Category Archives: language in the abstract as it pertains to writing, political correctness (PC)

the assault on “gendered” words … on our language

 

 

 

‘No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes’ – NY Times 7-19-2019

 

 

‘Berkeley plans to remove gendered prononuns from its municipal code’ – Washington Post 7-18-2019

 

 

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I am writing this post because of — in response to — a development last week concerning so called “language policing” (a term I coined for myself, but it’s probably in common use now), or what would otherwise be termed an assault on our language from the PC crowd.

The development I am referring to was covered in the following articles:

 

“No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes.” by Thomas Fuller and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, The New York Times, July 19, 2019

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/us/berkeley-gender-ban.html

“Berkeley plans to remove gendered pronouns from its municipal code,” by Kayla Epstein, The Washington Post, July 18, 2019 (Boy, does that term “gendered pronouns” irk me!)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/07/18/berkeley-plans-remove-gendered-pronouns-its-municipal-code/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c10b6e47531b

 

 

 

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According to the Times and Post articles:

In an effort to make Berkeley more inclusive for its non-binary residents, the city council voted Tuesday night to make the language more gender neutral, following a city clerk review that found that the municipal code primarily contained masculine pronouns. [What is a “non-binary” resident? Don’t bother to tell me. The last time I recall encountering binary, it was in high school math. Now it’s being applied to gender by the PC philistines.]

Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole. Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings. And he or she will be banished in favor of they, even if referring to one person.

“[M]an-made” will soon be “human made,” “chairman” will become “chairperson” … in the city’s municipal code.

… not only would the names of several professions change, but the pronouns “he” and “she” would be swapped out for “they” and “them,” and in some cases, individuals would be referred to by their title rather than a pronoun (“The Candidate” or “The Lobbyist,” for example.)

Keith Johnson, the chair of the department of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley … says the English language has been evolving away from gender-specific terms for many years. Stewardess is out of touch; the preferred term is of course flight attendant. Waitresses and waiters are now often known as servers.

Last month, Multnomah County in Oregon, which … includes Portland, passed a similar measure, replacing gendered pronouns with the singular use of “they” and related words. Miami replaced gendered words in 2017, and changed all singular pronouns — many of which had previously just said “he” — to “he/she.”

 

 

 

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Such idiocy, such barbarity — ignorance triumphant — perhaps deserves no comment.

A few thoughts, nevertheless.

“Gendered” pronouns (and “gendered” words) provide INFORMATION.

In school we used to call them masculine and feminine pronouns.

Gender is, as far as I know, a basic fact of life. Without being an expert, I would guess that the perception that one is male or female is fixed from — let’s say for the purposes of discussion — nursery school or kindergarten age. A child knows and perceives his or her class being comprised of boys and girls and knows that there is a difference and that this is a fundamental and pertinent fact.

When one meets someone, observes someone in public — on the street or in the subway, say — what is one of the things that is noticed without fail — perhaps the most fundamental thing? Whether the person met or observed is male or female. It’s not something one has to guess about, and it affects how we perceive others and interact on a basic level.

Our language and most other languages have pronouns and other grammatical forms that make a distinction between masculine and feminine, often, usually, in the case of male versus female pronouns, but also, in the case of many languages, nouns and other parts of speech (verbs, adjectives).

This is a GOOD thing. Because languages serve to convey information. To not do so and to strip a language of gender is to invite confusion.

 

 

 

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Using they all the time in place of a singular “gendered” pronoun — he or she — is downright confusing, besides being uncalled for: a dismantling of our language and desecration of its grammar.

They gave a donation to the charity. Who did? My sister? My niece or nephew? My parents? Some altruistic citizens? An organization I belong to?

If I say that I really liked my waitress last night at the restaurant I dined in and give her a big tip for outstanding service, this is more informative than saying “I gave my server a big tip for great service.” And there is nothing wrong with this. We have (or had) a word for a male waiter and one for a female waiter. It’s degrading to call a female “server” a waitress?

There are some terms that, I will admit, even I have trouble with. For example, poetess. This was a term used in days of yore for female poets. It did seem to be singling women poets out as a sort of sub category of the class of writers who write poetry. I think Emily Dickinson should be called a poet, not a poetess.

But, to return to waitress and waiter. These are two words with a nice sound to them. Euphonic. We all know what they mean. Server is a much more bland (should I say bleached?) and more vague word. Server of what? Process server? Tennis player?

Chair for a department chairman or chairwoman seems ridiculous to me. A chair is something one sits upon. I get it: A woman department head doesn’t want to be called chairman. How about chairwoman? (Chairperson is too bland and “generic.”)

