Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

June 25 2015 2:54 PM

Check Out the Trailer for Do I Sound Gay?

What does it mean to “sound gay?” Is there a gay voice? A gay lilt? A gay inflection? We posed these questions on an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast last fall, and now a new documentary from David Thorpe, titled Do I Sound Gay?, takes on the subject more intimately, using the filmmaker's own anxiety over the way he talks as his motivation to get answers. Post-breakup and past 40, Thorpe finds himself loathing the sound of his voice and struggles to reconcile, through interviews with other gay men and speech experts, the tangled mix of language, identity, and sexuality. Check out the trailer:

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June 25 2015 12:31 PM

Is Language Now Meaningless? A Ruling in the Matter of Scalia v. SCOTUScare.



Argued June 25, 2015 – Decided June 25, 2015

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia alleges in his dissent to the ruling on King v. Burwell that “words no longer have meaning.” Scalia claims that language is futile if “an Exchange that is established by the State is not ‘established by the State,’ ” but rather “by the State and Federal Government. That of course is absurd.”

After prolonged deliberation, the Supreme Court of the American Lexicon sees fit to hand down its own ruling as to whether all words have lost their meanings. This court has heard from scientists who have assessed individual phonemes and morphemes for sudden declines in import as well as from nihilists, deconstructionists, and existential philosophers who have urged the court to manufacture meaning out of nothingness. Justices have attempted to communicate with each other across an impressive mahogany table. The extent to which our own various mutterings and bloviatings and grandstandings made any sense at all was fastidiously charted. Finally, the court consulted Justice Scalia’s own glossary of transparently made-up words in an effort to more wisely adumbrate the line between significance and pure fairyland castle argle-bargle.

The Court finds on this twenty-fifth day of June in the year 2015:

-       THAT in light of the precedent established by Ducking v. Autocorrect, 2008, a departure from the realm of specificity determined by the principle of intended meaning does not preclude the more general term meaning from being applicable

-       THAT the feeble argument that definitions of which one disapproves are in fact nonsense is a curious bit of casuistry unworthy of a court of our stature (see Santorum v. Savage, 2003)

-       THAT Justice Scalia’s many vivid and delightful coinages—e.g. “interpretative jiggery-pokery,” “Platonic golf”—presuppose a language capable of generating new and essentially comprehensible elements, relative to the descriptivist provision in Malaprop v. Jones, 1896

-       THAT the preposterous and outlandish interpretation of the Seuss Statute (1957) advanced by the dissenting Justices does not in fact impinge on words’ ability to signify on a boat, in a moat, on a train, or in the rain

-       THAT, indeed, the plaintiff’s claim of linguistic meaningless is, in his own argot, applesauce


-       THAT language itself is alive, well, and aboil with significance notwithstanding the challenge to its powers impertinently posed by the plaintiff. As you were.    

June 24 2015 3:20 PM

Can You Guess the Poem From a Single Line? Take Our Quiz.

O Slate quiz takers! We’ve challenged you to guess the pop song from its first second and the painting from one eye. Now we want to know whether you can deduce the poem from a single line. Sound easy? Not so fast. It turns out that a lot of versifiers like to write about the same things, including love, birds, and art itself. Can you untangle your Levine from your Levertov, your Yeats from your Keats? Take our quiz and find out!

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June 22 2015 11:27 AM

It’s Time to Speak Up About the Overuse of “Speaking Out”

North Carolina florist Deborah Dills was driving to work when she spotted Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman, seemingly fleeing his Charleston, South Carolina, murder scene. She called the cops, then tailed Roof’s car for 35 miles until police caught up with him. Over the weekend, the New York Times posted a video interview with her. Its headline: “Motorist Who Alerted Police Speaks Out.”

Speaks out. The phrase implies something weighty. She isn’t just telling her story, and she isn’t just speaking. She is speaking out. But what does that mean, exactly?

In reviewing other recent Times usages of “speaks out,” it’s hard to tell. The headline when Kanye West objected to yet another award winner: “The Morning After the Grammys, Kanye West Speaks Out Against Beck.” The headline when Martin O’Malley, a presidential candidate who is neither Bush nor Clinton, stood in shocking objection to a potential Bush-Clinton election: “O’Malley Speaks Out Against Possible Dynastic Rematch for White House.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post headlined that O’Malley “speaks out” against a trade deal (and that the mayor of Washington, D.C. “speaks out on pot, dating and what makes her angry.”) Entertainment Weekly reports that Cersei Lannister’s body double “speaks out” about how great her filming experience was. On local TV, there’s even a lot of speaking out against animals. Northern Michigan: “Man Attacked by Dogs Speaks Out About ‘Terrifying Ordeal’.” Colorado: “Colorado Teen Speaks Out After Shark Attack.”

