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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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.

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Word of the Month: Marriage

The issue of gay marriage has been much in the news of late and the topic promises to be a hot-button political issue in the 2004 US presidential election. At issue are the questions of whether and how the state should recognize homosexual unions.Therefore, our word of the month is:

marriage, n., the condition of being husband and wife, since 1975 sometimes applied to same-sex couples. Also applied to the ceremony and celebrations associated with the beginning of such a union. Also applied to other forms of relationship, often with a modifer, e.g., plural marriage. Since c.1400, the word has been applied figuratively to any close union or blending of any two things. The word dates to c.1300 and is from the Anglo-Norman mariage. Ultimately it is from the classical Latin verb maritare, to marry, used to refer to people, animals, and the crossing of grapes in viticulture and the nouns maritus/marita, husband/wife.

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Shame On Martha

Standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in New York City this past month, businesswoman and former director of the New York Stock Exchange Martha Stewart, convicted of lying to federal investigators, asserted her innocence and decried the actions of the prosecutors. In so doing, however, she made what may be a Freudian slip in her use of the word shameful:

Today is a shameful day. It’s shameful for me and my family and for my beloved company and for all its employees and partners. What was a small personal matter came over the...became over the last two years an almost fatal circus event of unprecedented proportions.
—Martha Stewart, 16 July 2004

From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: shame·ful
Pronunciation: ‘shAm-f&l
Function: adjective
1 a: bringing shame : DISGRACEFUL b: arousing the feeling of shame
2 archaic: full of the feeling of shame: ASHAMED

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