Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

June 4 2016 5:59 PM

“I Done Handcuffed Lightning”: The Exuberant Spoken-Word Poetry of Muhammad Ali    

Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at 74, inspired glorious prose from a murderer’s row of marquee writers: Norman Mailer, Robert Lipsyte, and David Remnick, not to mention a generation of hip-hop artists. “He had been a splendidly plumed bird who wrote on the wind a singular kind of poetry of the body,” rhapsodized sports journalist Mark Kram in 1975. In 2006, ad guru George Lois gathered the mantling colors of the fighter’s verbal ephemera into Ali Rap, a book in which he proclaimed the boxer “the first heavyweight champion of rap.” Who could argue? With quicksilver rhyming dexterity and the braggadocio of a Homeric hero, Ali spoke the language of Compton long before Kendrick Lamar resurrected his floating butterfly as a symbol of black creative expression.

Boxing and talking were Ali’s one-two punch. About six months before his career skyrocketed with a world championship title—and before he converted to Islam and dropped his “slave name” Cassius Clay—he released an album of spoken word poetry, 1963’s I Am the Greatest. (His co-composer was the humorist Gary Belkin.) Featuring couplets like “Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,/ I’ll hit him so hard, he’ll wonder where October and November went,” the record showcased Ali’s wit, whimsy, and irrepressible ego. The poet Marianne Moore penned the liner notes, observing, delightfully: “He fights and he writes. Is there something I have missed? He is a smiling pugilist.”

June 2 2016 3:28 PM

(((The Jewish Cowbell))): Unpacking a Gross New Meme From the Alt-Right

From every internet niche comes a native shorthand, so we should not be surprised that includes putrescent swampy niches from the putrescent swamps of Twitter. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman shared his war story in the paper: 

The first tweet arrived as cryptic code, a signal to the army of the “alt-right” that I barely knew existed: “Hello ((Weisman)).” @CyberTrump was responding to my recent tweet of an essay by Robert Kagan on the emergence of fascism in the United States.
“Care to explain?” I answered, intuiting that my last name in brackets denoted my Jewish faith.
“What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha!” CyberTrump came back. “It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim.”

Truly though ((those brackets)) are not ultrasonically subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle and not heroic enough to conjure Aesop’s image of belling the cat. Let’s call the construction the Jewish cowbell. The cowbell is a series of parentheses, anywhere from one to three, around the name of a Jewish person, to signal Jewishness. It proliferates in the dank margins of online conservative discourse, where anti-Semitism glows like a weird mold; tweets exhort Jews to follow trails of dollar bills into ovens and warn readers, via photographs of goose-stepping Nazis, not to “piss off the white boys.”

June 2 2016 1:59 PM

Lovingly, Stridently, Unapologetically

Who will be the Lorax for the adverb, that most-maligned part of speech? Who will speak on the adverb’s behalf? For once again, it would seem, it is under attack. Christian Lorentzen’s New York magazine piece, “Could We Just Lose Adverbs (Already)” is not quite the diatribe its title (parenthetically) promises: Lorentzen is more nuanced and reflective than to call for an outright ban, and by essay’s end, he has arrived at reluctant acceptance. But even then, Lorentzen maintains “their power is best spent in small doses”; he expounds on ways to prune adverbs and other “needless” words from one’s writing. It reminded me once again that we desperately lack a full-throated defense of this runt of the grammatical litter. We need an outright celebration of adverbs, and it is that celebration that I offer—stridently, boisterously, unapologetically.

The hatred of adverbs amongst writers, and specifically teachers of creative writing, has become so commonplace, so unquestioned, and so unthinking, that it ranks only with “show don’t tell” as the most ubiquitous cliché in writing advice. One finds it everywhere. When Lorentzen comments that an “excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives,” he’s only parroting the same advice writers have been doling out for years. One finds it throughout William Zinsser’s oft-taught On Writing Well (first published in 1976), which advises that “the secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.* Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser here basically follows his forebears, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, whose The Elements of Style (published first by Strunk in 1918; expanded in 1959 by White) loudly proclaims: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” The word adverb doesn’t cross the page, but Lorentzen is correct that “they’re talking about adverbs without their having to say it.”

