Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language and Writing. Show all posts

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.)

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use them. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.

What Have You Got Against Progress?

April 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to find a liberal politician these days. Hillary? Nope. Bernie? Not him either.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and others of their generation used to be Liberals. No longer. They’re Progressives. And of course, so are newer faces like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Is there a difference? In a NY Times op-ed today, “When Liberals Become Progressives,” Greg Weiner of Assumption College says Yes there is. He’s wrong. Or rather, if he’s right, he’s right only in his own particular definition of these words.

“Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.” He sees Progressives as uncompromising, almost totalitarian. Progressivism is a steamroller flattening anyone and anything in its path to social improvements – tradition, the Constitution, individual rights; nothing is safe. “It supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.”

I’m sure that Chuck and Nancy, Hillary and Bernie, Cory and Kamala and the rest would be surprised and delighted to learn that their power was so awesome.

Of course, Prof. Weiner knows what’s really going on. It’s a change of name, not of policy.* “In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use.” Even as a name change, Weiner says, it “augurs poorly for Democrats.” He’s wrong. It was a brilliant bit of renaming and rebranding. It trades a label that was at best peripheral to American ideas and ideals for one that has a more central place in American culture.

The pantheon of American values includes ideals like Freedom, Equality, Success/Achievement, Democracy, Patriotism, and others. But no observer of American culture has ever seen Liberal as one of these terms that have such deep resonance in the hearts of Americans. That may have made it even easier for Republicans to turn “Liberal” into a slur.

But Americans do believe in Progress. Politicians can rail about ideas and policies that are liberal. But who will speak out against Progress? Back in the 20th century, the term was so unassailably positive that General Electric made it the core of their brand.** Progress was their most important product.


Yes, that’s conservative saint Ronald Reagan pitching progress. The idea of progress may have lost some of the sanctity it had in the 1950s, but it’s still highly positive. Not to Prof. Weiner. He still loves the “liberal” label. He says that those on the left “would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it. I wonder how many politicians (and their brand consultants) who are trying to win elections would agree with him?

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* Weiner does not mention any actual policies. Nor does he specify what he means by “the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.” Presumably, he means the right to discriminate against LBGTQ people.

** Back then, we spoke of “image” rather than “brand.” It’s really the same thing – how the public perceives the company. The main difference is that the word “image” suggests that the whole thing is a fake, an imaginary facade that PR guys have created to manipulate the public. “Brand,” by contrast, is as honest and unpretentious as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. This change from “image-mongers” to “brand consultants” is itself one of the great examples of rebranding.

“Mi Amor” — My Larry David Moment

April 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Larry David, in his pre-”Seinfeld” standup years, did a bit about familiar and formal pronouns in Romance languages.* “I’m glad I wasn’t the owner of a big hacienda in some South American country [pause] because I’d never know whether to address the workers as tu or usted.” And he would explain the delicacies and conflicts associated with each pronoun.

David did not exactly kill as a standup. Or as he put it, “I sucked.” But when I read about that line, I thought – it’s pure sociology. It’s Goffman, it’s social class, it’s culture. By choosing one pronoun you are, as Goffman says,  “projecting a definition of the situation” and the role relationships within that situation. We Americans, with our ideals of equality, do not feel comfortable with vertical relationships. We don’t like to admit that social class distinctions exist. Economic inequality, that’s OK. But cultural inequality, that’s evil elitism.**

Fairway, my local grocery store, is not a hacienda, but I had that same Larry David moment this morning.

Let me back up. I’ve been shopping there for years. The long-time workers there  – we recognize one another and exchange brief pleasantries. I try to use what little Spanish I have. A while ago, I noticed that the workers, at least in male-female exchanges, address one other as “mi amor.” There’s nothing romantic about it; it’s very casual –  the equivalent of the British “luv” (“Care for a cuppa cha, luv?” asks the waitress.)

I wanted to be “mi amor.” After all, I’ve known these cashiers for ages. Some of them ask after my son, who they remember from when he was a toddler. I comment, always favorably, when they change their hair style. When I pay in cash, I tell them to keep the pennies. (I told you this was very Larry David.) Hey, what about me? Why can’t I be “mi amor”?

