Friday, December 2, 2016

Tolerance is Something I Will Not Tolerate

I am always fascinated when the primary connotations of words are missed by tens of millions of people. Tolerance is one such word. As multiculturalism rises in this country, tolerance is celebrated by progressive thinkers as an ideal state of how one human being should regard another. “I attend a church that preaches tolerance,” says one, and “I voted for the candidate who displays tolerance toward others,” says another.

When we tolerate something, we permit its existence, we allow it to live, but we do so begrudgingly, with a sneer. You tolerate your uncle’s alcoholism. You tolerate your dog’s farting. You tolerate your spouse’s gnarly mole. You endure them under the yoke of some perceived moral obligation, but deep inside you loathe them. You revile them. Well, maybe the mole is cute if it is at least hairless, or if not completely hairless, maybe something just shy of it resembling a sea anemone.

Some of these tolerances are so in name only, and are perhaps more accurately described as resentments. You only refer to your willingness not to crush the host of the offending attribute like a bug as tolerance rather than as resentment because it makes you feel a little better about how you feel.

Something tolerated is something disdained. The occasional dead mouse plopped from cat’s jaws onto an oriental rug, the neighbor’s frequently noisy children, the boss’s incessant need for status updates. Why then has tolerance emerged within political discourse at least as the best word to describe the dissolution of all prejudice within a person or an institution?

When we display tolerance toward another religion, we make a promise not to blow up its mosques, churches or synagogues, but we still may disdain them profoundly under the umbrella of tolerance. Mutual tolerance across all of society would seem to promote a seething resentment amongst all peoples, but with a pledge not to slash anyone’s tires.

Acceptance is a far better word. The difference between acceptance and tolerance is the difference between involvement and commitment, which is in turn the difference between the pig’s and the chicken’s relationship to your ham and egg breakfast. It is in part a semantic debate, but only in terms of usage, not word choice. Acceptance is a bit further up the ladder as far as one's regard for another human being, but still, you can accept people you hate. Ideally, let's not hate one another.

That might invoke another word, celebration, but that I think celebration in this context a bit conspicuous. It is contrived political correctness at that point I think, so I'll stick with acceptance over the course of my campaign to eradicate tolerance. Down with tolerance! In closing, if there is one thing I will no longer tolerate, it is misuse of the word ‘tolerance’.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The OED's Word of the Year is "Post-Truth"

The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year is “post-truth.” And it was a perfect choice. Post-truth refers to a political and social environment that exists not uniquely but preponderantly in the United States in which the truth is a moving target, with opponents in argument each seeming to have a separate set of facts to argue from. What’s more, persons predisposed to one side of an argument are generally comfortable with the set of facts that support their existing view of the issue and are likewise suspect of the facts that support the side they oppose. Post-truth is a sausage skin, a thin membrane of lexigraphy that holds together a great load of noxious material and manages to make it seem less horrible than it is. It is an antiseptic and prophylactic term in that way, reductive to the danger point, but it is indeed efficient, and despite good, solid information never having been more at the ready, it succinctly describes the alphabet soup of specious nonsense the fair debater is up against in a post-truth America.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Is Trump Saying Bigly or Big League?

When it comes to assaults on language, Donald Trump is Genghis Khan, and the latest killing field in his syntactical warfare is the quasi-word, bigly. Or is he saying, big league? That debate is raging and you can machete through a thicket of opinions with a quick search.

The resting state for this particular Trumpism appears to be that he is saying big league, but cannot quite eek out that last glottal stop. I wonder how he plans to pronounce blitzkrieg.

A People Magazine reporter in good stead with the Trump machine recently assured one and all that he was indeed saying big league, that clarification having been emailed from the campaign to the reporter in the middle of the debate after its usage there. Trump used to say the same thing about a year ago and the same questions came up then, and the campaign likewise insisted that he was saying big league, and not an imagined adverbial form of big. The line from the Trump campaign has been steady on this.

Bigly is not a word. It has a history as a word, but it is a word no longer. Its turn of the twentieth century usage meant boastfully or with great haughtiness. While accurate with Trump in most cases, it had a distinctly negative connotation when it found its way into novels by Ford, Forster and Hardy, and Trump would never knowingly refer to himself in those terms. No writer in English uses it now, and while word coining is certainly not off-limits (Shakespeare was prolific in this regard), we should probably not be looking here for leadership in language modification.

To me, it sounds like Trump is saying bigly most of the time. Here’s what I think happened: last year, he initially said bigly, thinking it was a real word and was called out on it by press. He found a way to double down with a “clean out your ears, stupid,” stance on the issue, and now partially swallows his “g” whenever he says it, exactly halfway between the phrase and the quasi-word.

We are safe as far as bigly becoming a part of the language, as popular culture utterances of various kinds sometimes do. I predict that this officially abjured piece of Trump misspeak will not be followed into the dark by enough American writers for the word bigly to become minted. The way words work their way into usage is through repeated use, traditionally through newspapers, though more recently web, radio and television, and as soon as Trump is done, this word will be done as well.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The beginnings, definition and political usage of the word, "bellwether."