Man made versus human made (per the new Berkeley code)? This is one of those horribly vague and manufactured locutions such as “double plus ungood” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Human made, as in by humanoids, not robots? This is idiotic. Man since time immemorial has been used to refer to humanity, as in “That’s one small step for man.”

“Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole.” Yes, manhole undoubtedly comes from the idea that it is a sort of hole in the middle of a street where men can be found working below. They climb down the hole to do some task. And, yes, in the past, at least, almost anyone performing such a task was a man. (But the basic idea seemed to be that it was a hole where people might be found — in contrast, say to a rabbit hole.) “Sexism” aside, everyone knows what a manhole is, and one has a mental (pictorial) image of a manhole. So now we have to confuse everyone who will have to stop and think, maintenance hole, what’s that? Same thing as a manhole? This is messing things up, not making them more logical or sensible.

“Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings.” Sorry. But there’s a bit difference, like it or not, between saying “I had lunch with my sister yesterday” and “I had lunch with my brother.” Without any other information being provided (which, in a conversation, would be the case), we have been conveyed some information. Say I am talking with someone who doesn’t know me well, a coworker, say. I tell them: “During my vacation, I spent a week visiting my sister in Colorado.” That conveys much more information than saying, “During my vacation, I visited a sibling in Colorado.” And, what, in God’s name, is wrong with sister and brother? Are we going to get rid of father and mother? “My parent passed away last year.”

 

 

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It’s like hacking off the limbs of trees for some senseless reason. Deforestation. Who needs those trees anyway? They clutter up the landscape, can “cause” forest fires, and block one’s view. Better to clear the open spaces of them in the interests of prudence.

The great English writers would be rolling in their graves. Fortunately, they didn’t live to see what is being done to their tongue. You know what? England and, by extension, America have one of the world’s greatest bodies of literature. Guess what? The richness of the language — its stupendous vocabulary drawn from the world’s languages; the subtlelties of meaning and tone possible; the intricacy of grammar with much flexibility in things such as word order — has a lot to do with it.

Consider the following: I was walking down the block and saw a lady walking a dog. Woops! A humanoid walking its dog. Or should it be their dog?

Our language works very well, thank you. The PC language police want to make it less precise and rich. They want (to paraphrase a US Army officer during the Vietnam War) to destroy the language in order to save it, or what in their benighted view constitutes civilization (as they see it).

Orwell was on to something. He really was prescient.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     July 22, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

According to the New York Times article:

When Fairbanks North Star unanimously passed its resolution in February, choosing to use “they” and “their” as singular, one critical blogger called it a “grammatical mutilation.”

Suzanne Downing, the blogger, said the borough should have stuck with he/she.

“There will be a lot of explaining to do,” she said. “The conservative perspective is that this makes the language confusing. It’s a torture of the language.”

Thank the Lord that there are a few people left who haven’t lost their common sense.

 

 

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Addendum (July 29, 2019):

 

I saw this on Facebook today: “Anne Kelleher [an old friend of mine] updated their cover photo.”

Whose cover photo? Anne’s? Or some relatives or people she knows? Did she do someone not conversant with Facebook a favor?

Apparently, Facebook’s “language engineers” have gone PC.

 

 

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Addendum (August 18, 2019):
A New York Times article I have just read:

 

“Push for Ethnic Studies in Schools Faces a Dilemma: Whose Stories to Tell”

By Dana Goldstein

The New York Times

August 15, 2019

 

 

states the following:

The materials [from a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools] are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.” …

It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents — “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” — were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.

Words like hxrstory and cisheteropatriarchy jump out at me. They horrify me. The fact of such words being used actually depresses me.

Nothing that can be imagined, dreaded, is beyond the language police.

Such words in particular suggest a thought to me. That the would-be PC czars (language-destroying Robespierres) hate the idea of GENDER. They wish gender didn’t exist.

It’s a basic fact of life, as I noted in this post, that — as far as I know — most people have a gender. Many words do too.

The fact that pronouns and other words are “gendered” is an artifice, so to speak, in that languages, while they developed naturally or “organically,” are not living, breathing things. A word does not actually have a gender. So, one can, in theory, contemplate changing the language with respect, say, to whether I say “he,” “she,” or “their”; “chairman” or “chairperson.” Whereas sex (masculine or feminine) in human beings is intrinsic at birth.

What depresses and bothers me — I find it patently wrong and anti-human — is that the PC language police — the zealots who want to abolish “gendered” words and go to ridiculous lengths to do so, coming up with abominations invented by them such as cisheteropatriarchy — are opposed to recognition being made of gender as something basic, intrinsic — a FACT, as it were. They want to revise gender out of the language (if not our consciousness) and suppress recognition of same.

