John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Watching our language

If you have not heard Geoffrey Nunberg’s commentaries on language at NPR’s Fresh Air or read his op-ed essays in various newspapers, you can now catch up: He has collected more than fifty of them in The Years of Talking Dangerously (Public Affairs, 265 pages, $18.95).

Professor Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is a refreshingly direct and clear writer with sensible and straightforward views about the ways we write and talk. His writing is so irresistible that I am resorting to the lazy reviewer’s expedient of simply quoting him extensively.

Much of the book is given to a discussion of political language.* “[M]y guess is that when people look back on the language of the early years of the twenty-first century, the first thing that will come to mind is the political vocabulary—well, that and the language of real estate—just as the sixties evoke the language of rock, drugs, and disaffection; the seventies evoke the language of disco and New Age; the eighties evoke management jargon and Valley Girl slang; and the nineties evoke techno-talk and fit-speak.”

The “collapse of the language of the right” by the time of the 2008 election, he says, resulted from “a kind of structure fatigue, brought on by the strain of spanning the increasing distance between its literal and symbolic meanings.”

Take torture, which Professor Nunberg wrote about in 2004 after the Abu Ghraib revelations: “Torture is torture is torture, as Secretary Powell put it. If you find yourself having to draw fine semantic distinctions here, you’re already way over the line.”

Political commentary has given us a group of stock figures who turn out what Professor Nunberg calls political smut, “malicious aggression that pretends to be mere naughtiness.” “When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter or O’Reilly, or James Carville, there isn’t a one of them who couldn’t be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey—the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.”

But it’s not all about politics:

On spelling bees: “The national Spelling Bee is one of those odd competitions that turn an ordinary activity into a high-performance event, like extreme ironing.”

On blogs: “[T]he blogging world sounds less like a public meeting than the lunchtime chatter in a high-school cafeteria, complete with snarky comments about the kids at the tables across the room.”

On electronic books: “Reading Proust in a browser window, I once observed, is like touring Normandy through a bombsight.”

On Wikipedia: “...what most journalists and scholars regard as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all the time. By ‘rely on,’ I don’t mean just for doing ‘preliminary research,’ which is how academics always say they use Wikipedia, in the same tone they adopt when they cop to glancing at People in the dentist’s waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of information.”

More on Wikipedia: “Reading the entry on the English language, for example, I think of what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said about a paper submitted to a journal: ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.’ ”

On teens and new writing technology: Newspaper articles combine “three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: ‘the language is going to hell in a handbasket’; ‘you’ll never get me into one of those newfangled things’; and ‘kids today, I’m here to tell you. . . .’ ”

On moralistic pronouncements: “If intelligence consists in being able to make fine distinctions, then it stands to reason that moral absolutism tends to make you stupid.”

No fear of stupidity in this book. It is worth your time.




*I do not want to turn this into a political blog, but political discourse is not only widespread, but it also leaks into other areas and cannot be ignored. That much of Professor Nunberg’s commentary is on the language of the right reflects, as he says above, how pervasive conservative speech and thought were during the years these essays were written.


1 comment:

  1. “Torture is torture is torture, as Secretary Powell put it. If you find yourself having to draw fine semantic distinctions here, you’re already way over the line.”

    . . .

    “If intelligence consists in being able to make fine distinctions, then it stands to reason that moral absolutism tends to make you stupid.”

    ReplyDelete