The Quote Detective

I love language, and what can be done with a well-turned phrase: metaphor, simile, analogy, a quip and a quote.  I love how language can evoke and expand.  And when something so good comes along that people feel compelled to pass it along, I love finding out where it came from.

That’s not always easy to do. Things change in the retelling.  Origins get misty.  That was the case with the widely quoted and misquoted description of the Basin and Range as “an army of caterpillars marching northward toward out of Mexico.”  It’s been repeated in a variety of ways in a plethora of sources.  But who said it first?  Who looked at those wriggling mountain ranges and thought, “Hmmm, caterpillars!”?

Thanks to Silver Fox and her fellow investigators, now we know.  But this isn’t just the story of a quote, but how the combined power of Google, Twitter, and a determined social network can uncover the 124 year-old truth in a day.

Go.  Read.  Delight!

Webster’s Dictionary? That Damned Liberal Rag!

Page Bernard Goldberg! Evidence the dictionary’s “written by some liberal person!” They’re changing the definition of marriage – civilization will end!


Conservatives have their tidy whiteys all twisted because (ZOMG) the nation’s most popular dictionary updated the definition of marriage. Guess what, language gets updated all the time, that’s why there are new editions of dictionaries. *facepalm jpg*

Merriam Webster added a new definition of marriage in 2003

the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage

but as Andrew Sullivan points out, conservatives seem to have just noticed it. One guy got so upset about the “homosexual agenda” he made a video about it (above).

Two things, here. It took them six years to crack open a dictionary and discover this “outrage.” That’s fucking pathetic even by wingnut standards. And that video’s as pathetic as they are. They’d better pretend it’s a Poe.

How long do you think it’ll be before some absolute idiot in Congress or a state legislature tries to push a bill defending marriage against dictionaries?

Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your dictionaries!

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Nicole Palmby. You killed grammar. Prepare to die.

Okay, not really. But I needed some sort of introduction for my first post as sub-blogger of Dana’s Wonderful World of Snark. I am Nicole Palmby. And while you may not have killed grammar, it certainly is on its deathbed, and, as grammar is my mama, I plan to avenge its impending death.

I wrote this article late last week and edited it earlier this week, but I was a little reluctant to post it following Kaden‘s beautiful piece on grade inflation. I think, though, that what I have to say needs to be said, and I look forward to what you have to say about it, as well. Enjoy.

—–

My current day gig is shaping the literary, grammatical, and writing minds of the future leaders of your local Target team.

Okay. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption. I could be shaping the minds of future political leaders. For example, I could be grading the vocabulary assignments of the next George W. Bush! Some days I feel like I am.

Regardless of the future endeavors of the attitude-wielding, SMS-ing, bleary-eyed nodes of apathy, I am entrusted to ensure each pile of flip-flops and hoodie is able to identify the theme of classic but boring novel title here> and write a competent, even if uninteresting, five-paragraph essay.

Anyone who knows me might smile and mutter some comment about the ease of my vocation–”You mean you get to talk about books and writing all day and get paid for it? Man! Your life is rough, innit?”–but let me assure you that getting paid to talk about books and writing is not what it once was.

There was a time during which schools valued the education gifted to their students (because education really is a gift) and parents cared about what their children were doing all day. It wasn’t so long ago that students went to school because they knew they had to, and the community was proud if it was the custodian of a “good district.”

It seems that while the days of the “good school districts” still exist (I teach in one), much of what makes a school “good” has morphed into something wholly unrecognizable.

It used to be that, upon graduation, students were not only capable of writing a five-paragraph essay, but an 8- to 10-page research paper in MLA style with print sources. They understood the mechanics of the English language. They were able to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively within those mechanics.

However, I have received numerous essays this year completed–grudgingly, mind you–in what is known as text-speak. Yes, that’s right: English Honors students turned in formal essays that used the number 2 instead of “to” (and in place of “two” AND “too,” for that matter), used “ur” for “you’re” and “yr” for “your.”