Deborah Dills isn’t the only person “speaking out” about this past week’s tragedy. Billboard: “Nicki Minaj Speaks Out on Charleston Church Shooting.”

No more. It’s time to speak out—er, so to speak—against the overuse of “speaks out.” When somebody truly speaks out, they are raising their voice above an oppressive institution, or taking a risk by speaking in opposition to something. Consider the very construct of the phrase: To speak out, one must have first been in. The speaker must have been contained. The speaking is an act against that containment; it takes courage. A whistleblower, for example, speaks out. So does a prisoner being abused in Guantánamo Bay. But when somebody makes a statement about something that directly or indirectly concerns them, or shares an opinion, or simply chimes in on the news of the day, they are just speaking. Perhaps they are speaking up. They are definitely not speaking out.

Put it this way: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham couldn’t speak out about the steak he ate last night, but he could, were he decent and bold enough, have long ago spoken out against the flying of the Confederate flag.

I made this case, some of it word-for-word from what I wrote above, to then-Times language columnist William Safire on Dec. 30, 2004. That day, the paper’s lead story—about the global response to the tsunami that ravaged eastern Asia—was headlined “World Leaders Vow Aid as Toll Continues to Climb.” Beneath it was the subhed “Bush Speaks Out,” because George W. Bush, after a few days of unexplained silence, had finally issued a statement pledging help. He had spoken. But what was Bush speaking out about? My argument: The Times was wrong to say he had spoken “out” at all.

Safire passed my words along to Allan Siegal, then the paper’s standards editor, who sent me this reply: "My first impulse was to scour the dictionary definitions and defend our headline. My second—and current impulse—is to tell you that you're absolutely right. I also plan to tell the staff, in our post-mortems. Thanks, and regards." Vindication!

(I was a cub reporter at a Times-owned community newspaper at the time, and this was the greatest email of my career so far. I replied, telling Siegal that whenever I applied for a job at the Times, I’d include his note in my application to show that he once declared me “absolutely right.” His response: “With any luck, I’ll be retired, and the person you tell will point out (correctly) that ‘absolutely right’ is redundant.”)

I don’t know if Siegal ever actually relayed this to the staff, but he did retire in 2006 and the “speaks out” abuse continues there, as it does across the media. This is a problem, and not just for nit-picky readers like myself. It seems clear that publications overuse "speaks out" because it inflates the importance of a story. It isn't all that newsworthy when Kanye speaks, but it seems far more noteworthy when he speaks out! It's as if we're justifying our having written these stories, or perhaps luring the reader in with promise of important speech the way CNN declares everything to be "breaking news." This isn’t fair to readers. If a story can’t survive without the phrase speaks out—if, say, “Nicki Minaj Says Things About Charleston Church Shooting” just doesn’t sound important—maybe it’s because it’s not actually news worth running.

But most importantly, the distinction is critical because when we use "speaks out" for every act of speech, we diminish the moments when someone really does speak with courage. There are many important moments, blended in with the rest of the muck, when someone risks their reputation or, in some cases, even their wellbeing and safety, in order to speak out. We devalue critical speech when we treat all speech as equally courageous.

So, to this weekend’s usage: Is Deborah Dills, the woman who spotted the Charleston shooter on the road, speaking out? No. She is speaking. Deborah Dills did a great thing, and hers is a wonderful voice to hear. But I think she'd be the first to admit that she is not speaking under duress. Her moment of courage came before, when she followed Dylann Roof’s car. Now she is safe.

Earlier this month, though, the Times ran a piece of writing with the headline, “Letter From Azerbaijan Jail: Khadija Ismayilova Speaks Out.” It was written by a journalist there, who had been locked up for exposing the corruption in her country. This is a brave woman whose speech required courage. Her words were her protest. She was not just speaking, nor was she speaking up. She was speaking out.

June 19 2015 4:48 PM

There Should Be a Word for That! (So Make One Up.)

