February 08, 2007

Word rage -- not!

What's disconcerting about the "pilotless drone" call is that the guy seems genuinely upset. And with all respect to Mark, Geoff, Roger, Heidi, Arnold, and the other LanguageLoggers who have devoted innumerable posts to the phenomenon of language anger, the interesting thing about word rage is that it almost never really is. Those folks who talk about yelling at their radio when they hear someone use less instead of fewer, or who, like Dick Cavett, threaten to "pop" the senator who spoke of his "incredulous" experiences -- they're not really angry at all. It's all a exercise in counterfeit camp. And by the by, it demonstrates just what an irrelevant business language criticism has become.

If you take it literally, the striking thing about the indignation of modern language snobs is how ostentatiously disproportionate it always is. Take the comments that were offered by the members of the usage panel assembled for the Harper Dictionary of English Usage back in 1975 on the use of gift as a verb: "loathesome" (historian Lawrence Lafore), "desipicable" (Harrison Salisbury), "horrible" (Barbara Tuchman), and "barbarous" (Harold Schonberg). "It disgusts me," said Herman Wouk, and the novelist Ben Lucian Berman described it as "one of the reasons why America is in such bad shape today." The use of hopefully as a sentence adverb prompted reactions like "an abomination," "slack-jawed, common, and sleazy" and "one of the most horrible usages of our time" (presumably just nosing out "final solution").

But the very extravagance of those denunciations makes it obvious that they weren't meant to be taken literally. A malaprop or solecism can be irksome, but it's never more than that. Sleazy, loathesome, despicable -- in other areas of life those are words that we use with circumspection, and almost always to describe things a lot worse than saying "Gift her with a new coat" or "Hopefully, we will win." In fact most of us wouldn't even use words that strong for the kinds of linguistic behavior that can make us genuinely angry, like the use of weasel words by politicians or corporate spokespersons. If the panelists really did believe that these matters deserved the same level of public concern as other social and political issues, you can bet they would vent their disapproval a lot more moderately.

Lynne Truss has ridden this shtick to the top of the bestseller lists. To hear her tell it, not a day goes by that a faulty punctuation mark doesn't leave her appalled, gasping, shuddering, gazing in horror, or stopping dead in her tracks with her fingers in her mouth. Of course anybody who is actually walking around in state of shock and outrage over the punctuation of grocery store signs and movie posters should get back on her meds immediately. But if you camp up your pedantry, nobody can accuse you of taking yourself too seriously.

I say "camp" because on the surface, at least, those outbursts bring to mind the stylized, self-mocking horror that people use to ironize other kinds of aesthetic judgments. Let me repeat what I wrote about Truss in a "Fresh Air" piece a couple of years ago:

Truss's book bears a resemblance to another surprise cultural phenomenon, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" Those operatic denunciations of punctuation errors are what you'd expect from the "Queer Eye" bunch if they added a grammar makeover specialist: "Oh... My... God -- Did you hear that pronoun?"

But for pop grammarians like Truss, you can't help feeling that the self-mockery is a cover for self-congratulation. She may make fun of herself as a stickler, but she clearly considers herself to be one of an elect -- someone whose sleep is troubled by a misplaced apostrophe even if it's twenty mattresses down.

That's where the resemblance to "Queer Eye" breaks down. As Susan Sontag pointed out 40 years ago in a famous essay, true camp is always infused with generosity, even when it affects a malicious tone -- it's about relishing, not judging. Hence the crucial last scene of every "Queer Eye" episode, where the team is shown chatting fondly about the zhlubby straight guy they've turned into a swan.

But for all her energetic jollity, generosity isn't Truss's strength. She launches into arias of indignation over what most people would consider pretty venial offenses, like superfluous apostrophes in a pizza ad, the name of a pop group, or a sign over the vegetable bin.

That's the theme I keep hearing in all those outbursts of language rage. The melodramatic tone may be intended to stave off the charge that you take these matters too seriously, but it's also a way of affirming your solidarity with the thin red line of people who pride themselves on taking this stuff very seriously indeed.

As best I can tell, that comic indignation is a new note in language criticism. At least you won't hear anything like it in Fowler, who cut the ordinary speaker a lot more slack, and would have recoiled at the vulgarity of preening over one's superiority to one's greengrocer. In fact those expressions of horror over solecisms would have sounded genuinely appalling back in an age when the inability to get less and fewer right was actually considered an impediment to social advancement.

Then, too, Fowler assumed he was speaking for and to a broad class of educated speakers who cared about usage matters, not a privileged coterie, just as Addison and Matthew Arnold and Orwell did. Whereas contemporary usage writers no longer pretend to be speaking to matters of general concern. Rather, they depict themselves as the members of a beleaguered minority:

As long as there exists an active minority that knows how to distinguish between disinterested and uninterested, it is not too late to fight for such discriminating usage. --John Simon

People who take pains about the language are not just now in danger, through their vast number, of bringing about a population explosion. --Joseph Epstein

It seems harsh to deny guidance to the lonely and diminishing minority who may genuinely need and want it. --Kingsley Amis

You can't imagine Fowler speaking of a "lonely and diminishing minority" of people who care about usage -- if that were the case, why bother? And by any objective measure, that embattled tone is hard to justify. "How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are obliged to take refuge together in caves?" Truss asks in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but "caverns" would be probably be more appropriate as venues for assembling the three million people who bought her book. But despite the large audience that still exists for this sort of writing, the tone is an indication of how usage criticism has been culturally marginalized: cut off from its historical roots in language scholarship and serious social criticism, and enlisted as a kind of copy desk for the cultural right. With a few (very notable) exceptions, it has become the province of garrulous journos, dyspeptic curmudgeons, and the seat-of-the-pants syntacticians who populate the usage listservs and web zines, delivering themselves of the grammatical wisdom they learned in seventh grade at the end of Sister Petra's ruler.

Now I'll grant there's a considerable satisfaction in thinking of yourself as a member of a lonely and diminishing minority, and in our civilian capacities, we linguists can cluck with the best of them over the solecisms in the memos that come down from the dean's office. In fact a certain amount of hyperbole is pretty much inevitable when we're condemning linguistic peccadillos. "It sets my teeth on edge," "it drives me crazy" -- well, no, not actually, but those are the phrases that come with the system disk.

But in an odd way, that satisfaction is inconsistent with getting genuinely angry over the linguistic failings of the common herd. If you really believed that these were grave offenses against the greater moral order, it would be hard to take pleasure in being among the few who avoided them. These days, being a grammar snob is like being a devoté of Phish or Douglas Sirk films -- if everybody were into this stuff, it wouldn't be half as much fun.

Which is what makes the "pilotless drone" guy so weird and disturbing. Can you imagine what his wife has to go through at the breakfast table?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at February 8, 2007 08:39 PM