Ms. Language Person Discusses Language Abuse

First, a disclaimer:  Fakename does not claim to be an expert in this field, and is all too aware that she is guilty of some of the same abuses she is about to make fun of.  (Or would that be, “of which she is about to make fun”?)  The difference is, that when you do it, it’s funny, and when Fakename does it, it isn’t, and certainly should never be mentioned in polite company.

Before we begin, Fakename will commit her first faux pas by switching from third person to first person, because that third person thing is really hard to maintain.  It’s ever so much easier to type “I” than it is to type “Fakename”.

Now then, I said that when you do it, it’s funny–but not always.  Sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I gnash my teeth.  I mean, let’s take George W. Bush, always my favorite source of language abuse.  I mean, come on, the guy went to Yale and can’t say “nu’-clee-ar”?  Every time he mangled that word I felt those chills you get when somebody scrapes their fingernails down a blackboard.  For now we will call this particular form of language abuse “mispronunciation”.

It turns out that linguists, having not much else to do, have come up with all sorts of words to describe language abuse.  Not having much else to do, I love linguists.  There is, for example “malapropism” and “neologism”, but there are many more words to describe words.  Turning once again to GWB, my favorite quote from him involves the word “misunderestimating”.  I mean, you know just what he means, don’t you?  Technically speaking, I think this might be a “portmanteau”, a combination of the words “misunderstanding” and “underestimating”.  A successful portmanteau, like a successful neologism, will come into common usage.  My guess is that “misunderestimating” will not fall into that category. 

I actually first became fascinated with language in the 7th grade, when our entire English class was devoted to grammar.  Everyone but me hated it.  I loved its orderliness.  And I loved that only when you know the rules can you successfully violate them.  It’s like using a salad fork.  It’s fine to say, the hell with the salad fork, I’m using the dinner fork for my salad, as long as you’re doing it voluntarily.  Not knowing what the salad fork is for, or where it should be placed, is uncouth.  Rejecting it when you do know is perfectly acceptable, and is a sign of intelligent rebellion.  Damn.  I have a sudden urge to use an inappropriate semi-colon. 

I next became enamored with language as an anthropology student in college, where differences in language set cultures apart–from the Inuit with their 50 or so different words for snow, to the tribe in Africa with only two words for plants: edible or inedible. 

And now, just as I thought I’d left linguism and salad forks behind, there is NPR, specifically “Fresh Air” and real life linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose first book was “Going Nucular”.  In that book, he speculates that GWB said “nucular” on purpose, believing that most people pronounced it that way, so he did too–thereby making himself seem more accessible to the imaginary “common man”.  Oh what nonsense.  The easiest explanation (see: Occam”s Razor) is that GWB really is stupid.

34 responses to “Ms. Language Person Discusses Language Abuse

  1. Good points!

    Of course, I also distinguish between written word, which is *normally* but not always more formal depending on the situation, and spoken word, which is more susceptible to a use which technically may be wrong which gets the point across much better.

    I hated grammar until I took two years of Latin in high school. I then became the sentence diagramming champ of my English class.

    As for GWB, I think it’s obvious he got into Yale as a “legacy” and graduated for the same reason.

    It’s become fashionable for andidates to release their health and financial info. What I want is their SAT and GRE scores. By that test, 😉 you’d be a strong Democratic candidate for President!

  2. masteroftheuniverse

    GWB might have gotten into Yale as a legacy, but he didn’t get into Harvard Business School as a legacy.

  3. Thanks for the vote spencercourt, but after about ten seconds of serious soul-searching, I find that I have none of the qualities required to be President :). I think the most important of those qualities is megalomania. Who else would want to do it?
    And Jeff…please tell me how GWB did get into Harvard Business school. I doubt it was his grades at Yale. Then tell me what good his MBA did him, since he was a failure at every business he touched. The only thing he was ever good at was politics–which sorta proves the truth of my “megalomania” statement.
    And now I will amend my comments: GWB went to Harvard Business school and still can’t say “nuclear”?

