A Blog About Language

Jan. 30 2015 4:44 PM

The Long and Fascinating History of Quotation Marks

The punctuation mark is a storied character. Its family tree extends all the way back to the second century BC, when its earliest ancestor sprang into being at the ancient Library of Alexandria. The so-called diple, or “double,” was an arrow-shaped character (>) named for the two strokes of the pen required to draw it, and it was just one of a clutch of proofreading marks devised by a librarian named Aristarchus to help edit and clarify the library’s holdings. Aristarchus drew inspiration from his predecessor Zenodotus, who had created the first such mark a century earlier: by marking superfluous lines of text with marginal dashes, or lines (—), Zenodotus had invented the field of literary criticism quite literally at a stroke. Named for the Greek obelos, or “roasting spit,” the image of a dash transfixing erroneous text was later said to be “like an arrow, [which] slays the superfluous and pierces the false.”

Finding the obelos to be necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand, Aristarchus took Zenodotus’s dash and created an array of additional symbols to aid his work. The obelos reprised its role of marking spurious lines, but Aristarchus allied it with a new symbol called the asteriskos, or “little star.” Alone, the dotted, star-like glyph (※) called out material that had been mistakenly duplicated; together with anobelos, it marked a line that belonged elsewhere in the text at hand. Lastly, Aristarchus placed diples alongside lines that contained noteworthy text, while the diple’s dolled-up sibling, the diple periestigmene (⸖), or “dotted diple,” was used to mark passages where he differed with the reading of other critics.

Video Advertisement

Jan. 30 2015 9:00 AM

Is It Kosher to “Drink the Kool-Aid”?

A fuller linguistic arsenal leads to richer, chewier, more diverse expression—but when is the usefulness of a piece of language outweighed by the pain it causes? In “Is That Kosher?” we reflect on certain words or phrases that lie in the margins of acceptability. 

One thing about starting a column on idioms that haunt the P.C. hinterlands is that you learn a lot about idiom origins from colleagues who are more well-informed than you are. Hence this recent exchange on an office chat channel:

Co-worker: Drink the Kool-Aid. Is that kosher?
Me: You’re asking whether Kool-Aid is kosher?
Co-worker: I’m asking if the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” is OK to use.
Me: Why on earth would it not be OK to use?
Advertisement

To drink the Kool-Aid, of course, is to unquestioningly accept someone else’s vision, program, or belief system. If asked to interpret the logic of the phrase, I would have ventured that, as Kool-Aid is sweet and delicious, drinking Kool-Aid moves you to agree with whoever provided it to you.

I was naive. As others have noted, drinking the Kool-Aid actually grew out of a heinous instance of mass murder-suicide in the 1970s, the Jonestown massacre. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of a religious cult led by charismatic madman Jim Jones were enjoined (and in some cases, forced against their will) to down cyanide mixed with grape Flavor-Aid.* Brainwashed mothers syringed poison into the mouths of their babies. Reluctant cult members were dragged out from under their beds. Jones orchestrated the bloodbath in response to a fact-finding mission by Congressman Leo Ryan, who gathered a team of reporters and aides to accompany him to Jones’ compound in Guyana after receiving coded pleas for help from some of Jones’ followers. Shot to death on an airstrip as he attempted to leave, Ryan is the only U.S. representative ever assassinated in the line of duty.

The tragedy at Jonestown planted the seeds of an analogy between blind obedience and drinking Kool-Aid, but it took a decade to grow. (Why Kool-Aid and not Flavor-Aid? People seem to have latched onto the more recognizable brand, perhaps helped along by its previous association with drug use.) Immediately after the massacre, imbibing Nebraska’s official state soft drink just meant going to your death, whether ragefully or in numb compliance. In 1982, AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland was the first to invoke Jonestown as metaphor: Ronald Reagan’s economic plan, he warned, “administers Kool-Aid to the poor, the deprived, and the unemployed.” Two years later, a Reagan administration official appropriated the figure for his own ends, advising civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks that black Americans “refuse to be led to another political Jonestown. … No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon, and Ben. We want to be free.”

