THE GREY SPEAKER STRIKES AGAIN *


The title is explained at the bottom.

Back to ranting about language.  Everybody likes that, right?

Someone once called me a “prescriptive linguist”, and I had to look that up.  Apparently, the term dates back to a time when there were people saying “This is wrong.” in the sense of “This is not part of the language.”, when something is clearly used by a great number of people.  There are no such linguists of any reputation left today that I’m aware of.  It might have been a common practice back when the “King’s English” was a foreign language, taught as such, in most of England.

So let me clarify something here:

I AM NOT ANY KIND OF LINGUIST, GRAMMARIAN, LEXICOGRAPHER, OR ANY OTHER RELATED TITLE.

People with the titles above have a job, a paying one if they’re lucky, of describing language, not making any value judgments about it.

What I am is someone who uses language, and probably has a mild disease of some kind that causes him to think about it a bit too much.    People who use language make constant judgments about what gets the meaning across most effectively with the least effort.  The two activities of describing and judging are intertwined, but not the same.

So let’s just run through some things that bug me, based on those criteria:

(1)  Does it get the meaning across?
(2)  Does it do so with the least effort?

******************************

I.  IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND IT, DON’T USE IT.  IS THAT SO DIFFICULT?

This situation often pops up with an old stock phrase that long ago lost its meaning, such as I’ve mentioned before:

“palm off on”
“decimate”
“shrapnel”
“bated breath”

“on tenterhooks”
“stands to reason”

or something very specialized that might have no meaning outside that specialty.  I covered some of these in earlier posts:

“take another tack”
“by and large”

“jibe with”
“point blank”

.
Some more like this to add to the list:

——————–

“foot/fill/fit the bill”

I’m not saying “Don’t use any of the above.”, but they often get confused with each other.  Please understand what you’re saying, if you use them.

A “bill”, centuries ago, could be any piece of paper with writing or printing on it.  The word survives in only a few common uses today:

– a request for payment
– a proposed law
– paper money
– bill of lading
– a “handbill”, i.e., flyer

When a “bill” could be a poster (as in “Post no bills”), “fill the bill” meant to add small-time acts to a show so the poster could brag about more content in the show, aside from the headlined act (who got “top billing”).

“Foot the bill” meant to write something at the bottom of a piece of paper.  It often meant totaling up a column of figures, or signing your name.  From there, it came to mean “pay the bill”, but since “pay the bill” means exactly the same thing, why should anyone use “foot the bill” at all nowadays?

Between the two phrases above, a third has been composed, probably from misunder- standing the first two (similar situation to “jerry rigged“).  It has its own meaning, unrelated to the first two:

“Fit the bill” for “fulfill the requirements”

This has probably become popular in my own lifetime.  I can’t recall hearing it when I was young.  Might come from people thinking “invoice” or “bill of lading” whenever they hear “bill”, and forcing a new verb in to give it a meaning they understand.

—————————–

“Hobbesian choice”

Something I heard from a news show host recently.  Anyone can be ignorant, or stumble in speech, but if you’re paid to talk, I expect some standards.  Is that too much to ask?

One is tempted to say this is “not a word”, but of course if people use it and think they’re conveying meaning with it, it is a word.  But does it really convey a meaning?

What “choice” is Hobbes known for having made, or presented?  If you can’t answer that question, it has no meaning.

There is a well-established old phrase:  “Hobson’s choice”.  It means “no choice at all, take what you’re given”.  It’s from a famous old keeper of a livery stable who rented out horses on a strict rotation.  Since you need to look this up to know what that phrase means, it effectively has no meaning nowadays.  Why use it?

———————————

A couple of gems also gleaned from the idiot box:

– Rep. John Lewis, about Santorum’s church & state remarks:  “beyond pale”

– Michael Steele, about Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke “slut” remarks:  “above the pale”

Jeez, guys, nobody’s paying me to say anything, and I know what “beyond the pale” means.

“Pale” is an old word of Latin origin for “post”.  You know what being impaled is?  A palisade is a big fence made of posts, right?  So “pale” can be a fence or some kind of border, usually used in reference to the “pale” around the British-controlled part of Ireland, or the border beyond which Jews were allowed to settle in Russia, not that this means anything to anyone today.  If you had to hear it from me, or look it up, why are you using the phrase?