And then, a year or so ago, it happened. One of the cashiers, Arelis, a woman of at least fifty, started calling me “mi amor,” and I did likewise to her. A dream fulfilled. I was “mi amor.”

This morning, I wound up at Arelis’s register. “Buenos dias, mi amor,” etc. I had only a couple of items (three red peppers and a slice of manouri cheese, if you most know). On the screen, it said $5.00. “Five dollars,” said Arelis. “Exactly?” I said and then added “En punto,” She was surprised and said something in Spanish about how much Spanish I know.

I demurred. The only reason I know “en punto” is that it’s in the one line of Spanish poetry I know –  “Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde,” from a famous poem by Garcia Lorca. But could I recite the line to Arelis? Is the poem famous enough to be recognized by a grocery store cashier from the Dominican Republic? If not, I feared that explaining how I knew “en punto” would come off as elitist. I would become the over-educated Americano, and that elevated status – like using usted rather than tu –  would disqualify me forever from being “mi amor.”

I handed her the $5 bill, said, “Buen dia,” and went on my way.

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* For a short video of David, somewhat older, doing this bit, go here

** Donald Trump’s supporters don’t mind that he has a ton of money – who wouldn’t want a ton of money? – because he shares not just their political views but their cultural preferences. Speaking about “Rosanne” to a rally of his supporters, Trump said, “It’s about us,” as though Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago were just slightly spiffier versions of the Connor house in Ohio. The crowd cheered. 

This Is Not a Pipe . . .

March 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . .  But what is it? Is there a word a statement that contradicts the assertion in the statement?  For example, one of Trump’s better lines at the Gridiron Club was this.

"My staff was concerned that I couldn't do self-deprecating humor, and I told them not to worry, nobody does self deprecating humor better than me. It’s not even close.

Not a new joke, but a good one, especially for Trump.

Self-contradiction does not really convey the delightful irony. Trump contradicts himself all the time but the contradiction is not inherent in the statement itself.

It’s kinda sorta like apophasis (my favorite rhetorical term), but it’s different. I posted about it last summer (here) with Magritte’s painting and this unwitting example that was going around the Internet.


I still haven’t found le mot juste for it.

The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.


From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.



Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list include: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.



Here’s a slightly edited transcript


Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does, “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we'll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don’t fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.

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* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.

Harley Barber Was Right

January 20, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Harley Barber’s Finsta video – the one where she repeats the word nigger a dozen times in a minute – went viral. But in all the criticism, nobody (as far as I know) bothered to note that she is essentially correct: Language norms vary from region to region and from group to group. Or in Barber’s formulation of this idea:

I’m in the South now, bitch so everyone can fuck off.  I’m from New Jersey. So I can say nigger as much as I want.

Here’s the entire video.



She could have been more specific. She’s not just in the South. She’s in Alabama, and even more specifically, she’s in a car surrounded by her University of Alabama Alpha Phi sorority sisters. Her point is that if she had been in New Jersey, the people around her might have said, “You know Harley, we don’t think that way or use that word these days. And even if you do have those sentiments, it’s not a good idea to make a video of yourself expressing them, especially with that word. And if you do make a video, it’s a really bad idea to post it on Instagram.”

But her sorority sisters seem to be in complete agreement with her. That’s to be expected. Alpha Phi has a reputation for its retrograde mentality regarding race and gender. Their 2015 recruiting video looked like a casting call for The Bachelor except that all the girls are White.




As a writer at AL.com (the newspaper/media consortium) put it, Alpha Phi in this video presents itself as “all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition.” (The sorority soon took down the video, though you can see it here in a TV news story.)

The message was not lost on Harley Barber. Her video begins,

I’ve wanted to be in Alpha Phi since fucking high school and nobody fucking understands how much I love Alpha Phi

A couple of other observations about the incident:

1. Language norms change. Barber says fuck or fucking more times than she says nigger. As far as I know, nobody has voiced any objections.