Language is wonderfully expansive and fluid—constantly mutating and forever evolving to better represent our lives and culture—and yet frequently inadequate. There are countless concepts, feelings, and situations, not to mention emerging technologies and gadgets, that don’t have a particular word to describe them. So, as proprietary speakers of a language, we have the right to invent what currently does not exist. “Everybody who speaks English decides together what’s a word and what’s not a word,” said the lexicographer Erin McKean in her 2014 TED Talk. “Every language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other.” So, if we all agree that a “selfie” is a photo one takes of oneself, then that’s exactly what it is (doesn't mean we have to like it!).

June 19 2015 10:36 AM

Gay Marriage? Same-Sex Marriage? How Should We Talk About Marriage Equality?

As the Supreme Court prepares to hand down a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, how should we refer to the matrimonial institution they are poised to accept or deny? The front-runner terms are “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage,” often used interchangeably. The question has real stakes—in politics, every word counts. A number of activists are moving away from the former and toward the latter, arguing it’s both more accurate and more respectful. Should publications reporting the story, like Slate, follow suit? What if it turns out that the term that’s out of favor with the affected group is the one that’s more likely to get people to read and share a piece?

Once upon a time, assimilation was the goal of the LGBTQ movement, and “gay marriage” was its term of art. The alternative, “same-sex marriage,” was viewed as potentially damaging to the cause due to its connotations of, well, sex. Now, though, champions of marriage equality believe that “gay marriage” performs small and insidious distortions. It seems to ignore the fact that some of the people who might throw a same-sex wedding do not identify as gay at all—they may be bisexual, asexual, or even heterosexual. (Point being that it’s none of our business.) And to be punctiliously correct, as the writer Tom Head notes, we would actually need to redefine certain opposite-sex marriages as “gay” marriages, because they represent the union of a closeted gay person and a straight person, or two closeted gay people, or some other overt or clandestine mash-up of yens hetero and homo.

June 11 2015 12:36 PM

My Students Never Use the First Person Voice. I Wish They Would.

At least once a week on the Dartmouth College campus, I see a student, eyes glued to a smartphone, literally walk into a tree or a pole or a peer. I don’t mean to laugh (and usually I suppress the urge), but c’mon, it’s a little bit funny. Sure, if this were a romantic comedy, students colliding with each other and dropping papers everywhere could make for a perfect meet-cute: heads would bump as both people bend down to collect the items, and the rest is history.

As a professor, this isn’t exactly the meeting of minds I’m looking to foster.

Each year, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference coincides with university commencements across the country. From June 8 to June 12 this year, the corporate giant is announcing shiny additions to its line of phones, tablets, computers, and watches, already ubiquitous on college campuses. But as students proudly claim the latest smartphones and personal gadgets, are teachers encouraging them to voice their own smarts in a personalized manner?

In various stages of schooling, we’ve all had instructors tell us to eschew the first-person voice for purposes of critical distance and rhetorical authority. Third-person perspectives boast several strengths, enabling prose that can sound formal, professional, objective, generalizable, and persuasive.

I can’t help wondering, however, whether every time we discourage students from using the first-person—every time they sheepishly hit backspace after reflexively writing I or me—they’re taking to heart the implicit message: “I” don’t matter. It’s not about “me.” My hunch is that cultivating discursive habits of self-effacement can lead to subtle yet systemic detriments to students’ sense of self and self-worth.

Many scholars insist that academia and first-person narratives shouldn’t mix. Feminist theorists, merging personal and political, have often been accused of “naked self-interest.” Disability scholars who spend time divulging their own hardships are charged with indulging in narcissistic “moi-criticism,” appealing to emotions (and scoring so-called sympathy points) rather than to the intellect. And philosophers are, as Dartmouth professor Susan Brison remarks, “trained to write in an abstract, universal voice and to shun first-person narratives as biased and inappropriate for academic discourse.” Other professors at Dartmouth have also weighed in on this matter. Jeffrey Ruoff, who teaches Film and Media Studies, told me: “Students commonly come to me to ask if they can write in the first person, like it’s a transgression.” Or, as English professor Marty Favor says: “I want to see the students behind the prose.”

The goal, of course, isn’t to assure students that it’s all about them—that is, to condone attitudes of entitlement and egotism. The point is for students to recognize that they must listen inward, harnessing a voice from deep down, in order to reach outward and contribute to society at large. Yes, I realize such advice runs the risk of sounding clichéd and sentimental: believe in yourself, the truth lies within, speak from your heart. But I’d rather see students grapple with sentiment than to have them smudge it out altogether.