Only in the ’90s did Kool-Aid begin its transition from simple murder weapon to symbol of cultish complicity. An online dictionary in 1998 defined “drinking the Kool-Aid” as surrendering to enthusiasm: “becoming a firm believer in something; accepting an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly.” In her L.A. Times call-to-arms against the phrase, Meghan Daum cited Bill O’Reilly, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as recent offenders.* “I drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone about Obama,” Schultz said in an interview, seemingly blaming himself for swallowing an intoxicating myth. And in a tasteless but wonderful feat of alliteration, Us Weekly cautioned that, 72 days into his marriage to Kim, Kris Humphries was “not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid.” (A pause to imagine the toxic beverage called “Kardashian Kool-Aid”: foamy, hot pink, smelling of rare massage oils, mascara, and chinchilla fur.)

These days, Kool-Aid guzzlers are more or less ubiquitous, especially at work, where Forbes named “drink the Kool-Aid” the most annoying business cliché of 2012. A flurry of tweets during this year’s State of the Union also compared the president to the Kool-Aid guy—and, by extension, to Jonestown’s creepy soft-drink shiller. (Indeed, some of the power of the formulation must draw on the archetype of the devil tempting poor fools with death-bearing fruit. Obama’s no stranger to those analogies either.) But in context, “drink the Kool-Aid” seems to have lost much of its sense of tragedy. We use it to talk about expectation management, not to impugn horrible motives to whoever is making the promises. Death appears to be off the table as an outcome; the worst case scenario is feeling punch-drunk, loopily optimistic. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid or you’ll wind up married to Kim Kardashian!

None of this has stopped people from calling for the phrase’s abolition. The most impassioned argument to date came in November of 2014, from an Episcopal priest writing in the Washington Post. “Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of Jonestown. The rest of you need to clean up your language,” pleaded James D. Richardson, who knew several of the victims.

But, respectfully, what service does it do to expunge sad or loathsome events from our historical memory? One colleague told me that researching “drank the Kool-Aid” introduced her to the story of Jonestown—arguably a good thing from the perspective of victims and their families. What’s more, invoking a past evil to describe a present one is not necessarily trivializing. And though we do seem to have domesticated this expression, the group of people who suffered directly at the hands of Jim Jones is too small to preclude the use of an evocative and widely understood figure of speech, especially as it accrues new meanings, relevancies, and, um, flavors.   

Verdict: Oh yeahhhhhhh, kosher.

*Correction, Jan. 30, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of Howard Schultz and misstated that the Jonestown massacre happened on Feb. 18, 1978. It occurred on Nov. 18, 1978.

Jan. 29 2015 2:19 PM

Is a Hashtag a Word? The Case of #BlackLivesMatter.

Well, I didn't manage to get an emoticon of the year vote added to the American Dialect Society's annual awards ceremony for the word nerd set (there’s always next year!), but we did end up with a new category that's almost as interesting: Most Notable Hashtag.

The hashtag that won—and subsequently took the overall Word of the Year (WotY) prize as well—was #BlackLivesMatter, which exploded in the latter half of 2014 as a protest against the deaths of young African-American men at the hands of police. Here's a graph of search interest from Google Trends:

In the wake of the ADS vote, some have expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of a hashtag category in the first place and about the selection of #blacklivesmatter for WotY. After all, you might say, #blacklivesmatter—not to mention the other members of the category, including #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, and #whyistayed—ought to be competing for Three-Word-Phrase of the Year, if such a category existed. But what exactly is a word, anyway?

Jan. 29 2015 8:38 AM

Not Feeling It

In the wake of Jonathan Chait’s attack on political correctness for New York, there were those who felt passionately that Chait’s approach was blinkered, and those who felt, equally passionately, that he had diagnosed a rot in the grain of left-wing discourse. Jessica Valenti responded with a defense of PC in the Guardian, and her husband, Andrew Golis, tweeted the link.

