Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy meta-Festivus: Grieving the grievances

I’ve been trying to get a post off the ground for a while, but my topics were either too ambitious (no time!) or too peevish, and it just didn’t seem right to post minor gripes at The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 

But hallelujah! This morning, both Fritinancy and You Don't Say reminded me that today is Festivus, a day that invites – nay, mandates – the airing of grievances. A few hours later, in a delightful cosmic conjunction, I came upon the perfect target for a Festivus grievance: Ron Rosenbaum’s essay today in Slate. The icing on the Festivus cake: The piece itself, though not labeled as such, is an Airing of (Language) Grievances. 

Yes, I have language grievances too – who doesn’t? – but Rosenbaum’s list is just the latest entry in a tired and exasperating genre: A catalogue of usages – in this case, allegedly faddish or newish ones – delivered along with the writer’s arbitrary judgments on whether they “deserve” to survive in the language. 

Often, as in this case, the writer offers half-baked theories for why some “losers” adopt the offensive words. Of the slang junk for genitals, for instance, Rosenbaum ventures that maybe “overdosing on junk-sex Internet porn has damaged the brains of so many men that they’ve come to think everything sexual is, well, junky.” 

That's a joke, I suppose, but there’s more:
Crowdsourcing: Hasn’t it occurred to anyone -- especially the new media genius types who abuse the concept -- that the archetypal crowd is a lynch mob?
Isn’t it obvious that someone who’s using gravitas is mainly trying to confer it upon himself by implying he has the gravitas to recognize and bestow gravitas?
It seems, despite my efforts, we will never be able to stamp out “spot on” and those who think the use of it gives them an Atlanticist sophistication.
But not all trendy words are unspeakable:
One new term I encountered on the website The Hairpin that sounds super-intriguing: napgasm. Apparently, it’s a thing. (That’s another of my fave catchphrases, by the way. It’s a thing is a thing.)
Meh: I still like this! I think it’s rare to find something so new and expressive in the language.
I could say more about his individual peeves and faves, but so could you, dear readers, so I won’t. We can all wonder together: What makes Rosenbaum think he gets to be the nation's "Catchphrase Executioner"?

But my grievance isn’t really directed at Rosenbaum; after all, he has a deadline to meet, and he's hardly the only writer to indulge the delusion that his rulings on language have weight. No, in this case I blame Slate. They’ve published Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer on language, so they know what reality-based usage analysis looks like. Editors sometimes save writers from their cheesier impulses; in this case they failed. So thank you, Slate, for inspiring a joyously cranky Festivus observance.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's hard for I -- what about you?

Thanks to the diligence of my friend Betsy, I finally got around to seeing this year’s (pallid, underwritten) movie version of “Jane Eyre.” But though I wish Jane had been allotted more words, at least the meager script minimized the chance of language glitches. As it was, we were shocked to hear Jane, in the midst of a passionate speech, say to Rochester:
If God had blessed me with beauty and wealth, I could make it as hard for you to leave me as it is for I to leave you.
For I to leave you? Sure, we moderns often use object pronouns in compound nominatives (“Me and the dog are going out”) and vice versa (“an invitation for Sally and I”). But “as hard for I to leave” is much less common. Not unheard of -- Arnold Zwicky gave an example in an August post, and said there were more out there,  “too many to dismiss as nothing but inadvertent errors" -- but rare enough that I've never heard a complaint about it.

And Jane’s movie speech generally hews closely to the book, where she says 
if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.
So someone (Moira Buffini is the scriptwriter of record) decided to “improve” Bronte’s dialogue, and nobody involved in the production ever said “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right.” O tempora, o mores, o BBC!

You may have noticed another word change there: Bronte’s “gifted me” becomes “blessed me” in the script, no doubt in deference to today's distaste for gift as a verb. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that gift "make a present of" dates to the 17th century, though the context was generally institutional, as in "gifted to the Church of Rome."

As early as 1864, though, there were rumblings about it. In “The Queen’s English,” Henry Alford complained that adjectival gifted was “at present very much in vogue. Every man whose parts are to be praised, is a gifted author, speaker or preacher.” In 1909, Ambrose Bierce OK'd gifted but suggested that the verb itself was obsolete: Denouncing talented (vs. gifted), he noted, “These are both past participles, but there was once the verb to gift, whereas there was never the verb 'to talent.' If Nature did not talent a person the person is not talented."

But in the mid-20th century to gift spread to “a more mundane realm,” as Bryan Garner puts it, becoming a mere synonym for give: “He gifted her with a diamond bracelet.” This aroused the opposition, and the usage is still resisted as pretentious; Garner rates its acceptance at only stage 2 of a possible 5. So this edit of Bronte seems to be a reasonable effort to avoid raising viewers’ eyebrows. Unfortunately, changing “for me to leave” to “for I” is enough, all by itself, to raise eyebrows as high as they go -- for some of us, anyway.

Sunday, December 4, 2011's latest cry for help

I suggested earlier this fall that winners of's Best Blog poll could use some help with proofreading, but apparently nobody stepped into the breach. After the contest, the site sent me (and 47 other nominees, I presume) a consolation prize -- "A gift for participation in the contest for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011." It's a badge to display on your blog, similar to the ones the top 3 winners were encouraged to post. as usual, the best part of the e-mail was unintentional: "We would be happy to see you in the list of grammar bloggers in our contest for the Best Grammar Bog next time if we hold it again."

"Best Bog" has an especially nice ring for us Angela Thirkell fans, since one of the novelist's characters -- the post-WWII Mixo-Lydian Ambassadress to Britain -- is a woman of strong opinions whose favorite (often scornful) exclamation is "Bog!" Next time I hear from, that syllable will be my response.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mondegreen watch: The leaves are down

Today on "All Things Considered," Melissa Block interviewed novelist Ann Patchett about her favorite "winter song," which (for excellent biographical reasons) is "California Dreamin'." And as I listened, I learned that I had been hearing a mondegreen all these decades. The line that fascinated Patchett -- "Went "Stopped into a church, and I pretend to pray" -- I've interpreted, all these years, as "I began to pray."

Makes sense, right? Whatever the verb here, it should be in the past tense, not present. And nothing makes "pretend" more plausible than "began" (well, nothing I can see in the lyrics.) But pretend it is, and quite clearly enunciated, as pop lyrics go.

Moments later, as I was shaking off my long-standing delusion, Block revealed that she too had mondegreened* the lyrics. "Are the leaves all down?" she asked Patchett, who lives in Nashville. "All the leaves are down," Patchett replied. But no: It's "All the leaves are brown," to go with the gray skies (though the image of bare branches is nice too).

Will mondegreen creation dwindle when we all get our music via earbuds rather than crackly radios? Or is the listening mind just too inventive to stop making its own kind of sense, given half a chance? I'm rooting for the mondegreens; like eggcorns, they're too entertaining to be sacrificed for mere accuracy.

*I see that this verb is out there, in active and passive forms. I'll vote for active, since mondegreening is something we do, not something the song does to us.