Thursday, January 31, 2008

Parvum Opus 263 ~ Rectification of Language


Number 263
January 31, 2008


I’ve mentioned Theodore Dalrymple’s book In Praise of Prejudice; here’s an interview with him on the subject in the online American Spectator. Opening Q&A:

BC: Dr. Dalrymple, would you say that the rehabilitation and clarification of basic terms ~ such as prejudice, discrimination, honor, good and evil ~ has become an essential task for conservatives? Is that why you wrote In Praise of Prejudice?

Theodore Dalrymple: I suppose I am a bit of a Confucian in the matter of the rectification of language. And I am afraid that in the present climate, the connotation of words has often taken over in importance from their denotation. Thus, since irrational racial antagonism is a manifestation of prejudice, all prejudice comes to partake of the quality of irrational racial antagonism, and the right-thinking person thinks he has to overthrow prejudice as such. This is not realistic: no one has ever lived or could ever live as if this were the case. Hence we live in a state of humbug.

Here’s what Confucius said (or is said to have said):

If names are not rectified then language will not flow. If language does not flow, then affairs cannot be completed. If affairs are not completed, ritual and music will not flourish. If ritual and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties will miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, people lack the wherewithal to control hand and foot. Hence a gentleman's* words must be acceptable to vocalize and his language must be acceptable as action. A gentleman's language lacks anything that misses ~ period.

In other words, for want of a nail, etc. In this case, it’s for want of correct usage, the people are lost. If anyone can be called a conservative, it’s Confucius. As he said, “A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.” Considering all we don’t know, caution is well advised.

(*or, a superior man)


Dave DaBee wrote:

During a near-all-nighter at work the other day, I discovered a brag on the side of a Domino's box:


This box has been engineered with thermal exhaust ports for optimal crust consistency.

Thank God for engineering. Otherwise we'd have to live with mere vent slits in the box.

Otherwise known as holes to non-engineers. Is crust consistency what we want? We wouldn’t want consistent sogginess but we might want consistent crispiness, unless we don’t like crispy pizza crusts. We want crust perfection. I want to know who has the job of writing the copy on the pizza boxes. I’m thinking it’s a desperate English major.


I heard it there, you read it here:

/// “In lieu of that fact that” instead of “in light of the fact”. “In lieu” means “instead”. I know it’s a French word but it’s been around long enough that we ought to know what it means.

/// “Leery to continue” instead of “leery of continuing”. Purely idiomatic, I think, since we can say “afraid to continue”.

/// “Took home well more than minimum wage” instead of “well over”. This is from Freakonomics, which I’m listening to on CD. Has anyone ever said “well more than”? It’s “much more than”. This sounds like one of those crossed-synapse mistakes that usually only occur in speech, not in writing (or in this case, reading). The wage earners in question, by the way, are crack dealers; the lower level street dealer hardly makes anything but has ambitions to become one of the few big earners.


“Archbishop of Canterbury calls for new law to punish 'thoughtless or cruel' words.” Apparently an old blasphemy law is being scuttled, and the slander and/or libel laws are problematic, but this one could go even further. You could arrest just about everybody. And I’m sure a law could be enacted to cover more than just words; how about facial expressions? Smirks, leers, frowns and so on are all bound to offend someone, somewhere, sometime. And if you use really reliable lie detector tests, you might pin down what people thoughtlessly think.

Anyway, if the Archbishop gets his way, who gets to decide what’s thoughtless or cruel? Does your right to free speech give way to someone else’s right not to have to hear anything they don’t like? Will it be against the law to be rude? Oscar Wilde said, “A gentleman is someone who is never unintentionally rude.” Will there be age limits on either end? Will children be exempted, as when my young son pointed to a dwarf, midget, short person, or whatever the correct term is, and said, “Look at that short man!” or something like that. What about old people? Maybe we can all pretend to be prematurely senile, without any control over what we say. The cases of Tourette’s syndrome will increase, providing a medical excuse for prohibited remarks.


Here’s a book recommendation that has nothing much to do with words: Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art by John Silber. It’s really an essay, less than 100 pages with lots of pictures. The son of an architect, Silber was president and chancellor of the University of Boston. His book condemns some of the hideous and sometimes ridiculous architecture that’s been sold mostly to non-profit organizations with loose funds lying around, unaccountable to no one. The architects’ selling point is novelty. Take, for instance, the building that looks like it’s crashed into a block of buildings. Too reminiscent of the World Trade Towers, but it was built since then. A number of examples in the book have been built in Boston since I left in 2002. Can’t turn my back on them for a minute.

If you like this book, you’ll like Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, about architecture, and The Painted Word, which is about art and words; Wolfe says that some modern art has more to do with its abstruse verbal theory than with technique, beauty, or subject.


Mike Sykes wrote about the lost T in words like built, instead of builded:

We have also lost a syllable in some cases such as /dreamed/, /spoiled/, where the alternatives of /dreamt /and /spoilt/ are still a matter of choice; but with /beloved/ it's the pronunciation that's optional (unlike /loved/).


I’ve written about the pronunciation of “long-lived” before; it should be a long “i” (as in live performance) but everyone always uses a short “i” (as in living it up). gives the long i as the first pronunciation choice, but its sound clip has the short i. However, its list of most mispronounced words includes long-lived with the long i, and gives a useful way to understand and remember the correct pronunciation:

This compound is not derived from ''to live longly'' (you can't say that) but from ''having a long life'' and should be pronounced accordingly. The plural stem, live(s), is always used: "short-lived," "many-lived," "triple-lived."


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