Word Watch: “Washington Read”

One term that is is gaining some ground among those in government circles is the Washington read, the practice of standing in a bookstore and skimming the index of a new, tell-all book for references to yourself, instead of reading or buyrng the whole book.

Richard Armitage went so far as to admit to the 9/11 panel that he has given it “the Washington read"—i.e., he looked himself up in the index and then read “what was said about me.”
—“Womb It May Concern” by Sam Schechner, Slate.com, 26 March 2004

For power-readers, the “Washington read"—a perusal of the index and some corresponding text—has offered a shortcut some won’t admit to.
—“Making the List” by Ellen Gamerman, Baltimore Sun, 28 June 2004

Anyone who gave Clinton’s hefty book the Washington read (that is, a quick skim of the index pages) quickly discovered that Clinton made several mentions of Bossie.
—“You can’t teach an old attack dog new tricks,” by Eric Boehlert, Salon.com, 20 July 2004

Word of the Month: Olympic Games

On the 13th of the month, the Olympic Games open in Athens Greece. It will be the 25th time the games have been held since the Olympics were revived in 1896. (Although it is the 28th modern Olympiad; three of the games were canceled during the two world wars.) In honor of the games and the athletes competing in them, our word of the month is Olympic Games, n.; originally games contested in honor of Zeus, held on the plain of Olympia in Greece every four to five years; the ancient games were first held ca.776 BC until they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD; in modern use to denote the games established in 1896 by Baron de Coubertin.

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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.

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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.

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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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