Word Watch – January 2006

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Every year I train ten or fifteen teaching assistants, and I enjoy doing it. One of the things I especially enjoy is taking them through the logic of grading papers. But there are some things that they have a really hard time believing about my advice.

One of them is the idea that good writers don’t need to sound like the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” If your high school teacher told you never to use the first-person pronoun, or never to start a sentence with “And” or “But,” or never to shorten “cannot” to (‘can’t,” that teacher was just purveying superstition. “I,” “and,” and “but” are words like other words, and like other words, they can be overused. But there’s no reason to avoid them, or to avoid putting them at the start of sentences. And if you allow yourself to use contractions, you have one more way of giving interesting changes to your tone. I say all that to my teaching assistants. Then I look at their work on student papers, and I see that they’re still telling people to “avoid the use of I!, “avoid ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the start of sentences!”, and above all, “avoid contractions!!!” No reason – just avoid ’em. The result is that a student who would otherwise say, simply and naturally, “It’s clear that Aeneas isn’t responsible for all of Dido’s problems,” ends up saying, as if he were an Oxford professor shouting down an opponent, “It is clear that Aeneas is not responsible

“This is false formality, something so rife in our society that cops describe their prisoners as “the gentlemen who are alleged to have been ancillary to this crime.”

One way to narrow your tonal options is to aim at the maximum degree of formality, whether the situation demands it or not. The other way, of course, is to cultivate a false informality. This is something that Americans have been having trouble with ever since they started telling themselves how democratic they

were. It’s been bad since President Jackson’s day, and now it’s getting worse.

I think about this when the phone rings, because it’s usually a person who says something like, “Hi, is this Steve? Hi, this is Cheryl! How you doin’ today Steve? Listen, Steve, I’m calling from down here at the Acme Roof and Tile Company. Steve, did you know we got a real great special goin’ on down here . . . ”

Naturally, that’s where I hang up. There’s something galling about the pretense that somebody who’s never met you and wouldn’t care to do so, even on a bet, is actually an intimate friend of yours. It’s especially galling when he or she is doing a sell job.

It reminds me ofWoody Guthrie.

I’m not a big fan of “Woody’s” music. Part of the reason is that he was a communist. I know that his political affiliation should have nothing to do with an aesthetic judgment of his work, but communism does make me want to find something pretty big and pretty good to compensate for it in a feller’s work. In Guthrie’s case, there isn’t much. His tunes are good, but sometimes they’re not his own tunes. His lyrics vary a lot in quality. In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he’s a master of the aphoristic style: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, / Some with a fountain pen.” But ‘(This Land Is Your Land” is just a mess. “From California to the New York Island” is about as slipshod as you can get. And what do you think of the original verses: “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me; / A sign was painted said: Private Property”? That’s as bad as had can be.

But the thing that always comes to mind when I consider the problem of false informality is the song he wrote commemorating the Reuben]ames, a U.S. ship sunk by the Germans just after Hitler went to war with Stalin and made it all right for Guthrie to become a patriotic, pro-war guy. The song asks the urgent question, “What were their names? / Tell me, What were their names? / Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

Well, no; I don’t know their names. Like Guthrie’s original audience, I never heard of them before. They weren’t my “friends,” and I won’t pretend that they were. They weren’t the song writer’s friends, either. This is nothing but smarm.

It’s the kind of thing that American communists have always emitted. I remember when Gus Hall and Angela Davis were running on the Communist Party ticket, and they were planning some dismal little get-out-the-vote rally in a midwestern city. Their followers plastered the slums with signs reading, “Gus and Angela Are Coming to Town!” It was an attempt to assume their way into a welcome – the assumption being that everyone “remembered” good 01′ Gus and Angela and would therefore feel obliged to greet them with ecstasy.

In the old days, the copyright on folksy smarm was held by Will Rogers and all those people that Sinclair Lewis used to satirize. But their rights must have expired, because now the conservatives are into it too. Rush Limbaugh never honeys up to his audience in that way (in fact, he satirizes people who do). Neither does Michael Medved. But Sean Hannity is always addressing his callers as “darlin'” and whooping out the first name of every intellectual derelict who dials in, as if he’d spent the past two weeks camping out in the guy’s backyard. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly has adopted folksiness, and the word “folks,” as his personal trademarks. He’s on the air five days a week demanding, “Who’s lookin’ out for the folks? That’s all I care about. What’s gonna happen to the folks? Who’s lookin’ out for the folks? I’m lookin’ out for the folks – are you lookin’ out for the folks?” If any of the people he interviews brings up a topic that O’Reilly doesn’t feel like talking about, his response is an abrupt, “The folks don’t care about thad” As if any guy in pancake makeup can be regarded as “folks.”

Then there’s President Bush – who is, perhaps, the worst example of this phenomenon, because he can’t even get the smarm right. President Clinton, who was always far too much of a simpering little mama’s boy ever to be (intellectually) tongue in groove with “folk” of any kind, could nevertheless tell a folkish story and sort of get it right. But when Bush tries to follow his lead, even the Texas accent can’t pull it off.

You remember the inane little story that President Clinton popularized and President Bush couldn’t quite manage to tell. You know, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Bush got through the first sentence, then collapsed into “You fool me, you cain’t git fooled agin.” Whatever that means. More recently, the New Orleans disaster has given us many examples of what happens when the wealthy and powerful try to sell themselves in a folkish way. I didn’t know there was so much smarm in the world until I saw all those $300,000 a year reporters waltzing around the French Quarter with their sleeves rolled up and “How you all doin’?” on their lips. But the episode I particularly enjoyed was the send-off that the mayor of New Orleans gave for his chief of police. On September 28, the chief resigned because of his abject incompetence in handling the disaster; and Mayor Ray Nagin, who had appointed him, bade him a public farewell. Nagin’s first instinct, which was the right one, was to ladle out the sarcasm: “He leaves the depart-

That was a masterpiece of damning with faint praise, and the mayor should have left it at that.



ment in pretty good shape and with a significant amount of leadership.” That was a masterpiece of damning with faint praise, and the mayor should have left it at that. But he couldn’t resist the lure of folksiness. Putting on his happy face, he said that he didn’t know what the chief would do in retirement, but he hoped that he would make a lot of money.

Well, ain’t that folksy? And ain’t that nice? Too bad about the people in New Orleans who are not in a position to make a lot of money, the folks whom the powers that be have been helping to make a whole lot folksier – if by “folksy” you mean weak and poor.

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