The paperback reissue last month of David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published prompted Language Log’s Mark Liberman to write an enthusiastic post.
Next Tuesday, David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I’m happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.
I wondered why I hadn’t remembered an equally enthusiastic recommendation when the book appeared a year ago. In the next paragraph, Mark explained,
I began a similarly enthusiastic recommendation back when the book was originally published, in the fall of 2012. As usual for me, I framed the post around some quotations from the text — but every time I made a selection, I recalled an even better section a bit later, or realized that the full impact of the passage that I’d chosen required some background from an earlier chapter. So my post never got posted.
Last summer I taught a course at the LSA Institute in Ann Arbor, and I brought my copy of The Story of Ain’t with me, in the hopes of resolving my dilemma and finally posting a recommendation. One afternoon, my roommate Pieter Muysken happened to pick this book off my desk and sat on the living room couch to skim it.
For the next hour or so, Pieter regaled me with a series of variously commented passages: “Listen to this…”, “Oh, this is funny…”, “This man can write…”, punctuated with bursts of laughter, grunts of appreciation, and dramatic readings of selected sentences, paragraphs, or pages.
My sentiments exactly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!
I did, downloading it after just a moment’s pause. The reason for my pause—and I must say, this is a continuing annoyance with regard to Kindle editions—was the realization that despite the existence of a new epilog, my only option was to download the original version. I have yet to see a Kindleization updated upon the publication of a paperback with new material.
I started the book that day, but it’s been slow going since. I keep getting distracted by various duties, our never-ending remodel, travel plans, and even another book. I hope to get more focused soon.
Here is part of David Skinner description at the book’s website of its origins.
Webster’s Second was puritanical and uncontroversial, created for the living room and the classroom. Its pronunciations represented “formal platform speech,” and its pages contained almost no dirty words. It labored to stay on the right side of schoolmarms and grammarians.
Webster’s Third was scientific in method and, at the same time, surprisingly current on popular culture. It contained almost all the dirty words and among its quotations were such linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane. It had not been designed for either the living room or the classroom. It did not play nice with what Gove called “artifical notions of correctness.” Many people—including a fair number of journalists and literary figures—hated it.
Shortly after Webster’s Third was published, the New York Times called on Merriam to take it back and start over. Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker compared it to the end of civilization. The Editorial Board of the American Scholar didn’t even bother reading it before deputizing Jacques Barzun to denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” Meanwhile, James Parton and the American Heritage Company sought to use the controversy to win a controlling position among Merriam stockholders and take over America’s most venerable dictionary brand.
The Story of Ain’t is about the people who made Webster’s Third and the people who loathed it, and all that was going on in the language and in linguistics in the years leading up to 1961. It is a detective story, but it is also a cultural history with an amazing set of characters. I wrote it in order to understand what led to the controversy and why it remains a singular episode in the history of dictionaries and the history of America culture. And I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to sit back and watch the fireworks of a great intellectual controversy.
I rarely enjoy listening to NPR Morning Edition’s host Steve Inskeep conducting interviews on political issues. More often than not, when I turn on the radio during breakfast and discover him engaged in such activity, I switch to something else. But yesterday I didn’t, and I was rewarded with an astonishing English language construction.
The segment was called Reason For Optimism? Two Sides Talking On Debt Ceiling, and it found Steve talking with NPR’s national political correspondent Mara Liasson about the government shutdown.
Three questions in, Inskeep asks, “What prompted Republicans to change course?” Liasson replies:
They were losing. They were just getting battered politically. And here’s a pretty good example of what was happening to the Republican political position. This is a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. By a 22 point margin the public thinks the Republican Party is more to blame for the shutdown than President Obama. That’s a bigger margin of blame than the Republicans received during the last shutdown in 1995.
The Republican Party is now at record low levels of unpopularity. Only 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. The Democrats aren’t doing much better, but at least they have a 39 percent favorable rating and they’re not dropping like the Republicans. And here’s the other thing. The president’s approval rating actually went up in this poll.
Read the opening of that second paragraph again. Yes, Mara said that the Republican Party is at record low levels of unpopularity.