While I love the ease technology gives my workload, I can’t help but shake my head at the price American children are paying for the conveniences they have. My junior students–also Honors–have difficulty placing apostrophes properly. They can’t tell me the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”

Programs that proofread, while I admit they can be helpful, have created a dependency. Students have no accountability for their own writing skills. After all, why should they remember that it should be “all right” not “alright” when Microsoft Word in its infinite wisdom makes the correction for them as soon as they strike the next key?

When I was younger and still taking math classes, my teachers usually allowed us to use calculators to check our work–after we had done the problems ourselves. Their logic was simple: you have to know the long way before you can use the shortcut. I think the same logic should follow in writing. Yes, you do need to know to correct the spelling of “there” to “their” so that when, later, the computer does it for you, you’ll know why.

Students today put no value on their education.

Although perhaps I shouldn’t put all the blame on the students. If they could they’d text and watch Flavor of Love all day. They don’t know enough to value their education.

Besides, it isn’t only students who devalue education in the United States. Some parents have a decreasing amount of involvement in their (not they’re) children’s educations. They blindly trust that the school is taking care of things.

Unfortunately, when a school budget is dangled by a thread of standardized test scores, many schools find themselves focusing the curriculum on test-taking skills rather than academic skills. I don’t agree with the practice, but when it comes down to teaching “real” curriculum or not having to eliminate instructional positions, I can’t say I’d act any differently.

I have my opinions about standardized testing, but that’s for another carnival.

Regardless, there is still a significant decline in the emphasis put on education in our nation. And yet, college enrollment (and graduation) is higher than ever. What kind of message are we sending to our children when they barely graduate high school and are admitted to colleges and universities once thought of as prestigious?

The result is a nation of employees who rely on the automatic proofreader in their word processors, and who are unable to be accountable for what they write.

The written word is a powerful weapon. Writers wield whole worlds with their pens, and, unlike surgeons, lawyers, and real estate agents, there is no examination that must be passed in order to become certified. Anyone can become a writer with just an idea, paper, and pen.

And instead of sanctifying this power, we reduce it to busywork assignments, let students take it for granted, and eventually, take it for granted ourselves. In fact, a colleague of mine suggested encouraging students to take their notes in text-speak in order to practice summarizing and resist the urge to write every single word. What an optimistic way of ensuring students are incapable of doing what every employee must do at one time or another: write intelligently, following general writing standards.

Unfortunately, this travesty has become so widespread as to be seen in every media outlet all over the world. Just today, in fact, while watching TV, the closed captioning on the television clearly read “presidentsy” instead of “presidency.” Really? I mean, really?

As what often feels like a single, tiny voice shouting into the wind, I fear there will be no end to the apathy toward the English language. Today prepositions are generally accepted at the ends of sentences. (I’m guilty of this myself when the “proper” grammatical construction reads/sounds awkward.) What happens tomorrow? “You’re” and “your” become one interchangeable word? Come on. (Oops! Preposition!)

Are Americans really so lazy that we’ve gone from omitting the “u” in various words—color, honor, etc.—to accepting English essays that use “yr” in place of “your,” which should really be “you’re”? I’m curious what Lynne
Truss
would say about American students (and adults, for that matter) English education and writing styles.

As a writer, as a teacher, as an American, I urge citizens and political leaders to work to effect (and that’s effect, not affect) a change in the state of English education in the United States. Write to your senators, representatives, school board presidents, governors…whoever will listen! We need to act fast or No Fear Shakespeare will become Shakespeare for Americans, and the Bard’s famous line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74) will quickly become “Peeps, lstn ↑!!1!”

Pride (in the Name of Bastard)

I’ve been waiting for this:


Anyway – if elitists are to unite proudly, why must they agree to be referred to as ‘bastards’? It is not their right to _choose_ to be called bastards. It is a judgemental if somewhat anachronistic slur on their mothers and possibly fathers.

Could the carnival not be called just the “Carnival of Elitists”? Just a thought.


I knew that at some point, someone would kick up a fuss about including the word “bastards” in a carnival name. I just rather thought it would be aimed me rather than directed at Paul at Cafe Philos. The poor bastard had nothing to do with naming the Carnival, after all, but it seems that his enthusiastic support has him taking my bullets.

Paul: you are a gentleman and a scholar. Your sacrifice was not in vain.