June 1 2016 11:21 AM

The Hollywood Studio Proudly Named for an Arabic Swear Word

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

This is the story of a bygone Hollywood recording studio whose name was an acronym for a sweary Arabic-Yiddish (and also maybe Turkish) epithet. I learned about it in a comment on a blog post about a Korean-English translator.

Needless to say, I love the internet.

May 31 2016 11:55 AM

Why You Shouldn’t Use This Ambiguous, if Not Wholly Befuddling, Construction

I predict that people commenting on this article will be dismissive, if not hostile.

What do I mean by that? Am I predicting that commenters will be dismissive, and possibly even hostile? Or am I predicting that commenters will be dismissive, but not to the point of being hostile?

May 30 2016 9:04 AM

Meet Themself, Our Next Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

The singular they is gaining acceptance as a resourceful solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. But it’s not settling in without controversy. What’ll be next? critics fear. Themself? As in, Jo went to see the movie all by themself?

Actually, yes. We should be falling all over ourselves—or, if you’re a monarch, ourself. Got a problem with themself? You should take it up with Her Majesty.

Like singular they, the royal we, in which a sovereign refers to themself with  plural pronouns, takes a curious reflexive form. Ourself, joins a plural our with a singular self. While unusual, ourself is all over Shakespeare. Take Macbeth: “The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself/ Till supper-time alone.” Richard II shows us the pronoun’s intensive form: “We will ourself in person to this war.” Even the heroic and eloquent Henry V employs it: “It was ourself thou did abuse.”

May 26 2016 3:48 PM

The Fascinating Lexicography of a Dirty Adjective

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

Sometime in the 20th century, shit—having already long been a verb and then a noun—also became an adjective, as in He was a shit teacher or That restaurant has shit service. Exactly when this happened is a bit tricky to pin down, precisely because of the word’s versatility. In many contexts, the shit you think is an adjective might actually be a noun.

There’s a common misconception that putting one noun in front of another noun turns the first into an adjective:

May 25 2016 9:00 AM

Dear Journalists: For the Love of God, Please Stop Calling Your Writing Content    

The word content is creeping into journalism, which scares the hell out of me.

You see it in the job listings. Politico is hiring a reporter who will “deliver the kind of content our subscribers have come to expect.” Time Inc. is recruiting not only for a “digital content enthusiast” to serve as an associate editor at Fortune but also for a breaking news reporter at Time.com who will produce “video, mobile and social content”—both of which, as if to hammer the phenomenon home, are listed on the company’s careers page under a category simply called “content,” which when I last checked listed a whopping 75 positions.

It’s a trend that should make anyone who cares about journalism uneasy. “Content” is a vague, cynical word—a lazy catchall for the full spectrum of stuff ClickHole satirizes, from simpering listicles to hot takes to quizzes that, per the Awl, “are almost comically transparent in their desire to turn you into a marketable commodity.”

The common denominator, as far as I can tell, is that content is created by the lowest bidder, in the highest volume and to the lowest standard that’ll still attract eyeballs on Facebook. That doesn’t mean it’s all terrible, I suppose—the success of BuzzFeed and Upworthy is a testament to its apparent appeal—but, for the most part, units of content are fundamentally interchangeable, like off-brand Oreos. In a glum 2009 feature, a Wired writer asked a videographer who had shot an astonishing 40,000 videos for the pioneering content mill Demand Media whether any particular project he’d done for the company stood out as a favorite. The videographer demurred; “I can’t really remember most of them,” he said.

May 24 2016 12:26 PM

Cheesy, Syrupy, Corny: Why Do We Describe Art We Dislike as if It Tastes Bad?

So much negative aesthetic criticism appears to take place in the kitchen. Saccharine and corny, schmaltzy and sour. Hammy, cheesy, vanilla. Applied synesthetically, visual and sonic descriptors often exalt creative work: A singer’s voice is shimmering, a film sequence is jazzy. But with a few exceptions—spicy erotica, bittersweet finales—we know exactly how to telegraph our disdain for (or grudging pleasure in) bad art. We compare it to bad food.

