I was re-reading the HAWKEYE book by Matt Fraction and David Aja and wouldn’t you know it, in issue #3 there is some dialogue relevant to this blog. The character Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) scolds the character Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye… don’t ask) for dangling a preposition. Check it out:
But wait a minute! Is that really a preposition? Haykeye Barton is talking about the word “to” at the end of Hawkeye Bishop’s sentence:
‘Cause I’m about to.
So is that a preposition? It depends on who you ask.
There’s the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, and even the leviathan called the Oxford English Dictionary. But there is only one SUPER DICTIONARY!
Put out in 1978 as a kids dictionary featuring DC Comics characters, this amazing work became internet famous sometime in the 2010s. (Full disclosure: every dictionary is an amazing work, this one is just extra amazing). Not least because of this absolutely wild definition of forty:
And now, because nothing and no one in comics stays dead for ever, the SUPER DICTIONARY has an update.
There’s an article in the New Yorker about a glossary of “untranslatable” words. The glossary is put together by Tim Lomas, a psychologist who got interested in the idea of untranslatable words after hearing a talk about the Finnish word sisu. Of course, “untranslatable” doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, as I was quick to point out on Twitter:
So we can clearly translate these words. There just may not be a 1:1 translation for each of them. But as anyone who has ever done any translating will tell you, that’s so obvious that it barely needs mentioning. But there’s something else behind this idea and I want to open it up a little bit.
In layman’s terms
Alas, the folk linguistic meaning of 'untranslatable' (i.e. 'not lexicalised') is different from the linguistic. It is a fact that we will have to accept…
Marten van der Meulen pointed out on Twitter that Lomas and the New Yorker mean something different with “untranslatable” than a linguist or translator would. What they mean is that there’s no equivalent single word in other languages (usually English) which means the same thing that the “untranslatable” word does. So there’s no way we can “translate” the Finnish word sisu into English because it means many things and it is uniquely tied up into Finnish culture and identity (we’ll get to that in a second). Instead, the meaning of sisu is context dependent – sometimes it means perseverance, sometimes it means grit, sometimes it means “the ability to grin and bear it” – but it is a Finnish version of all these things.
This is why linguists would probably scoff at the idea that we can’t translate sisu. All language is context dependent. The word grit means different things when it’s used in a Clint Eastwood movie than when it’s used in a boardroom. Language is context. Or meaning depends on context.
I actually use the word sisu in my Semantics class as an exercise to understand connotation, denotation and meaning. My students, who are almost all L1 Finnish speakers, give me examples of what sisu means to them. Then we talk about the core meanings of sisu and some peripheral meanings. That is, there is a list of ideas that most people would agree fits the definition of sisu. But that’s the thing – most people would agree, not all. You can do this with any concept in any language (Probably. Don’t quote me on that). Ask a few people what grit means and see how many different answers you get. But we can approach an agreed upon definition of what sisu includes. When we start to put the word in context, then the meaning starts to shift. The classroom exercise is fun because sisu is a popular word in these kinds of discussions and Finns are ready to talk about it. They see it as something very Finnish (more on that in a bit).
I think Marten is right, though. “Untranslatable” does have a different meaning for Lomas and the New Yorker. I would argue that linguists and translators probably wouldn’t use the term untranslatable, but it’s nothing new for the public to have a different definition of a word than specialists. To many people, the word grammar means punctuation and spelling. To language specialists, however, grammar means morphology and syntax; punctuation and spelling are in the realm of orthography. I like Marten’s notion of specialists understanding that “untranslatable” means something different to non-linguists and non-translators, and I think it’s something we should keep in mind. And I agree that the definition of “untranslatable” for Lomas and the New Yorker is “not lexicalized” or “there’s no single word for it”.
Speaking of morphology, many “untranslatable” words are “words” because of the morphology and spelling norms of the language. For example, another popular “untranslatable” word from Finnish is kalsarikännit. It means “getting drunk at home in your underwear, with no intention of going out”.
