Language Feed

Distorting American Political Life

I read this sentence in the news this morning:

"Cantor lost in an upset to tea party challenger Dave Brat on Tuesday, an outcome Democrats quickly jumped on as a sign that the Republican Party is being pulled to the right by its conservative wing."

I'm sorry, but Eric Cantor was in the conservative wing. He was one of the leaders of this rebellion against reasonable governance and even the Tom Delay era of conservatism.

This sort of language distorts American political life, but implying that somehow Cantor is a moderate.

Will on Obama's rhetoric

I agree with George Will that the President's rhetoric commits logical errors and is not helpful for sustained, rational discourse.  However, I disagree with him that this is particularly a feature of this president, as it seems rampant in public discourse, particularly in the political class.  I do believe that this president can talk in extended, rational arguments, but has realized the public futility of doing so in the current climate.

Mencken on Harding

My downstairs bathroom reading is the book Deadline Artists, a collection of America's greatest newspaper columns.  Yesterday I read a hilarious one by H. L. Mencken lampooning Warren G. Harding's inaugural address.  The column is entitled "Gamalielese" and was published in the Baltimore Sun on March 7, 1921.

He makes fun of Hardings atrocious use of the English language--his bad word choices, his grammar, his lack of any meaning in the phrases that are strung together, his delivery.  The column resonates with the more serious column of George Orwells entitled "Politics and the English Language," and is, if anything, even more appropriate in this day when so much political speech lacks substance.  I highly recommend the column.

Here is one sentence of Harding's which Mencken delights in analyzing.  "I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved."  

Like I said, he goes into a thorough analysis of this sentence and all of its myriad problems, but I love how he opens, "I assume you have read it.  I also assume that you set it down as idiotic--a series of words without sense."  I wish we had a little more of that in our political coverage today.

Mencken's main objection to the inaugural address is that was a stump speech, and he has no high opinion of stump speech.  A little aside, I once read a book on the history of American sermons which argued that the inaugural address had become a national sermon of our civil religion.  Maybe one aspect of Harding's failure was he delivered a stump speech and not a sermon?

My favourite paragraph is when Mencken lampoons the listeners.  I can't imagine a newspaper columnist daring this today.  Maybe Bill Maher.

Such imbeciles do not want ideas--that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention.  What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of treadbare phrases terrifically repeated, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures.  As I say, they can't understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words.  On the contrary, they like them and demand them.  The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them.  They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery.  Let that thunder sound, and they take all the rest on trust.  If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied.  If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning.  If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next.

This reminds me of that classic, brilliant, episode of The Family Guy when Lois runs for public office and learns very quickly during the public debate that reasoned arguments about real ideas is not working, but if she simply repeats "9/11" over and over the crowd will rise in rousing applause.


No writer has more influenced my use of a single word than Seamus Heaney has.  And the word in question is "so."

Listen to my sermons.  Read their manuscripts.  And, if you are listening/looking for it, you will notice how often I use "so" and how dependent I am upon it for the flow and structure of my work.  I actually have to restrain myself from overusing it.

And this is due to Heaney.  I think when I read what he said about "so," it resonated with my own previous, conversational use of of the word.  Our northeastern Oklahoman use of it seemed very similiar to what he described of his Irish relatives.  Maybe our linguistic connections to the Old World were closer than we realized.

Where does Heaney talk about "so" in the way that deeply influenced me?  In his magnificent translation of Beowulf.  Here is how he translates the famous opening lines:

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

[Note: I've never, in a sermon, dared the single word sentence "so."] 

Here is his explanation of the translation.  He gets to "so" at the very end, but you need to read what comes before.

It is one thing to find lexical meanings for the words and to have some feel for how the metre might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work.  Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator's right-of-way into and through a text.  I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father's, people whom I had once described in a poem as "big voiced Scullions."

I called them "big voiced" because when the mean of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf.  A simple sentence such as "We cut the corn to-day" took on immense dignity when one of them Scullions spoke it.  They had a king of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk.  And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives.  I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.

Convention renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and--more colloquially--"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously.  But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, "so" it was.

Don't you just love that description--"obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention"?  Who would fail to use a tool like that once discovered?

And, thus, in pretty much every sermon, there comes a point where I utter this two-letter word and know full well that behind my utterance lies the translation work of Seamus Heaney, the idiomatic expressions of his Irish relatives, the majesty and power of the old Anglo-Saxon epic, and the courage and greatness of the stories it tells.

Grammar police

Just opened up my Daily Beast daily e-mail, and this was the top story and headline:

Why is the U.S. lagging behind our peers in educating our students? The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein on a new book with a startling conclusion: they value intellect more than we do.

Maybe because major publications commit grammatical errors in their headlines.  As the proper phrasing of that should be "Why the World Is Smarter Than We Are."  

I also don't think anyone is surprised that there is an anti-intellectualism in the U. S.  Didn't de Tocqueville even write about that?

Fascinating article on ultraconserved words

A Washington Post article on a fascinating new study about two dozens words that have basically sounded the same for 15,000 years and appear in a wide array of language families, not just Indo-European.  Here is the tantalizing opening of the article:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there’s a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.