Word Watch – June 2009

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The subject for this month is linguistic mysteries – the things you hear or read that make you wonder, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with disgust, “Why?

Some mysteries are purely psychological. Why would anyone say “utilize,” when “use” means precisely the same thing and is three times faster? Why would anyone say “facility,” when “building” is so readily available? The obvious answer is, “They’re choosing the most pretentious phrase they can find,” but that doesn’t solve the problem. Why should anyone want to sound pretentious? The obvious answer to that question is that many people simply don’t know that they’re being pretentious. But … why don’t they know? They’re just as smart as everyone else. But it never occurs to them. They even go out of their way to say, “We need to optimalize our utilization of this facility.” So I give up. It’s a mystery.

Now consider the San Diego Union-Tribune, reporting on an enormous war protest (150 people!) featuring “activist mom Cindy Sheehan.” That peculiarly cloying phrase, “activist mom,” is no mystery; it’s what you call a crazed political fanatic when you want to make her look like something other than a crazed political fanatic. Whenever you see the word “mom,” you should make sure you keep track of your brains, your political theory, and your wallet, too; because “mom” is out to get them.

But here’s the mysterious language in the U-T’s report: “One person held a sign that echoed her thought. It said: ‘Stop throwing away lives and money on occupations and wars in the Middle East.'” Memorable phrasing! After those pungent words, I’m surprised that wars still go on. And ponder the journalistic insight revealed in “One person held a sign that echoed her thought.” Stop the presses! There’s a woman holding a sign! And wait! What do I see? I think … yes, I think the sign she’s holding actually echoes her thought!

N ow, why would human creatures write things like that? N 0 – body knows; nobody can even guess. It’s as mysterious as the Oak Island treasure, or the slaying of Andrew Borden and his wife. It’s as mysterious as the origin of “the whole nine yards,” an expression that no one has yet been able to explain – a cliche, wrapped in a riddle, and tucked, for good measure, inside an enigma.

And why do people say things, and persist in saying things, that they must know make their audience gnash their teeth and tear their hair? Much political speech is of that kind; it’s a ritual enacted by Satanic priests, pontiffs who realize that their formulas are detested by everyone, even by themselves, but who nevertheless feel a duty to keep saying them. “We will balance the budget by 2012”; “Our program will create 5 million new jobs”; “I have complete confidence in my associate John Smith”- these are all ritual phrases that anyone can penetrate, and everyone knows that everyone else can penetrate. So what makes politicians report to the Conclave of Lucifer and continue to chant this stuff?

Well, what makes the president recite the word “responsibility” on every public occasion? One incident out of many: On March 19, commenting on all the “finger pointing” about who authorized the AlG bonuses, he said, “Listen, I’ll take responsibility. I’m the president.” Formerly, and within living memory, when a public figure said “I’ll take responsibility,” the next phrase was always “I therefore resign my office,” or at least “I therefore promise to change my way of doing thus and so.” It wasn’t a cultic incantation; it was simple logic – cause and effect. It’s my responsibility; I resign, or I will change. But since the Clinton administration, when everyone was always taking responsibility for everything but nobody ever considered changing his way of doing anything, much less resigning from any office he might happen to hold, the word “responsibility” has been a public joke. President Obama is smart enough to know that. So why doesn’t he act, and speak, accordingly? I have no idea. Probably he doesn’t either.

For that matter, what permits the president to say a lot of the things he says? He’s an author. He went to school. He has the capacity to understand the rules of English grammar. So why does he constantly make errors of case (“for you and I”)? Why does he talk, as he did in his March 24 press conference, about the importance of people looking after their”fellow co-workers” – as opposed, I guess, to looking after co-workers who are not fellow workers?

Why, on March 29, did he say, “We think we can have a successful U.S. auto industry. But it’s got to be one that’s realistically designed to weather this storm and to emerge – at the other end – much more lean, mean and competitive than it currently is.” I pass over the “weather this storm” cliche. A brilliant author, such as our president is purported to be, is surely entitled to give new life to other people’s unbearably hackneyed expressions. Yet the president apparently believes that the comparative of”lean” is “more lean,” and the comparative of “mean” is “more mean,” as in, “Tom was a more mean man than Jason.” And the president apparently believes that”lean and mean” is fresh, young, and presidential. Also “competitive.” So – to take the discussion to a deeper level – why is it, exactly, that anyone thinks this man is a master of the English language?

Let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sometimes bad writers or thinkers come out with inexplicably good words. So far, Obama hasn’t, but it remains a possibility. Henry James, the novelist, specialized in long, lumbering, sadistically dull, and pointlessly complicated sentences. He was said by T. S. Eliot to have had “a mind too fine to be violated by an idea.” Hmm. With or without irony, I doubt that there was anything particularly fine about James’s mind, and I know that his sentences are very far from fine. But somehow, when it came to the titles of his works, he was a different man. “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner,” “The Golden Bow!,” “The Spoils of Poynton,” “What Maisie Knew” – what titles could be better? But where did those tides come from? Could they possibly have come from Henry James? Impossible! Yet that appears to be the case. But how?