The word is a compound noun formed from kalsarit “underwear” and känni “drunk”. The Finnish writing system requires that kalsarikännit is written as one “word” – that is, without a space in between the two words which form the compound noun. This is not a particularly interesting thing about the Finnish language – it just does things like that. English sometimes does that too, such as in the word bedroom, but also sometimes does not, such as in the very similar two-word term living room. We could easily have the term “underwear drunk” or “underwear drinking” or even the word “underweardrunk” or “boxersdrunk” in English. And indeed, as the image of Homer Simpson shows, English speakers have a notion of what underweardrunk is. On the flip side, English doesn’t have a “word” for couch potato like Finnish does (sohvaperuna, literally “sofa+potato”), but that’s due to the writing system, not some cultural notions that Finnish speakers have but English speakers do not. Finnish would not seem to have a word for nothing. Instead the two-word phrases ei mitään and ei mikään are required in certain cases. This is a case where English orthography has merged no+thing into one “word” while Finnish has not.
I wonder how many of the words on Lomas’ list are compound nouns, or words which are one “word” because of the writing systems of the language that they come from. We could sort of say that they were invented because speakers saw a need for a term to describe the concept or action, but that hardly makes them “untranslatable”. Rather, if speakers of another language were doing a similar thing, they could easily coin their own “word” for it. Or they could translate the word, as in the case of Finnish speakers taking couchpotato and translating both words to Finnish to get sohvaperuna (these kinds of words are called calques). Or speakers could simply borrow/steal the word for the concept or action, as in the case of schadenfreude, an idea that English speakers immediately understand but don’t have a “word” for.
Identity and what’s on these lists
So which words are good enough for these kinds of lists? That would be a very interesting research topic – and in an alternate universe, Marten and me are working on that question right now. Sticking with Finnish, the language has the word jääkiekko. It refers to the sport played on ice where players use sticks to try to push a small rubber disc into the net or goal of the opposing team. English doesn’t really have a word for it. The closest term is ice hockey. Does this mean that Finnish speakers somehow understand the sport of ice hockey better than English speakers? If so, I think the English speakers in Canada would like to have a word with you. (This idea is very timely since the one-word-having Finns just won the Ice Hockey World Championships. And they beat Canada in the finals. #mörkö). The thing is jääkiekko isn’t sexy enough to make these kinds of lists. French speakers don’t have a “word” for please and instead use the phrase s’il vous plait (In certain cases? Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!), whereas Finnish speakers don’t have a “word” because for please because they either attach –isi to the verb or use ole hyvä or they use the word which also means “thank you” (kiitos). But you’re unlikely to see please on these lists. And if we want to get really boring, we can talk about how other languages don’t have a “word” for the and a and an. But these aren’t sexy enough either. Only linguists check out language for the articles. (Seriously, though, click that link. It’s a hilarious satire of these lists.)
Instead, what we’re likely to see are words that somehow fit into an identity-shaping role of the speakers. If we’re egalitarian, the words are chosen by the speakers in order to shape and control the collective identity of what it means to be a speaker of a certain language. That is, Finns put sisu on the “untranslatable” word lists because Finns generally see sisu as a positive thing and it helps to create the identity of Finnish speakers – they have perseverance and grit, in the way that British English speakers have a stiff upper lip (but go ask 10 Brits what “stiff upper lip” means and whether it’s positive). Finnish speakers can put kalsarikännit on the list because the idea of laying around drinking beer in your underwear is silly and fun (until it’s not, of course).
Yeah, identity makes sense, words that confirm a kind of perception of Other. I mean, no Dutchmen would care if some Papoean language has a specific word for 'dyke', because that's too normal. You need things that tie in with our pre-existing perception of certain cultures.
These words then help shape the identity of speakers for those who do not know the language that they come from. That is, learning about sisu helps shape English speakers’ perception of Finnish people. This is where we cross over from language to culture. The word sisu doesn’t shape our perception of Finnish speakers but rather Finnish people. I can speak Finnish (kinda sorta), but sisu doesn’t apply to me because I’m not Finnish – my parents weren’t Finnish and I wasn’t born and raised in Finland. If we’re less egalitarian with this idea, then the words that get put on the list have to fit our ideas or stereotypes of the speakers of the language. This perpetuates the myths about Inuit people having 50 words for snow. The language isn’t usually mentioned, it’s just “those natives in northern-ish Canada have a bunch of words for snow because they live in igloos”. That’s what’s behind that myth, so stop using it. Or the idea the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of “danger” and “opportunity”. This is incorrect, but it fits the stereotype in the West that people in the East are somehow smart and cunning and they can easily use these traits to their advantage, especially in the business and political world, which is where this language myth lives and thrives.
Untranslatable words from other languages?
