Book Review: Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves
A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
The idea that a book on proper punctuation would rocket to the top of the bestseller charts is ludicrous. But the cliché says that truth is stranger than fiction, and indeed, such a thing has happened. As I write this review, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is number two on the New York Times bestseller list and has been on the list for ten weeks. It is number three on the Amazon.com sales list. Compounding the strangeness is that the book is British and has not been edited to reflect differences in American punctuation. The book has achieved similar commercial success in Britain.
Longtime readers who know of my descriptivist bent may be surprised to hear this, but I was rather eagerly looking forward to the American debut of this book. I have long held that punctuation, along with related rules about capitalization, spelling, and spacing, are the traffic signals of the written word. They serve to make reading easier and the writer’s meaning clearer. As such, standardization is highly prized. This book, however, does little to aid this goal.
Even more amazing is that this book is not a particularly good book on punctuation. It is not organized to be a useful guide or reference. Its jokes, of which there are many, are mildly amusing at best, often simply feeble, and always smarmy and smug. Truss provides no conceptual underpinning for the rules she promulgates, simply stating that these are the rules and that’s that. And she and her editors commit the sin of sins for a prescriptivist tome, it is filled with “errors” and violations of the very rules it advocates.
Word of the Month: Liberty
July hosts the anniversaries of two great 18th century political revolutions, the American and the French. Despite their occurrence in the late 18th century and commonality of political ideals and rhetoric, the two revolutions could hardly have been more different. One was the secession of a group of colonies led by wealthy merchants and landowners. The other was an uprising by the mob in the streets. One was relatively bloodless, the worst punishment inflicted on those that supported the old regime was usually forced exile and seizure of property. The usual punishment in the other was loss of one’s head.1 One resulted in a long-lasting and stable democratic government. The other resulted in rule by a megalomaniac intent on conquering all of Europe.
The 4th of July is Independence Day in the United States, the day in 1776 when the 2nd Continental Congress approved the draft Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson and broke its political ties with Britain. Ten days later, on the 14th, is the anniversary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille prison in Paris, the event that marks the beginning the of the French Revolution.
Book Review: John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing
The supposed decline of the English language is often bemoaned by grammarians and prescriptivists. In these pages we have frequently taken to task those who seek to impose arbitrary and pointless grammatical and usage prescriptivism, but is there something more to these complaints. Once you move beyond split infinitives and the difference between peruse and read, the question of whether or not we are losing artful use of our language remains.
John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care seeks to answer the questions of whether or not American society has lost the artful use of language and what impact this will have on our lives. He succeeds brilliantly at the first question, but falls short in answering the second. McWhorter charts a sea change in American use of the language dating to the mid-1960s, when we lost formalism in our public discourse. He then seeks to explain why this loss is consequential; unfortunately he does not quite succeed in describing why we should, like, care.
First, be forewarned about what this book is not. If you are seeking a book that picks apart texts for grammatical “errors” or “sloppy” usage, this is not it. McWhorter does not go in for prescriptivism. He is a linguist by trade, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and knows better than that. He does not bemoan the change in language simply because it is change. Instead, he is concerned with aesthetics in how we use the English language.
Word of the Month: D-Day
This month is the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. On 6 June 1944, British, Canadian, and American troops landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of France. In military jargon, the day was designated D-Day and the sixth of June has gone by this name ever since. To commemorate this event our word of the month is:
D-Day, n., military jargon for the day an attack or operation is scheduled to begin, specifically and historically 6 June 1944, the day the Allied invasion of Normandy began in WWII. The D stands simply and redundantly for day. H-Hour is a similar formulation. The term D-Day dates to the First World War, first used in 1918.
A Hoagie By Any Other Name
(This article originally appeared in Verbatim magazine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn 2003, and is reprinted with permission.)
I wanna shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I wanna explore the world. I wanna watch TV in a different time zone. I wanna visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?
—Homer Simpson, “Fear of Flying,” The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox Television, 1994.
One of the amusements offered by my frequent travels to Europe is seeing The Simpsons translated into different languages. Homer speaking French or German is something to behold. But sometimes I wonder if all of the humor translates along with the words. The above-quoted passage is one of the best jokes ever seen on that show, or at least to my inner-linguist it is. But even in Britain, where they don’t bother to dub the original American voices, probably only a few get the joke.