2. Money makes it OK. In Barber’s reasoning, wealth and conspicuous consumption justify morally questionable attitudes.

And if anyone else wants to snake me for saying nigger on my finsta, I’m a in a fur vest. I want you to buy my fur vest. Cause fuck you. Go to Neiman Marcus and buy my fur vest

Neiman-Marcus fur vests go for as little as $600, but most are $2500 and up. Barber is not alone in resolving moral questions by looking at financial success. (See this earlier post about similar defenses of chicanery by JP Morgan during the financial crisis)

3.  Ideas and essence.  A day or two later in her fifteen minutes of fame, Barber issued an apology: “I’m an idiot. There’s no excuse. I did something really bad.” I would guess that if you asked Barber, “Are you a racist?” she would say No, and she would be sincere. Many other people are calling her a racist, and they are just as adamant. The trouble is that the question “Is she a racist?” is the wrong question. First, it assumes that ideas and attitudes are permanent and essential. Second, it also assumes what we might call the racism-binary – that each person either is or is not a racist. Both those assumptions are questionable if not flat out wrong. Much of the reporting about the incident got it right. Headlines referred to a “racist video” or “racist rant,” not a “racist co-ed.”

What Becomes of the Broken Norm?

January 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norms are fragile things, especially when they apply only in select situations.

In the 1970s, Bill Weeden and Dave Finkle worked as a comedy duo in clubs like the Improv in New York City. They billed themselves as “A Couple of Guys With Class,” which was also the title of their opening song. As best I can remember, it stared like this:

We’re a couple of guys with class,
Up to our ears in class.
If you looking for vulgar,
Boy we’re not it,
We never say “fuck”
And we never say “shit.”

The joke of that last line – it always got a laugh – was in the apophasis (saying something while saying that you’re not saying it). But it also put the audience on the side of the performers in recognizing that the norms about proper language were arbitrary and situational. The message was,“We all know we’re not supposed to say these words, but we also know that we all actually do say them.” We were laughing at our own hypocrisy or at least our inconsistency from one situation to another.

If you lean on that situational norm, pretty soon it gives way. Twenty years earlier, Weeden and Finkle could have been arrested for violating New York’s obscenity laws (as Lenny Bruce fans and viewers of Mrs. Maisell know). Many “fucks” and “shits” and a few court cases later, that had changed. Today, it’s rare to hear a comic who, like Seinfeld, does not say “fuck” and “shit.”

A few weeks ago, news outlets with class – the New York Times and NPR, for example – would not use the word “shit” even as part of a compound word – a word like, say, “shithole” – even though the word  “shit” was in wide use elsewhere. Season two of NPR’s podcast “Serial” was about an Alabama man who referred to his local community as “Shittown.” NPR called the podcast “S-town.” That was a year ago.

Now Donald Trump’s characterizing some nations as “shithole countries” was just too important to ignore. Some publications continued to censor or Bowdlerize the word. You would see “S**t” in print or hear Wolf Blitzer talk about “s-hole countries or bleep-hole countries.” Much of the mainstream media put the phrase in quotation marks, as if to say, “Trump’s word, not ours.” But in today’s Times, Paul Krugman, writing about anti-immigration in the 19th century, says, “Ireland and Germany, the main sources of that era’s immigration wave, were the shithole countries of the day.” The quotation marks are implied but not visible.

I expect that from now on, the censoring of other quotes that include “shit” will decrease. Then before long, op-ed writers will be able to use the word even when it carries no reference to what someone else said.

The norm once breached is now broken. Like Humpty-Dumpty, it has been pushed off the wall and lies shattered on the sidewalk. Of course, Trump has violated far more serious norms (as noted in this Atlantic article  among many, many others). Will the social forces (i.e., people) upholding those norms be resilient enough to re-instate them?

Special People

November 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I never thought that Trump’s “Pocohantas” joke was offensive. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought it was pretty good. It made fun of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to some slim strand of Cherokee lineage.

It’s as though, after one of Trump’s many statements about being highly intelligent (“I’m, like, a really smart person”), Sen. Warren had referred to him as “Einstein.” The slur is not against physicists. It’s against Trump for claiming to be something he is so obviously not.