  4. masteroftheuniverse

    obviously, he applied to get into Harvard. Despite the fact that he might have gotten Gentleman’s “C’s” at Yale, those C’s would probably equate to an A+ at any state school. Anyways, he probably got his real education at Andover. Say whatever you like or hate about GWB, he’s not stupid, and became governor and president and we didn’t. Everyone can be an armchair quarterback, but I strongly suspect that the president has some tough decisions to make….unpopular decisions. At least he didn’t base his decisions by using focus group like his predecessor.

  5. Jeff: are we having our first fight :)?
    Perhaps it’s the fact that I went to a state school, but I’m completely unimpressed by where anybody went to school. Because I went to school at all, I know just how much it means (and doesn’t). Obviously you can go to Yale and Harvard and still be unable to speak the English language. So you didn’t learn much at Harvard, and you could have not learned just as much at the University of Texas. What’s the difference?

  6. masteroftheuniverse

    Absolutely no fight at all….disagreement, perhaps. If everyone agreed on everything, what a boring place this world would be.


  7. I like that answer Jeff 🙂 I’m fluffing down my neck feathers now. My point is sort of this: intelligence is not necessarily related to where you went to school. No one should be automatically exalted because of where they went to school, nor should anyone be automatically excluded. Getting into a prestigious college is often a matter of money. You may be accepted, but be unable to go.
    My favorite example is Tulane, which costs an obscene amount of money to attend, and regularly appears on the list of Best Party Schools. The joke was, how many Tulane students does it take to change a flat tire? Ansswer: only one–to call Daddy.

  8. I’m not going to defend Yale — since i’m not objective. Boola-boola.

    But to call someone substandard intellectually because they don’t speak or write brilliant English prose is no different from calling someone sub-standard because they cannot solve a freshman calculus problem. I’ve noticed a lot of that — and it’s a variation on the Lake Wobegon syndrome. It’s particularly pronounced among political science majors who are usually somewhat to the left of center politically. One irony is that many folks who do this are the same folks also believe that learning English should be optional for Spanish-speaker in public schools.

    On the subject of money, the statement, “Getting into a prestigious college is often a matter of money. You may be accepted, but be unable to go” is completely false at well-endowed Ivy League schools.

    Anyone who comes from a family with gross income under about $50,000 AUTOMATICALLY qualifies for completely free tuition at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. It’s perverse, but from a college tuition-cost-perspective, it’s much better to come from a family with a gross income under $50k than to come from a family with a gross income of around $125k. But even for the upper-middle-class families, there are loan programs (after the parents’ nestegg gets wiped out.)

  9. Neither Duke nor Columbia were prepared to pay my tuition way back when. Both recruited me but I got my degree at a state school, in five years because of working, for what one year at either of those would have cost me – with what little financial aid they would offer. I think it was for the best. Those rarefied social strata are not for me!

  10. masteroftheuniverse

    My dad cut me off when I was 18 and I had to pay my tuition, books, and living expenses by my own hook. Probably the best present he ever gave me. By the time I got to grad school, I earned a fellowship, which eased the burden considerably. Still, I had agreed to pay for my fiancee’s tuition at the Art Institute at Chicago and that meant a lot of time spent at the track, poker rooms, and the wheat pit trying to come up with my monthly nut(plus keeping up my studies and research). My kid has it so easy. He tells me where he wants to go and I write a check. There’s both good and bad in that scenario.

  11. Jeff:
    I accept that every parent needs to do what they think is right for their kids, however, if you genuinely believe that your father cutting you off was the best present that he ever gave you — why are you acting so differently as a parent?

  12. masteroftheuniverse

    Because I made a death bed promise to my latge wife. Plus, instead of having to scratch out a living like I did, he can sample all the educational delights, lecture series, etc. his college has to offer.

    He will be well fixed as an adult, and why should he struggle like I did.

  13. Rocky, I’ll take your word for it about Ivy League tuition. How long has that been the policy? Goes to show how much I know about the Ivy League. Mea culpa.
    As for use of the language, I must continue to disagree with you on its connection to intelligence, although I have now thought of another possible explanation: laziness. Nor do I agree that it’s equivalent to being able to pass a freshman calculus course. In my case, not sure whether I could pass one or not, but I suspect I might have. I was very good at basic algebra, just didn’t like it. I never saw the beauty and elegance of it, so to speak, as so many do, so as soon as I was able, I quit any further advances in the mathematical world.
    I will of course admit to the left-of-center part, although I never took a political science course either:) I do think Keillor is a bit crazy.

