Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parvum Opus 287 ~ Happy Occident


Number 287


I am he as you are he as you are me

Bryan Garner's Usage Tip of the Day has covered the “It is I” quandary a couple of times this week, giving this example of ordinary usage:

"It is not me you are in love with." Richard Steele, The Spectator, No. 290, 1 Feb. 1712.

“Me” is the object of “with” as well as the predicate pronoun. Transposing the syntax of that sentence, obviously you couldn’t say, “You are not in love with I.” Garner continues:

E.B. White told an amusing story about the fear that so many writers have of making a mistake: "One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, 'My God, it's her!' When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to 'My God, it's she!'" E.B. White, "English Usage," in The Second Tree from the Corner 150, 150-51 (1954).

I just realized that no one has ever questioned another grammatical point about “It is I” (or you or him): “It” properly refers to an object or animal, not to a human. We might make an exception for a corpse, as in E. B. White’s anecdote. But we don’t say either “She is she!” or “She is her!”

God is quoted as saying “I am Who I am” but that doesn’t work for the rest of us. So we knock on the door and say “It’s me!” or “It’s us!” I doubt if even the people who say “It is I” say “It is we” when they show up for a party.

And if you’re unsure about how to use “than” (than I or than me) read Charles Carson on

than as preposition and/or conjunction in Grammar Girl.

White on Price

Remember my Indian student who asked if it’s OK to use idioms like “black and white” at work? (Black) Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price got into a snit because (white) Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield said traffic ticket collections had “become a black hole”. Price said it was a “white hole”. Good thing he’s not a physicist. (Black) Judge Thomas Jones (not that it matters) demanded an apology from Mayfield. I call Jones and Price white elephants. And as long as we’re on the subject...


I’ve written before about my puzzlement at complaints about the word “Oriental” used to refer to people from Asia, instead of “Asian”. I’ve been puzzled because it never had any negative implications with me. Apparently Oriental is now only acceptable in referring to objects from Asia, not people, although the real offense is that Orient means east so the word is Eurocentric: “they” are east of “us”. Of course, we’re west of them. True, people usually don’t insult objects ~ “D* *n Oriental Ming vase!” ~ except sometimes ~ “I don’t know if my dog died from eating d* *n poison Oriental dog food or the kids’ d* *n Oriental lead-painted toys from China!”

Naturally the English language names things in reference to English speakers, just as mapmakers put their own location in the middle of the map. You can’t get there from there if you can’t get there from here first. If Columbus had really found China by sailing west, we’d be calling the Chinese Occidentals.

As it is, no one’s complaining about the word Occidental. I can only guess what they call

call Europeans and Americans (i.e. white people) in their own languages. What do you suppose the Chinese called the Japanese, and vice versa, when the Japanese were invading China? (Read The Rape of Nanking.)

My dad was a committed racist who concentrated most of his vocabulary on black people, but if he had used the word Oriental it would have been a compliment. A veteran of the Pacific naval campaign in WWII, his word of choice for Asians was slopehead. When people want to insult Asians, they don’t use the word Oriental.

The word orient comes from Latin oriens and oriri, meaning to rise, as the rising sun. The word origin comes from the same source. The Japanese call their home the Land of the Rising Sun. Wherever did they get that idea? From China. Wikipedia says,

Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean "the sun's origin", that is, where the sun originates, and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan's eastward position relative to China. Before Japan had relations with China, it was known as Yamato and Hi no moto, which means "source of the sun".

Another meaning is jewel bright, according to

Bright; lustrous; superior; pure; perfect; pellucid; ~ used of gems and also figuratively, because the most perfect jewels are found in the East.

East know. To orient also means to ascertain your location, since we know the sun comes up in the east everywhere (except at the poles).

Occident means where the sun “falls” or goes down (something like accident). Frankly, I’m offended. Let’s start calling the USA the Orient.

People are insulting. Get rid of one word and people will make up another insult. Avoid the latest taboo and people will make up another taboo. Literate people do not find Oriental insulting.

Brain Candy

||| Here’s another gem from Dave Barry’s Mr. Language Person, where he discusses the “as far as” problem, among other grammatorical issues.

||| In the July 14, 2008 Baby Blues cartoon, cute kid says, “I’m hiccing up!” (I’d write “hicking up”.)

Your Weekly Dalrymple

In Grading on a Curse, Theodore Dalrymple wrote about...

... the head examiner of a British school-examination board, Peter Buckroyd, who explained to teachers why a pupil who answered the question, “Describe the room you’re in,” with “F* *k off” ... should receive a grade of 7.5 percent rather than a grade of zero. Buckroyd went so far as to say that “it would be wicked to give it zero because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for.”

First, the candidate had spelled the two words correctly ... which showed some grasp of English orthography; and second, he had strung two words together correctly, which showed some grasp of grammatical structure and an ability to convey meaning. Had the words come with an exclamation mark, moreover, the candidate should have received a grade of 11 percent, because he would have shown some grasp of punctuation.

“We’re looking for positives,” explained another examiner, who was presumably desperate to avoid provoking low self-esteem among his examinees. Buckroyd added that, after all, the candidate was “better than someone who doesn’t write anything at all.”

Hmm, so if someone says “F* *k off” to me, I should congratulate him for being able to speak? I don’t know how old the student was who wrote that very brief essay, but surely there’s an implicit expectation that student writing should progress beyond verbal grunts and snarls.

On a brighter note, in an interview Theodore Dalrymple said, “Music escapes ideological characterisation.” This reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s remark that “Music is the only sensual pleasure without vice.” It’s true that most other arts can tend toward corruption or intellectual misappropriation.

Media Worms Turn Over but Hog the Covers

This week has produced the most laughs of the entire presidential campaign. You’ve probably seen, or even bought, the New Yorker dated July 21 with Barry Blitt’s satirical drawing of Obama and wife. Naturally the NYer would not presume to satirize the Os, who are not to be laughed at, and moreover are not funny. The magazine is satirizing all non-O fans, who, they figure, are too dim to get it anyway ~ as if everyone west of New York doesn’t already know what New Yorkers think of them. Cincinnati’s cartoonist Jim Borgman did a great satire himself (July 17, 2008 editorial cartoon) on the famous 1976 Saul Steinberg cover of New Yorker’s view of America, and ordinarily Borgman tends to dress left.

At least Blitt’s cartoon begins slightly to balance all the magazine covers of O with a halo. Unfortunately, his cartoon omitted Jesse Jackson’s finely tuned critique of Obama’s political, uh, stance. Better keep that stance narrow, O!

The actual story by Ryan Lizza inside the New Yorker isn’t satirical; it covers his political career, which has been mostly all about campaigning.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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