There are other mysteries. Why do certain expressions flock like starlings around a trash can, then disappear for decades, only to migrate back again? Reflect, if you can stand to do so, on the word dude. It existed before the 1960s, usually as a synonym for “tenderfoot” or “effete and wealthy person,” as in dude ranch. There were many variants. Remember Fred Astaire, singing about “dudin’ up my shirt front, / Puttin’ in the shirt studs, / Polishin’ my nails.” And here’s a book called “The Men Behind the Bars,” written in 1903 by the chaplain of the Indiana State Prison. It contains a poem by Will Carleton (the author of “Over the Hill to the Poor House”), describing a convict traveling to prison on a railroad train:

I’d rather sit here, Mr. Sheriff-up near to the end of the car;
We won’t do so much advertising if we stay in the seat where we are.

That sweet little dude saw the bracelets that you on my wrists have bestowed,
And tells the new passengers promptly you’re “taking me over the road.”

Now “dude” means “young person.”

In 1919, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring all public schools to teach Will Carleton’s poetry. That’s another mystery. Anyway, in the 1960s “dude,” after long absence from almost everyone’s vocabulary, suddenly became the universal and sufficient label bestowed by young males upon themselves. It was a compliment, of course, but what did it mean? It didn’t mean you thought of yourself as a Park Avenue swell or a sweet little kid in a railway coach. But beyond that, who knew? And then dude went away, replaced by the formerly omnipresent but much less intrusive guy. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Celebrations were held in many homes.

Yet just when we thought we were seeing progress … dude returned. And it was worse than ever. Today, dude isn’t simply the young male’s generic term for “young male”; it’s the nation’s most common interjection and invocation, as predictable as “hwaet!” in Anglo-Saxon poetry. “Dude! If you’re gonna, like, say stuff like dude, dude, you’re, like, maybe you’re gonna get in trouble with some other dude, know what I mean, dude?” But why this word, rather than any other word? And when will this word go away again?

Again, no one knows. Dude should be classified as a social mystery, like the mysteries of social behavior that Lord Keynes tried to identify when he was asked about the reasons for the crash of 1929. According to the common story, Keynes answered, “Sometimes you see the fish all swimming one way, but then they turn around and start swimming the other way.” As you can See, that doesn’t explain anything, so I’ll proceed to the mystery of middle names and initials.

Just why is it that William Howard Taft is never, ever, called simply “William Taft”? Why is it that Julia Ward Howe is never, ever, just “Julia Howe”? Are we trying to distinguish William Howard Taft from some other president named William Taft?

Was there some other Julia Howe who wrote a “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? And why is it that President Kennedy turns up so often as “John F. Kennedy” or even “John Fitzgerald Kennedy,” while Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan do very well with- out their middle monikers?

Some people think that these things happen because the people involved wanted them to happen. But what’s the evidence that JFK insisted on his middle initial? What’s the evidence that Rose Wilder Lane refused to be called “Rose Lane” (a poetic name, if ever there was one)? Actually, people called her “Rose Lane” all the time, and Kennedy was commonly known as “Jack.” So why all the F’s and Fitzgeralds and Wilders and so on?

And, let’s face it, middle names and middle initials aren’t necessarily honorific. In that terrific film “Advise and Consent” (1962), Charles Laughton, playing a gloriously “flannel- mouthed” old Southern senator, keeps making fun of the president’s nominee for secretary of state, a man named Leffingwell, by insisting on this man’s middle initial: “Was there no other man than this, this, RobertA. Leffin’well? Is our storehouse of brainpower so impoverished that for this office, which can affect the destiny of our nation and of the world, there is no other man but Robert A. Leffin’well?”

But this introduces another mystery – why is that speech funny? Probably the answer is that laughter is our response to the sudden revelation that we shouldn’t be intimidated by the things that normally do intimidate us, such as people with pompous names. 50 that’s one mystery solved. But it reminds me of another mystery of nomenclature.

Several years ago, Mehmet Karayel was trying to convince me that I should watch the TV series “Family Guy.” He mentioned several amusing things about it. Then he said that it featured a talking dog. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Brian,” Mehmet answered, with great satisfaction, and we both cracked up. That was one funny name for a talking dog. But why was it funny?

I’ve discussed this with several people. The usual answer is that it’s funny because it gives hominid characteristics to a canine. Yes, it does. But I’m not satisfied. “Tony” is an equally hominid name, but it’s not funny. It’s just nothing. (And, for all those Tonys out there who want to be as funny as talking dogs, I admit it: “Stephen” isn’t funny either, all right?) Calling a giant ape “King Kong,” thus assigning him the political characteristics of a human being, doesn’t make him funny. And “Brian” isn’t funny at all, except in this single context. But why is it funny there? Surely it’s not because Americans are intimidated by Irish people, or by little dogs with Irish names. And it’s not because the name “Brian” is incongruous. A lot of incongruous things aren’t funny.

If you figure any of these mysteries out, please write to Liberty. I want all of them to be solved. Then we can go on to the other linguistic mysteries. All ten million of them.

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