At the ceremony to honor the Navaho code talkers yesterday, Trump hauled out the Pocohantas dig again though it is long past its use-by date. The truly appalling part was that he used the ceremony as an occasion to make a personal derogatory remark about a political enemy. Is that what the Navahos came for? Appalling, as I say, but not unexpected. And no doubt, Trump supporters will see it as more evidence that Trump is their kind of guy.

The more offensive line from Trump is what followed.

You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people. And from the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country.

Trump is being complimentary. But underlying the praise is the assumption that the Navaho are not like regular Americans. Imagine a politician addressing a gathering of Jewish leaders and saying, “You know, you Jews are special people. You’re incredible people.” My guess is that the Jews being honored might suddenly get kind of interested in their shoelaces.

“Special-needs” kids, “special ed” – we recognize these as euphemisms. But even when “special” is supposed to designate something positive, it still draws the line between “you” and “us.” And it’s “you,” you special people, who are different.

Thelonius Monk – born October 10, 1917

October 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Happy 100th Birthday!

Musicians often refer to songs by jazzers as “tunes.” Whose tune is that?” one musician might ask another who has just played something that’s not entirely familiar?   Standards (by Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen, et al.) can be “songs,” maybe because they come ready-made with lyrics. But  numbers by jazz musicians are usually “tunes” – Bud Powell tunes, Bird tunes.

The works of a few jazz greats are spoken of as not just tunes but also as “compositions.” Ellington, of course, who wrote works that lent themselves to full arrangements for his orchestra.  But also Monk, even though most of his compositions were originally vehicles for a trio or quartet or even just solo piano. Most of these are in the standard 32-bar format, but for some reason I cannot quite explain, while Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia” is a tune, “Round Midnight” is a composition.

It’s fairly easy to understand why a tune is a composition when it has notes in addition to the melody that are essential. “Ruby My Dear,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Monk’s Mood,” and others. But even Monk’s tunes that can be written as a single-line lead-sheet are thought of as compositions. “Well, You Needn’t” is a 32-bar AABA tune, and the A section has only two alternating chords, F and G-flat. Yet it’s a “composition.”

Here’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” recorded in 1957.


The album is “Monk’s Music” – Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Gigi Gryce alto, Ray Copeland trumpet,Wilbur Ware bass, Shadow Wilson drums. I wish I knew more about this recording date. Except for Coltrane and perhaps Shadow Wilson, these were not people Monk was playing regularly with.

Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.

   


Cosmopolitans and Roots

August 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of yesterday’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.
ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They're not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.
Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”
 Cosmopolitans:
  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation
Locals:
  • high on loyalty to the employing organization,
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.
Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and Stalin murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one Website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing.


The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false.  For the anti-Semites, the Website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

Miller would of course understand this, and I think those more dedicated to The Tribe get the reference as well.

To sum up the website’s take: First, Acosta’s cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews. Second, Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term cosmopolitan. And finally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

Three Cosmopolitans

(Click to enlarge. The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949).

UPDATE: Jeff Greenfield says something similar and more at Politico. ( “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”) (I met Greefield once long ago at a party, back before he was on CBS, ABC, CNN, back when he did a morning show once a week on WBAI.)

Cleaning Up After the Jamboree

July 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, especially when that person will not apologize, does not even recognize his own impropriety, and is the president of the United States?

Traditionally the president’s address to the Boy Scouts jamboree is non-political. It stresses the good deeds of the organization and the virtues it espouses.* Trump’s speech, by contrast, was what he usually delivers when he goes off script – attacks on his enemies (Hillary, the media, Obamacare), recountings of his electoral victories, dog whistles shout-outs to White Christians, and stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies.

The kids in the audience loved it. They cheered, chanted, and booed in all the right places.  No surprise there. Trump’s persona, like that of Howard Stern, plays well to the adolescent-boy sensibility. But some of the grown-ups felt uncomfortable with the campaign-rally speech, and the organization received many complaints from Scout parents. 

