Saturday, April 27, 2024

Bemoan, bemoan, bemoan

My Facebook feed has been cluttered this week with people posting this remark attributed to the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high schools to teaching Remedial English in college."

Let's unpack some of what is in this. 

First, a century ago, many fewer young people went to college at all, and they usually came from schools with curriculum designed to prepare for a college education.  And, mind you, even then, scholarship was not necessarily pronounced. In the Ivy League colleges, the "gentleman's C" was entirely satisfactory, because valuable connections and networking easily compensated for a mediocre education.  

It is a mistake to equate the students of that era with the great surge after the Second World War of students seeking college educations for the first time in their families, a much wider range of students coming from public schools generally rather than selective academies. So this "gone from teaching" oversimplification ignores complex social and educational developments of the past seventy years. It is less an analysis than a slogan, a sneer at current students that overlooks the possibility that they might be at school to learn something.*

But at bottom the Sobran complaint is the tired conservative trope, repeated generation from generation, that there was a time in the past when people were smarter and more capable, compared to the degenerate present. Cicero complained that people were no longer speaking good Latin. Egbert of Liege bemoaned that "scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before" in the eleventh century. Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712 that people had so corrupted the English language that the Crown should establish an academy to regulate it. It was always better in the past, for those of us who recall it. 

Posting the Sobran sneer does not make one a brave voice crying in the wilderness. It is rather, and merely, a badge of smugness. 

*Perhaps it is worth saying that when I graduated from a public high school in Appalachia in 1969 (having in fact have taken two years of Latin), I was competent to write at the high school level. I had to learn, at college, how to write at the college level. I assumed that that was what it was for. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Not unusual

 It has been the custom of the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to announce their annual revisions at the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, presumably because those are the people who care what is in the AP Stylebook

These updates regularly have something to raise the hair on the back of a stickler's neck. This year it is the entry on unique: "The stylebook is changing its guidance on the word 'unique.' The revised entry now says: 'The word can mean one of a kind, unparalleled, having no equal, etc.; or highly unusual, extraordinary, rare, etc. If used in the sense of one of a kind, don’t use modifiers such as very, rather, etc.' "

One can still hear keening over the abandonment of the unfounded over/more than distinction or the heaving over the side of the "split verb" rule, which held against all evidence than one cannot insert an adverb between an auxiliary and the main verb (and which I take some pride in having campaigned against for years).

The editors of the AP Stylebook are not wild-eyed Jacobins; they endorse changes in usage only after those changes have been in wide use for years. 

Regarding unique: Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler 4 comments on the sense of "particularly remarkable, special, or unusual," remarking, "All modern monolingual dictionaries recognize this meaning, usually with a warning."

American Heritage in 2011 upheld the absolute sense of the word but conceded, "In fact, the nontraditional modification of unique may be found in the work of many reputable writers and has certainly been put to effective use."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) explains, "Words that are in widespread use have a natural tendency to take on extended meanings. In the case of unique, it was natural that a word used to describe something that was unlike anything else should also come to be used more broadly to describe something that was, simply, unusual or rare," the latter use having been common for more than a century.

Bryan Garner clucks that the looser usage is in his Stage 3 of language change: "Widespread, but ..."

Unique we lifted from the French, who had it from the Latin unicus, "one." I suspect that insistence on the absolute meaning rises in part from the etymological fallacy, the belief that the meaning of a word must be restricted to its original sense. You may know people who insist that decimate must refer for the destruction of a tenth rather than substantial damage. I used to teach my students at Loyola that dilemma had to mean two unsatisfactory choices, like Odysseus having to decide between Scylla and Charybdis, because the Greek root di- means "two." I have no way to get back to them now to say that it can simply mean "a difficult situation." 

English is on the move, and has been since we and the French destroyed Anglo-Saxon. And though it will likely lead to by expulsion from the Stickler Sodality, I recommend judgement instead of rigid adherence to rules of dodgy provenance. Figure out what will make sense to the reader. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Not during the reign of Edward Longshanks

A fellow editor writes to ask if I, as a resident of Baltimore, can attest that there has been a Roman Catholic presence in the city since the latter part of the 13th century. 

He refers to an article on a proposal to close several parishes that says the closures would "reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life," and asks, "You know more about Charm City than I do, but was there *really* a Catholic presence in Baltimore circa 1291 A.D.?"

My best guess is that the number 730 refers to the aggregate ages of the affected parishes. The oldest in continuous operation, St. Vincent de Paul, dates from 1841, the same article informs us. 

Had I been engaged to edit the article, hoping to avoid misunderstanding, I would have confirmed my surmise and made it read, "The combined ages of the sites that would be lost reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life." 

But that's just me, a meddlesome editor. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Once a bookworm, always a bookworm

An old friend asked me on Facebook if I could recommend some nonfiction books, so I put together a list of the ones I've liked most in two and a half years of retirement:  

Isabel Wilkinson, Caste; Ron Chernow, Grant; Matthew Gabrielle and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages; Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile; Nikole Hannah-Jones et al., The 1619 Project; Baynard Woods, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness; Jess McHugh, Americanon; Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams; Dahlia Lithwick, Lady Justice; Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America; Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Myth America; Joel Richard Paul: Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism; Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed; Joel Richard Paul, Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times; Timothy Egan, A Fever in the Heartland; Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue; Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

I was tempted to recommend The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, but at roughly a thousand pages, 900 text and 100 apparatus, it is something to take on.

Maybe you would like some fiction recommendations.