I was up late writing when my brain stopped working before the rest of me and I paused at the word, “whether,” momentarily stumped as to whether it contained one or two of the letter “h.” Brain quickly restarted and I typed both letters, brain even earning extra credit for then saying, “Wether without a second “h” is a castrated ram.”

Which brings us to today’s word, bellwether, which means trendsetter, or an indicator of things to come - a portentous individual or event. It derives from an old English usage that described the lead sheep of a herd, usually a castrated ram with a bell around its neck.

In political pundit-speak, “bellwether” is often used to describe a smaller region that in microcosm reflects the sentiments of a larger electorate. Comparing statewide results with the national average typically identifies a bellwether state, the leader of which across the last American century is Ohio, with scarcely a two percent variance on average relative to how the nation goes.

That leading political indicators can be described by a term derived from sheep and impotence ought not be a surprise I suppose, and it isn’t. It is simply another of the endless delights to be found in the English language.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Donald Trump's Use of the Word "Cyber" is Maddening

It is easy to make merry with Donald Trump’s grammar and elocution, his bizarre and byzantine flow, but for the most part I try not to go to that well too often, as deep as it may be. He broke out an old chestnut in tonight’s debate that has long been a bur in my saddle though, so I thought I’d outline it.

Trump’s understanding of the word, cyber is utterly fractured. In its purest usage, it’s not really a word. It is part of the word, cybernetics, which was coined in 1948 by a US mathematician to describe his study of devices that performed tasks at the behest of human beings. It derives from a Greek metaphor for navigation.

For a long time it was strictly a prefix for words, and a popular one at that. Cyberpunk, cyberspace and cybersex are just a few of the favorites, but more than one hundred words were coined in the 1990s that used cyber as a prefix, usually invoking computers interfacing with human realities. Somewhere along the way, cyber indeed became its own word, but it is always used as an adjective, and even subsequent to its newfound independence as a word on its own, it is almost always used in conjunction with another word. 

In any case, there is no such noun as cyber, as it by itself does not complete any kind of a thought. In its inception, cybernetics, cyber served as an adjectival prefix and in its solitary use, it may only be used as an adjective.

But Trump bloviates that we need to “get better at cyber,” and that "the Chinese are killing us in cyber." An impossible task. We can no more get better at cyber than the Chinese can kill us at it. We can develop newer, more sophisticated weapons of cyberwarfare. We can get better at defending against cyberterrorism. But we cannot get better at cyber. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is the Difference Between Fall and Autumn?

Trick question. There is no difference, but here's how the dual terminology came to be. The season that describes the transition from summer to winter was known as harvest for many years before autumn came into being. The usage horse race between harvest and autumn started in the 14th century with autumn’s first publication, and harvest and autumn would duke it out for centuries. Then along came fall in the 17th century, almost certainly a yin to the yang of the word spring, which had at that time just recently established its lexical dominance in describing the transition of winter to summer. Beginning in the 17th century then, a three-way war for prominence between harvest, fall and autumn began and by the 18th century, the urban class’s resentment of the agrarian term harvest (and other factors) contributed to its declining usage. So began the rise of fall and autumn, whose Hatfield/McCoy feud rages on to this day. By the numbers, fall is preferred about two to one. So what is the real difference now? Autumn is a little snootier. I prefer autumn.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reveille / Revelry Confusion

This is a remedial piece to clear up an item that apparently remains an occasional usage gadfly to some. I am a trumpet player and recently attended a music festival with lots of after-hours ensemble playing. Most of the instruments are strings, so the trumpet is an oddity in that environment, and on more than two occasions over the course of the week, I was asked if I planned to play “Revelry” (sic) the following morning.

What they were aiming for is of course “Reveille” (pronounced re-və-lē), an abrupt, piercing bugle melody used to awaken soldiers. Every soldier learns quickly that the bugler’s morning call is not to be ignored, and so the little ditty is associated with sudden and hurried waking under pain of ferocious discipline. Nobody likes that song.

On the other hand, in the mood of its sense at least, the word “revelry” is the precise opposite of “Reveille.” Revelry is high-spirited ebullience up to and including marching bands, fireworks and pom-poms, whereas “Reveille” wakes soldiers routinely on days that will see their deaths.

The word, “Reveille” is derived from “reveillez,” French for “Wake up!” and the composition “Reveille” reflects that brash imperative. It is harsh, it is unapologetic, and it conveys its disinterest in your opinion from the V to the I to the III and tumbling back down again in a vicious arpeggio that is then repeated.

And if that weren’t enough, it then moves its tonal center further upward and continues to peck away at a sleeping soldier’s mind whose overnight replenishment remains cruelly incomplete. It finishes its sadistic labors by repeating the first figure yet again and typically, the entire melody gets played again, even three times, just so no excuses can be made.