Apparently, the Scouts were not prepared. It took until today, Thursday (Trump spoke on Monday), for the “chief Scout executive” Michael Surbaugh to issue a statement. Here’s the key paragraph.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

The problem is how to apologize for the president without offending him. (The president of the Boy Scouts, Randall Stephenson, is also CEO of AT&T. His company wants to gobble up Time Warner, and the deal needs the approval of the Justice Department. Trump’s remarks about loyalty  – “we could use some more loyalty” – may have caught his attention. Perhaps that’s why the statement came from the chief Scout executive.)

Surbaugh (i.e., his writers) hauled out two familiar rhetorical strategies to downplay Trump’s trampling on the norms of Jamboree speeches. First, rather than say that Trump’s speech was offensive, Surbaugh shifted the spotlight to “those . . . who were offended.” It’s not about Trump, it’s about those sensitive snowflakes who took offense.

Second, it wasn’t even Trump who made the speech, at least not as far as anyone would know from reading that paragraph.** Thanks to the passive voice, Trump disappears from sight. Instead we get “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree” and “politics were inserted” with no hint of who might have been the insertor-in-chief.

You have to have some sympathy for the Scouts brass. Trump dealt them a bad hand. What else could they have done? They could have claimed that Trump’s speech was not political, just good, clean American fun. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from Republicans in Congress. And after all, the credo does not say that a Scout is honest.

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*
A Scout is ...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent

Oh well, four out of twelve ain’t bad. Maybe five if you allow that our president can also be helpful, at times, to some people. Of course, if Trump himself were scoring this one, he’d give himself 100%.  At the jamboree he mentioned only one of these virtues – loyalty. He complained  that “we could use some more loyalty,” and since most of the speech was about his political accomplishments, it was pretty clear that he was using the royal “we” and that he was referring to Washington politics and perhaps more specifically to the Attorney General.

** In the entire statement – nearly 500 words – Surbaugh never mentions Trump by name. He refers once to “remarks offered by the President of the United States.” 

Ceci n’est pas trash-talking

June 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The reference in the title is to this canvas by René Magritte.



There must be a word for this – the statement that is self-contradictory – but what is it? (Of course you could argue that Magritte is technically correct. It’s not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe.)

Paralipsis and apophasis come close – emphasizing something by saying you’re not emphasizing it. In politics, for example: “I’m not even going to mention the rumors that my opponent has deep ties to the Russian Mafia and hires prostitutes to pee on him.”

I’m thinking of something a shade more subtle – the statement or image that is itself the opposite of what it claims to be.  It came to mind a couple days ago when a right-winger I know who likes to bait me sent an e-mail with this.

why should anyone on our side want Obama to succeed in “transforming” America into a cesspool of political correctness, creeping socialism, leftist thugs on campus, and appeasement of Islamic extremism?). 

By the way, are you down with programs to “re-educate” Americans who don’t see things your way? That’s what the left wants — clearly and openly. So resistance to all that brainwashing was the mission of Republicans under Obama, true. But I don’t remember any assassination fantasies.

Current climate different: Not only no hope for reconciliation, but rumblings of violence. Already one Republican Congressmen nearly assassinated. More politically motivated violence to come, no doubt. (Madonna fantasy “blow up the white house” / Depp actor assassination fantasy / Kathy Griffin beheaded Trump imagery / Shakespeare in the Park Trump vicarious assassination to hoots of delight, etc. — you have great friends, Jay.)


I said that I could do a similar caricature of conservatives, but why bother? It’s just trash talk. The point is to taunt rather than to discuss. Maybe on the basketball court trash-talking enhances the game (my correspondent does have a beautiful jump shot), but it doesn’t do much for understanding, and I just wasn’t interested in talking trash right now.

He wrote back. “Not trash-talking - just reality, unpleasant as it is.”  It’s a perfect example of the thing I’m trying to find the word for – trash-talking by saying that not you’re not trash-talking.

The same day, an even better example from Page Six showed up in my Twitter feed.



Did Comey Infer Or Did He Imply?

June 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language prescriptivists – the people who tell us when our choice of words is wrong – are always on the losing side historically. Words come to mean what people use them to mean regardless (or irregardless) of what experts say. But sometimes the fuddy-duddies have a point.

Infer/Imply. These words often appear on lists of terms that people misuse. To imply is to suggest something indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion from the available information. Most of the time, you can figure out from context what the speaker or writer really meant. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two words can be important.