Feel some feels. Along with all the feels and right in the feels, the phrase is everywhere, especially online. I could have picked any number of tweets or posts to back into a discussion of feels, but there’s something right, I think, about siphoning from the molten geyser of emotion unleashed by the Web’s controversy du jour, a polemic animated, in fact, by the belief that our sensitivities—our feels—are clouding reason, strangling dialogue.

Jan. 26 2015 9:30 AM

The Art of Literary Expletive Avoidance

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

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend color and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

Take Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, “clear and sweet” and at times “infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful.”

Jan. 22 2015 3:02 PM

The Baest Bae to Ever Bae: Bae Isn’t Just a Noun Anymore

Over the past couple of years, the term bae has achieved widespread usage. While the noun form has been around for more than 10 years, adjectival and verbal uses, along with other related forms, have more recently started popping up to describe the people and things we love, or at least like-like. Twitter, in particular, is rife with interesting new uses of the term. The popular social media platform has been used to mine language change for years and has inspired some recent linguistic scholarly research.

Dictionary.com defines the noun bae as: "Slang. an affectionate term used to address or refer to one’s girlfriend, boyfriend, etc." Many have debated the etymology of bae, some insisting that it derives from the acronym "Before Anyone Else." The earliest evidence of this connection on Twitter is from a July 19, 2011, tweet, making "Before Anyone Else" a backronym of bae, which first surfaced in rap music and on Urban Dictionary in the early- to mid-2000s. A much more likely etymological explanation is that bae is a shortening of baby or babe.

When bae appears as a noun, its meaning is relatively set: It’s a term of endearment. However possibilities abound as bae moves into to other parts of speech. These days bae has gotten a lot of mileage out of its robust use as an adjective.

Jan. 20 2015 12:54 PM

The Thing About Ping

One paradox of the smart-tech age is that our devices are, when you think about them, kind of scary, and yet they make cute noises. They beep and chime and gurgle and hiccup, as if guided by some focus group’s conclusion that nothing makes us smile quite like a toy piano whose tummy is rumbling. This means, for one, that certain adorable sounds have accrued an aura of dread, like dolls in a horror movie. (Chime! It’s your boss. Beep! Time for your colonoscopy!) It also gets at something true about human interaction in general: Because contact can be so scary, we often find ways to wrap it in self-deprecation, courtesy, and cuteness. We’ve been doing it forever (“Why don’t I just give you a buzz and we can chat about your performance review?”), but the word ping encapsulates the dynamic particularly well.

Ping—ubiquitous but modest, a friendly verb with a stressful, insistent undertone—echoes with contradictions. It belongs to business jargon, but it’s playfully onomatopoetic, which implies a kind of babbling pleasure in noise for its own sake. The word makes you think of ping-pong and (perhaps) Mulan’s male disguise in the Disney movie. But it also has serious applications: It cropped up in discussions of the cell tower records on Serial and in coverage of 2014’s missing planes, with their lost black boxes. And of course it’s serious: Its origins lie in war.

Jan. 19 2015 10:00 AM

A Bunch of Stupid Buffalo Reveal the Versatility of Swearwords

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

Buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo.

The above expression is a coherent, grammatical sentence.

If you like having fun with English, you will sooner or later meet several versions of a long sentence made entirely of the word buffalo that show four facts of English:

  1. We can often convert words from one class to another—noun to verb or vice versa, for example—without changing them, as in converting the noun buffalo to the verb buffalo (linguists call this zero derivation);
  2. We can use nouns as modifiers in place of adjectives without changing them, as in using the place name Buffalo to mean ‘from Buffalo’;
  3. Some nouns don’t change form in the plural, either (buffalo being one);
  4. We can omit relativizers such as that, as in “buffalo buffalo buffalo” in place of “buffalo that buffalo buffalo.”

