August 06, 2005

The thug and the slut

Granted, this extended metaphor occurs in a piece that is both playful and artful.  But still, but still...  this is surely the summer's loopiest grammar/meaning metaphor:

    The structure of language lurks below the meaning of words.  Chomsky wrote, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."  This grammatical sentence illustrates that grammar and meaning have about as much relationship to one another as strangers on a blind date.  Grammar is the towny.  This dude, this thug, knows the ins and outs of the place by heart.  He runs the show, and he practically owns the territory.  His date just blew into town.  She's all fluttery in this gaudy multipart outfit she copped at various exotic bazaars and flea markets.  Half the time she's got no idea what she's saying, but she's easy, in actual fact a slut willing to go along with just about anything.

    Oh my.

[Priscilla Long, "Genome Tome: Twenty-three ways of looking at our ancestors" (The American Scholar, Summer 2005), p. 34, the end of section 11, "The Grammar Gene", on the innateness of grammar]

When I try to work out the details of Long's thug-and-slut metaphor, my head threatens to explode.  Like, Meaning has no idea what she's saying?  I would have thought that that's pretty much ALL she had an idea about.  And how come Grammar's the one with all the information?

Someone should investigate the ways in which the grammar/semantics distiction is personified.  Grammar is often cast as a fussy schoolteacher (a schoolmarm, in particular: Miss Fidditch) or some other kind of authority figure, a legislator or judge or priest (almost surely male).  But grammar can also be seen as empty form, which on its own produces mere chatter without substance -- a female stereotype.  Meaning, in contrast, is configured either as substantial and significant (so: agentive and male) or as "natural", even earthy (so: passive and female).  You can get pretty much any assignment of the sexes to the two actors, Grammar and Meaning.  (Though the fact that grammar almost always gets mentioned first, as in the passage from Long, suggests that it's more likely to be personified as male.)

The thug-and-slut story is, I guess, a version of the male authority figure (wielding the authority of the streets) vs. the passive, pliant female.  But it's still loopy.

As a grammarian, it tickles me to see myself cast as a classic Bad Boy, the tough hoodlum with a sneer on his face (top of the world, Ma!), but then I dissolve into giggles because the picture is so far from my actual presentation of self.  And I guffaw while trying to visualize the semanticists of my acquaintance -- David Beaver (of this parish), Stanley Peters, Barbara Partee, David Dowty, Angelika Kratzer, Hans Kamp, Sally McConnell-Ginet, Gennaro Chierchia, and so on -- as Women of Easy Virtue, dressed eccentrically in thrift-shop clothing and willing to go along with just about anything (they have always depended on the kindness of strangers).

I'm not quite done quoting Long, though.  It gets weirder.  Here's her entire section 12, "Grammar Gene Mutation":

Courtly cows dispense with diphthongs.  Chocolate-covered theories crouch in corners.  Corners rot uproariously.  Refrigerators frig the worms.  Catastrophe kisses the count of five.  A statement digests its over-rehearsed rhinoceros.  Bookworms excrete monogamous bunnies.  Blue crud excites red ecstasy.  All this during the furious sleeping of colorless green ideas.

Yes, a fresh contribution to the poetry of "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" (ca. 21,100 raw Google webhits, including its own Wikipedia entry).  From which "frig" stands out.  I would have written "fuck", but no doubt that wouldn't have been acceptable to The American Scholar; the kissing, excretion, and excitement to ecstasy are quite enough, thank you.  (Dorothy Parker, surely apocryphally, to Norman Mailer, who was obliged to use "fug" in The Naked and the Dead: "So you're the young man who can't spell fuck?")

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 6, 2005 01:50 PM