Revelry is what happens when the war is over. “Reveille” is what happens while you’re still fighting one.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Just Sayin'" is Just Awful

My least favorite phrase in current pop parlance is “just sayin’.” Oh, okay. Is that all you’re doing? Just saying? Not thinking or meaning? Just saying? Got it.

 The phrase’s most common invocation is when its author has run into the butt end of his own argument and cannot complete his own thought. “If you allow gay marriage you might as well allow polygamy, incest and bestiality you know, just sayin’…” It is lazy, surrendering language that lets the listener know the speaker doesn’t care what he himself thinks and it is therefore unlikely he cares what the listener thinks.

Just sayin’ has insinuated itself into daily speech as well as Internet communication, more in Facebook posts than in Twitter Tweets, as when properly punctuated, “just sayin’” eats up 11 precious characters, though I’m sure the apostrophe is optional and an even more austere abbreviation is somewhere in the Twitter ether.

My initial strategy in ridding the American conversation of this conversational cheap shot was to carry a knife everywhere I go and when someone says, “Just sayin’,” to stab them repeatedly in the chest. Then as the blood is flying around the room and the life is ebbing away from the eyes of the offender, when he says, “Why are you stabbing me?” I say, “Just stabbin’. No big, just stabbin’.” I haven’t actually done it because that would be extreme.

As a humble student of the adjoined crafts of good writing and speaking, the implications of “just sayin’” are offensive to me.  The chief attribute that distinguishes man from animals is language. Only man among all living things can write poetry, codify society through law and express emotion in exacting detail with words. “Just sayin’” cedes the one thing about humans that make them more compelling than a really good cat.

The word “just” is a reductive qualifier in the phrase “just sayin’,” one that impugns human expression through its most capable tool, language. It is a placeholder for “only” or “merely,” or a number of other self-prostrating adverbs, but with more cowardly and apologetic undertones than any of them. To apologize for expressing an opinion in the same sentence that expresses it indicates that perhaps the opinion should be kept to oneself in the first place, or at least until it takes shape more clearly.

“Just sayin’” is a passive-aggressive linguistic back door through which people can slink when their own self-loathing is too great for them to back up their own statements. It is also sometimes used to deflect blame for any hurt the speaker has caused the listener. “Just sayin’” is the less responsible cousin of “no offense, but...” though what it has morphed into has lost all of the initial scant bravura of its origins.

Had the English language’s greatest orators fallen prey to its coddling allure, would we still feel the same way about the immortal words of Doctor Martin Luther King? “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. Just sayin’.” Or Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just sayin’.” Or William Wallace: “And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom! Just sayin’!!!"

Imagine yourself on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, and the one man who can corroborate your alibi takes the stand. The clerk has him put his right hand on the Bible and says, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” You do not want the man to respond with “Just sayin’.”

The speaker of this flaccid phrase “just sayin’” is in my mind’s eye as I write, blushing, his eyes cast downward, kicking the side of one shoe with the toe of the other, hands clasped behind the back and deep down believing that he is a worthless pile of crocodile crap whose frail and puny observations are so trite, paraphrased, and redundant to even the most rudimentary levels of conventional wisdom that they barely deserve consideration.

I do not mean to present myself as some kind of pinched-nose school marm with John Lennon glasses and a face like a rumpled Kleenex, sneering over a book report and ready to break a child’s knuckles with a ruler over a dangling preposition or split infinitive. Though in truth, I am one. In this essay I am focusing on popular usage of a particular phrase whose continued use effects a slow and insidious nullification of all that I hold dear.

But please, feel free to continue to use “just sayin’.” The primary reason it awakens within the deepest reaches of my soul a hundred flocks of bloody-eyed demons that feed upon the hopeful hearts of young girls and drink the tears of infants is that I one day found it to be among my own arsenal of verbal ticks. It is in a song I wrote. I had said it easily ten times before I realized the stultifying anti-intellectualism I was implicitly condoning with each utterance.

The last time I said it is a moment I will never forget. I can see it so clearly, like it was yesterday. I was with friends, my book club was meeting outside and the sun was shining. It was a Tuesday, definitely a Tuesday. I was taking the devil’s advocacy position in a discussion of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in arguing that the gulls that participated in society were happier than Jonathan, and that’s when I said it. Following a particularly ineloquent and half-hearted expostulation of the case for conformity, I said, “Just sayin’.”

The words tasted like tainted oysters sliding off of my tongue and they hung in the air in front of my book club alongside a stupid grin and maybe even a shoulder shrug, obliterating any chance I may have had for inspiring lit-worship from the rest of the class. I’m not sure about the shoulder shrug. I have tried to block out as many details as I can.

To those few “just sayin’” users and enthusiasts who have continued to read this far, please understand that I am among the guilty. I am one of you, but I have learned, and you can too. For the love of all that is holy, at least think about it. Before you say “just sayin’,” before you blurt it out for the whole world to hear, ask yourself if that is the best way you can express how you feel and what you mean. Then if you still want to say “just sayin’,” go right ahead. Hopefully no one within earshot will be “just stabbin’.”