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.  


tudza said...

I've found a perfectly secular reason to celebrate the winter solstice. This is the time of year when the time you have to commute in the dark on your bicycle starts to decrease.

Kate said...

I think that anyone who uses "super" as a verb has automatically forfeited language-peevery cred.

Kate said...

Oops, I meant "super" as an adverb.

Anonymous said...


Terry Collmann said...

I tried to read that Rosenbaum piece but I was falling asleep before it came time to click through to page two. What an amazingly dull writer.

Ø said...

I'm not sure that the "super" in "super-cool" is an adverb. On the other hand he also writes "have bequeathed us with", which in my opinion is ignorant and not cool at all.

John Cooper said...

Really, a column that complains about a column that complains about pet peeves is hardly in a superior position.

Yeah, Rosenbaum's column was ill-advised: it has, as you've pointed out, a lack of rigor, and more grievous from my own point of view, an Andy Rooneyesque way of grumping about trivial things in a way that is far more irritating than endearing.

All the same, if we start setting ourselves up as arbiters of who has the right to air their emotional reactions to the vagaries of the changing English language, we're just being snooty and putting a damper on healthy discourse.

As for Rosenbaum being "an amazingly dull writer," Terry Coleman, read his "Explaining Hitler" and tell me that again.

John McIntyre said...

That's the problem, Mr. Cooper. "Explaining Hitler" is a substantial work. That is why it is entirely fair for Ms. Freeman to call out Mr. Rosenbaum for the shoddy work of this particular article. If he were merely a dolt, he could be dismissed more readily.

Ø said...

Mr. Cooper, how shall I put this? It seems that me that the subtitle of Jan Freeman's blog reflects her ambivalence about the urge to nitpick, which is a force that can be channeled for good or evil. (And while I'm on the subject I want to point out that this sublety seems to be lost on a certain number of the commenters who turn up here.)

There is at times a fine line between the outlook of the language peever and that of the copy editor. Rosenbaum's mad self-indulgent little rant falls squarely on one side of that line. Freeman's blog posts--and before that, her newspaper columns--fall squarely on the other side of it. She writes as an interested observer of language usage, a neutral observer in some sense but also one with clearly (and calmly) expressed tastes and opinions. I'll grant that this time she let herself go and ranted a wee bit. But, hey, it was Festivus.

Ø said...

(that -> to, channeled -> harnessed, sublety -> subtlety)