The food is bad in the way that the art is bad. It’s not so much disagreeable as unhealthy, even unvirtuous. Fluorescent with goopy cheese, oozing easy sentiment, it clogs our arteries and blunts our intellects. In his lyric Cattivo Tempo, Auden introduces an anti-poetic rascal named Nibbar, who whispers, in the writing room, of “the nearly fine, the almost true.” This scoundrel has “grown insolent and fat/ on cheesy literature/ and corny dramas.” He figures forth the dissipation he brings. He’s gobbled up his own bad aesthetics and battened on them.

Even in praise, a clear division exists. Between delicious and dazzling, guess which adjective is more likely to tag the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and which the guilty pleasure. The discerning eye perceives prose that glistens or shines or is luminous. The expert ear notices musical phrasing and a clarity of voice. But a scrumptious tell-all, a yummy story—leave that to your wife’s book club. Given five good senses, why do we turn to taste to communicate distaste?

May 23 2016 1:25 PM

Sometimes, Reporters ​Should Clean Up Ungrammatical Quotes

A few weeks ago, sports writer Brian T. Smith wrote a column for the Houston Chronicle about an outfielder for the Astros, Carlos Gómez, who has gotten off to a slow start this season. Smith interviewed the Dominican-born Gómez and quoted him exactly, relaying his words as follows: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

The quote stood out, because sports writers don’t usually transcribe so precisely the words of players for whom English is their second language. Usually, sports writers clean those quotes up. (Even Breitbart has rendered Go-Go’s speech with correct, if informal, grammar.) Critics, including Gómez himself, took Smith to task for seeming to mock the athlete’s incorrect English. Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes apologized, citing “less than adequate” AP guidelines on quoting news sources who did not grow up speaking George Washington’s tongue. On Deadspin, Tom Ley suggested that Gomez “has a right to be annoyed” that a reporter “went off and made him look dumb by not extending him a courtesy that most people quoted by reporters get”: that of subtly tweaked sentences.

Not everyone agrees. Over at ESPN’s brand-new site the Undefeated, J.A. Adande used the incident to inveigh against the cleaning up of quotes. “Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?” Adande asked. Doesn’t objectivity demand absolute faithfulness to what a person says, not what he means to say?

But context matters. It’s common practice in journalism for writers quoting sources to remove filler words—like, ah, um—and correct tiny grammatical violations. (Slate’s policy is to handle such issues on a case-by-case basis, but many writers at the magazine I spoke to told me they make such elisions and alterations all the time.) This is done to present information to readers as clearly as possible. It services the idea that we should be focusing on the content of the quote, not the slight infelicities that distinguish spoken from written English. It’s also done because writers scribbling in notebooks are unlikely to recall every twist and turn of a quote, and tend to streamline and standardize sentences in their notes.

So that expectation of unfailing accuracy is already misplaced. But Adande argues further that fixing quotes patronizes sources, implying that their words “are inherently inferior and must be corrected.” Yes, this is a problem when, for instance, white newsrooms insist on doctoring the expressions of black people to make them conform to Standard English—as if Black English were not a legitimate dialect on its own.

But we are not talking here about established vernaculars like AAE. We are talking about the imperfect phrases of a non-native English speaker—phrases that, quoted exactly, read to many readers (including, in this case, the subject himself) as a writer needlessly lampooning a source’s manner of speech. “Reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language,” Adande wrote, referring to Gómez. “Instead of teasing them for their shortcomings, we can applaud them for successfully conveying their thoughts.”

But the role of journalists is neither to tease nor to applaud, but to deliver information as clearly and truthfully as possible. To include a grammatical error in a news story is to hint that such error is somehow significant, rather than something most of us do when we are asked to extemporize aloud. Certainly, there are times when replicating someone’s exact rhetorical tics on paper illumines a deeper truth. But what was Smith illuminating by preserving Gómez’ broken English in an article about his .226 batting average? What cultural heritage was he honoring? What characterological or intellectual traits did he highlight?  

Gomez read the untweaked quote as an unkindness, as many readers did. Gómez was right, and Smith was wrong, and you can quote me on that.