Friday, August 31, 2012

Pipe down 

Wednesday was the sixtieth anniversary of the premiere of John Cage's 4'33", a work in which the performer is instructed not to play the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

I thought of it last night while driving home from the paragraph factory, listening to the final movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet on the radio. When it ended, I switched the radio off rather than allow some other sound to contaminate it.

When I was a graduate student at Syracuse, the chamber music series brought in some remarkable performers, and I remember an evening when a quartet (embarrassed to admit that I no longer remember that it was the Guarneri or the Juilliard) was playing the Schubert. In the middle of the slow movement, the cellist broke a string.

The cellist nodded apologetically, walked off stage, replaced the string, returned, and tuned very briefly. The quartet took up where it had left off. Through the entire interval, the audience did not make a sound. Not a cough, not a murmur. The auditorium at Crouse College was entirely still.

I wonder how an audience would react to Cage's 4'33" today, when people appear to be constitutionally unable to stop talking.

They carry on highly audible cellphone conversations in all manner of public and private places, intruding on your personal audiosphere. Telephone conversations used to be private. You went into a booth, as into a confessional.  You would feel humiliated to know that everyone around could hear your personal affairs.

My experience at a number of Episcopal churches in recent years has been that, though the nave is not quite as noisy just before the service as a hotel lobby when Shriners are in town, there is very little reverent or reflective silence. The loud talking continues even through the prelude, as if it were lounge music. (Perhaps the organist should put a tip jar on the console.) 

Going to movies might be getting a little better, as the young abandon speech for texting.

Mind you, I would not prefer to work as the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster do, in Trappist silence. I've grown used to the newsroom, with the sports department following at least one game on the television and a reporter three desks away conducting a telephone interview in a voice that must be audible in Pittsburgh.

But perhaps you, like I, wish sometimes that people would just shut up. Let me bring this to a close, to set an example.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lobbying the dictionary

Note to readers: There’s a bug in my blogging software at The Sun (surprise!), so I will be posting here at the personal site until the boffins figure out the problem.

The morning email brings a release from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which I reproduce in full:

PETA has submitted a list of five animal-friendly terms to dictionary publisher Collins, after learning that the company is collecting new words to be added to its upcoming editions. The terms include "sea kitten," a name for fish that will elicit more empathy for these persecuted aquatic animals; "Trollsen," a name befitting each of the fashion-backward Olsen twins for including fur and other animal skins in their collections; "veganise," the act of replacing meat, eggs, and dairy products with kinder and healthier foods and ingredients; "veggie dog," meat-free franks that have skyrocketed in popularity; and "elefriend," someone who supports elephants by boycotting circuses that use or display these animals.

"Dictionaries are updated to reflect the times, and animal-friendly terms reflect one of the fastest-growing social movements of our time: animal rights," says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. "Word choices have a lot to do with shaping attitudes, so it's time that animals receive the respect that they deserve in our everyday language."

I don’t expect them to have much success, or wish them any, partly because sea kitten for fish is risible, and partly because lexicographers do not take well to lobbying.

PETA also exaggerates the influence of dictionaries.

It is true that Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary, because it was the first comprehensive one in English, had enormous prestige and a lingering conservative influence. It is true that Noah Webster’s great work, because it was the first comprehensive dictionary of American English, had great influence. It was he who got us to drop the k from critick and the u from honour. Dictionaries since, not so much.

Most schemes to reform the maddening and chaotic spelling of English have failed, despite the prestige and power of George Bernard Shaw, Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick, and other would-be reformers.  

Similarly, the campaigns by numerous cranks to supply English with an epicene pronoun (rather than accepting singular they as the simplest and most reasonable remedy) have come to nothing. And no mention of cranks should go by without a salute to the recently departed Queen’s English Society and its nutty efforts to establish an Academy of English.

Failure is their portion, and deservedly so. English is the most democratic thing we have. We collectively shape it, and each of us has onevote. It goes where it will, or rather where we will, and no Authority can dictate to us how to speak and write. Lexicographers follow us around and diligently make notes about what we’re doing.

I admire PETA’s principled vegetarianism. And if they make me feel guilty about my fondness for brisket and bacon, that is surely salutary. But they are wasting their energy lobbying lexicographers. Language shapes itself from the bottom up, not the top down.