I thought, oh my gosh, I have to post this. But I delayed. This morning I wrote to Language Log co-founder Mark Liberman to offer the quote as an addition to the mis-negation files that he maintains. Tonight, I sat down to write my post, only to discover that Mark was already on the case.
[Illustration taken from an article by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph*]
There’s not much to this post. Just a one-sentence quote from a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books written by Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff. But I’m going to take some time getting to the sentence, in order to provide context. The context comes in two strands.
1. The first strand is not germane to the point of this post, but it seems only fair that I explain what Rogoff’s letter is about. Rogoff and his Harvard colleague Carmen Reinhart wrote a 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, that became immensely influential as a source for those arguing in favor of economic austerity policies. Last April, three University of Massachusetts economists published a paper showing that the Reinhart-Rogoff paper had errors in its data and analysis. Controversy ensued.
Which brings us to the New York Review, on whose pages Rogoff has continued the debate, noting that Krugman has used a review of a book by other writers to continue “his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart.” Krugman responds that
Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart seem to have misunderstood the nature of this discussion. I have never attacked them as individuals, and have often praised their earlier work. However, their claim that severe negative consequences follow when public debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP has had an enormous, malign impact on policy discussion. It doesn’t matter whether they themselves are policy hard-liners; the alleged result was out there—and despite important questions raised about their claims from the beginning, they did nothing, as far as anyone can tell, to dissuade others from citing their work on behalf of harsh austerity policies. I’m sorry if they feel mistreated—but this is about policy, not about personal feelings, theirs or mine.
2. The second strand is the persistence of the rule not to split infinitives in English writing. The nonsensical nature of this rule has been well treated over the years in a sequence of articles by Geoff Pullum at Language Log and Lingua Franca. See, for instance, this and this and this from last June and this from a year ago.
Here is the opening paragraph from the first of the linked Pullum articles:
I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by “splitting an infinitive” (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.
Now to the point of this post, which is to offer another stunning example of the damage done when a writer insists on not splitting an infinitive. The writer is Kenneth Rogoff, the example coming from his New York Review letter. I have already quoted a fragment from the opening paragraph. Here is the paragraph in full.
In his review of books by Mark Blyth, Neil Irwin, and David A. Stockman, New York Times columnist Professor Paul Krugman continues his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart. Never mind that only one of the three books even mentions us. This is no obstacle to Krugman’s relentless campaign narrowly to circumscribe and grossly to misrepresent our research and its influence. His goal seems to be to paint us as extremists whose work is only referred to by conservatives. In reality, our long-standing position has been as centrists in the economic policy debate.
Narrowly to circumscribe. Grossly to misrepresent. How dare he!
The summer of limited blogging continues. Between work, remodel, and social events, I see little room for improvement. Prior to the past week, we’d been to four weddings in a two-week period, plus a sixtieth birthday party. This week brought a retirement party and a wedding tripleheader: rehearsal dinner Friday, wedding Saturday, post-wedding brunch Sunday (today). All of which was wonderful, but not conducive to blogging.
The bride is the daughter of good friends, and the officiant was Gail, which put us in the middle of the action. Gail anyway. Me, not so much, though I did get to observe, and to meet a lot of fascinating people on the groom’s side whom I may not see much of again. But for three days they were constant companions.
There’s the groom’s aunt from Fort Worth, and her husband, who runs the business side of a large university down that way, which means—when we found ourselves sitting side by side at the wedding reception last night—that we ended up having a lot in common. Especially beef, as it turned out. They’ve given it up mostly, in favor of fish, chicken, and a healthier diet. But they talked about ribeye steaks and barbecue in the most enticing of ways. I had previously wished to visit Fort Worth in order to see the Amon Carter Museum. Now I want to drop by their place for the ribeyes, the barbecue, and steak fajitas.
Also for a piece of golf history, as the uncle took golf lessons in his youth from the famed golf pro atColonial and lived near Shady Oaks, where Ben Hogan ate lunch and played golf for decades. Plus, the aunt’s storytelling. She’s quite the monologuist. At the rehearsal dinner the night before, she gave such detailed descriptions of Fort Worth summers that I was sweltering.