I am a parent, and I would have been pleased to have had a daughter. I, in common with most men, like women. I am also happy to be male. Growing up, being a boy meant wonderful, open friendships with chums; playing sports and following professional teams; and other “male” things. I am glad I was born a boy, but I had no choice. If I “erred” in associating things like sports with masculinity (girls played sports even in those days, but there was more rigidity and adherence to stereotypes, admittedly, back then about gender roles and activities), so be it. I am not ashamed of or uncomfortable with being a male. And, I have no qualms about using “gendered” words. Why should I?

Why should anyone?

“I like it the way it is.”

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Call Me ‘They’ – NY Times 7-10-2019

 

 

 

This post concerns the following op-ed in yesterday’s Times:

 

Call Me ‘They’

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

By Farhad Manjoo

The New York Times

July 10, 2019

 

 

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The Spanish have el mano and the French la fenêtre.

 

Should we ban these “gendered” articles and insist they be replaced with new ones invented in the “language laboratory” / “incubator” staffed by technocrats in lab coats?

 

Our glorious English tongue has been around for some 1,200 years.

 

I like it the way it is.

 

 

 

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SOME SPECIFIC COMMENTS ON THIS ATROCIOUS OPINION PIECE (Quotations from the op-ed are in italics. My comments are in boldface.)

 

 

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

 

‘[T]he stifling prison of gender expectations.” Is this an op-ed about children in cages? I thought we were talking about grammar.

 

 

 

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad.

 

What the f____ is “cisgender”? It’s a buzzword I can do without.

 

 

… most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

How about moving to Laputa? You would fit right in there. Maybe you could secure a language policy making post there. … Oops, have you heard of Laputa? Did you ever read Jonathan Swift? Why do I doubt it?

 

 

So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

 

No requirement is imposed. This writer is out of his (“gendered” possessive pronoun) depth. The language evolved that way. The writer probably prefers genetically engineered foods and hothouse plans. Has he ever stopped to admire a dandelion or oak tree?

 

 

… why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering?

 

Before opining any further on this topic, about which you are ignorant, I suggest you take a couple of English courses, grammar and lit; and a course in a foreign language would be very helpful too. This might enable you to begin to grasp and maybe even appreciate the beauty of languages, both grammar and structure, their uniqueness, distinctive features, how precious this is, as a flower to botanist or layperson. Read a Great Book or two. (Please don’t advocate “scrubbing” them.) It won’t hurt. You will see that the King’s English — now spoken all over the world — has a glorious history and the magnificence of a mighty oak.

 

 

I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

Your “call”? As in a ministerial calling? Why do I get the impression that you — a would be word maven and “word watcher” (read language policeman) — have no facility in (as in infelicitous phrase) or reverence for correct usage?

 

 

That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

Whom should we entrust with setting language standards? Uber execs, advertisers? Heaven help us.

 

 

Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.

 

“They” is plural! you idiot.

 

 

 

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Basta. (That’s Spanish for enough.)

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 11, 2019

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

‘vocabulary building’ – updated December 2018

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

 

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!
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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a Theodore Dreiser scholar:

 

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

 

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); “musky” (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

 

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.
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email from a reader of this blog:
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?
my reply:

 

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.
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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

 

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.
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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

 

 

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 
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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 
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Newspeak

 

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfallutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

 

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Vocabulary Is Built by Reading

 

I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. Almost all of the words and expressions I have learned over the past year or so were encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

 
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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

 

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Many of the words I have looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op ed piece used the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

 

 
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Appendix:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

 

The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.

“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”

by Douglas Quenqua

The New York Times

December 18, 2017

 

 

 

It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:

“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”

 

 

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Note “HER purse.”

I have a problem with this.

The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)

But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.

 

 

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“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.

 

 

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Re pronouns indicating gender, such as Ms.

I consider Ms. to be an abomination.

The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.

The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.

What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.

I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.

And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.

More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?

 

 

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This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.

If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 December 20, 2017
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COMMENTS

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

While there are silly uses of PC language (such as he/she), I disagree in some respects with this post. The use of the word purse in the NY Times sentence is important here. It might have been different if the phrase were “finding some change in her pocket” (though I’m not sure), but the image conjured is one of a woman fishing in her purse to tip a doorman so the word “her” is unquestionably called for here. (I know that men sometimes use purses too but let’s not go there).

As for Ms., Ms. Saigon would be stupid I agree. But the term Ms. originated when the women’s movement complained legitimately that for females the world was differentiating always between married and unmarried while the word Mr. applies to both married and unmarried males.

