Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Parvum Opus 358: L'esprit d'scalier

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere


Bryan Garner on Legal Language

I have often quoted Bryan Garner in PO; I subscribe to his Usage Tip of the Day. Garner is a lawyer, the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, and is most meticulous and lucid. He’s written more than 20 books on law and language and I own a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage. I was happy to learn that he’s on YouTube, where he interviews Chief Justice John Roberts on legal writing, and presents segments of his courses on Legal Writing and Ethical Communications for Lawyers (#1: Don’t lie). See

Did you know there’s something called a sit and squirm test?

For you lawyers out there on the PO list, and everyone else who has any contact with legalese (alert Dan Erslan):

For his forthcoming Gobbledygook Awards, Bryan A. Garner invites you to send him published examples of particularly bad prose that appeared in 2009, especially examples originating in state and local governments. Extra points if you supply a translation. Please send them to:

There are other Gobbledygook Awards out there, though, including one with Rich Lederer on the Panel, but I’m sure there’s enough gobbledygook to go around.


Harry Holland wrote:

POTUS, yes, it's been around a while. I saw it on many a telegraphic cable while with the US Foreign Service. Mostly when he was to visit post.

That had to have been the previous POTUS.

And Mike Sykes wrote:

I've known it for some time, like years. And FLOTUS, SCOTUS though not as common, of course. Could I have got them all from "The West Wing", I wonder?

I don’t watch The West Wing. I had to look up FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court etc.). If POTUS sounds powerful, FLOTUS sounds more floaty and floral and feminine. SCOTUS sounds Scottish.

Then there’s TOTUS — Teleprompter etc. I’ve avoided commenting on Barack Obama’s use of language, as I seldom commented on George W. Bush’s gaffes, but two items of interest arose last week.

The first is the media flap about Sarah Palin’s speech notes she wrote on her palm. Because she had referred to Obama as a “charismatic guy with a teleprompter” she became fair game or at least game for commentators who don’t like her. But there are several weaknesses in their heavy-handed attacks. Her notes have been called “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” but you can’t really “cheat” on your own speech, even if you have a speechwriter. Also, using notes is not the same as reading an entire speech from a teleprompter, as Obama does. I’ve often used notes to organize what I will say to a classroom, and on the few occasions when I’ve talked to other groups, I’ve used notes, brief outlines or keywords, to remind me of what I want to say, except when I’ve read excerpts from something I or someone else wrote. I can talk on my feet, especially if I plan ahead. Someone even referred to the Palin palm notes as “handgate” as if it is in any way in the same moral universe as Watergate. On the other hand, I thought someone was a bit witty in calling Palin’s palm notes the “redneck teleprompter”, not that she qualifies as a redneck.

The second, earlier incident last week was when Obama pronounced “corpsman” (as in Marine Corps) as “corpse-man” three times in one speech. We all have a bigger reading vocabulary than a speaking vocabulary, which is why we might mispronounce a word we know perfectly well but have never heard. In my fifth grade reading class I labored mightily to say “Nova Scoteeya” and years later as a graduate student, I said something about “Eedin-burg” to a professor, who immediately corrected me: Eddin-boro.

But how can one not have heard of the Marine Corps (core), and of Corpsmen (coremen), especially if you’re commander in chief (CICOTUS)? Could it be a Freudian slip? Perhaps a subliminal message?

Which leads me to a longtime confusion I’ve had with subliminal and sublimate. I’ve heard way more psychobabble in my life than I have chemical terms: subliminal is like subconscious, you’ve got your sub, your under-thoughts, ergo subliminal, but no matching verb. How would you go subliminal? Not sublimate, which means to go from a solid to a gas without a liquid intermediate state, i.e. raise or elevate matter. Maybe there’s a metaphor there for the mind, but I dunno.

Subliminal and sublimate come from Latin roots meaning below and threshold. Brian Charles Clark has a detailed explanation of the development of these words. I will still always think of subliminal as going under and sublimate, like sublime, as going up.

Crème de la Creme

Mike Sykes also wrote about meditating on “English is the crème de la crème of languages” (which must be done in French):

It can certainly be elegant, eloquent, easy for non-native speakers to learn (so I'm told) and all those good things, but it is difficult to spell, and can be slovenly, ugly and ambiguous. We have more words than most others, but we stole many of them.

I would certainly say it seems to be the most useful language, simply because it's the most widely known second language. It was a polyglot Belgian who told me many years ago that English is the lingua franca of (what was then) the Common Market. I assumed he was punning of franca/francais because French used to be the language of diplomacy.

I wouldn’t say we “stole” words. (The French have stolen plenty of English but the Academie francaise wants to give it back.)

Reminds me of a story I though I told in PO but can’t find, about a black friend who complained to me about white people using the black (she said) phrase “back in the day” (compare to the conventional phrase “back in the old days”). And then a few years later, a black student in an English 101 class I taught was quizzing my knowledge of black slang: “What if I said you’re phat?” Luckily I knew what it meant, and he was disappointed that the proprietary black slang had leaked out via the media. Picture it: Reporters anxious to get a scoop hanging out on the fringes of groups of black youth, eavesdropping, or perhaps a racially ambiguous reporter trying to blend in, to steal the latest slang to pad out a feature on contemporary culture.

In l'esprit d'escalier,* it occurred to me too late that I should have said we (meaning white like me) won’t use your slang if you’ll stop speaking English.

* The spirit of the staircase, i.e., the clever ripostes that occur to you after you’ve already left the room.

The Amish Cook

A little plug for a cooking column I like, The Amish Cook, whose editor is selling several Amish cookbooks. A good deal and a good read, even if you’re not into cooking.

Sound Smarter with a Click

From Overheard in New York:

Guido #1, in thick Staten Island accent: Yo, yo bro, I found this thing on Word, it makes you sound smarter.

Guido #2 in same accent: No way, bro! What is it?

Guido #1: I don't know, it's this thing, you click it and it gives you all these words that make you sound smarter.

Guido #2: What's it called?

Guido #1: Sin... Sinono... Sino-somethin, but I swear to god, bro; it makes you sound smarter.

—St John's University, Staten Island


A good column by Alan Fraser, called “A Tragic Use of Language”, on the use, overuse, and misuse of the word tragedy as applied to murder provides classical definitions, one of which is:

a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror

Despite the fact that 9/11 elicited terror, I agree that it’s not a good idea to call these repeated cases of mass murder “tragedies” unless we make the murderer the protagonist. We should be the protagonists, the ones who act, to pursue justice, not therapy. Justice is more cathartic than “How do you feel about that?”

The Weekly Gizzard: Moi on

Muslim-Americans are forced to suffer in wordy silence

Friday, February 5th, 2010

In the Friday, February 5 Cincinnati Enquirer, Momitul Talukdar, a Walnut Hills High School student, wrote...
The truth is out there: OFA

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The previous article about the Democrat's Organizing for America Internship program (picked up from the Atlas Shrugs blog) was attacked as phony....



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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. 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 2010. 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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