I could continue running through all the people we met and what I learned from them, but maybe I shouldn’t. There is of course the bride’s aunt, whom we’ve met before, and uncle, whom I talked with last night (as I did last September) about their vineyard. It turns out that tomorrow is the day that Quilceda Creek Vintners up in Snohomish makes their latest releases available online for purchase, so I especially enjoyed getting his insight into them and Washington wineries in general. Plus—small world and all that—today I talked shop with their daughter the math grad student and her boyfriend the fellow math grad student. I don’t see mathematicians at too many weddings. Well, except weddings of mathematicians.
Speaking of small worlds and coincidences, we got to talking with the groom’s father towards the end of the rehearsal dinner at his home Friday. Well into the conversation, when he asked about our kids, it emerged that the groom and Joel were born the same day, a couple of hours—and a few states—apart. They even went to the same school, but not at the same time, the groom leaving before Joel arrived for middle school.
This is where the homophone pair enters. Dinner consisted of an orzo salad that the father’s wife later told us is from The Herbfarm Cookbook, a fruit salad, some other things I’m forgetting, and excellent salmon cooked over a large grill. The bride’s father had mentioned earlier that he had been out fishing with the groom and his father the day before, but caught nothing. Now we learned from the groom’s father that he and his son had in fact caught the salmon we ate earlier.
I imagined them in a powerboat, but as the father began to describe the outing, he said they they “rowed out.” I had to change my image from powerboat to tiny rowboat, with father, son, and bride’s father squeezed in. Next he said “in the car.” They “rowed out in the car.” Huh? Not powerboat or rowboat but car? This image didn’t work. Something was wrong.
Time to re-parse. Ah, they “rode out in the car.” That’s it. They weren’t in the water yet, they were on their way. That made more sense.
I found my confusion sufficiently interesting that after the father finished his story, I shared my confusion with him, Gail, and the bride’s mother. Now I’m sharing it with you. I may as well get one post out of this weekend.
The wedding? It was beautiful. But that’s another story.
I’m thinking of changing the name of the blog, thanks to AT&T.
I received a letter in today’s mail from the Vice President and General Manager of AT&T in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska with news of improvements to the wireless experience. They’ve been building and growing their 4G LTE Network (which I use for the internet connection on my iPhone). They’re developing sustainable business practices, promoting education, upholding human rights. (Hmm. Does that include not handing over my cell phone data to the NSA?)
And then Mike began the concluding paragraph with unexpected intimacy.
In all, I truly appreciate you being our customer, Ronald S.
How did he know that that’s what my closest friends call me? Now that the word is out, I may as well adopt the moniker for the blog.
I would infer that the algorithm used for this line in the letter is to take my account name—which is used in the postal address at the top and in the salutation—and truncate the last name. Thus, when the time comes for intimacy, Bobby Joe Smith would be addressed as Bobby Joe, and Leigh Anne Jones as Leigh Anne. You wouldn’t want to err by calling Bobby Joe just plain old Bobby, or Leigh Anne just Leigh.
Perhaps AT&T should revise the algorithm to drop penultimate names that are one character long. That would save some tone-deaf intimacies. Better yet, of course, would be to omit the phony intimacy altogether.
What do you think, Mike?
[Tom Tomorrow, May 6, 2013]
Among the many victims of our War on Terror, now in its second decade, is the word “terror” itself. Terror has come to refer to what Muslims do to non-Muslims, or to Christians, or to Americans. With bombs. A white supremacist kills six Sikhs in Wisconsin with a gun? He’s crazy. An anti-abortion fanatic kills a doctor while the doctor is attending church? He’s a man of conscience. But if a Muslim shoots people, or more likely, explodes a bomb, then he’s a terrorist. Bomb + Mulsim = terror; gun + Christian = freedom. I know, I’m simplifying. But it’s how these events get covered, and how too many politicians speak of them.