———————————-

Now that posts have been mentioned, a little digression:

Moe recently pointed out that some people are using the noun “blog” for “post” these days.  The evolution of such words is getting way ahead of itself, I’m afraid.  Let’s break it down:

“Log” noun – hunk of wood:  tied on the end of a line and cast off, part of the apparatus for estimating a ship’s speed

“Log” noun – daily record of a ship’s voyage, with recorded speeds at various times, vital for estimating one’s position on the map

.

“Web Log” noun – web page with a series of entries in chronological order

“Blog” noun – contraction of “web log”

“Post” verb – nail up on a post (as in “Post no bills” again)

“Post” verb – notify by means of some writing for all to see

“Post” noun – a single entry in a blog

“Blog” verb – write in a blog

“Blog” noun – entry in a blog

The first of the nine words above dates back several centuries.  Of the nine, five of them have arisen in the last 25 years.  Can we please slow down a little?  The last “blog” noun duplicates the last “post” noun, and can make some real confusion.

*********************************

II.  ATTEMPT (FAILURE) TO BE EXPRESSIVE

More words for “say”:

“go”, “be like”, “be all”

Let’s take them one at a time.

There’s an ancient use of “go” for a sound that’s not a word:

“Fall down, go ‘boom’.”
“Cow goes ‘Moo’.”
“Charlie Brown went ‘Aaughh!’.”

Children might not be able to distinguish between a word and a non-word, but they can grow up.  Still waiting for some people in their forties to grow up.  To introduce a quote with “He goes…” is to suggest that he is making inarticulate animal noises.  It’s an insult.

“Be like” dates back a good fifty years or more, but was used to introduce a performance, not a simple quote.  In conversation, recounting another conversation, for instance, one could say, “He was like…” and then go into a mimickry of the person’s posture, tone, gestures, and whatever else might have accompanied the quote.  Such performances could be very entertaining sometimes, and naturally were emulated.  But there’s a law about stupid people explaining what smart people have told them, and it also applies to acting:  The meaning will eventually, if not immediately, be lost.  “She was like…” now introduces the simplest of quotes, in writing, where “She said…” means exactly the same thing.

There’s also another use of “be like”:  to introduce a paraphrase.  Something to remember about paraphrasing:  It is taking a liberty, often a great, inaccurate, unfair liberty.  When I see this use of “be like”, I know it’s someone desperate to put words in someone else’s mouth, or to quote themselves saying what they WISH they had said.

Then there’s the “be all” phrase:  an assertion that someone’s whole state of mind, or whole being, is summed up with a contrived paraphrase attributed to that person.  It’s often a feature of sloppy polemics, and deserves to go wherever Andrew Breitbart is now.

******************************

III.  HUMBLE OR ARROGANT, CAN WE MAKE IT CLEAR?

“think”, “believe”, “feel”

Some people apparently think the three are interchangeable.

An English teacher long ago marked an “I think” in one of my compositions as superfluous because:  “It goes without saying that everything you say is what you think.”  I agreed, and applied this for the next few years in my speech.  I suffered for it.  People began observing
that I sounded much too certain and absolute when I spoke.  I got branded as “arrogant”.  I needed that “I think” to say “This is what I’m going with, though I’m not entirely certain.”  So I still use it, probably too much now, to convey some degree of uncertainty.

“I believe” is used the same way.  They are both used in the opposite way, too.  This must really mess with non-natives.  The difference between an arrogant “I believe…” and an uncertain “I believe…” is all in the rhythm and intonation.  We all probably should avoid such things in writing, unless the context makes it clear.  (Nothing makes me shut my ears faster than an arrogant “I think…” or “I believe…” unless it’s meant facetiously).

But “I feel” is never used for uncertainty.  It’s all about a proclamation on which the listener is expected to place considerable value by the speaker.  How did this come about?

I’m tempted here to blame some features of our culture that have crept in over the last few decades, e.g.,  a perceived need to get people to talk about their feelings for its own sake.  There be dragons.

.

.

,

*******************************************

IV.  REPETITIVE REDUNDANCY

“young kid”

Usually pejorative or condescending.  Sometimes a tone of pity.