I’m sure plenty of people have thought what this commenter said. And to them, I say: “No one’s forcing you.”

If you want to be simply an elitist rather than an Elitist Bastard, that’s your right. Gather round yourself elitist non-bastards, put together your own (more creatively-named) carnival, and fight the good fight on a more rarified front. The world has room for a myriad of elitists. The more, the merrier.

Just a bit o’ advice: don’t name your carnival “Carnival of Elitists.” It has no zing. It has no zip. It doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quois. And it’ll end up looking like you’re riding on our coattails. This would be sad.

Now, if you’re wanting to count yourself amongst the elitists, but are too upset by the silly word “bastards” to join up, perhaps it’s time for some exploration. Bastard can, indeed, be a perjorative term, but it’s taken on different connotations over the years.

It can mean something that’s neither one thing nor the other, but an amalgam. Think bastard sword, for instance: the hand-and-a-half sword, which chose not to be for just one hand or two, but allows a choice.

Seems a good enough term for us Elitist Bastards, who have no trouble simultaneously being common as muck and smart as all get-out. We’re not a pretentious elite, but a more populist one. We think intelligence is something to be celebrated, but I doubt any of us think it’s something reserved to a select few, and we certainly don’t think it has to make you a stuffy, proper, boring git. Calling ourselves bastards is a joyful way of announcing we’re out to have fun with our elitist tendencies.

And what’s so wrong with being a bastard, anyway? The United States of America was built in large part by a bastard: Alexander Hamilton. He was a bastard by birth, back when illegitimacy was an actual stigma. That never stopped him from becoming a brave bastard, a brilliant bastard, a tenacious bastard, and a nation-building bastard. Our Constitution, our federal government, our treasury, and our industry can all be laid largely at his feet. He’s an icon of Elitist Bastardry, and I say it’s time we start being proud of that fact.

Being a bastard in the sense of an offensive, abrasive person isn’t at all bad, either. Observe:


H.L. Mencken was a bastard. He had a core meanness that showed itself in his writing and in his personal life. Without that meanness, though, his writing might never have gotten so startlingly good. Lots of people need lots of things to do what they do. Mencken simply needed to be hard.

In the early part of the 20th century, America needed Mencken. We needed him to wash away some of the Emersonian/Whitmanian enthusiasm that had started to clog up the collective joint. Not that Emerson and Whitman didn’t have their place. As Mencken himself notes in his essay “The National Letters,” it took Emerson and then Whitman, among others, to stand up and defend the possibility of an American Mind and an American Voice. They did so with boldness and with prose falling over itself in its excitement about itself. Sometimes with Whitman it seems that we’re but one or two orgasms away from the final utopia of ecstatic democracy. This newfound confidence, speaking out, proclaims that America has finally figured out what it is. An American literature of the late 19th century was coming out of the Wilderness with something to say.

Mencken wasn’t so sure. Surveying the landscape in 1920 and musing about what had been accomplished in the wake of all this exuberance, he had this to say about our literature: “Viewed largely, its salient character appears as a sort of timorous flaccidity, an amiable hollowness.” Mencken then proceeds over many pages to tear the national character a new one.


We’re at another point in history when the national character needs to be torn a new one. “Timorous flaccidity” and “an amiable hollowness” seems to describe our nation’s intellectual drive quite well in places. In others, we’re talking equally hollow, but the vicious, biting hollow of the terminally self-esteemless. It’s time for the bastards to step up, be hard, and shame the nation into appreciating its brain power once again. We need bastards who can do this:


He had to show us in our dumbness, engaged in the same fruitless struggle that lays low every beast in time. Funnily, and in spite of all his maddening missteps of judgment, Mencken — in being such a relentless bastard year after year — gave the American voice back a little of its humanity.


What’s wrong with being those bastards? Absolutely nothing.

Now, I do understand that some folks have more trouble with the word “bastard” than others. It’s not enough for them to be in such illustrious company as Alexander Hamilton and H.L. Mencken. Perhaps we should pour those folks a nice glass of Fat Bastard Chardonnay and introduce them to the Australian definition of the word:


Like mate, the term bastard itself is not distinctly Australian. What is, though, is our tendency to use it with considerably frequency, and to mean different things by it depending on the context. A characteristic distinctive of Australian English is the way we use words and phrases that could possibly be considered to be offensive in an inoffensive or even affectionate way.


