Category Archives: language

Books about language and linguistics.

Review 217: The Secret Life of Words

LL 217 - The Secret Life of WordsThe Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way – following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that’s certainly a valid way to do it, it’s a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens – the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language – once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It’s the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.

Hmmm... What other advantages does English have? It'll come to me...

Hmmm… What other advantages does English have? It’ll come to me…

The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don’t? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English – and by extension the Western world – through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?

A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language’s “whorish” qualities – English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz – from the Spanish word for “pelican,” which in turn comes from Arabic’s al-qadus for “machine for drawing water,” which is turn comes from Greek’s kados, meaning “jar” – quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.

The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the “Way With Words” podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It’s a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn’t do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.

By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to… wander about. There’s no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn’t supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It’s a long and complicated one, but it’s still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

I can’t fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there’s so much more that he’s glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it’s very easy for the reader to get lost.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I’d finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It’s a piecemeal book – pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you’re in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.

However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.

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“A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place.”
– Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
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Review 193: Origins of the Specious

Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman

I, for obvious reasons, have a great affection for the English Language. It’s a rich and exciting tongue, with a history as tangled and strange as they come. Over the last millennium or so, the language has gone through so many shifts and changes that people spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out. Once they do, more often than not, they find that what once was true about their beloved mother tongue just doesn’t hold up today.

So there’s a choice to be made by lovers of language: deal with the ever-fluctuating nature of English, adapt yourself to its changes and go on with your life, or do your damnedest to hold back the tide of error that is slowly overtaking your beloved tongue.

For reasons that should be obvious, the former type of person is far less likely to write books like this. Their laid back, laissez faire attitude towards the world is less inclined to make them mad enough to sit down at a computer and pound out thousands of words on the state of the language today. The latter type of person – and I do occasionally count myself among them – are far more likely to sit up late at night and write scathing tracts about the utter and complete degeneration of today’s language – about split infinitives and buzzwords and the ungodly Frenchification of English. If you listen to the sticklers, you might be forgiven for thinking that the very fabric of the English Language is in a state of decay, rotten and putrescent, and ready to fall apart any moment.

Mind you, some mistakes are really entertaining…

Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman are here to give you some perspective, something in which language sticklers are usually lacking, and perhaps lessen the incandescent rage that overtakes you when you hear people use “infer” to mean “imply,” or “unique” to mean “special,” or say, “I could care less,” even though you know it’s supposed to be “I couldn’t care less,” because I mean my GOD, even a CHILD, even a half-trained, concussed MONKEY could see how that phrase works, what’s so hard about a simple word, you MORONS, you gibbering pack of….

****We are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment. Please stand by. We apologize for the inconvenience.****

And we’re back. Sorry about that.

This book is about errors in English, and not only the legitimate ones. It’s also about how some of those errors aren’t really errors, or how they used to be, but now they aren’t. O’Connor and Kellerman are looking to give us a historical sense of how the language has evolved and changed over the centuries, and let us know that the rules of language can’t be set by prim and stuffy grammarians from two hundred years ago.

Those Grammarians, for example, are often called The Latinists, and a great many of them come from the 18th century. In those days, Latin was held up as being some kind of “perfect tongue,” and there was a certain fetish for making English play under Latin rules. The authors wryly note that this would make “about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers.” For those of you who are rusty on your linguistic history, Latin split off into what are called the Romance Languages, which includes Spanish, French and Italian. English, on the other hand, has its roots in the Germanic side of the great language tree, and so is more similar to German, Dutch and Frisian. The vast number of Latin-based words we have are, technically, imports, as English is merely a cousin to Latin, not its descendant.

TO GO BOLDLY, DAMMIT!! TO GO BOLDLY!!

But no, there were Those who wanted us to be more Latin-like, and so they imposed rules on English that made no sense whatsoever. Such as the Split Infinitive Rule (i.e. not putting a word between to and a verb – to boldly go would be considered an utter abomination to these people.) In Latin (and Spanish, and French, and Italian), the infinitive form of a verb is a single word – it is literally impossible to split. English, however, has two-word infinitives, and plenty of room to joyfully put in modifiers.