I want to end on an idea that doesn’t usually get brought up in these discussions. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. It would seem that English is especially guilty of this, but any time you get people who speak different languages living in close proximity to each other, you’re going to have language transfer. People are going to trade words and sometimes even grammar. But when a word transfers from one language to another, the meaning and connotations don’t always come along. And as it gets used in the “new” language, it can acquire other meanings. Consider what John Waters said in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:
GROSS: This fits into something else you write, which is, I realize now how hard it must’ve been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. So in addition to your terror at seeing hammers, what were some of your eccentricities when you were really young?
WATERS: Well, I was obsessed by car accidents. And I played car accidents. And my mother would take me to junkyards and walk around with me. And I’d be like, oh, there’s been a terrible one over here. Look at this.
WATERS: And I think, what did the junk man think? Well, what is this little ghoul? So that kind of thing.
The word ghoul comes from Arabic. It’s first attested in English in 1786 (according to the OED). But here Waters applies it to himself when he was a young child. It referred to an evil spirit that robbed graves. But later it came to mean a person “who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive” (MW). Do Arabic speakers use ghoul this way (and I’m not even bringing up the fact that there are vast differences between local varieties of Arabic)? If not, can we say that the word ghoul is “untranslatable” from English to Arabic?
What I mean to say is that, again, language and meaning are context-dependent. And they are also dependent on time. If English adopted the word sisu from Finnish, it wouldn’t really mean sisu in the same way it does for Finnish speakers who were raised in Finnish culture (the same way that English “sauna” doesn’t really mean Finnish “sauna”). It would mean something slightly different. And in time it could mean something totally different.
So those are just a few of the thoughts I had on this topic. I’ll try to get my hands on Lomas’ books to have a deeper look at what he means by “untranslatable”. And I’ll take a look at his list.
Ok, it’s been a verb for a while now. It’s not the first preposition to become a verb (there’s also out*), but it’s a recent addition and it’s very interesting. First, according to all of my students, the verb is spelled “@”. I’m willing to bet that not everyone follows this though. I don’t have much to say about @ as a verb, or nothing that you don’t already know, but I checked a few dictionaries to see if they had an entry for it. The results and links are below. Enjoy!
If Lingthusiasm and The Vocal Fries have you yearning for more linguistics, never fear! There’s a new language podcast on the map. It’s called Fiat Lex and it is (quote) “A podcast about dictionaries by people who write dictionaries. Yes, really.” The hosts are Kory Stamper and Steve Kleinedler, two lexicographers of high renown! They’re up to four episodes now and they are all great. Go check them out!
An article in Mental Floss called “25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do” attempts to educate readers on the One True Meaning™ of words in a listicle. It’s written by Paul Anthony Jones, who runs the Haggard Hawks account on Twitter and has written several books on language. I like Haggard Hawks and I enjoyed Jones’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4. That’s what makes this article so puzzling. It takes a prescriptivist stance in the meaning of words, claiming for the most part that what the words in the list originally meant is what they mean now. I find this position wrongheaded and contradictory. Words change meaning, which I’m sure Jones has no problem acknowledging, but to insist that their original meaning (or some former meaning) is the only one that’s correct is like claiming that women shouldn’t have the right to vote because, well… they used to not have the right to vote. Things change, and you either change with them or you will be left out. Language is no different in this regard.
What’s especially strange about this position (and the Mental Floss article) is that the history of English undermines the argument itself. For example, is there a certain date we can look back to when a word’s meaning was “correct”? The word deer originally meant any animal that was hunted. Are we using it wrong when we refer to what everyone knows of as a deer? No. Likewise, the word nice originally meant foolish. Now it means nice. There are scores more words like this in English. So why do some words deserve a place on lists like the one in the Mental Floss article while others do not?
Speaking of undermining the argument, the Mental Floss article references dictionaries which directly undermine the article’s claims. Lexicographers today use corpora (databases of language) to determine the meaning of words. When there are several meanings, dictionaries usually list them in descending order of how frequently each is used. Not every dictionary does this, but Merriam-Webster does and that’s the one that the Mental Floss references. (Macmillan does too)
Let’s take a look at the words in the list and see what’s going on. To be perfectly clear, this article claims that “in the dictionary […] there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted”. Dictionaries are written by lexicographers and their first job is to discover what words mean. So this article is basically saying that lexicographers aren’t doing their job. The first salvo made in the article is an attack on the figurative use of literally. It’s not on the listicle (thankfully), so I’m not going to cover it. You can see how the “misuse” of figurative literally has been confirmed to death here and here.