And that’s the sense in which it’s meant here: “How are you, you elitist bastard you?” rather than “Omigod, you’re such an elitist bastard!” Just because we’re elitists doesn’t mean we’ve checked our informality and sense of humor at the door. Much the reverse. Like the Aussies, we’re able to relax, have fun with the more outrageous bits of the English tongue, and show our love for each other and our elitism by calling each other Elitist Bastards with hearty good humor.

So could we call our Carnival of the Elitist Bastards simply Carnival of the Elitists? We could. But it wouldn’t be half so much fun, then, would it?

Fuck: An Ode to the Most Versatile Word

Fuck is one of my most favoritest words. I’ve adored it for decades. It’s been the chile in my relleno, the heavy in my emphasis, and a balm to me in my times of troubles. One of the best services to humanity I’ve ever performed is teaching my best friend its proper use and appreciation.

If only I’d had this fine teaching video available to me when I was furthering his education:

Where was this when I was in school? Oh. Right. I went to high school in a town with more churches than people…

Well, fuck.

Tip o’ the shot glass to the Wingnutterer, by way of Canadian Cynic. Muchos gracias, mi amigos!

(Un)Civil Discourse

I’m hamstrung.

It doesn’t help that I took the knife to my own tendons in accepting Canadian Cynic’s “The CC ‘Canadian Dumbfuck Wanker Challenge.’” Yes, I know I’m not Canadian, and thus could have thrust my nose high in the air and proclaimed, “Well, I’m an American, so that doesn’t apply to me.” I’m a cynical liberal who likes to cuss a blue streak, and that’s all the reason I needed to accept this challenge:


For one day — Monday, March 31 — I challenge every single member of Canada’s progressive blogging community to be polite.

That’s right — from midnight to midnight, over the course of Monday, March 31, I’m defying every single left-wing blogger in Canada to be nice. Be genteel. Be suave and urbane, and refrain from calling anyone a numbskull, retard, imbecile, cementhead, stupid cunt or dumbass motherfucker, even when they clearly deserve it, just to prove that, yes, we can play nice when we feel like it. I don’t think it’ll be that hard. 24 hours? I’ve gone longer than that without a beer so I’m pretty sure my willpower is up to it. (And, yes, playing nice includes comments as well. No getting around this on a technicality.)


This is just too great an opportunity to pass up. I’d wanted to say a few words about words anyway, and then here’s CC, challenging us to use family-friendly language for 24 hours.

It comes at a time when some folks over at ScienceBlogs are wringing their impecably polite hands over PZ’s succinct use of the f-bomb. (Word to the Wise: if you visit the first link there, the true gold is in the comments.) There’s also an article exhorting liberals to make more liberal use of fighting words. It’s a debate that comes up with depressing frequency: should we, or shouldn’t we, be more polite when we call someone a fu dumba ret person who’s not using his or her mental faculties adequately?

I have to admit something: I used to come down on the side of civility. I thought you’d get your point across far more elegantly if you didn’t use – um – “strong” language to make it. Set the example by using reasoned, decent language while the unwashed masses were slinging shi poo at each other. Don’t sink to their level. Yada yada bulls whatever yada. Granted, I was a veteran user of the euphemism for intercourse, an expert in alternatives to “excrement,” and a blasphemer extradordinaire in private life, but I’d never stoop so low as to use such words injudiciously in a written piece unless it was dialogue or a direct quotation.

You can refer to my previous posts to infer that I have changed my mind.

There is such a thing as being able to use vulgar language in a sophisticated way. I indulge in that at times. Sometimes, it’s good to just let yourself go, and I indulge in that variation as well. There are times when you could use flowery phrases to state a position, but you could use a single curseword to much greater effect.

One example of that has stayed with me for decades.