  14. masteroftheuniverse

    Some of the smartest, most prescient people I know can barely put a sentence together. Other people I’m acquainted with, who write like poets(usually left of center), have IQ’s in the mid 80’s……and that’s being generous. In the long run, none of it really matters. It’s all a matter of perspective, the guy on the left is going to bash the guy on the right and vice versa. That’s why discussing politics is such a waste of time…..nobody is going to change anyone else’s mind. I read some of these political blogs, and they really go crazy……which is what both sides want, as they can manipulate and enrich themselves at our expense.

  15. Jeff, I simply have to disagree with this too, and on logical grounds. How do you know someone is smart and prescient unless they can communicate with you? Communication takes language. We don’t speak to one another in equations.
    I also dispute that people with IQ’s in the mid-80’s are capable of writing poetically, unless by poetically, you mean, nonsensically.
    Discussing politics is not really a waste of time if you have an open mind. Which seems to be in very short supply in our country, not just currently but in my living memory. I can and do change my mind based on good arguments and new information.

  16. masteroftheuniverse

    Phyllis, does that mean you could become a conservative, because you have an open mind?

    People that make it a practice to discuss politics usually already have their minds made up:)

  17. Well, no, Jeff :). I will never become a conservative as I understand the meanintg of the word…see there we go with language again. And conservative v. liberal is an artificial distinction that pige0nholes people.

  18. masteroftheuniverse

    But you could, provided that you were provided with the proper logical constructs….if you are really open minded? Would you read Ayn Rand, or Hayek, or would the artificial distinctions prejudice you from exploring those venues? Myself, I love reading left of center authors and media, as they make me think and sharpen my rational thought process. If I were only to read conservative material…that would just be playing to the crowd…so to speak. That’s why I lament the demise of Air America….I got hours and hours of entertainment and food for thought from them.

  19. Fakename: To directly answer your question, this is from the Yale website:

    … in 2005, Yale College acted in a dramatic way to address the financial contribution that lower–income parents are expected to make toward their children’s education. Families with total taxed and untaxed yearly incomes below $45,000 are no longer required to contribute any portion of the cost of their children’s education, while families with incomes between $45,000 and $60,000 have had their expected contribution reduced by a pro-rated amount…

    Also from their website:
    In 1966, Yale was the first major university in the nation to make two commitments that very few institutions of higher education have been able to make or sustain to this day: need-based financial aid and need-blind admissions. For over forty years, the University has not taken into consideration whether a family can pay for a Yale education when we are deciding whether to make an offer of admission. Yale has also sustained for four decades a commitment to meet the full amount of determined financial need for every United States or Canadian citizen admitted here. In 2000, the University extended that same commitment to all non-Canadian international students….

  20. masteroftheuniverse

    When my son was an upper-middle at Exeter, his roommate only paid $1600/year with the rest of tuition and room and board being scholarship, so a good prep school education is also available to all deserving candidates.


    • Hence…while one can reasonably debate the merits of an education at “elite” institutions versus some excellent public instititutions, one cannot argue that the elite institutions are inaccessible to motivated lower-income families because of cost.

      Frankly, families in the $100k to $250k range face the toughest choices, because they don’t qualify for the largess, and their savings will be decimated by tuition. But this phenomenon also extends beyond tuition — it’s true of taxes, housing, and retirement costs too.

  21. Okay, okay, I got it Rocky! Now going back to an issue you brought up, that is, not requiring Spanish-speakers (or, I presume speakers of other languages) to learn English in public schools. That, to me, is really wrong-headed. If you don’t learn English in a primarily English-speaking country, you’ll be handicapped. It practically condemns you to a sort of ghetto existence.
    And Jeff, odd that you should mention Rand. I am seriously planning to read Atlas Shrugged. But first I have to read Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

  22. “And Jeff, odd that you should mention Rand. I am seriously planning to read Atlas Shrugged”

    I doubt you will like Atlas Shrugged, Rand hated government programs and advocated individualism, self reliance, capitalism and the free market. I will bet money you will not read John Galts monolog at the end.