Which brings me to Hamilton Nolan’s article Terrorism and the Public Imagination today at Gawker. (Hat tip: Glenn Greenwald.) It’s worth checking out. I’ll quote from it below.
In America, all villainy is not created equal.
A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten.
Besides countless deaths abroad and a staggering debt at home, the primary legacy of America's "War on Terror" is our profoundly warped sense of the dangers of the world we live in, and of who our "enemies" are. As a rule, the rare violence committed by Muslims, with some political or religious motivation, is "terrorism," and deserving of the attention of the public and of our stern-faced leaders. The far more common and destructive acts of violence committed every single day on the streets of America due to poverty and the drug war and lack of education and simple human viciousness are "street violence," which is treated as some timeless aspect of the human condition. This violence, which kills many more Americans each year than any Muslim terrorist could dream of, is unworthy of our brain space.
This modern age of Terror That Matters vs. forgettable violence is not simply a matter of ratings. It is a direct outgrowth of a deliberate post-9/11 political strategy to create a world in which the vague specter of “Terrorism” could fill the role of The Big Bad “Other” that had been empty since the end of the Cold War. That strategy was wildly successful. It helped to cow the nation’s news media enough to pave the way for the war in Iraq. It made patriotism synonymous with suspicion. And it persists today, in our reflexes that cause us to instinctively and unquestioningly expect an act of violence inspired by Muslim zealotry to mean something more than an act of violence inspired by any other cause.
[Gene Puskar/Associated Press]
It’s been a while since I’ve written about college hockey. I’ve explained before that I used to be a big fan. That happens when your older brother goes to school at one of the great hockey powers out west (which wins the NCAA title his junior and senior years), and then you head to school at one of Boston’s four great hockey powers—ranked #1 frequently during your time there—only to watch another of the Boston powers win two titles in a row, with the championship games played in Boston three consecutive years.
Starting sophomore year, I never missed a home game or a game in that best of all Boston sporting traditions, the annual midseason Beanpot tournament. Boston schools continue to dominate, BC having won three championships in the five years prior to this one and BU another. Harvard, though, has fallen on hard times, with former doormat Yale becoming the best Ivy team of late.
Well, none of this is germane to the point of this silly post, which I’ll soon get to.
In recent years, I haven’t followed college hockey so closely. There was a bit of a revival of interest when Joel attended one of Boston’s big four schools. I followed their hockey fortunes more closely than he did. And at the same time, a good friend of mine became president of a new hockey power, Miami University in Ohio, which lost the championship game way too painfully four years ago after leading BU 3-1 with just under a minute left.
So I keep up. A little. Enough to have learned that the NCAA tournament has come to be run in two parts. Sixteen teams are selected. On the same weekend that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments reach their sweet sixteen and elite eight stages, hockey’s first two rounds are played, producing the four teams that go to the Frozen Four. (Get it? Frozen Four, not Final Four?)
Then something incredibly annoying happens. The four finalists are in top shape and eager to go at it. But the next weekend, what does the NCAA do? Okay, get ready. This post is not about hockey. It’s about a pun, one I used in explaining the situation to Gail two weekends ago, when basketball was on but not hockey. Here’s what happens:
The NCAA puts their hockey tournament on ice!
Yes, they put it on ice! Instead of letting hockey get lost amid the basketball, they postpone the Frozen Four a week, as if delaying will focus more attention on the hockey games. I just don’t get it.
But how about that pun? I was proud of it, as you can see, proud enough to devote an entire post to it.
As for this year’s tournament, the championship game was played two days ago, Yale playing another hockey upstart, Qunnipiac. (Imagine that! Suddenly Boston isn’t the epicenter of college hockey. Greater New Haven is, with two schools just six miles apart, though much farther apart in their histories.) Quinnipiac was ranked #1 in the country and had beaten Yale three times already this season. Through almost two periods, the game was scoreless. With seconds to go in the second period, Yale scored, adding three more goals in the third to shock Quinnipiac 4-0. Yale, national champions of hockey. I never would have expected the day to come.