So no shi kidding, there we were in DARE class, back when I was in high school and (according to creationists) dinosaurs still roamed the earth. We’re sitting there bored as a Home Depot overstocked on lumber, and our DARE officer is yammering on and on about the dangers of drugs. I can’t tell you what he was saying, and I was a law enforcement buff who was less inclined to tune out and start thinking about fu sex than most. You can imagine how little most others were hearing. But then, he says in this deadly serious voice, “I want to tell you something.” He leans over his desk, knuckles planted, and gives this furtive look around the classroom and door for lurking administrators. We all perk up. What’s he got to say that’s making him look like Deep Throat about to spill Nixon’s secrets?

“Drugs are shit,” he says.

I can guarantee you that if you polled the group in that classroom today, that is the only thing they’ll remember. It’s the only thing they needed to remember. Here was an authority figure, a cop no less, speaking naked truth in the starkest terms possible. It wasn’t just the word, although that was powerful stuff coming from a representative of authority in a suffocatingly religious community. It was the tone. It took an attention-getting word and made it stand for every harm drugs could do to self and society.

There are times when one naughty word is worth a thousand civil ones.

There are times when sinking a level or two is the right thing to do. Sad to say, many Americans (and I’m sure plenty of Canadians and British and other assorted speakers of the English language) aren’t appreciative of sophisticated wit. That doesn’t mean you don’t use it. That means you sneak it in with a heaping helping of vulgar tell-it-like-it-is language-of-the-streets in-your-face verbal smackdown. The pure intelligentsia and literati may gasp in horror, but they’re drowned out by the rest of the audience gasping in appreciation. And you reach a broader swath of people that way. Talking over someone is just as annoying as talking down to them, if you ask me. There’s a difference between being learned and snooty. A judicious use of colorful language makes it easier to avoid the snoot.

Then there’s the ridicule factor. You can patiently trot out the facts, correct erroneous arguments, plead for reason, tolerance and civility, and make a scrupulous example of yourself as a fair-minded, kind-hearted, open and friendly defender of science/liberty/justice/Mom. Some folks might listen, especially those on your side. But when you salt the above with some salty language, you catch the attention of those who might not have been listening otherwise. Do you think I give two tugs on a a flying fu a darn about Canada’s right wing? I do now, but it’s not because of some excrutiatingly polite liberal moan about the horrible lies and why can’t we all just get along and this is so terrible! It’s because Canadian Cynic’s snark is so delightful. And because of said snark, I now know that they have a Bush II clone in office, they have a right wing that gives ours a run for their money on lies, corruption and destructiveness, and that if progressives everywhere don’t grow a pair, this is all we can hope for the world over: that the authoritarian sadists will allow us a dab of Vasoline before they bend us over.

Snark breeds awareness, my darlings. Don’t you forget it.

“But we need to set an example,” I hear some folks whine. Of course we do. That’s why some of us will be iconoclastic, outrageous, generally, perhaps charmingly but above all relentlessly offensive.

This accomplishes several things.

It gets attention.

Far from drowning out the voices of moderation, it can highlight them. I can imagine some folks turning to the likes of Nisbett, Moody et al in relief after getting their ears sandblasted by PZ Myers, Dawkins et al. Face it, friends: if you didn’t ha
ve radicals to blush about, how much would you have in common with the moderates on the right who are busy blushing over the shenanigans of their own embarrassing relations?

It shows folks that you can stand out from the crowd and survive.

That last bit’s important, and I’ll tell you why: Bob Altemeyer. He did a study on authoritarian followers (i.e., the 30% or so who swallow every lie the neocons and theocons feed them and keep swallowing no matter how many times wiser folk have proven they’re drinking poison). You should read it if you’ve run out of horror novels. But anyway, he did some studies, and found that a good majority of us will follow authority. And if there’s not someone else there setting an example in defying said authority, that majority gets scary huge.

However:


Often one person can steel another, and another and another, until many are working together. You don’t have to form a majority to have an effect. Two or three people speaking out can sometimes get a school board, a church board, a board of aldermen to reconsider authoritarian
actions. Lack of any opposition teaches bullies simply to go for more. But it takes one person, an individual, to start the opposition. [The Authoritarians (pdf) page 244]


See there? We need to act out for the good of society!