I won’t go through the whole listicle. Some of the entries on it are correct. For example, the first item on the listicle says “barter doesn’t mean haggle”, which it doesn’t, but it’s still unclear who is using barter to mean haggle. The numbers below refer to the numbers from the listicle.
2. Bemused doesn’t mean amused
Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”
Here we see the article contradicting itself by linking to a dictionary which defines bemused as “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing”.
3. Depreciate doesn’t mean “deprecate”
Here the Mental Floss article acknowledges that self-deprecating = self-depreciating, but it links to a site called Grammarist and claims that self-deprecating is 40 times more common than self-depreciating. I couldn’t find out who runs Grammarist and they do not say where they get their figures from. But in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio of self-deprecating to self-depreciating is 512:2. That makes it 256 times more common.
4. Dilemma doesn’t mean quandary
Ugh, why do we have to do this? The writer claims that dilemma must be a choice between only two alternatives because di– means “two”. This is nonsense and MW even says so. The word disperse has the same di– prefix, so must it mean spreading things into only TWO directions? No. Prefixes from other dead languages do not determine today’s meaning of a word. That shit is bananas.
5. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested”
Except sometimes to totally does.
6. Electrocute does not mean “to get an electric shock”
** By the way, the meaning “give an electric shock to” was recorded the year after the original meaning was recorded (source: OED). This word couldn’t even hold on to its meaning for a year. Sad!
9. Flaunt does not mean “flout”
15. Nonplussed does not mean “not bothered”
“Many people use nonplussed to mean ‘unperturbed’ or ‘unaffected’”.
Well, that settles it then. I guess you better update your lexicon or you’re going to be left out of the conversation because the people using nonplussed to mean “not bothered” are not going to get the memo. Unless you already know that nonplussed can be used to mean “not bothered”… Wait, you do? Well, then I guess everything is sorted.
16. Oblivious doesn’t mean “unaware”
Or at least, it didn’t originally.
Aaaaand we’re back to appealing to antiquity, that old etymological fallacy. Now please explain what deer, nice, silly, and A THOUSAND OTHER WORDS mean.
17. Peruse doesn’t mean “browse”
perusing something actually means studying it in great detail.
Technically, peruse originally meant “to use up”, so you’re both wrong. If we’re going to be pedantic, why not go all the way?
As the OED notes, peruse has been used as a “broad synonym for read” since the goddamn 16th Century! (curse word mine, but it’s totally implied by the OED):
“Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.” (OED, peruse)
You should definitely peruse this Mental Floss article and not take in the details.
I don’t have any more time for this. Remember when I said that it was unclear who is using barter to mean haggle? Well, that’s one way that language changes. If enough people use barter to mean haggle – and everyone understands what is meant – then barter means haggle. Just like how enough people use(d) literally to be an an intensifier like really and now literally is an intensifier, in addition to its other meanings. Lexicographers are just doing their job by updating the dictionary to include new meanings.
Stop trying to force people into using words the way you think they should be used, especially if you know what people mean when they use those words! Instead, let’s celebrate that we are witnessing language change happen.
It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.
In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.
Mary Norris’s book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015, Norton) is part autobiography, part style guide. Norris has been an editor at The New Yorker magazine for many years and her voice can be heard through the text, which makes parts of this book an enjoyment to read, especially when she tells stories about her life. She says in the intro that her book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar” (p. 14), which is an unfortunate dedication since the book goes off the rails when Norris discusses grammar and linguistics. In these sections, Norris doesn’t just make herself look bad, but she also ropes in the rest of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.