I can see how this creeps into speech:  There’s some quality that you associate with youth.  Maybe innocence, ignorance, naïveté, clumsiness, but the first adjective out of your mouth is “young” somehow.  Then you need a noun for that adjective, but none comes to mind.  You’re still stuck on that “young” thing, and “kid” just comes out.  Fine.  We all stumble a little in speech.  So why do I see this in writing?

———————–

“time clock”

Books have been written solely devoted to the atrocities of management speak, and this is perhaps one of the earliest examples.  Think about it.  What kind of clock is there that is not concerned with time?  So why the extra word?  Ah, perhaps because “time” that you get paid for is something different from any other measurement of time.  The only time that matters.  Deserves an extra word to emphasize the obsession.

In a dictatorship, such as most private companies are, managers are rarely questioned about their language.  There are far more important things that they never get questioned about, so “time clock” for the clock that you punch in & out on was easily established.  It’s only the beginning of a whole realm of jargon with much that’s useless.

Somehow, it has slipped into other places, as in “my internal time clock is off this week.” (a quote from a blogger I read sometimes), or references to a “biological time clock” in all kinds of trashy writing.

*********************************************

V.  SINCE I’VE MENTIONED MANAGEMENT SPEAK:

“inappropriate”

The laziest catch-all for anything a manager, especially an HR manager, doesn’t like.  There certainly is behavior that could be judged inappropriate for any given situation:  wearing a coat & tie on a blazing summer day, or letting a phone call from a customer just ring away while observing a fellow (barely acquainted) employee’s birthday.  But that’s not what I’ve seen “inappropriate” used for.  Most often it’s whatever trivial thing bugs someone.  Completely unpredictable.  See also:

———————-

“professional”

When you profess something, you’re at least making a statement, maybe taking an oath.  A “professional” has declared something, maybe some degree of competence or adherence to standards in a certain activity.

So what does “professional” mean when you see it in personal ads?  Has the last fig leaf been removed from a prostitution ad?

When behavior is decried as “unprofessional” it can make sense, if the person has professed something, but you wouldn’t believe some of the contexts in which I’ve seen this word.  The humblest temp worker is called “unprofessional” for eating at her desk or laughing “inappropriately”.

———————-

“best practice”

The feeblest attempt to lend some kind of authority to “This is the way we do it.”, usually given with no background at all on how someone arrived at the conclusion that some way of doing it is “best”.

For more horrible business jargon, see http://unsuck-it.com/

***************************************

Ok, that’s enough of my whining for now.  If I’m lucky, I’ve offended someone enough to inspire some comments.

*  One of those silly things that circulate:

“Your Superhero Name:
The color of the top you’re wearing and the first object on your right”

This made me “The Grey Speaker” the first time I saw it, and seems oddly suitable for a language post.

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8 Responses to THE GREY SPEAKER STRIKES AGAIN *

  1. Olga SE says:

    Enjoyed your post as I always do when you write about language issues.

    Some time ago I also had to look up information about “web logs”, “blogs” and “blog entries”.

    I have always wondered about the use of “go” in “cows go moo”.

    To tell you the truth, I’ve had some problems with “I think” and “I feel”. At first they looked the same to me. But then I came to realize that while one can argue with “I think” it’s impossible to do so with “I feel”.

  2. Ron Rodarte says:

    Response from: “The Gray Vertical Blinds”, my new Superhero Name – (not associated in any manner with the Gray Vatican Blind… a whole-other bunch of roamin’ caped crusaders… ).

    When I had returned from life on a commune I was rebuilding a personality – in a manner quite similar to the Star-Trek episode of Chris Pike, the historic first Captain of the USS Enterprise. There was a female human lone-survivor of an early crashed space ship and the inhabitants of that planet put her back together. The inhabitants had the ability to augment human imagination and allow one to imagine and live in a world imagined as “better”. Captain Chris Pike was taken to the planet and re-united with Rina, the survivor, who was as beautiful in Chris Pike’s eye as he as he was fit and handsome to her. But, Chris Pike had burned to a crisp rescuing cadets from a burning ship and Rina was stitched together like a lumpy comforter -since the planet’s inhabitants had never seen a human-being before Rina and did the best they could to put her parts where they “thought” the parts could best fit. Oh well, the ending was happy and they imagined happily ever after…