You see a hoagie, a grinder, a sub, and a hero are one and the same thing. They are simply regional names for a sandwich served on a large Italian roll and filled with Italian meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sprinkled with olive oil and spices. Variations on the basic recipe are made by filling the sandwich with other things, such as tuna fish, roast beef, ham and cheese, meatballs, and all manner of other ingredients. Subs can be served either hot or cold. All the exotic things that Homer associates with travel are simply roses by another name.
And Homer is just scratching the surface of lexical diversity of the sandwich. In addition to the names he cites there are: poor boy, torpedo, Italian sandwich, rocket, zeppelin or zep, blimpie, garibaldi, bomber, wedge, muffuletta, Cuban sandwich, and spuckie. Most of these names are associated with a particular region of the United States. The names also fall into several distinct patterns of origin, from the shape (sub, torpedo, rocket, zeppelin, blimpie, and bomber), from the size (hero, hoagie), from ethnic association (Italian sandwich, Cuban sandwich), from the type of bread used (muffuletta, spuckie), or from the fact that the sandwich is a cheap meal (poor boy).
Word of the Month: McCarthyism
On 2 May 1957, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) died of various illnesses exacerbated by alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. McCarthy had been a key instigator of the anti-communist hysteria that engulfed the United States in the early years of the Cold War and McCarthy was the eponym for the term that came to symbolize this hysteria and the tactics used to uncover communists in American society and government. It is our word of the month:
McCarthyism, n., the practice of identifying alleged communists and removing them from government departments or other positions of responsibility through public but unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks, specifically as pursued by McCarthy in the 1950s. In extended use, any form of persecutory investigation that uses similar tactics. The term was first used on 29 March 1950 in a Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert “Herblock” Lock.
Book Review: The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester has been making something of a career of late writing books about the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1998 he wrote The Professor and the Madman (British title: The Surgeon of Crowthorne) and has now penned The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. This latest is something of an unofficial history of the OED. The book was suggested to Winchester by the editors at Oxford University Press and is based on the research Winchester conducted for his 1998 book.
While the story of the OED is not one of high drama or cracking adventure, The Meaning of Everything is a book of great interest to anyone interested in words and lexicography. The creation of the OED was one of the monumental achievements of the Victorian age. (Although it was not completed until 1928, the OED is essentially a Victorian work.) It is also a story of bureaucratic and academic infighting and about how books get published.
Word of the Month: Mafia
This past month, Home Box Office, or HBO, a US subscription television service began broadcasting the fifth season of The Sopranos. The Emmy-winning series dramatizes the life of a New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano and his two “families”—his wife and children and his business associates. Unlike earlier mob-dramas like The Godfather, this series does not treat mobsters as men of honor; Tony Soprano is a violent sociopath, a thug who abuses and mistreats those closest to him. The series has earned host of awards and consistently high ratings.
Because of the premiere of what will probably be the penultimate season of the popular series, our word of the month is mafia, n., a criminal organization; originating in Sicily, but with offshoots operating in the United States; from the Italian, probably a back formation from mafioso, a member of the organization, the ultimate etymology is unknown; 1866.
What interests us here is not the violence of the show or even the nude women who dance in Tony’s strip club (being a subscription cable service, HBO is not limited by same broadcast standards of terrestrial television networks), but rather the language of the show. The series is replete with mob jargon and Italian words, usually spoken using the Sicilian-American pronunciation.
Words of 2003
It seems as if every linguistic group or web site comes up with its own annual list of words of significance for that year. So why should we be any different? What follows is a selection of words that we believe exemplifies and symbolizes 2003. While some of these words and phrases were coined in 2003, most were not. But they all represent some aspect of the past year.
axis of weasel, n., those countries which led opposition to the war in Iraq, especially France and Germany. Interestingly, the phrase was first coined on Usenet 2002 referring to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. In 2003, the term was either picked up or re-coined with the newer meaning. The term is a play on Bush’s “axis of evil.”
Bennifer, n., a 2003 vogue term for celebrity couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.
Annual Foot In Mouth Awards
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been awarded the “Foot in Mouth” prize by Britain’s Plain English Campaign for the most baffling comment by a public figure in the past year. The Campaign is an independent group of some 3,500 members who advocate for clear, easily understood English in public statements and documents.
Each year the campaign gives awards to examples of clear and well-constructed prose, but they also give two awards, the Foot in Mouth and Golden Bull, for impenetrable prose.
Rumsfeld won the award for the following statement, made in a February 2002 news briefing:
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Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton