Dunk it in your coffee: language, media, culture, politics.
Friday, June 3, 2011
Parvum Opus 389: Esprit d'Logoff
Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere
The wife of Congressman Weiner (who may or may not have tweeted a photo of himself in his underpants) is Hilary Clinton’s valet.
What’s wrong with this sentence?
Of course it is “valet”. The word valet is related to “varlet” and “vassal”. It pretty much has always meant “boy”. A valet is the personal servant of a gentleman and is always a man. Hilary Clinton is not a gentleman, and ought not to have a valet, at least not in public. She would have a personal maid. Perhaps a lady in waiting. The pretention of calling her employee a valet is a failed feminist/populist attempt to elevate the job. All jobs with female titles are lowly. A maid is a girl. A servant serves, which is lowly, though waiters (and former waitresses) now call themselves servers. A valet is for rich men. The job is the same, though, taking care of the employer’s clothes and personal needs.
Like other failed euphemisms, this one further denigrates the job it attempts to elevate. You mean there’s something shameful about being a personal maid? It’s honest work, no different, really, from a beautician or drycleaner or waitress or personal trainer.
It’s like when secretaries became administrative assistants. Professional secretaries used to be proud of their jobs and their skills. Administrative assistants want to move up. I crossed the path of one who would not accept campus mail for her boss, the university president, if she spotted a correction on the letter paper –before word processing when mistakes were erased or covered with white-out. “Administrative assistant” has had a good run, so I’m waiting for the day when it will become “administrator”.
Why would Hilary Clinton need a valet? Why not just an aide or personal assistant? Because those words now imply office work, not personal wardrobe assistance.
Obama can have a valet if he wants, but Hilary Clinton’s lady valet reminds me of Nixon’s palace – I mean White House guard uniforms. They looked like something from a musical comedy by one of those European immigrants who entered the movie biz, still dreaming of old Vienna.
Of course, the undercurrent of all this name change is not merely feminist angst. It’s a desire to remove all hierarchy. A job and its title are often defined by their relation to a different job and title. A small company of two people can get away with no titles: it’s just Jim and Bob. A larger organization with different jobs assigned to different people requires an acknowledgement of separate duties, and Jim and Bob decide what jobs they need done and may assign titles: widget designer, widget part procurer, widget maker, widget seller, and so on. If the widget part procurer decides he has equal decision making ability, does he start ordering gadget parts?
If Jim and Bob try to avoid any inequality among themselves and the people they hire, they may try calling them by numbers instead of work functions, but you know number one is always going to be on top, so that won’t work.
My dad was a career military man and he liked to use the phrase “man of rank and title”. My dad was a man of rank, not an officer, but he understood and appreciated discrimination in its best and worst forms.
Matter without any hierarchy or discrimination is an amoeba.
But calling a maid a valet is like the woman who had a sex change operation on the visible parts and then when she got pregnant, said she was the first man to get pregnant. No, she was a woman who’d fooled around with plastic surgery, and with the language. If it looks like a duck but moos like a cow, take a closer look.
(By the way, valet is pronounced val-et,not val-ay.)
Read “Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years” by writing instructor Mary Grabar, on a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (April 21, 2011), then pull your kids out of college. Why should you have to pay for this?
Not only is it in vogue (has been for years) to see all literature, past and present, as coded or overt explications of sex and race and class oppression – the coded stuff being essential to the decoders’ (teachers’) having jobs – but the professors also decry classist (note: not “classic” or “classicist”) notions like grammar, i.e. clarity and logic. (And let’s not forget the writer who eschews capital letters because they privilege some letters over others.) Apparently all students need is a few words and grunts to express themselves. Anything beyond that is elitist.
A co-director of a “Poverty Studies” program said we need to “think critically about how dirty work can be reframed, recalibrated, or refocused to honor all work and workers” (e.g. maid becomes valet). OK, honor it, then say Americans won’t do it and let the illegal Mexicans do it; maybe stoop labor can become earth-proximal agricultural work. In a different professional field, thus have prostitutes become sex workers, without all the unpleasant moral connotations. Next up, whatta ya wanna bet: academic majors and minors in sex work, complete with history classes, medical classes, and business and accounting classes for the pro. You think not? Northwestern University professor J. Michael Bailey has already pioneered with an optional sex demo for his students. Universities just have to take the next step.
Toyota trucks have TOYOTA in big letters on the back and owners sometimes like to paint out part of the word, like the truck I saw with YO on the back, which sounds truckish. A Jewish driver could have OY. You could do TO OT. You might have TOY; they’re small trucks.
As you know, esprit d’escalier means staircase wit: the clever riposte that comes to you after you’ve already left the room and it’s too late to say it. How about esprit d’logoff, the idea that comes to you just after you’ve shut down the computer? You want to write one more thing or look something up. This is why I’m looking forward to getting my Android phone, really a little web device that I can keep in my pocket or by the bed.
And by the way, wouldn’t Esprit be a good name for a carbonated beverage?
“a person in affluent clothing”
While “affluent” and “rich” are synonyms, they are not interchangeable. People can be rich or affluent, but clothing does not possess riches, it displays wealth. It may be luxurious.