All right, so he has other points that tend to counter mine in that list of suggestions for changing hearts and minds, but he’s talking about courting the 30-percenters, and I’m talking about swaying the people who aren’t sure which voice to follow: the one that says “You must obey authority!” or the one that says, “They’re [expletive deleted] getting us killed, you [asperation on addressee's intelligence deleted]! Sod this for a game of larks Forget them!”

John Dolan has it just about right in his article “How to Humiliate – and Convert – a Right-Winger”:


A good first step would be accepting the fact that language is a weapon — and then start using it effectively. Most liberals affect scorn for mere words, in the way that I affected scorn for mathematics after flunking algebra twice in high schools. And most of the hardcore academic progressives I’ve known have tin ears. Their sheer awfulness is adaptive within the academic ghetto, in the way that a lack of any olfactory ability is adaptive for carrion eaters; but it’s disastrous when they try to talk to people outside their guild.


He goes on to say much the same thing John Douglas did when speaking of serial killers – when we give more respect than is due, when we elevate them by calling them “John Wayne Gacy” instead of “that sick bastard who killed all those kids,” when we don’t denegrate, we make them glamorous rather than horrifying. He advocated digging through their past for humiliating nicknames and using other such means to minimize and despise them.

Yes. Yes! Granted, right-wingers, creationists, theocons and neocons and all of the other plagues on democracy and reason aren’t serial killers, but they are bullies, and you don’t win a bully’s respect by whining about fairness and decency. You put a stop to him by putting him down. PZ Myers has it right – point and laugh. Ridicule. Debunk. It’s a sad fact that people respond to negative attacks more readily than reasoned discourse, but they do. The bards in Ireland were feared by kings because of their power to make people laugh. Reducing your opponent, destroying his prestige, works.

I plan to use the language as a weapon. I’ll use all weapons at my disposal: satire, parody, reason, rhetoric, logic, and the foulest of foul language. Let others be the diplomats. I’ll even be diplomatic, when the situation calls for it, but diplomacy without fighting spirit comes across as being a snivelling pansy, and we all know how much that impresses people, don’t we?

There are times when a judicious application of (un)civil discourse can go a long way. These are those times. And I cannot fuc friggin wait until April 1st…

Roots

Just so we’re clear: I’m one of those pathetic Americans who speaks a few words of español, a smattering more français, and for seasoning can add a greeting or two in Japanese, German, Russian, and sundry other languages. But I’m sadly unilingual.

So why all the Spanish? Why not just celebrate my native tongue, unadulterated by others?

Well, there’s reasons. For one, English isn’t English so much as a hodge-podge of assorted borrowed, begged, pilfered, filched, and impounded words from a great many languages. I’ve never tried this experiment, but I’d be very interested to see what would happen if you reduced the dictionary to pure English-origin words. We’d have, what, about a handful left? So I’m just carrying on the grand English tradition of appropriating whatever catches my fancy at the time.

Then there’s the fact I grew up in the Southwest. Rather hard to avoid appending a word or two of Spanish down there. “¿Cómo estás?” becomes just as habitual as “how’re you?” Your horizons expand beyond “enchilada” and “taco” by default.

So it’s funny that I used to hate Spanish. Or maybe not. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. I took French in high school instead. Je parle un petit pous français, très mal, and now I wish I’d taken Spanish, because I’ve fallen in love with it. And now that I’m without it, I suffer.

I love the Northwest, I truly do, but a part of me will always miss the Desert Southwest. I miss the border culture, where Mexican and American intermingle so much that it becomes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. There’s a latino community up here, true, but it’s not yet so pervasive. If I try to tell the joke about why the Chevy Nova didn’t sell in Mexico, I have to explain it. I can’t just say, “Because it’s a no va!” and get a gale of laughter. No, I have to murder the punchline by adding, after the blank pause, “no va is Spanish for ‘doesn’t go’”.

I miss Cinco de Mayo and Mexican flags and restaurants where all you hear is rapid-fire Spanish.

I miss being so close to Puerto Peñasco, where Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers throw Circus Mexicus twice a year.

And these are the reasons this blog will have such a heaping helping of Spanish words and phrases. Just in case you were wondering. Look, I provided you with a link to Babelfish if it gets too much. And hey, maybe this would be a good time to think about your roots, too. What’s in your history that you celebrate?

Just a thought.