[AP Photo/Seth Perlman]
Last week, that is. I’m a little late with this. And on uncertain ground with regard to the facts. Nonetheless, when I read the NYT article a week ago on State of Illinois pension woes, I was struck by Governor Quinn’s use of the phrase “pension reform,” suspecting immediately that “reform” is a polite word for “cuts”.
Are cuts necessary? Again, I’m no expert on this. Clearly the state has made a mess of things. A huge mess. From Mary Williams Walsh’s NYT article:
For the second time in history, federal regulators have accused an American state of securities fraud, finding that Illinois misled investors about the condition of its public pension system from 2005 to 2009.
In announcing a settlement with the state on Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Illinois of claiming that it had been properly funding public workers’ retirement plans when it had not. In particular, it cited the period from 2005 to 2009, when Illinois also issued $2.2 billion in bonds.
The growing hole in the state pension system put increasing pressure on Illinois’ own finances during that time, raising the risk that at some point the state would not be able to pay for everything, and retirees and bond buyers would be competing for the same limited money. The risk grew greater every year, the S.E.C. said, but investors could not see it by looking at Illinois’ disclosures.
The charges put the state’s pension system, generally thought to be the weakest of any state, back in the national spotlight. In his budget address last week, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, issued a clear warning that the system had to be fixed.
“Without pension reform, within two years, Illinois will be spending more on public pensions than on education,” said Mr. Quinn. “As I said to you a year ago, our state cannot continue on this path.”
By 2003, the state was so far behind that it issued $10 billion of bonds and put the proceeds into its pension funds to make them look flush. The main underwriter of those bonds, Bear Stearns, was later found to have made an improper payment to win the business, figuring in the corruption trial of a former governor, Rod R. Blagojevich.
In 2005, the state passed another law, giving itself a holiday from making even the inadequate annual pension contributions called for by its 1994 schedule. It said it would offset the missing money with bigger contributions from 2008 to 2010, but then did not do so. By 2010, the reported shortfall of the pension system was $57 billion, and senior officials were warning that the system was at risk of breaking down completely.
I just wonder if ultimately reform means that employees who have paid into the pension system are destined to receive less than they contracted for. That’s certainly what right-wing Americans for Prosperity has in mind. In his article Fix Illinois Pensions Now, state director Joe Calomino argues:
Generous pension benefits that the State cannot afford are at the root of this problem. While the state took a step in the right direction last year by reforming benefits for NEW government workers, CURRENT government workers continue to participate in the State’s traditional and costly plans.
They can retire at age 55 or 60 and receive generous cost-of-living adjustments each year. These lifetime benefits can be worth more than $1 MILLION for a full-career employee who retires at 55 or 60. They are completely out-of-line with the benefits offered to taxpayers working in the private sector. Yet the 95% of Illinois taxpayers who do not receive such generous benefits will pay higher taxes to pay for the 5% of State residents who do.
Short of the facts though I am, I can at least say that when cutting contractually promised benefits to current employees is called reform, language is being abused.
I know, it’s those lazy, overpaid, underworked state employees who are the problem. They deserve to have their generous benefits cut! As a state employee myself, albeit in another state, I am not a fan of public sector employee bashing. And I can tell you, the two retired friends of mine who devoted their careers to Illinois and its residents could have made far more money in the private sector, but chose instead to do good for the state. It’s a mystery to me what they’ve done to deserve benefit cuts.
Anyway, the pension issues need to be addressed, and maybe Governor Quinn is on the right track. I just object to the changes being labeled “reform.”
It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.
The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.
The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.
A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.
By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.
I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.
Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:
Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.
One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.
I can’t resist posting Tom Tomorrow’s new cartoon (above) at Daily Kos as a follow up to my post last night on Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern a week ago. In my post, I quoted from Scott Horton’s analysis of the speech , including comments on Holder’s use of the word ‘assassination’. Since assassinations are illegal, and the whole point of Holder’s speech was to explain why US actions are legal, he took care to point out that when the US assassinates people, we call it something else.
Haven’t we been through this before, with a president who explained that since torture is illegal and what the US does is legal, it therefore follows that when we torture people, we call it something else? And didn’t Obama and Holder object to this behavior?