Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

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.

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It’s a trend that should make anyone who cares about journalism uneasy. “Content” is a vague, cynical word—a lazy catch-all 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.

That’s not, I’d like to think, a healthy way of looking at journalism. Doing so is certain to bring some of content’s low rent sensibilities into the newsroom, and particularly the odious idea that pageviews are more important than basic, decent things like tracking down sources and fact checking and using common sense.

U.S. News & World Report, to pick a particularly transparent example of that drive for web traffic, is currently hiring a features editor who will, in the words of the job listing, collaborate “with product and SEO [search engine optimization] teams on content ideas.” It’s worth letting that wash over you again; the person who takes that job will be choosing things to write about with the goal of maximizing traffic from Google search results.

In journalism-as-content, the typical way to throw together a story is to avoid original research entirely, either by whipping up a sassy spin on another publication’s work or by weaving atomic units of social media like Tweets and Tumblr screencaps into a passable narrative. The Guardian recently ran a dispiriting story about how those thinly-sourced social media articles often turn out to be false or woefully distorted; journalists quoted in the piece pinned the blame on their management’s bottomless hunger for viral hits. “There is definitely a pressure to churn out stories, including dubious ones, in order to get clicks, because they equal money,” said one of them, who the Guardian didn’t identify by name.

And even if a story isn’t exactly false, journalism-as-content can give rise to coverage so hasty and divorced from context that it loses any particular meaning. Last year, for some reason, I set up a news alert for Kevin Bollaert, a sleazebag who went to prison for running a revenge porn site in California. Last month, I was surprised to see a new story about Bollaert pop up, this time on the blog ATTN—its about page declares that “content is chief” —except that when I opened it, it seemed to be the same year-old news that Bollaert had been sentenced by a San Diego judge, repackaged under a salacious new headline. On closer inspection, it turned out that the author had mistaken a 2015 story about the sentencing for a current one. (To ATTN’s credit, someone eventually updated the post with a sheepish explanation that the sentencing had been “incorrectly reported as breaking news.”)

Still, it’s tough to imagine the slurry of sloppy research and pressure to publish that could lead to presenting a year-old story as the news of the day. Talking to a single source, or even checking Twitter, would have easily avoided the whole mess, and the fact that they apparently didn’t raises the uncomfortable question: if the story hadn’t been a year off schedule, what would ATTN’s know-nothing hot take have added to our understanding of it? What’s the reason, other than fishing for traffic, that it needed to be published at all?

There’s not an easy solution here. Journalism is in the throes of a terrible revenue crisis. That’s spurred some outlets to try all sorts of cool experiments, but it’s led many others to lay off droves of seasoned staff, cut expensive coverage and fall back on the cheap fluff of content.

I should acknowledge, by the way, that I’m part of the problem. I’ve published plenty of thinly-sourced drek, which I tell myself is because it helps pay my bills and lets me work on stuff that isn’t drek. In my defense (I hope) it makes me feel like trash every time.

Still, the words we use matter. I find the idea of someone aspiring to create content, in as many words, to be almost indescribably sad. It seems like an act of preemptive surrender, of giving up hope that you’ll ever create something with a higher calling than attracting clicks for some monolithic publisher.

So here’s my plea to everybody to creates things to share on the internet, and especially journalists: take enough pride in what you do to be specific. If you report, call yourself a reporter. If you argue, call yourself an essayist. If you collate GIFs—well, make up a cool job description for yourself.

Call it something. Just don’t call it content.    

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.

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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. 

May 23 2016 10:00 AM

Why Are You Talking to Your Dog Instead of to Me? 

Not long ago, I lived in an apartment complex that billed itself as a “modern living community.” It was furnished with a nice pool, a community room, grills, a gym. It even had a dog run for its canine tenants. This was the perfect place to meet some new people, I thought. Nothing is as socially lubricating as dogs.

But as my pet and I approached another pet-human pair, I’d hear: “Spike, let’s stop that barking. No, Spike!” Or, in a singsong soprano as I opened my mouth to say hello: “C’mon, Lola. Let's go. It's not playtime now.”

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Pet-directed speech, or PDS, is a real linguistic phenomenon. (Its high-pitched register—“You’re just the best boy, aren’t you?!”—resembles infant-directed speech.) But I think I was observing something else: pet-directed speech used to mask human-directed speech. In asking Spike to quiet down, my neighbor was really communicating: “I see you and your dog. I’m sorry if my dog’s a bit annoying. I’m just gonna move over here.” In coaxing Lola along, my neighbor was saying, “Hey. Just kinda doing my thing right now. Getting ready for the workday. You know, right? I’m not really in the place for a whole dog production at the moment. Sorry?”

To the linguist, my neighbors were performing both locutionary and illocutionary speech acts. Their locutionary acts comprised the surface meaning of their utterances: “Stop barking, Spike.” But their illocutionary acts conveyed their intended meaning: “I want to be left alone.” By talking to their dogs, my neighbors managed to acknowledge my presence (it would be rude not to) without engaging in conversation—and without losing any face.

I have observed similar indirect illocutions in other canine encounters. From owners struggling to manage a hyperactive or aggressive pooch, dog etiquette typically requires some mild embarrassment and a polite apology. Instead, I’ve seen face-saving acknowledgment of the misbehavior directed at the dog. At the park, another owner will completely ignore me in order to crouch down and ask my pet: “And what’s your name, buddy? You’re cute.” If our dogs could talk, we’d probably never have reason to speak to another human again.  