Jan. 16 2015 2:48 PM

“What Do Cows Drink?” Trick Questions That Show How Your Brain Organizes Language.

What do cows drink?

Your first intuition was probably to answer "milk." And then, depending on how familiar you are with bovine diets, you realized that, wait, it's the calves that drink milk—adult cows drink water. What’s going on that makes it so hard to respond correctly? And what does it tell us about how our brains store and process language?

Jan. 8 2015 12:37 PM

Great Moments in Swearing: The “GD Big Car” Edition

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

I recently viewed for the first time Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, a rather Shakespearean tale of Jordan Belfort’s excess in money, sex, drugs, and swears, inter alia. The film, you may recall, grabbed a lot of headlines for its record-breaking number of fucks in a nondocumentary film. (The all-time title goes to Steve Anderson’s 2005 documentary, Fuck.)

Advertisement

I suppose it’s hard to argue against such gratuitousness in a story all about it, but I did have to resist the urge to keep a tally during my viewing. Quantity aside, there were some truly memorable swears in the film. My personal favorite? “The book, motherfucker, from the book” (about 0:45 into the clip). That’s good shit. Ironically, during a fuck-filled argument with his wife later in the film, Belfort pleads: “Let’s use our words.” In so many ways, this sums up one of the story’s central theme: Rags to riches is the great sales pitch. (I’m still rooting for you, though, Mr. Bookman.)

That said, I found myself thirsty for a tonic when the credits rolled. Immediately, I jumped to Robert Creeley‘s iconic “I Know a Man.” It’s a staple of anthologies, but it remains fresh 61 years after initial publication and stands as an incredible example of using words, particularly swear words. Creeley’s poetry is sparing without being sparse, emotive without being emotional, spontaneous without being uncontrolled. Not uncontrolled, to be litotic—that’s how I’d characterize the form, content, and, yes, swears in “I Know a Man”:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,–John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

The poem is often described as a drunken poem written in the vein of the beats, with whom and whose poetry Creeley was well familiar. It’s erratic and hesitant, and these qualities play out in Creeley’s syntax and enjambment, as so much of the great work of his poetry did. It stammers and hiccups like a drunk, drunk in spite of and due to the “darkness” (5). In my opinion, no poetry gropes with and through language as exquisitely as Creeley’s does. He is so deliberate in his diction: Not only is that darkness palpable, but, as an abstract noun, it is also almost conspicuous in a poem written in such an otherwise ordinary register.

Par7760878
Creeley's big car both flees and speeds into the darkness.

Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Ordinary: That’s precisely what I love about the swear words in the third and final tercets of the poem. The speaker’s “goddamn” (9) and “for / christ’s sake” (11) are spoken as if drunk but not too fucked up. Too fucked up yet, because we have always got to pull ourselves together even in the face of the void else we’ll wreck. The syntax of his noun phrase “goddamn big car,” compared with a more natural-sounding “big, goddamn car,” has the sound of a drunken epiphany, as if the speaker is saying, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s get a big car.” This makes “big car” grammatically and conceptually immediate, a getaway car fleeing from yet also speeding into the darkness. Perhaps his “goddamn” is cursing postwar commercialism and escapism—or, conversely, the freedom—symbolized by the car. At the same, the “goddamn” is offhand, asking us not to take it too seriously. Like his words, the speaker’s meanings are conflicted and unstable and happen fast. Yet the spondaic phrase “goddamn big car” does slow us down just for a moment, with the end-stopped comma serving as an additional pump on the brake, else the speaker gets too reckless existentially and the poet, formally and linguistically.

Along with the percussive K‘s of “christ’s sake,” the swears are perfectly intoned when you listen to Creeley read the poem. His swears may be mild, but, goddamn, are they choice.

Creeley’s poetry is not one generally given to swearing, making “I Know a Man” proof that there is truly an art to it.

READ MORE STORIES