I have no problem using the word Ms.; it’s respectful of what many women want. Further, what would you call my wife, Mrs. Marsh? She kept her last name when she married me, and she is no longer married to Mr. Marsh, so in her case she is not Mrs. Marsh and calling her Mrs. Smith would be an insult. But of course, you can call her Marcia. . .

Overall, I like it when writers can word things so that the word “their” replaces “his” or “her” and I dislike it when writers go through contortions trying to be politically correct. I agree with you there. But if in an essay a writer uses his half the time and her the other half when referring to the generic personal possessive, it doesn’t bother me at all.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

You make some good points. You do have a point about a woman reaching for change in her purse vs. a man in his wallet. Nevertheless, I think the Times writer was “showing off,” hoping readers and probably his editors would admire his political correctness.

June Casagrande says a writer should always keep the reader and the reader’s expectations in mind. What the Times writer is doing is trying to impress and discombobulate the reader for no good reason.

Ms. is downright ugly.

Mary Norris dislikes — in fact, strongly disapproves of — “their” as the generic pronoun for a person (singular) whose gender is unspecified. I agree. She points out that their is PLURAL. Why should the language police be allowed to fuck up the language to conform to their agenda? I love and respect the intricacy of languages’ grammatical structures. Ralph told me, if I remember correctly, that Icelandic has manifold forms of the definite article. (Russian has no articles.) This fascinated me. Should the language police be authorized to undertake a study of Icelandic definite and indefinite articles with a review to assessing whether they need “retooling” in the name of political correctness? Should the Academie Francaise consider making nouns like “la table” neuter so that no one might, just possibly, be offended?

If a writer used “her” and “his” willy nilly in an essay — with no apparent reason or basis (an exception might be a book about Dick and Jane in which the writer switches constantly between referring to one or the other) — that would be pointless and confusing.

 

 

Luanne, December 20, 2017

Very interesting piece, Roger. I had to look up the word “ukase,” by the way. As a woman, my first thought was “why is the writer zeroing in on women who carry purses to talk about tips?” Don’t men give tips? At least as often (more often in this marriage). And purses can be for men or women or that whole long list of new genders I saw the other day. So I found the focus to be very narrow. It wasn’t even politically correct, if you think about it from that perspective. I’d call it a poor writing choice. I think “wallet” would be more appropriate than “purse.” Maybe we should be relieved that it doesn’t read, “anyone with paper money in their purse.”

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

Of course “their” is plural. You missed my point — you can rewrite the subjects to make them plural to make “their” work; I do this often.

The Times isn’t perfect, but you clearly have a bias against them.

Who are the language police? Your blog sounds like you’re one of them.

I am not suggesting that the French change the structure of the language. I am suggesting that your bias is clouding your thinking. A purse is usually “hers,” not “his” and your reaction to a very normal sentence in the NY Times article is revealing.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

I belong to the language police? That’s a good one. To get an idea of what I have in mind, read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then read op-ed pieces and manifestos by zealous academics and language mavens on the subject. You might start with

 

 

I’m surprised you don’t know what I’m talking about with respect to the misuse of “their.” An example would be: “An applicant should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

I happen to admire quite a few New York Times writers and have occasionally commented on this in my posts. I think the Times is better written than practically all other newspapers. But, they do look foolish sometimes (in my opinion) when they try to be politically correct. And, it doesn’t help that they fired all their copy editors.

Perhaps I did overreact to one phrase in the Times article. It set me off. But my thinking is not clouded. My points are valid and are clearly and forcefully presented. What’s happening is scary. People are trying to retool the language for ideological reasons. It’s not that far out to suggest that “la table,” Senorita, and God knows what other fact of grammar which we took for granted and enjoyed studying in school will perhaps be subject to the censor’s knife.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

Appreciate your feedback, Luanne. Thanks. We’re on the same page. Perhaps that’s because we’re both writers who care about language. (And love learning new words like “ukase.”) We’re an endangered species!

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

Again you missed my point. The sentence, if I wrote it, would be “Applicants should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

 

 

Roger W. Smith, December 20, 2017

Yes, you can rewrite it this way. But, there are many examples of misusage where “their” is used for an antecedent which is singular. See the discussion on pp. 69-70 of the Mary Norris book “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.”

 

 

Pete Smith, December 20, 2017

So direct your complaints to people misusing grammar, not to me, OK?

 

 

Luanne, December 21, 2017

We are an endangered species! By the way, I am looking forward to using “ukase” on my family history blog (about my husband’s Jewish Ukrainian ancestors). I suspect that there are many “ukases” in their past!