I think this sociolinguistic puppy deserves a name. Let’s call it “dog-directed indirect illocutionary discursive politeness events.” Or as the rest of us probably know it: “I’m sorry, but I can’t be bothered to talk to you.” Woof.

May 17 2016 1:16 PM

Shakespearean Slang

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

While we flip the bird at explicit language advisories on this blog, I do want to issue a trigger warning for this post due to fictional content about rape. That’s a hell of way to kick off a little language study, huh? But even by today’s standards, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, with its human sacrifice, gang rape, and cannibalism, is just brutally fucking violent. Amid all its carnage, though, is some sexual wordplay that sounds, well, shockingly modern for a play written more than 400 years ago.

In just one of its many fucked-up episodes, this fuck, Aaron, helps these two other fucks, brothers Chiron and Demetrius, scheme to rape Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. As the three hatch their unconscionable plot, they amuse each other—you’re a real motherfucker, Shakespeare—with a little wordplay about stealing Lavinia away from her husband for their evil act:

May 16 2016 8:30 AM

Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds 

Assassination, bedazzled, lonely, rant, scuffle, zany: These are just a few of the 1,700 words we traditionally credit to Shakespeare. Some, like elbow, seem like they should have always existed in the English language; others, such as swagger, feel strikingly modern. Perhaps these words, acts of inspired creation from a godlike artist, let us glimpse the genius still gripping us 400 years since he last put quill to parchment. Or perhaps we’re looking for his linguistic prodigy in the wrong place.

For one thing, we can’t say for certain that Shakespeare actually “invented” these words. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language, only documents the earliest written evidence it finds for a word. Shakespeare may simply have been the first person to put down in writing the words we attribute to him. Or he might have been cribbing from older texts that didn’t survive.

May 12 2016 10:06 AM

When F--k Was Fug

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

As much as the youthful Norman Mailer may have enjoyed inflating his self-image by inundating friend and foe with a superheated geyser of fucks, his favorite word wasn’t acceptable for the printed page in 1948. The disgruntled (read “pissed-off”) Mailer was forced to substitute the word fug for fuck in his gritty war novel The Naked and the Dead. The story goes that this prompted the waggish starlet Tallulah Bankhead to say upon first meeting Mailer, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” If Mailer never wanted to see—or say—another fug in his life, there was a counterculture rock group that thought the euphemism was the ideal name to have to “stick it to” the establishment of the 1960s.

Enter the Fugs.

May 10 2016 8:30 AM

Hamilton Through the Lens of Language  

Sure, the musical Hamilton has racked up a record number of Tony nominations, gets props from the first family, and helped keep the “ten-dollar founding father” on the ten-dollar bill. But among the endless accolades, there was one moment that was particularly sweet for those involved in the production: when 1,300 high schoolers from low-income areas of New York City descended on the Richard Rodgers Theatre last month for the first in a series of student matinees.

In the morning, students from the 12 participating high schools took the stage to perform their own takes on historical figures from the revolutionary and founding eras, using a curriculum especially designed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The show’s playwright and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, served as emcee along with Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, and they were visibly gleeful as the student performers spun their own verbal creations in the form of raps, songs, and poems.

After a Q&A with the cast, the students got to watch a performance that is by far the hottest ticket on Broadway (but only cost them $10 each, thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation). Now it was the students’ turn to be gleeful. One thing was clear from their genuine elation: The students felt a visceral connection to the play, and particularly to the language of the play.

May 9 2016 9:30 AM

Shakespeare’s Hipstery Millennial Dream Jobs

A self-employed craftsman who worked from home in a rustic, minimalist studio? Shakespeare’s dad, John, lived the hipster’s dream. He was a glover by trade, and perhaps the inspiration for Romeo’s swoon at the first radiant sight of Juliet: “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,/ That I might touch that cheek!”

Shakespeare may not have followed in his father’s artisanal footsteps, but he incorporated a raft of now-trendy-sounding DIY occupations into his plays. Meet the apple-selling costermonger, a job enterprising millennials might salivate over. The Induction to the Taming of the Shrew, in which a confused drunkard explains how he eked out a living on the mean cobblestone streets of 16th-century England, adds to the vocational array:

Am I not Christopher Sly – old Sly’s son of Burton Heath, by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker?

A pedlar, or peddler, sold small goods (and continues to do so). The much less familiar cardmaker made metal combs used to spin wool. A bearherd kept bears, some for the notorious entertainment of bearbaiting. Historically, a tinker mended kitchenwares, like pots and utensils. (This may revise your understanding of Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell.)

May 6 2016 10:45 AM

Poetry Served, but Music Shined at the Academy of American Poets’ Star-Studded Gala

Early last Wednesday night, a crowd began to gather outside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The hundreds gliding into the lobby looked refined in evening wear, neat sports coats and bright silks, ready for a night at the theater. A ginger sense of anticipation hung over the crowd, and as lines to enter formed, people began to look around expectantly, hoping to glimpse a famous face. “No, after it’s over, then they come out,” one man explained to his party.

They had come, surprisingly, for poetry. But they had also come for the special celebrity guests. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, “Poetry & The Creative Mind” is a yearly benefit held at Lincoln Center. It springs from a simple yet captivating idea: famous non-poets reading poems that they love. It’s also a windfall for the non-profit. Now in its 14th year, the benefit annually brings in $175,000 for the Academy’s educational programming.

The readers everyone had come to see were an impressive range of artists, but few were closely linked to poetry. 

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