Early on, Norris discusses the importance of dictionaries to editing. She also, however, walks right into a mine field when she discusses her and The New Yorker’s preference for a dictionary published in the 1930s over nearly all others:
If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003], our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations. It was supplanted in 1961 by Webster’s Third, whose editors, led by Philip Gove, caused a huge ruckus in the dictionary world by including commonly used words without warning people about which ones would betray their vulgar origins. (p. 18)
Norris is selling Gove and the other editors of Merriam-Webster’s short here. Gove actually wrote that “We must see to it that a mid-twentieth-century dictionary gives evidence of having been written by editors who lived in the twentieth century” (quote from The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, p. 205) and what Gove did (besides dropping sick burns) was help systematize the way that dictionaries qualified words for their “vulgar” natures. Gove also saw to it that the quotes used to illustrate the meanings of words were neither archaic nor unnatural, i.e. contemporary quotes rather than contrived sentences written by the dictionary makers. But Gove’s actions caused a lot of uptight social commentators to get their knickers in a bunch, as Norris briefly explains:
On the publication of this dictionary, which we call Web 3, a seismic shift occurred between prescriptivists (who tell you what to do) and descriptivists (who describe what people say, without judging it). In March of 1962, The New Yorker, a bastion of prescriptivism, published an essay by Dwight MacDonald [who was not a linguist, nor a language scholar – JM] that attacked the dictionary and its linguistic principles: ‘The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt.’ (p. 18)
It is no more surprising that Norris sticks by MacDonald’s essay than it is that MacDonald went to The New Yorker to voice his complaint. But romanticizing the fact that Norris and her fellow editors use a dictionary from the 1930s (Webster’s Second) over more modern ones doesn’t look prescriptivist, it looks downright foolish. Norris drives the point home:
Since the great dictionary war of the early sixties, there has been an institutional distrust of Web 3. It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleaner than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home. You can even tell by the way it is abbreviated in our offices that it is less distinguished: Webster’s Second gets the Roman numeral, as if it were royalty, but Webster’s Third must make do with a plain old Arabic numeral. (p. 19)
This is nonsense. The editors at The New Yorker are prioritizing a dictionary from 1934 because it “enables the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt”. Think about that for a second. Who in their right mind wants their writing to sound like it was published in 1934? TheNew Yorker is not a “bastion of prescriptivism”, it is an ancient ruin of unfounded notions about language.
MacDonald can maybe be excused for the incorrect ideas in his article. They were, after all, popular at the time. But Norris doesn’t get off so easy. She wrote her book in the 2010s, well after the ideas in MacDonald and W2 were shown to be incorrect. Think about what she is doing here. She using a 50-year-old article with incorrect ideas about language to defend her use of an 80-year-old dictionary. If your doctor recommended that you start smoking Camels because a commercial in the 1950s said they activate your T-zone, you would find another doctor.
Later in the book, Norris visits the offices of Merriam-Webster and says “These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers” (p. 29). This is perhaps true, and she might even believe it, but I doubt she likes any of the advice that the MW editors give online or in their videos.
Every chapter in Norris’s book starts with a personal story and moves into a topic of English grammar or style. In Chapter 2, titled “That witch!”, Norris discusses relative clauses. She gives some OK advice about how to distinguish whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, but then makes some major mistakes on what to do after that:
If the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun – “that” or “which” – is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. (p. 40)
I suppose Norris means that that is preferred in The New Yorker, but it sounds like she means that is preferred across the English language, which simply isn’t true. Anyone who has spent any time hanging out with the English language would know this. Perhaps she means that that is preferred by people (such as editors at The New Yorker?) who wish they could dictate which relative pronoun should be used in all cases across the English language. Norris then gives us a half-baked explanation of what’s going with that and which in relative clauses:
If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that”, to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” – it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well. (p. 41)
What? No. There is so much wrong with this paragraph. First, what the hell does Norris mean by the first two sentences? Is she a professional on spoken English now? The third sentence gives it away – writers don’t “say” things, they write things. But Norris doesn’t realize that she has blurred the line between spoken and written language so much that she’s erased it. This paragraph means that an admittedly prescriptivist editor of written language – who prefers a dictionary from 1934 – can’t tell the obvious difference between spoken and written English and that we are supposed to take for granted her claims about ALL spoken English, based on… something. Another thing that is wrong with this paragraph is that it is demonstrably wrong that Americans have “agreed to use ‘that’” with restrictive relative clauses. This was dictated by copy editors in the beginning of the 20th century! This hope/wish/desire to separate which and that comes from Fowler (1926), who wrote “The two kinds of relative clauses, to one of which that and the other to which which is appropriate, are the defining [restrictive] and the non-defining [non-restrictive]; and if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is practice either of most or of the best writers.” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, edited by J. Butterfield, p. 809) Even Fowler gave up on this that/which nonsense. You would think Norris would recognize this because of her preference for early 20th century English reference works. No one cares about this that/which distinction anymore, if they ever did. It wasn’t just the British who saw nothing wrong with using which in nonrestrictive relative clauses. Americans have also never cared about this when they were speaking naturally*.
