November 08, 2004

Snoot? Bluck.

David Foster Wallace is a snoot as well as an exceptionally long-winded novelist, "snoot" being his own made-up word for "a really extreme usage fanatic". For a thorough airing of Wallace's attitudes in this arena, see his 4/2001 review of Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, and Language Hat's critique.

I've noticed over the years that snoots often like to make up words, and I've wondered why people who value traditional usage so highly are also so open to lexical innovation. The paradox evaporated when I realized that the snootish impulse is not a defense of the community's traditions, it's an assertion of linguistic ego. And what could be more egocentric than inventing new words?

This also explain why snoots are never scholars. At least, their snootish outpourings are never based on scholarly investigation and analysis, even if they have some scholarly credentials in other aspects of their intellectual life. The reason is simple: scholarship subordinates the self, at least temporarily, to an investigation of external fact, while the snootish posture immediately asserts the primacy of the self's linguistic judgments. Snoots routinely invoke both the authority of tradition and the dictates of logic, but these are ex post facto rhetorical justifications, not the conclusions of a dispassionate analysis.

This insight helps explain why snootish assertions are so often factually mistaken, even when they deal with matters that are easily checked. How could Cullen Murphy, John Powers and Sidney Goldberg, all intelligent and literate individuals, embarrass themselves by fulminating in national publications about lexical and grammatical issues where their claims are simply wrong? Why is DFW's usage rant so full of elementary usage mistakes? The usual explanation is that our society has failed to give its intellectuals an adequate linguistic education. That's true, but it's not enough. Murphy and Powers are surely capable of understanding the glosses and example sentences in the OED, and Goldberg could have had his assistant phone up an expert on English syntax, as he would probably have done if he were ranting about some medical or economic or legal matter. Wallace could have checked his dictionary citations, spent a few hours on the internet or in the library getting his terminology right, and so on. Snoots don't check lexicographic and grammatical facts because their complaints are about subjective pain, not about objective facts of usage. Though they masquerade as defense of social norms, such screeds are really the howls of a wounded self, demanding primacy.

I was reminded of all this when I read Wallace's review in yesterday's NYT of Edwin Williamson's "Borges: A Life", and came across this passage (emphasis added):

Williamson's claim ... that in 1934, ''after his definitive rejection by Norah Lange, Borges . . . came to the brink of killing himself'' is based entirely on two tiny pieces of contemporaneous fiction in which the protagonists struggle with suicide. Not only is this a bizarre way to read and reason ... but Williamson seems to believe that it licenses him to make all sorts of dubious, humiliating claims about Borges's interior life: ''A poem called 'The Cyclical Night' . . . which he published in La Nacion on October 6, reveals him to be in the throes of a personal crisis''; ''In the extracts from this unfinished poem . . . we can see that the reason for wishing to commit suicide was literary failure, stemming ultimately from sexual self-doubt.'' Bluck.


This is not a reference to the religious writer Bluck, or the psychologist Bluck, or any of the other Blucks known to others. The context makes it clear that this is an invented expression of disgust, a blend of yuck and blecch, evocative of vomit.

The traditional norms of formal writing, at least in English and other languages that I can read, frown on the use of orthographically-rendered expressive noises, even ones like yuck that have made it into the dictionary. If you check out Google News or Nexis search for yuck, you'll find it mainly in quotations, in sports stories, in columnists' informal rants, and in self-conscious meta-uses like this 11/7/2004 review by Elizabeth Egan of the new McLaughlin and Kraus novel, Citizen Girl:

She is known simply as Girl, a gimmicky moniker whose cringeworthiness is compounded by the appearances characters named Buster and Guy. Yuck. (And since we're in the world of chick lit, it's okay to say that.)

Well, neither Borges nor Williamson is exactly chick lit, but Wallace doesn't feel the need to apologize for his Bluck, as Egan did for her Yuck. And if anyone has even used "Bluck" before in print to spell out a disgust-sound, neither the OED nor Google nor A9 can find it for me. Invented expressive-noise spellings are common in cartoons the world over, but it's a recent stylistic innovation to extend this feature into formal essays and reviews. And this is an innovation that puts the individual's linguistic impulses ahead of the community's linguistic traditions, which is precisely what snoots purport to deplore.

Let me make it clear that I'm being descriptive here, not prescriptive. If writers want to introduce cartoon stylings into formal essays, that's fine with me. Nor do I have any quarrel with Wallace's evaluation of Williamson. My point is just the superficial incongruity -- and deep connection -- between Wallace the Snoot and the Wallace who Blucks.

[Update: Mike Pope wrote to claim documented lexicographic validity for bluck, on the basis of Barbara Park's immortal work "Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake". Now, I might point out that this work follows in the pattern established by "Junie B. Jones and Some Sneeky Peeky Spying", not to mention "Junie B. Jones and the Mushy Gushy Valentime" [sic], and I might suggest that if Ms. Park should follow with "Junie B. Jones and the Language Banguage Maven Baven", we might wait a bit before putting banguage and baven into the dictionary.

But I won't. Instead, I'll admit that Mike is probably right: bluck is an obvious back-formation from blucky, which has 2,910 hits on Google, a few of which are not references to Ms. Park's work, but are real uses like "felt blucky today" or "dark, blucky and people stuck in traffic for miles." This kind of coinage and derivation is a typical process in the creative evolution of language, and is (therefore) exactly the sort of thing that snoots like to deprecate. ]

[Update #2: Neal Whitman came up with the same citation independently, and sent this link to a .jpg of the book cover. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 8, 2004 07:40 AM