Look at the this sentence in a story today at the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, (here):

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
(The link at “heavily inferred” does not go to a language Website.)


At first, I thought that Comey, using his powers of deduction and the information available at the FBI, had concluded that the special counsel was conducting an obstruction investigation. But no, what the writer meant, I think, was that Comey had implied that the special counsel was investigating possible obstruction of justice. 

The distinction is relevant. As written, the sentence means that Comey didn’t know and was just guessing. But if the writer meant imply rather than infer, it means Comey already knew and was dropping a big hint to the committee and to the world. That’s especially important because the main Republican talking point is that there is no case for obstruction.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe someone will explain why imply doesn’t rhyme with simply.

EdSpeak Deliveryman

April 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son lived at home, a favorite family game when we ate out was MenuSpeak – scanning the restaurant menu for meaningless adjectives and adverbs.

Tender moist morsels of succulent chicken sauteed to perfection and topped with a reduction of the finest white wine delicately seasoned with fragrant, aromatic spices and herbs carefully selected by our talented chef.

Restaurants are always cooking things “to perfection,” probably because the instructions on the pre-portioned, flash-frozen dishes tell the staff exactly how long to set the microwave for.

I was reminded of our game recently when I received* a copy of the Executive Summary of a report that a university prepared for an accreditation review. The Key Findings of the  Summary comprise seven “standards,” written to perfection in EdSpeak. I give you Standard III.

Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience.
The University provides students with rich and diverse interlocking learning experiences that include a revitalized General Education Program that reflects stronger coherence, rigorous and innovative academic programs that are relevant and integral to the generation of the flat global world, and a range of other high impact co-curricular activities that offer significant opportunities for students to enrich their learning experiences.

I took out the adjectives and similar verbiage. Here’s what was left.

The University provides students with a General Education Program and co-curricular activities.

I think this means that they offer a lot of courses and also credits for non-classroom work. As for the rest, I have no idea. I do see that if I were there, I would not be a teacher. I would be a Student Learning Experience Deliveryman. I would deliver tender moist morsels of learning experience.

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* In keeping with the political spirit of the times, I am not going to disclose my sources. 

Losing My Religion . . . And Its Swears

February 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Walking across campus yesterday, I heard a loud, long belch. About ten yards away were two girls, one drinking a can of soda as they walked.

“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed her friend.

Wow, I thought, that’s something I rarely hear these days – not belching, but “Jesus Christ.” We must have found some other phrase to express a mixture of surprise and disapproval. Or was this just my idiosyncratic sampling of language?

No, my impression was correct.  Linguist Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, says that “Jesus Christ” doesn’t even make it into the top 20 among swears these days. as religion ecome more powerful and able to impose its taboos? Just the opposite. Religion is declining in importance, especially among the young, and as a consequence, religious swears have lost the power entwined with taboo.

Religious swears – words once deemed blasphemous – are now perfectly acceptable.  The Hollywood Production Code of 1927 banned damn, hell, God, Jesus, Christ, and even lord (unless used in a religious sense). The Code faded in the 1950s, but television adopted many of its rules. That was then. Now, if you told young people told that invoking the lord’s name was once unacceptable, they would probably text back, “OMG, why?” 

Some of those no-longer-powerful religious curses are being replaced with sex-based terms. In earlier generations, you might have said that a room was “hot as hell.” Now, it’s “hot as fuck.” As a simile, it makes no sense, but fuck emphasizes the heat in a way that hell no longer does.

I’m not sure what most college-age people would say these days when a friend unabashedly emits a loud belch. I am not a religious Christian; I’m just old. So I found it comforting to hear America’s youth repeating the familiar words, “Jesus Christ!”

The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.


Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.



I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 

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* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

Who’s a Masseuse?

November 28, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In ninth grade, I had to read Ivanhoe. We all did. This was a long time ago. The only thing I remember about the book is that in Sir Walter Scott’s prose, the character Rebecca was a “Jewess,” often “the fair Jewess.”