Another good example is using the word “none” as a plural – “None of the ninjas are dead.” The old grammarians would insist that the sentence be, “None of the ninjas is dead,” because “none” is a compressed form of “not one.” Even the venerable Stephen Fry can be caught pushing this one, in a rather hilarious outtake video from his wonderful quiz show QI. Fact is, people have been using “none” as a plural for centuries, and it was accepted language back then. The current fracas about it rose up in 1795 when a guy named Lindley Murray suggested that while “none” can be used as either a singular or plural, it is really best used as a singular. Which English sticklers all took as, “It really must be used as a singular.” A hundred years later, and it’s become an ironclad “RULE,” with no more foundation than one grammarian’s half-hearted opinion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Eugene the Jeep.

There’s also a great section on bad etymology – these are the stories about word origins that everybody knows, but which are most certainly wrong. For example, the origin of the word “Jeep” is usually attributed to a reading-aloud of “G.P.,” meaning “general purpose,” an appellation allegedly applied to these indestructible vehicles. Nope, sorry – it comes from Popeye comics. Or think about the Xmas season – whoops! I mean, Christmas season. Use “Xmas” today and you’ll get lambasted for taking the Christ out of Christmas. The abbreviated word is now looked upon as a Secular Humanist Plot to ruin Christmas for all the good god-fearing folks. Nope – the letter X has been representing Christ for more than a thousand years, and comes from the Greek letter X (chi), which is the first letter of Χριστός, which means, yes – Christ. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary can trace “Xmas” as far back as 1551, in fact.

One part of the book that really got my attention (other than Chapter 5 – the one on swearing) was the chapter on words that have fallen out of favor due to hyper-sensitive political correctness. Remember when Some People (they know who they are) started spelling the word for a female human as “womyn,” so as to remove it from the male-dominating “man”? Well, as it turns out, back in the good old Anglo-Saxon days, “man” referred to a person, regardless of their sex. Over time, distinctions began to emerge, giving us waepman for males (lit. “weapon-person”) and wifman for a married female. Change happens over time, and wifman became woman. Guys lost half their word and just ended up with “man.” Poor us.

The authors also touch on more charged language as well. For example, they recount the tale of a white city official who used the word “niggardly,” meaning “stingy” or “tight with money” in a conversation about expenses.

I’m in trouble, aren’t I?

This caused a massive media storm because the word “niggardly” sounds really close to “nigger,” a word that white people have to be really, really careful about using. For good reason, of course, but the fact is that “niggardly” and “nigger” are completely unrelated. The former goes back to old Scandinavian and the word “nygge,” which meant a miser. The latter is a corruption of the Latin niger, meaning “black,” which is turn gave us the Spanish and Portuguese “negro.” Long story short (too late), that city official used the right word in the right context, but it wasn’t a word that we let people use anymore. It’s a a Fallen Word, joining other words and phrases such as “Call a spade a spade,” “Rule of thumb,” and “shyster.” All of them have innocent origins, but have been inextricably linked with some of our worse human prejudices and practices.

I could go on. The point is that this book is a great pleasure to read, and will give you a fresh new perspective on the English language. It’s non-academic, so you have nothing to worry about there, well-organized and just plain entertaining. More importantly, while it may not be able to prevent you grinding your teeth when you see “Ten Items or Less” at the local supermarket, you may be less inclined to try and strangle the manager.

Maybe.

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“The truth is that English is all about change. It’s as absorbent as a sponge, as flexible as a rubber band, and it simply won’t stand still – no matter where it’s spoken.”
– Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious
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Patricia T. O’Connor on Wikipedia
Origins of the Specious on Amazon.com
Patricia T. O’Connor’s website

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Filed under history, language, nonfiction, Patricia T. O'Connor, Stewart Kellerman

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

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“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
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Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
Roy Blount, Jr.’s website
Alphabet Juice on Amazon.com

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Filed under humor, language, nonfiction, Roy Blount Jr

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

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“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

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Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

Review 106: Eats, Shoots & Leaves


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

This is how I know I’m a real English teacher – I have a shelf dedicated to books just about English. The history of English, the uses and misuses of English, and even the history of the alphabet we use. This is something I never expected to have in my personal library, that’s for sure.

