Thursday, June 5, 2008

Parvum Opus 281 ~ Fierce Rhetoric


Number 281



Dave DaBee passed on two good tips to us this week. First is an article in the New York Times by Susan Jacoby on the word “elite”. A choice excerpt:

After listening to one of my lectures, a college student told me that it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. “You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.”

True, but how can an information-seeker know what to look for if he or she does not know that the Bill of Rights exists? There is no point-and-click formula for accumulating a body of knowledge needed to make sense of isolated facts.

This is just the latest in lame student excuses for ignorance of what should be essential knowledge.

I’ve written about the use of this word as a snide dismissal of anyone with a different point of view, and Jacoby covers the current political uses of “elite” pretty well. Several years ago I wrote about being called “elite” by a former friend because I intended to apply to a new graduate studies program built by a well-known feminist writer. I’m not sure whether my feminist former friend thought it was the fame of the professor that was elitist, or just the fact that I decided to continue my education instead of getting into one of the trade unions as my friend did. I considered it for a while, and I sure would have made more money had I become a tool and die maker. “Elitist” is all about politics, not reality. This same erstwhile friend said words were weapons, whereas I thought they were tools. As always, let’s look for elucidation from the word’s etymology, which is the Latin eligere, to choose. Nothing wrong with choosing, and why not choose the best, or most interesting, path available to you?

Dave’s other contribution is from the Wall Street Journal, an article by Rebecca Dana on the annual running of the English spelling reformers, from which I’ve pulled several quotes:

At least three major films about spelling have been made in recent years: "Bee Season," the documentary "Spellbound," and "Akeelah and the Bee." The hit Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" closed in January after 1,136 performances....

Elizabeth Kuizenga, a California teacher of English-as-a-second-language and the mother of the actress Rebecca Romijn (pronounced romaine) ... says she became interested in spelling reform as a child, when she mispronounced the word "ignorance" and her parents laughed at her. (Right, simplify spelling and you’ll never suffer embarrassment again. I mispronounced “Nova Scotia” (Nova Sco-tee-a) in fifth grade, but I got over it.)...

Noah Webster catapulted the movement into relevance in the 18th century, when he created a new, distinctly American orthography on a patriotic impulse, around the time of the Revolutionary War. Webster, who died in 1843, is why Americans write "color" instead of "colour" and "theater" instead of "theatre." He fought his whole life for government-mandated spelling reform and died despondent that it never happened....

The movement reached its apogee on Aug. 20, 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt, a terrible speller, officially changed the spelling of 300 English words. What seemed like a good idea ~ changing "through" to "thru," and so on ~ turned into a humiliating disaster. Newspapers mocked him as "Rozevult." Congress voted 142-24 to overturn the order. (Reminds me of when I worked at the Peninsula “Niteclub”. It was a pretty posh place but the revised spelling gave it a touch of trash.)...

Some consider English spelling beautiful because each word reflects its own evolutionary history. Others argue the idea of phonetic spelling fails to take dialect into account, since pronunciation varies widely from one English-speaking place to another. (Exactly right.)

Up Is Down, Fierce Is Not

Did you ever notice that a contemporary version of the old slang, to be “up for” something, is to be “down with” something? Maybe this is another example of reversing common meanings, as when bad means good. (Example, Michael Jackson singing “I’m bad.” He had it both ways.) As slang, hot and cool sometimes mean the same thing. The feelings are different but the venues are similar, as in jazz.

From Overheard in New York:

Guy #1: I want to sing into an oscillating fan and record it.

Guy #2: Do you think you're the first person to think of that? That's like saying the kid on Project Runway invented the word "fierce".

I don’t think I’ve watched Project Runway, but it’s a reality show about modeling, and I have noticed “fierce” used to describe models or things that are hip or beautiful in an extreme fashion. According to Urban Dictionary it’s gay slang, introduced by designer Christian V. Siriano. Since neither models and designers are what I think of as fierce, it must be another one of those opposites things.

Big Guyes

Latest inexplicable spam for male augmentation: “All chicks like big guyes with short hair, solid eyes.” Personally I like solid guyes with big eyes.

Serial Comma

Here’s an example from an IBD editorial of why to use the serial comma (comma after the second to last item in a series, preceding the conjunction):

The current debate about energy in the United States has devolved into doing the same old thing — consume, don't produce and complain — while somehow expecting different results.

Should it be “consume, don’t produce, and complain”? I think so but I’m not absolutely sure.


Less confusing than the serial comma issue, but still irritating, is this ad:

It's a spot for a family dinner, a date or to bring guests.

Since we wouldn’t say “It’s a spot for to bring guests” the sentence should be rewritten. The linking “a date” possibly threw the writer off, since we can correctly say either “It’s a spot for a date” or “it’s a spot to bring a date” (“date” changes its meaning with the change of grammar). We wouldn’t say “It’s a spot for guests” so the best recasting might be, “It’s a spot for the family, a date, or guests.”

Watch Your Tongue, Pen, Pencil, Keyboard, Thoughts, and Wallet

Talk about killing the messenger. Mark Steyn and McLean’s magazine are now in the midst of a hearing or trial (show trial, Steyn calls it) by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which forbids writing anything that might hold persons up to contempt. Wouldn’t this mean no news at all, let alone opinion? No crime reporting? No political reporting? No movie reviews?

My favorite movie reviewers, Reel Geezers (Lorenzo and Marsha on reviewed the new movie Sex and the City. Lorenzo teased Marsha, who usually has a political slant, by saying the women in the movie “don’t care about Vietnam”. Actually they probably hadn’t heard of Vietnam. I haven’t seen the movie, and just wonder if I’d be holding anyone up to contempt by reporting that a local pregnant woman had labor induced just so she wouldn’t miss the opening of Sex and the City.

The U.S. government also has forbidden official pairing of the words “Islam” and “terrorism”, and the UN passed a resolution against Islamophobia (in layman’s terms, an irrational fear of jihadist suicide bombers), as indicated by any (verbal) identification of Islam with terrorism, which resolution was introduced by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. I guess the UN isn’t outlawing actual Islamic terrorism, not even genocide in Darfur. But I’m cool. I could report that Muhammad decreed that those who leave Islam should be punished by execution, and that leaving Islam is still punishable by death, but I’m not really defaming anyone because I think that’s all great!

Animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot, on the other hand, has been fined more than $23,000 by the French government for criticizing Muslims in a letter, particularly for slaughtering sheep for a religious holiday, and also for generally destroying France by imposing their ways on the culture.

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