Saturday, January 2, 2010

Don't do yourself a mischief

I had better issue an ***ICK ALERT*** for potentially offensive content below.

(That should hook you.)

Those of you who were at least moderately sentient in the 1960s and 1970s may recall Tom Lehrer’s little proposed theme song for a film version of Oedipus Rex (and the younger sort will have some cultural education to undergo):

When he found what he had done,
He tore his eyes out, one by one,
A tragic end for a loyal son
Who LOVED his mother.*

I suspect that this may not be one of Jan Freeman’s favorite tunes, because she has written in The Boston Globe about her distaste for self-maiming hyperbole:

My nominee isn’t new, but last February I noticed it in a classier location than its usual haunts. At John McIntyre’s language blog, You Don’t Say—where readers are asked to “keep a civil tongue in their heads”—one commenter posted a complaint about the language of a TV weatherman. “Tonight he came up with ‘the evening-hour time frame’,” said the commenter. “Made me want to dig my eyeballs and eardrums out with a soup spoon.”

She goes on to comment:

At the Baltimore Sun, where McIntyre used to run the copy desks, the eye-gouging imagery would be off limits, he confirmed. Figurative language that’s “gratuitously violent or distasteful” is unwelcome, as the paper’s writing guidelines make clear. “Hyperbole, and particularly death hyperbole,” is not to be used flippantly. “Repulsive metaphors have no place in the paper.” The cautionary example is an oyster simile I won’t quote, since it might make you want to…you know.

Not that I mind quoting the cautionary example from The Sun’s “Guidelines on Writing and Editing” (largely disregarded but which, damn my modesty, I had a hand in developing):

Repulsive metaphors have no place in the paper. Here are some illustrations: “The sleek gray meats of the oyster, Sagoff once said, remind him of something you'd see on the floor of a tuberculosis ward.”; “For years, the city's been drooling over the real estate in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.”; “Mr. Gore didn't search for huge globs of government fat lying around waiting to be lopped off.”

Well, assuming that you still have eyes to read this, it’s clear that I am less squeamish than Ms. Freeman, or perhaps The Boston Globe — surely they don’t talk like that in Boston.

But while I’m willing to grant a little more latitude in my own blog posts and to the comments I authorize on this site, I think that she is on to something. The ready resort to exaggerated reaction to minor irritations, and the partisan impulse toward apocalyptic metaphor over political differences** suggest not only a diminution of civility but also a tendency toward hysteria, both mild and extreme.

Use your indoor voices, please.

*Yes, he loved his mother like no other;
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.
One thing on which you can depend is,
He sure knew who a boy’s best friend is.

**On Facebook, a friend liked Bryan Garner’s word the the day the other day — CATCHPENNY, adj. = sensationally appealing to the ignorant — but couldn’t think of an appropriate use. I suggested lawyer-dentist Orly Taitz's catchpenny campaign to prove that Barack Obama is not an American citizen.


  1. Wasn't Lehrer's point that his song was so over the top? (To quote from one of his reviews - "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste")

    Funny as I find such comments, they need to be held in reserve for the occasions when they are truly needed - such as a one-man show by a physicist trying to be funny(*).

    (*) Full disclosure: I am a statistician, and thus even less funny than a physicist.

  2. John,
    Two comments. First, although hyperbole should be avoided in reporting, some degree - occasionally even a great degree - of hyperbole is reasonable in commentary. That your critic found this example unpleasant is perhaps unfortunate, but strikes me as her problem and not yours.

    Second, censoring your own choice of words and metaphor is one thing, but censoring the choices of a writer-to-the-editor strike me as more literarily violent than censoring one's own. To edit, "Made me want to dig my eyeballs and eardrums out with a soup spoon," to assert his opinion is invalid. If so, better to delete it completely than attempt to make it more palatable to someone who seems given to vapors - but perhaps that is too strong allusion for her delicate sensibilities.

  3. Thanks to YouTube, the younger sort can further their cultural education in this area at

    It's worth a visit.

  4. Would you please, for God's sake and man's, make a point of trimming your posts by 30-40%?

  5. Perhaps, Anonymous One, Twitter is more suited to your tastes?

    Anyone else share Anonymous One's frustration with this site?

  6. Everything escalates except good taste.

    On another subject, none of your posts has ever seemed long to me. Sometimes you're insufficiently reverential to writers, but you're always interesting. Plus, you appreciate good writers.

  7. This post makes my thoughts go in any number of directions, but I'm wondering what you think of certain hyperbole in speech -- it makes my skin crawl, for instance, when people say, "I'm starving" when "I'm so hungry" would suffice.

    ps: Comments such as the one by Anonymous provoke such responses as "Perhaps this is not the blog for you, then" or "On your blog, feel free to keep your posts to the length you prefer." But maybe that's just me.

  8. mighty r.p.:
    " makes my skin crawl...when..." is an hyperbole, is it not? Couldn't you have just said: "It makes me uncomfortable...when..."
    Your skin crawling is an extreme situation I loath to imagine, like the plague.

  9. Conventional metaphors such as "make my skin crawl" or "make my flesh creep" may exaggerate, but they do not shock. Questions of taste and judgment always apply.

    Also, please do not understand this post to be an attack on hyperbole in general. When wielded effectively, as by Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, it is one of the most effective tools of American humor.

  10. When the writing is good and the topic interesting, word count doesn't matter.

  11. The Consonant ConstableJanuary 4, 2010 at 10:30 AM

    "Brevity is the soul of wit."

  12. If brevity is the sould of wit, then for Anonymous One the knock-knock joke would be the supreme form of humor?

  13. Good points as usual about the unnecessary escalation of metaphors.

    I grew up, probably inappropriately, on Lehrer's vivid version of "Oedipus", but it is also worth noting P.D.Q. Bach's relatively understated "Oedipus Tex":

    And as soon as he had put out both his eyes,
    He kind of wished he hadn't,
    And he cried out to anyone who would listen:

    My eyes!
    My eyes!
    Now what am I gonna do for eyes?

    The eyes of Texas are upon you...

  14. The discussion of what's offensive in writing reminded me of a copy editor at the Des Moines Register in the '70s who had a clean mind. There was a rule that someone always read behind her in case she'd missed some sexual double entrendre. Similarly, there must be some young copy editors to whom nothing is icky, so someone has to read behind them.

    John stands accused of writing long, which he doesn't. But do writers generally write longer online than they would for a paper publication? On paper, of course, there is limited space, so each word should be valuable. On the Internet, words and space are cheap. What isn't cheap, though, is the reader's time and attention. But again, John stands falsely accused. A long-time competent copy editor might find it painful to write overlong.

  15. Don't knock knock-knock jokes. The funny jokes are the ones second graders tell.

  16. Length is not at issue. It's word choice, usage, and diction.
    The text can be pared by 30%. Try it. Think less like a panjandrum and more like someone I'd want to talk to over a beer.

  17. Unfortunately, Anonymous One, though panjandrum is a nice touch, I doubt that I would much care to share a jar with you. (Anyone who would care to talk over a couple of pints is welcome to make arrangements to meet me at the Hamilton Tavern or the Parkside.)

    Anonymous One's point having been made thoroughly clear by repetition, I see no reason to approve additional comments from that source.

    No writer pleases every taste, and, as far as I can tell, the people who don't find these posts to their liking simply go elsewhere. That is the sensible choice.

  18. PKL:
    "The funny jokes are the ones second graders tell."
    So true.