So has my brain. (photo by Nathan Harrison)

But that’s all to be expected; I’m an English teacher, and people like me are supposed to read books like this. It’s professional development, or something. The weird thing about this book, a book dedicated to punctuation, of all things, is that it was popular with people who weren’t English teachers. Everyone was shocked by how well it sold, the author included. A book written as kind of a primal stickler scream somehow struck a chord with the general reading population. Perhaps there is some hope for our species after all….

The reason it sold well, of course, is that it’s well-written and entertaining to read. Far too many books about language are written by dusty intellectual Linguists who exude smugness with their impenetrable jargon and are completely inaccessible to the general public. I have those books on my shelves as well, and nothing this side of a double shot of NyQuil is as good at getting me off into slumberland. Ms. Truss, however, writes like one of us. She’s an ordinary person who loves her language and who just snaps every time she sees a sign like, “Apple’s – $1”. I share her pain.

Can't use white-out on neon, can you? (photo by James McNally)

The book is a well-mixed combination of history, usage and style. The tiny marks that make the written English word behave the way it does have come to us along a remarkable number of paths. In the last millennium or so, marks have been added, changed and removed over time as necessity dictated. One of her fears (and the impetus to write this book) is that we may be changing English to a new form that requires less of that rigid, form-fixing punctuation.

Or people just haven’t bothered to learn.

As she notes throughout the book, punctuation is one of those things that few people ever really get to learn. Our English teachers give it a once-over in elementary school, and then we never get a review of it, so we spend most of our lives just throwing around commas and apostrophes and hoping we get it right. More often than not, we don’t. And we’re afraid to ask anyone, lest we look like ignorant yobs.

But to master punctuation means more than just being a pedant and a nerd. Heavens, no. Mastering punctuation means controlling your language, which is controlling your thoughts. The vast difference between a sentence like, “The convict said the judge is mad” and “The convict, said the judge, is mad” should be enough by itself to illustrate how important proper punctuation is. In a language like English, so dependent on rhythm, timing and stress, punctuation is the substitute for our voice. It tells us when to speed up and slow down, which points need to be stressed and given special attention, and which points (like this one) can be safely disregarded, if one so chooses.

Only one member, mind you.... (photo by Lobstar28)

It would be very easy for Ms. Truss’ obvious frustration with the misuse of punctuation to overwhelm her and poison the book. Admittedly, she does at one point put together a kit for those who would be punctuation guerrillas and risk prison to set the world straight, but by and large she stops short at advocating actual lawlessness.

Ms. Truss understands that punctuation abuse isn’t something that people do intentionally – it’s largely a matter of ignorance, and she wants to help. What’s more, she’s funny. For example:

In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.

Every section in the book has sharp and clever humor, a description of something as simple as a comma made in such a way that you find yourself laughing out loud on the train.

Of course, whenever you get into this topic, you run the risk of finding yourself forced to one side or the other of the “proscriptive” versus “descriptive” debate. You know, the people who want to tell everyone else how to use language versus the people who want the speakers to decide for themselves how it is used. The latter smacks of classical democracy, and as both an English Professional and a person with a healthy distrust of The People, I’m hesitant to sign up for it. I like rules in language. I like having a common set of guidelines we can turn to in order to make sure we’re all getting the meaning that the speaker or writer is trying to convey.

WHAT? The fabulous fur's WHAT?? (photo by Trevor Coultart)

Unfortunately, for people like Truss or myself, it’s all too easy to cross that line from being the person who appreciates a bit of order to that person who writes letters to the editor because some headline writer used a colon where a semicolon would do. And I’ve seen internet flame wars go wild over this pro- or de- divide. People who could politely disagree with each other about Sarah Palin’s international policy experience will find themselves screaming bloody murder over whether or not you should put two spaces after a period.