Norris also has a chapter on pronouns, in which she wastes four pages (pp. 60-63) blabbering about pronouns before we get to the point of the chapter, i.e. the (supposed) problem of English’s (supposed) lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. The chapter ends with a heartfelt and well written personal story about Norris having to switch the pronouns she used for a family member who transitioned. Norris quite deftly shows how personal our pronouns can be and this part of the chapter is definitely worth reading. What comes before it, however, are a bunch of pronoun howlers.
One of the stranger ones is when Norris claims that “There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” which ‘spontaneously appeared in Baltimore city schools in the early-to-mid 2000s.’” (p. 66) What? Does Norris actually believe this? The research cited on yo is from Stotko and Troyer, but they do not claim that yo is the only documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech (Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer. 2007. “A New gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study”. American Speech 82(3): 262–279. https://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-012).
Then Norris drops the bomb:
I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong. (p. 69)
Ugh, where to start? Literally right before this sentence, Norris said that having singular you and plural you is fine. But then she says that singular they is not because… reasons? Norris actually tries to claim that the epicene he would be invisible if we didn’t “make such a fuss” about it. Guess what? It isn’t and we do. Does Norris really think that the epicene he is only visible because people complain about it? She has it backwards. The epicene he is complained about because it is so damn visible. And are we really to believe that he would be invisible to Norris? She devoted an entire chapter in her book to pronouns. Also, singular they isn’t colloquial (although I’m willing to bet that the editors of The New Yorker have a different definition of the term “colloquial” – one from the 1930s perhaps). It has been used across all types of texts and registers and first appeared 800 years ago. (Wait, is it possible that singular they SPINGS FROM ACTUAL SPEECH?! Omg you guys!!1!) Basically, if you have a problem with singular they, maybe it’s time to get over it. Or, if you’re going to complain about singular they, maybe you shouldn’t use it in your writing. That’s right, Norris uses singular they in this book:
A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. (p. 11)
The discussion of pronoun usage gets more convoluted after this. On the very next page (p. 70), after telling us that a writer was wrong for not using the epicene he, Norris says that a The New Yorker staff writer was correct in using singular they. So what the hell is going on here? I don’t know and I’m starting to not care.
Chapter 4 – “Between you and me”
This might be the most confusing chapter in terms of grammar. Norris writes:
The most important verb is the verb “to be” in all its glory: am, are, is, were, will be, has been. (p. 84)
So will be and has been are part of the verb BE? Uhh… how? And why isn’t being in that list, or (by Norris’ logic) have been? No one knows.
The rest of this chapter goes from bad to worse. Immediately after this quote, Norris discusses nouns, rather than nouns phrases, even though she uses noun phrases rather than single-word nouns (such as copy editor and my plumber). In a later admission that there are several copulative verbs, Norris says that “It is because these verbs are copulative and not merely transitive that we say something ‘tastes good’ (an adjective), not ‘well’ (an adverb): the verb is throwing the meaning back onto the noun”. What does this mean? Norris is also incorrect when she says that “nouns are modified by adjectives, not adverbs”. Noun phrases are modified by other noun phrases (a no-frills airline, sign language) as well as adverb phrases (the then President, a through road). Those examples from Downing & Locke (2006: 436), but from The New Yorker we have “Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building…” from a piece called “Empty Wallets” by George Packer in the July 25, 2011 issue, perhaps edited by Norris. But this isn’t even a matter of modification. In Norris’s example (“Something tastes good”), the adjective phrase good does not modify the noun phrase something, but rather functions as a complement in the sentence. Essentially, the subject (which may be a noun phrase or may be something else) requires a complement when a copulative verb is used. And there is no reason that adverb phrases cannot act as complements after copulative verbs (They’reoff!, I amthrough with you, That isquite all right).
In the following paragraph, Norris writes “One might reasonably ask, if we can use the objective for the subjective, as in ‘It’s me again,’ why can’t we use the subjective for the objective?” But again this is confusing and it’s hard to tell whether Norris believes that me is the subject in her example sentence (hint: it’s not, it’s what some grammars call an extraposed subject, but I can see how Norris would be confused – The New Yorker has proven its ineptitude when it comes to describing sentences of this type. See Downing & Locke 2006: 47–48, 261).