Because you know what else is a cliché? The notion that good writing stands on its own merits, or that good ideas speak for themselves, or that a good paper can practically write itself. When we empower students to write with I, what we convey is: Stand up for yourself and take responsibility for what you say. Once you’ve found a voice, start thinking of all the people whose voices continue to go unheard. Behind glowing phones and laptop screens, students need to look up and speak out, to collide and connect with one another through exercises in self-expression and self-evaluation.

Students’ identities aren’t measurable by the gadgets they own. After all, even though the “i” in iPhone promises individuality, the widespread adoption of such devices can make us largely uniform. In this season of university commencements, what I really want is to see students graduate from small i to capital I. I want them to take stock of the actual “self” amidst their constant selfies.

William Zinsser, who passed away earlier this month, stressed the importance of writing in the first person. Author of the bestseller On Writing Well, he advised: “Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘we’ and ‘us’.”

Unlike endless iterations of iProducts, the real I should never feel outdated, replaceable, or dispensable. As students strive to make the grade, we’d do well to remind them that there’s no voice without I.

June 10 2015 11:27 AM

Let’s Talk (or Sign!) About the Deaf, Not Hearing Interpreters

Note: As is consistent with the written and culturally accepted standard, “Deaf” is used to refer to a community, while “deaf” is used to refer to a physiological state of being

A few days ago, a good friend and fellow linguaphile posted a video on my Facebook wall of Shelby Mitchusson, a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter translating Eminem’s seminal classic “Lose Yourself, ” signing with dramatic facial expression and full body motion as she attempts to convey the essence of Slim Shady. The video now has more than 3 million views.

June 5 2015 10:57 AM

Why We Be Loving the “Habitual Be”

Who be eating cookies? That’s the question that the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s Janice Jackson asked children in a now-famous study on “the habitual be.” Have you heard of this creature? Though it sounds like the yellow jacket perpetually hard at work on your hydrangea, it is not. It is but one way in which African-American English (AAE, to linguists) adds nuance to traditional verb forms, and it is the reason that “she be walking the dog” signifies differently to different listeners.

If you are speaking so-called white English, “Mara be walking the dog” means the same thing as “Mara is walking the dog.” If you are communicating in AAE, “Mara be walking the dog” says that Mara customarily walks the dog—that dog-walking has some definitional sway over her daily existence. It doesn’t guarantee that she is out walking the dog at this moment.

In that 2005 University of Maryland at Baltimore study, groups of black and white children were shown images from Sesame Street. In the crucial picture, a sick Cookie Monster languished in bed without any cookies, while Elmo stood nearby eating a cookie. “Who is eating cookies?” Jackson asked her test subjects, and all of them indicated Elmo. “Who be eating cookies?” Jackson then asked. The white kids replied that it was Elmo, while the black kids pointed to Cookie Monster. After all, it is the existential state of Cookie Monster to be eating cookies, while Elmo just happened to be eating a cookie at that moment. Cookie Monster, to those conversant in AAE, be eating cookies, whether he is eating cookies or not. The kids in Jackson’s experiment picked up on the subtle difference when they were as young as 5 or 6.  

Other features of AAE—a dialect individuals might move in and out of at will—include copula absence (the omission of certain forms of “to be,” as in “they angry” instead of “they are angry,” or the currently vogueish Twitter declarationit me”) and the deletion of S’s after third person singular verbs. (Think “Hulk smash,” not “Hulk smashes.”) But the meaning of such variations is relatively transparent regardless of your comfort level with AAE. The habitual be seems slyer, not just a simple signifier of black speech (though it’s been used to that purpose) but a separate, specialized verb tense masquerading as a “standard” one. Gaelic, Jackson pointed out, also uses verb forms that distinguish between habitual action and currently occurring action. The habitual be be reminding us of the richness of English’s many dialects.

June 1 2015 12:49 PM

Clusterboinks and Clusterfornications

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

I love the word clusterfuck. It’s a perfect word for, as Jesse Sheidlower defines it in The F-Word“a bungled or confused undertaking or situation.” That sums up approximately 91.3 percent of life.

Much as I dig the original, I’m also a fan of variations. Here are some rare cluster-alternatives I’ve spotted over the years: the children of clusterfuck. Like a lot of children, most are less offensive than the parental unit. But they’re all signs of verbal creativity—and the omnipresence of clusterfuckery.