    You might find the characters interesting but again I predict you will find thier beliefs to go against yours. She was a political opponent of FDR, and thought most of his programs would be the downfall of the Republic as they incent idleness and sloth. She would have hated Clinton and Obama even more.

    The passion of Ayn Rand was logic and reason and she would destroy arguments against them.

    Having seen first hand what communism was like she celebrated the opportunity of the Republic and despised socialism and anything that undermined personal responsibilty and accountability.

    Philosophically she was at the top of the conservative pyramid.

    Good luck.

    Happy Holidays (and SIXTIETH BD)

  23. I do know those things about Rand, pt. She has been much in the news lately. There is a new bio out about her, for one, and there has been a lot of discussion about her influence on Alan Greenspan. Atlas Shrugged has become a best seller once again. I think the main thing I’ll need luck on is making it through 1,000 pages!
    Thanks for the well wishes (though you would have to remind me!) and Happy Holidays to you too.

  24. Fakename- We are 100% in agreement on the practical consequences of not speaking and reading English fluently.

    However, there is a vocal group of advocates for the opposing view. Without wading into the political abyss, some of the underlying arguments are shared by advocates of affirmative action.

    But fear not, because if you extrapolate the trend, white English speakers will soon be in the minority — so the national language may change… and I’ll begrudingly go to night school to learn Spanish.

    BTW, I think Rand is actually a very easy read. Much much easier than Rushdie.

  25. I highly recommend the movie version of The Passion Of Ayn Rand with Helen Merrin. Peter Fonda does a good job as her husband. (Helen is a marvelous actress)

    There is a rumor on the net that Atlas Shrugged will finally become a movie in 2011 and that Charlize Theron will play Dagny Taggart, the protagonist. She is my favorite living actress so it would be a no brainer for me.

    I developed my own passion for Rand at 17 and 18, reading her instead of some of the required material. Since I eventually majored in American Studies she served me well. I have since reread all of her fiction and find Atlas Shrugged my favorite. But when I read The Fountainhead I effin wanted to BE Howard Roark. The movie was a bit dry I thought, Cooper and Patricia Neal just didn’t click to me. Perhaps it is just that liberal Hollywood refuse to admit that conservatives have any passion.

  26. masteroftheuniverse

    Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness” is another gem. The movie Atlas Shrugged may or may not get made, at least according to the Atlas Society of which I’m a member. They are swimming against a Proxigean spring tide trying to get this project off the ground. I read somewhere(don’t quote me) that the movie has been optioned off something to the tune of 20 times and still hasn’t been made.

  27. Well we have another Proxigean tide on March 19 2011. Perhaps the tide will be turned.

    Sorry to hijack your thread FN.

    I have always been fascinated with language as well, just don’t care about how to spell. TG (and Bill Gates) for spellcheck.

    I would get outrageous sentences on the blackboard to diagram while others chose the multiple guess tests.

    I am very concerned about language in the public school ssystem these days. Glad I have no kids left in the system. Grandkid has two type A personalities to help him along.

    As for GWB, you might as well be angry at Andrew Jackson ya know?

    Wanna talk history?

    Jeez……. get over it.

  28. I haven’t felt hijacked. I’m a little picky about spelling too, but not so much. Tell me, pt, can you say “nuclear” :)?
    Andrew Jackson–Indian killer, first governor of the Florida territory (for 3 weeks, I think) and one-time POTUS. There is all I know about him in a nutshell. But wasn’t there some lively gossip about Rachel…?

  29. Spelling – I admit, now that the best way to communicate with my riding instructor is texting, that I am more and more tempted to use the spelling shortcuts there. Since all I have is a standard phone keypad to do all that spelling and punctuation and uppercase letters, it’s really a drag to be all proper.

  30. Tell me, pt, can you say “nuclear”

    Yes, I can even use it in a sentence.

    If I were king I would stop Iran from going New’kler.

  31. OMG, Fakename, I am in stitches! I think you owe me a new keyboard because I just spit chardonnay all over mine reading this post! Hilarious….and I can pronounce nuclear….does that qualify me to become president? Great post….I love your writing!

  32. And I love yours! But where have you been? I coulda used your encouragement like 30 comments ago lol.

    • It’s been crazy here. I quit my job and focused more on hubby and daughter, but I am still reading your work. Keep it up!!!

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