    Part of my re-fitting was a class in writing, focusing on writing a term paper. The teacher was erudite and fashionable, professional, and possessed a truly interesting life story. That she was born in China before the Revolution following the end of the Japanese Occupation, she learned English in a strict formal manner and grew up with a distinctly-foreign culture to compare her given language and culture. The result was a formal speaker of the English language and a writer who possessed a speaker’s touch while writing formal documents. This was one teacher to whom I listened to every word while in her classroom.
    From my attempts to parallel the style she conveyed and the use of the correct word for the meaning, I am sometimes accused of having an eloquent sows-ear as my style, and have been advised to drop the attempt to write in a formal manner so readers might feel less inclined to poke at the bits of chitlin’ in my pot o’ prose offered, apropos, to my intended message.

    I continue to attempt a style of a chosen word rather than a style of popular demand.

    Language, as an art – as a science, and as an industry, in the manner that Edward Bernays industrialized advertising for mass programming, is one of the living senses of our human existence – as much as our optic images remembered or the objects manifested from our productive hands.
    Language, as all living systems, must change to survive in the immediate environment.
    A steady introduction of words originating outside of the vague boundaries of social strata, mined from paleolithic cultural origins by curious minds drawing from ancient family language-traditions with faint trace of origin; then extruded to hip speak by the street savvy and courageous front lines of social shock entrepreneurs – the living language changes with super-viable newness and corny phrases that never make it past the second beer round in a pool room full of Herculie-jerkie teenagers.

    One cannot “see” the future and so cannot point to the pith of one word over another to bear fruit in a set time frame than another word, things change rapidly.

    I offer the analogy to genetic science in that rules of language are to some extent like the rules of genetic reproduction, in that a particular mechanism is followed in processing the raw material nucleotide “street-phrase” to the amino acid “hip phrase” that becomes the meat and potato “protein” of a popular social phrase.

    Mudge observes that few remaining “valid” linguists in the formal sense of a teacher of “The King’s English”. Using the analogy of genetic material reproduction, if the RNA and ribosomes are the structures that “un-zip” the genetic double helix and reproduce the next, then the rules of the mother tongue if not followed result in the greater factor of misspelled and mutated material as the templates are not followed.

    The influence of the corporate mandate, news and media on the American language has been a corruption of an entire system and framework of language, society and demolition of the American educational system. Truth has been removed from our American language.

    The best hope I conjecture to repair the damage is a Renaissance of popular creations in truth, experience and pithy “wordliness”. Abandoning the corporate folly called “media”, while eschewing earbud-implanted robo-Muzac propaganda “pap”-music – should be augmented with a re-tooling of personal friendships and a strong personal trust among all peoples one chooses to trust.

    When one drops-out from the corporate-induced “imagined dream life”, our personal existence is plainly seen to be barren, devoid and rather ugly in the absence of the manufactured identity – until willing souls meet with the shared goal of trust. Only by saving a real and true meaning of language in the departure from a lie of media-advertised-manufactured “personal” existence into a real love to be found in the farming of the emotions in another or others whom one may choose to trust for some period of time – can a people deliver their history from the slavery rings inherent in the corporate media manufactured personalities thrust upon consumer-peoples like the yoke on a plow.

    Edward Bernays created a science of advertising with his work based on Freudian Psychoanalysis and achieved the only triumph of Fascism of the 20th Century – that of Crystallizing the popular thought on the street to act as a savage cleansing mob against the published enemy du-jour of Fascist Germany. Liberals, political activists, political opponents, opponents of the official imposed faith, invalids, socially-inconvenient sexualities, and finally, the single class that is ultimately and pointedly declared responsible for the difficulties of the day – were systematically placed into public derision to Crystallize the mind of an angry mob of citizenry.
    The advertising – propaganda by any name, is the key to the Crystallization of the mob mind. By departing from the omnipresent electronic devices that force a unified corporate message to every channel and source – and the recourse is within us, and among us.
    It is us.
    It is our language and our identity in a shared experience of trust sourced in each heart.

    Kudos to any soul choosing to follow the truth in the spoken word.
    When one speaks truth it does not take many words.
    Explaining the aspect of a journey of truth may take a few more.