Strange word. I think I may have giggled when I first read it. In the late 20th century, we no longer had Jewesses, just Jews or “Jewish girls.” I never thought to question the other “-ess” terms that were still around. That Jewish girl might want to grow up to be an airline stewardess or an actress; she might work in a restaurant as a waitress or a hostess. Today, in the 21st century, those feminine forms are disappearing. Some have been replaced by non-gendered terms like flight attendant or server. But we also remove gender by assimilating women into the category once reserved for men. Women are hosts and actors. Hostess and even actress seem to be going the way of authoress and poetess a century or more ago.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)


This trend seems to follow the sequence we find in names that cross gender lines. Girls are given names traditionally reserved for boys, names like Leslie or Kelly. Generally, it’s a one-way street. Parents don’t give their sons girl names.  Often, when the girls move in, the boys start moving out. Has anybody here seen a boy named Kelly? (For more on this, see this earlier post.) Similarly with occupations, women drop the -ess* and take on the masculine form. They become authors and poets. When gender is needed, we add the specification “female. IMDB and Wikipedia refer to “female actors,” a phrase rarely heard or needed forty years ago.

I have found an exception — an occupation where the feminine form has become the generic. It’s masseuse. Once upon a time we had masseurs and masseuses, just as we had chanteurs (like Yves Montand) and chanteuses (Edith Piaf). Now, a man in the massage dodge might well be called a masseuse. If more gender clarity is required, we add “male.” Here is the Google n-gram showing the recent rise of masseuse and the decline of masseur.

Of course, the trends might reflect a change in subjects rather than language – more stories about women practitioners. So I Googled “male masseuse” and got 160,000 pages, led by Yelp’s listing of “Best Male Masseuse in New York.” And in 2015, Maxim magazine (here) interviewed a woman about her happy-ending massage at a high-end resort.


Just in case I had any doubts that masseuse had become the ungendered term, at about the same time Maxim ran that interview, we got the word from a far more widely-read authority on linguistic trends – The Jumble.



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* The more durable -ess forms include royalty  (princess, empress, etc.), divinity (goddess), and perhaps wealth (heiress).

Unprecedented

November 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Barney Frank, according to the New Yorker yesterday (here), is “long known as America’s crankiest liberal.” The former congressman is smarter than most people, and I get the impression that he does not suffer fools gladly, even when they agree with him.

This snippet is from an interview on the podcast “Unorthodox” (here).



The three Unorthodox hosts, including the one who asks “Unprecedented?” are not fools, not by a long shot.* But Barney Frank couldn’t let it pass.

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* “Unorthodox” bills itself as a fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture.” But it reminds me of those “You don’t have to be Jewish” rye bread ads that New Yorkers of a certain age may remember.

The Genuine Article

October 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump has a tell – an unconscious tic that divulges genuine ideas and feelings that are different from the views he consciously wants to convey. His tell is the word “the.”

“I will be phenomenal to the women, I mean I'lI want to help women,” said Donald Trump back in August of 2015, when he was one of many Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination. John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” had asked him why women should vote for him.

I bring this up not because women voters reject Trump’s own self-assessment, though reject it they do.  Here is Nate Silver’s estimate of what the election would look like if only women voted.



What struck me was Trump’s use of the definite article. “Phenomenal to the women,” rather than just “phenomenal to women.” On the surface, Trump was saying that when it came to women voters, he was on their side. But the definite article subtly the contradicted that assertion. As I blogged at the time (here),

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.. . . turning them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Linguist Lynne Murphy (here) heard something similar during the most recent debate, regarding not women but minorities.

One of the littlest words in the English language gives the biggest clue about where Donald Trump’s head is at: his use of the word “the.”

Trump promised, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

By using the definite article, says Murphy, the speaker builds a wall between himself and the group he is talking about. “The” turns them into the “other.”

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Nate Silver has not offered maps showing what the election would look like if only Blacks, Hispanics, and inner-cities voted, but I suspect they would resemble that of the women.

Murphy, a “reader” in linguistics at the University of Sussex, notes a similar “the” othering among her fellow UK linguists. This same tell reveals how they feel about those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Are we “Americans,” or are we “the Americans”?

British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).