. In English, I mean. I’ve probably forgotten more Spanish words than I remember (after having been fluent as a child).

So, having been humiliated by the Slate current events quiz Friday (which asks questions about stupid stuff that no discerning newshound would follow), I thought I’d give myself an ego boost with I saw this Tweet from a mommy-blogger (I suppose they’d say “mum-blogger”) in England:


I followed the link, and took the test. Basically, you click on the words that you know at least one definition of (and you’re on the honor system, so it was a little fuzzy on a definition, I wouldn’t click on that word), and it infers from that how many words you know.

I ended up with a score of 35,100 words. Which is just barely outside the normal range of 22,000-35,000 for most adult native English speakers. There are 300,000 main entries in the OED, so that means I only know a bit more than a tenth of all words in my own language.

Which is depressing. Because while I would expect to be well below the normal range in, say, sports knowledge, I would expect to blow out vocabulary totally, like, you know?

One bright spot, though — when I looked back at the screenshot I saved from my test, below, I noticed that I had failed to click on “awry.” I must have clicked at it and missed, or something. Which means the whole process went, you know, awry! (Also, if I had clicked that I knew “bibulous,” and someone had challenged me on it, my guess of what it meant would have been right — so maybe I should have had more confidence.) So my test score is invalid! I probably would have scored as well as the mum-blogger if I hadn’t been in such a hurry!