    Truth is like a bolt of thunder when it is spoken, one has to gain one’s bearings while the ozone swirls around.
    It is always like the first time; every time.
    It is a natural process and it cannot be summoned, brought to fore, drawn in draught or imagined. Speaking the Truth is as a spring of fresh water that has found one’s body and soul to pour an instantly expressed conveyance of Your message.
    Truth might be spoken from a willing heart only once in a lifetime. To follow the heart to the source of the message is a journey of truth. To practice a commune with others in truth; communicating in art, language, music, dance, politics and the living experience, is to walk the path of Truth.
    Share the words you know in the heart, they are the portals of the spring that is bubbling up against the concrete and asphalt ten feet deep over the soil of our planet and killing the life that only we will save; no others will have responsibility in any Crystallized mob of corporation personhood.

    For all of the experience in my life it is only the followers of others that have made the obstacles to thwart Truth in Crystallized minds of mob-fervor parading the ignorant lie, accepted.
    For all of the experience in my life it is only the people I have known to follow their individual path who have made my life worthwhile, and shown me how to make the burden of the ignorance lighter to bear.

    Some may wish for a Utopia to manifest a dream of a better future.
    Utopia takes a lot of work as a group, a lot like the goals in Crystallizing Public Opinion where an objective is reached by steering the group.

    I still struggle with the identification of self while juxtaposing interrupted paths, earned wisdom in optimism for fellow humanity, deciphering the heart words from the forest of dreams, and putting words to some lightning strikes of truth while the ozone swirls around.

    I have found happiness, and I have found love. It is only in the search for the Truth in words that this has been accomplished, and it has required a truth about my heart.
    My presence, diction, and writing may seem odd to some, I am comfortable in my words as they fit my heart quite comfortably.

    Consider this – that words are the shoes of the heart.
    If the shoes become shabby and forlorn then the journey becomes an ordeal.

    Our nation is travailing an ordeal of broken words and shattered trust. To drive the herd while the shod has been lost is as dumb as a carriage driver beating a dead horse.

    The best advice for America is to stop to allow the farrier to do his work, except that the farriers of the American language are no longer present in America – Journalism is Dead.
    The very professional that is necessary to bring the herd back home is the victim of the Bernays advertising propaganda, and almost none of the farriers of an American language exist anywhere on the scene.

    Once again the point is clear to me, to drop from the organized lie that deprives us the option to create repairs to our society, and choose to re-tool among each other.

    Be the farrier of the shoes of the heart. Create the word from the experience, follow the heart.

    Drop out and read in, walk with others in trusting hearts. Discuss truth in plain view and talk truth to power. Remember to talk truth for the powerless, too.

    Leave the stones embedded in the hooves of unshod corporate mobs to wander in the desert of their most fervent creation.

    Postscript:
    It occurs to me that the Ten Key Values of the Green Party of the United States have a potential value of a Ten Commandments in bringing the tribe home; anyone seen Moses?
    Maybe in prevailing with the inclusion of all spectrum of political view our country might find that talking to a burning Bush can bring about a popular transition in the wandering mob, uniting the mob in the basic simplicity of tenets.
    Then again, the worship of a Golden Bull is quite the draw down in the desert of Wall Street. Moses may need to break a few stone tablets before the tribe can be saved.
    Then again, it may be the desert is better suited for salvation than the mob, a desert is part of the Natural Planet while the corporate mob is quite unnatural by most anyone’s view.

  3. RAB says:

    But you have to admit that “beyond pale” to describe the pronouncements and positions of Rick Santorum is kind of good….

  4. “Blonde Pen” approves. Well done! Here, here!

  5. Actually, Henry Fowler’s magnificent book, the “King’s English”, affirms right from the start just what you advocate: it’s first sentence is, “Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.”
    That sort of language does not seem to me to have ever been “a foreign language”, as you say of it—even in England.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Thanks for the observation. That book might have been very good in its time.

      It does, however, come from very late in the standardization of English. The King James Bible, which might have popularized the phrase “King’s English”, is almost a foreign language to me, though it gets praise for its style.

  6. Elyse says:

    What a great post. Thanks for putting the link on my blog — I am going to come back and re-read this from time to time!

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