Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere.
William Safire died on Sunday, September 27. He wrote for The New York Times for many years on politics and language. I’ve referred to his work from time to time, and just before he died I landed on a recent column called “Phantonym” which was his coinage for a word that appears to mean something other than it actually does, thus tripping up the innocent.
A common example is the confusion of uninterested with disinterested. Logically they could mean the same thing, but historically they don’t, and we need both meanings. Uninterested = not caring, having no curiosity or desire for something: “She is uninterested in reading that book.” Disinterested = impartial, gaining no personal benefit: “The judge is invested in the plaintiff company therefore he must recuse himself because he is not a disinterested party in the case.”
In 2005 Safire wrote a dozen rules for reading a political column, three of the main points being:
· Beware when the writer uses a quote from the opposite political side to make a case.
· Ignore insider jargon.
· Consider the source, and whenever you see the word “respected” in front of a name, narrow your eyes.
These are legitimate rhetorical devices, but they are devices and as such should not distract you from the facts or the logic. From the truth, in other words.
Sorry to see Safire depart the scene.
The Not So Dark Ages
Maeve Maddox explains the Dark Ages in Daily Writing Tips: First, we mustn’t confuse the Middle Ages with the period from about the fifth through tenth centuries, between the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the establishment of more stable European governments. Also, it’s a mistake to think that all learning and civilization were “dark” for centuries. A lot was going on then. Maddox says,
If historians aren’t using the term, we shouldn’t either, even if we’re not going to study history.
John McC wants to know why flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. I found a little bit of useless history about the words online — words introduced into the language, words declining in use — but the important thing is that they both mean able to burst into flame. Since no one is likely to mistake the meaning of flammable, that’s what you usually see painted on the sides of containers carrying hazardous materials. Inflammable could be confused with non-flammable, which no one uses. It’s a safety issue.
The prefixes non and in can both mean “not” (though they can also mean nine and inside or into, respectively), so they’ve been used interchangeably at. But sometimes we end up with one or the other possible form, or in this case both, just because.
In other forms of the word, we find that an inflammation is not a fire but “the complex biological response of vascular tissues to harmful stimuli”. Inflammatory words may incite to riot or at least to more inflammatory words. It seems that in no other formation does inflam- suggest “not firey” as inflammable seems to.
If flamenco dancing reminds us of flame
Would inflamenco dancing be tepid and tame?
Crimes by Any Other Name
The notorious Roman Polanski is back after fleeing 30 years ago to avoid major jail time for raping a 13-year-old girl. Some Hollywood types don’t think what he did was so bad. (You can look up the details for yourself). Harvey Weinstein referred to the “so-called” crime. It is not a “so-called crime”*, it was and is an actual crime. Weinstein apparently doesn’t want it to be a crime. Whoopi Goldberg said “it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape”, apparently because she doesn’t recognize statutory rape and/or Polanski’s variant on the physical crime.
Elsewhere on the legal front, Brian David Mitchell, the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart, is the object of legal discussion about his “competency” to stand trial or be responsible for his actions. I never understood the rationale behind this defensive ploy. Mitchell was competent enough (1) to get what he wanted and (2) to try to evade capture. In a sense you could say that any violent, sadistic criminal is mentally unwell, but then what?
*When you add quotation marks to “so-called” does it mean “so-called so-called”?
Let’s Go to the Movies Safely
Movie ratings are getting more confusing. I don’t mean the PG, PG-13, R, but the growing list of qualifiers:
strong graphic violence
profanity (but not blasphemy)
brief drug use
brief sexual content (!)
mature themes (losing a job?)
brief disturbing images
But the one that puzzles me is for a PG movie (The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry) and a PG-13 movie (The Time Traveler’s Wife): “thematic elements”. I haven’t seen either one but they both seem to have carried over in theaters longer than some other movies, so they’re popular. If any of you have seen either movie, please share with us what “thematic elements” in them require cautions. Sperry seems to have a religious theme, specifically Christian, so perhaps that’s what the reviewer is warning potential viewers about. Time Traveler is sci fi so any religious stuff could be ascribed to fantasy.
The Stream of Literary Consciousness
I ran across a quotation from Samuel Johnson in Word Watch (Stephen Cox, Liberty Magazine, October 2009, pp. 10-11), which I recognized as the original of a paraphrase I remembered reading in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:
Here’s Johnson on Lord Chesterfield’s too little-too late patronage (1755):
Here’s Alcott, through the character of Jo March, on being a writing spinster (1868):
This kind of literary borrowing is not plagiarism because Alcott the writer would assume her readers would be familiar with her own literary heroes, and would appreciate the allusion. And of course she mentioned his name. (By the way, some early feminist literary theorists thought that this style of sentence, the periodic sentence, might be an attribute of male writing, whereas a “female sentence” would just flow on. I don’t think so, even though Jo was a tomboy.)
Practically my only real contribution to scholarly publication was recognizing something that Jane Austen borrowed from Shakespeare when she described a character as “half mulatto, chilly and tender”. But it doesn’t mean what you might think, that the mulatto girl from the tropics was suffering in England’s climate. I happened to be taking a Shakespeare class that year and remembered this from All’s Well That Ends Well:
Thus a chill and tender character is one that treads the primrose path to hell. Austen would have assumed her readers knew Shakespeare.
Friday, October 2nd, 2009
A review of Michael Moore's new movie Capitalism: A Love Story (rated R for strong language) by New York Times...
Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Although this aspect of the health care proposal is attached to Senator Max Baucus's name, it won't float without...
Monday, September 28th, 2009
Here he comes, Mr. America…! After winning the coveted Mr. America crown, the charming Barack Obama, who...
Sunday, September 27th, 2009
A TV pundit laments the lives lost annually because people couldn't get adequate medical care on time. These would...
I’m publishing for the Kindle digital reader with Amazon and now also on Lulu.com for download to computer and for printing. Most of these titles are available in both locations. Search for Rhonda Keith on Amazon.com Kindle store and Lulu.com.
A Walk Around Stonehaven is a travel article on my trip to Scotland. Short article with photos. (Lulu.com only.)
The Wish Book is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues. Novella.
Carl Kriegbaum Sleeps with the Corn is about a young gambler who finds himself upright in a cornfield in Kansas with his feet encased in a tub of concrete; how would you get out of a spot like that? Short story.
Still Ridge is about a young woman who moves from Boston to Appalachia and finds there are two kinds of moonshine, the good kind and the kind that can kill you. Short story.
Whither Spooning? asks whether synchronized spooning can be admitted to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Humorous sports article.
Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cats: One woman's tale of menopause, in which I learn that the body is predictive; I perceive that I am like my cat; and I find love. Autobiographical essay.
Parvum Opus Volume I. The first year (December 2002 through 2003). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get PO’ed. Collection of columns.
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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 http://www.geocities.com/