July 09, 2004

Spiteful things

Speaking of William Safire and Norma Loquendi, consider the following excerpt from Charles Harrington Elster's September 21, 2003 guest contribution to NYT Magazine's On Language column. Elster -- who until recently was Richard Lederer's radio co-host -- sings the praises of the word resistentialism, the "seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects":

Here, at last, was a word for the rug that quietly curls up so it can snag your toe, the sock gone AWOL from the dryer, the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down.

I've often wondered about the jelly-side-down issue. Personally, I'm not going to eat the toast no matter how it ends up on the floor. I suppose there's more clean-up involved if the jelly hits the floor, but somehow I doubt that this is what self-identified victims of resistentialism are worried about.

But what I'm really concerned with here is Elster's use of the word always, universally quantifying over the predicate of the relative clause (hits the floor jelly side down) that in turn modifies a singular definite noun phrase (the slippery piece of toast). Surely Elster isn't saying that he's been resistentially victimized by the same piece of toast over and over again. Or is he?

Maybe it's relevant that Elster is writing about cases of resistentialism that we are all familiar with, if not from personal experience then from shared cultural references. Elster is appealing to each and every one of his readers to conjure up their own spiteful things: "you know the kinds of rug I'm talking about, you know those ship-jumping socks (or is it thieving dryers?), you know those pieces of toast that always land on their jellied sides" ...

No, that's still bad. No matter how many pieces of toast Elster has managed to get his readers to round up in their collective imagination, always does not quantify universally over a set of objects, even if it tries to do so indirectly by quantifying universally over a set of events associated (one-to-one) with those objects.

I'm starting to think the explanation I first rejected is the correct one: just as true resistentiophobes imagine that rugs are out to get them and that dryers are hungry for their socks, maybe they each believe that it's the same piece of toast reconstituting itself over and over again and falling, always falling, on its face.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 9, 2004 06:01 PM