In discussing grammar, Norris also tells stories about working at The New Yorker. It’s hard to describe how shocking some of these are, so I’ll let Norris tell it:
Lu Burke once ridiculed a new copy editor who had come from another publication for taking the hyphen out of “pan-fry.” “But it’s in [Webster’s dictionary],” the novice chirped. “What are you even looking in the dictionary for?” Lu said, and I wish there were a way of styling that sentence so that you could see it getting louder and more incredulous toward the end. She spoke it in a crescendo, like Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, saying, “Because I’ve got a BIG MOUTH!” Without the hyphen, “panfry” looks like “pantry.” “Panfree!” Lu guffawed, and said it again. “Panfree!” The copy editor was just following the rules, but Lu said she had no “word sense.” Lu was especially scornful of unnecessary hyphens in adverbs like “feet first” and “head on.” Of course, “head on” is hyphenated as an adjective in front of a noun – “The editors met in a head-on collision” – but in context there is no way of misreading “The editors clashed head on in the hall.” The novice argued that “head on” was ambiguous without the hyphen. Lu was incredulous. “Head on what?” she howled, over and over, as if it were an uproarious punch line. Eventually, that copy editor went back to where she had come from. “It’s as if I tried to become a nun and failed,” she confided. It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens. (p. 116)
Some strange cloistered order? Jesus Christ, working at The New Yorker sounds fucking miserable. “Pan-fry” needs a hyphen because, what, the readers of The New Yorker are so fucking dumb that they would think it means “panfree”? Probably not, but what a great excuse for one of the editors to be a total dick to an employee, huh? Hahaha, good times!
“It’s heartening to see that a restaurant in a national park is going to take the time to pan-fry some chicken,” I told Tom.
Whoa! Good thing that hyphen was there or I would’ve thought this guy was taking time to panfree some chicken and WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD I THINK THAT.
Incredibly, the hits keep on coming in the next paragraph:
The writer-editor Veronica Geng once physically restrained me from looking in the dictionary for the word “hairpiece,” because she was afraid that the dictionary would make it two words and that I would follow it blindly. As soon as she left the office, I did look it up, and it was two words, but I respected her word sense and left it alone. (p. 117)
Ok, now respect the word sense of writers who use(d) singular they.
And if you’re wondering why The New Yorker still writes “teen-ager”:
Not everyone at The New Yorker is devoted to the diaeresis [the two little dots that TheNew Yorker – and only TheNew Yorker – places over the word cooperate]. Some have wondered why it’s still hanging around. Style does change sometimes. […]
Lu Burke used to pester the style editor Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. Like Mr. Hyphen, Lu was a modern independent-minded reader, and she didn’t need to have her vowels micromanaged. Once, in the elevator, Weekes seemed to be weakening. He told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.
This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since. (pp. 123–124)
Kee-rist, I’m surprised they don’t write “base-ball” and “to-morrow” and “bull-shit”.
A chapter about pencil sharpening. Seriously.
Chapter 10 (“Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”) is some sort of dime store pencil porn as Norris describes pencils in such detail that only an actual pencil would find it interesting. I kept thinking that I would rather have pencils in my eyes, but then I came across the best line in the entire book:
David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. (p. 182)
The New Yorker hardly needs help in showing people that it has a very tenuous grasp of English grammar [links to LangLog and Arnold Zwicky]. They demonstrate that in their pages whenever the topic of grammar comes up). Apparently, decades of publishing some of the greatest writers has not helped anyone at the magazine to learn how English grammar works. Unfortunately, Norris’s book does nothing to help The New Yorker’s reputation when it comes to grammar. On top of that, some of the stories she tells about working at The New Yorker are pretty horrifying. If you are able to separate or skip over the discussions of grammar, this book may be enjoyable for you. It’s an easy read, but I couldn’t force myself to like it.
* Not to mention Norris doesn’t even follow her own advice –
p. 15: “It is one of those words which defy the old “i before e except after c” rule”
p. 54: “The piece also had numbers in it – that is, numerals – which I instinctively didn’t touch”
And she quotes A. A. Milne doing it: “If the English language had been properly organized … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’” (p. 64)
And Henry James: “Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind.” (p. 143)
And Mark Twain: “It was what I thought when I stood before ‘The Last Supper’ and heard men apostrophizing wonders and beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone a hundred years before they were born.” (pp. 147-48)
You could argue that these are all old/dead writers and that no one should write like that anymore, but again, The New Yorker magazine, as well as the author of Between You & Me, prefers to use a dictionary from 193fucking4.