What has to be remembered is this: there are rules to language, like it or not. Those rules, however, change, and no single one of us has any power to impel or obstruct that change. The best we can do is to make sure we are writing with clarity and precision so that our intended audience understands our thoughts with the least amount of effort on their part. Regardless of what you think of the rules, if the reader has to stop and ask herself, “Wait, what did he say?” then you have failed. So learn the rules. Once you’ve learned them, you’re free to do what you wish, but make sure you have them down cold.

So, if you’ve always wanted to know about how to use a semicolon, or you’re not sure if your commas are in the right place, or if you’ve ever driven someone to madness by dropping an apostrophe into a possessive “its” – and you know who you are – then this book is the one you need. Enjoy.

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“Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.”
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

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Review 57: When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?


When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin

This is pretty much what you expect from Carlin – acerbic, abrasive, disrespectful, challenging language that doesn’t give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks. Which means there’ll definitely be something in there that you disagree with, and probably something that pisses you off. Not me, of course. When I watched the South Park movie, at the abortion joke from The Mole, the entire theater was dead silent except for me in the back row, cackling. I have a very broad sense of humor.

Anyway, if you’ve read his previous works, Braindroppings and Napalm and Silly Putty, you pretty much know what’s going to be in here – a lot of essays on current events, social customs and traditions, and the general weak character of Americans today. Plus, there are lots of short bits that are really funny:

“I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but I had all the wrong traits. Apparently, they were looking for kids who were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Unfortunately, at that time I was devious, fickle, obstructive, hostile, rude, mean, defiant, glum, extravagant, cowardly, dirty and sacrilegious. So I waited a few years and joined the army.”

One of Carlin’s hot points is his love of language, as the above points out. He loves language and he loves to watch how people use language to bend the truth of their meaning – in other words, he takes particular notice of euphemism. As an English teacher, and a lover of language myself, I also find this topic fascinating and have cannibalized some of Carlin’s material for use in lessons on the topic. Included in this book is his “Shell Shock to PTSD” speech, chronicling the renaming of the same condition from World War I (“Shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Shell shock!”) through to the present day (“…at last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.”).

This is one area in which I have great respect for Carlin. Overall, I prefer his old material – the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, Congolia Breckenridge and all that – to his newer, rougher stuff. But on the subject of language, I find him to be an insightful and clever scholar of communication. Words exist to describe things. At the same time, however, words conceal the true nature of things, and no one word can completely encompass the thing it describes. Knowing that, we use words to change things according to comfort and custom. We soften the things that make us uncomfortable – going from “cripple” to “physically challenged” might make us feel better about it, but it doesn’t change the condition itself. No matter what we call it, Stephen Hawking isn’t going to engage in a round of beach volleyball anytime soon.

Even in simpler, less controversial matters, he rails against the use of language as a means of manipulation (no doubt fully aware of the irony of his profession). He remembers when bathroom tissue was toilet paper, when customer service was the complaint department and when direct marketing was junk mail. He tells us to beware of “systems” and “centers” and “programs,” and longs for the days when things were simpler, while never really believing they were that simple to begin with.

What Carlin believes, and what he explains in this book and his others, is that, given the choice, we should opt for the word that is clearest, simplest and truest over the one that just makes us feel better….

In between the jokes about sex, death and old people, that is.

For anyone who loves language, Carlin is someone to pay attention to.

I was upset when Carlin died, as were a whole lot of other people. I know he denied it, but I think he grew angry in his old age. His comedy, his points of view shifted less from observational humor and word humor to meditations on death and the baser nature of humanity. He would open his show with a reminder to everyone that they were, basically, meat with an expiration date. He talked about how much fun it would be to see plane crashes and train derailments and chaos reign across the world. It never resonated with me as much as his early stuff did, and that’s fine. No artist who works as long as Carlin did can continually please the same people throughout his entire career.

Still, nestled within the anger and chaotic glee was a certain… dare I say it? Love. I think he really expected a lot out of humanity, and knew our potential to do a lot of great things. If he became angry or bitter, perhaps it’s just because we weren’t living up to his expectations.

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“A children’s museum sounds like a great idea, but I would imagine it’s not easy to breathe inside those little glass cases.”
– George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
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