Sunday, October 24, 2010

Verbal Stuff That I Like: Kris Kristofferson's Cascading Negatives Edition

This is from "Best of All Possible Worlds" on the Me and Bobby McGee album:
I said "I won't be leaving no more quicker than I can/'Cause I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand/And I don't need this town of yours more than I never needed nothing else!"!
Of course, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose/And nothing ain't worth nothing, but it's free" is also very wonderful, but you've all heard that one already, and this is an educational blog. [chortle]

The n-word and the w-word, and use vs. mention

Warning: This post has quotations with both the w-word and the n-word, and it mentions (but doesn't use [although it questions the importance of the distinction]) the f-word.

Linguist John McWhorter has an interesting column (in the New Republic, posted on October 13, 2010), which I now quote at some length, since a paraphrase will be less eloquent and not much shorter:
[On a tape, an aide to Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor of California] suggests that a useful campaign response to Whitman's offering a deal to the Los Angeles policeman's union on pensions would be to frame her as a "whore."

"The people of California deserve better than slurs," Whitman [Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate] objected in a debate with Brown Tuesday. And moderator Tom Brokaw chimed in that calling Whitman a whore was equivalent to lobbing the N-word at a black person...

The simple fact is that whore has two meanings. One is the original and ancient one of a woman who sells her body for money. It could even be argued that this meaning of the word is becoming somewhat old-fashioned. Words evolve. Always. The newer meaning of whore is a secondary and derived one, applied to a person who takes money or some other form of recompense in return for a service deemed substandard in quality or ethics.

Note that I write "person," as whore is applied readily to men as well as women. A quick internet search reveals the word being applied to Ben Stein, Hugh Jackman, Lil Wayne and Harry Reid (and in Jackman's case, he even happily applies it to himself). Pointedly, Whitman's current campaign chairman Pete Wilson, back in 1995, accused Congress of being "such whores to public employees unions" (in reference to the Fair Labor Practices Act during the Depression!!).

This is the meaning that Brown's aide intended, and an analogy to the N-word does not go through. Nigger implies the generic, definitional inferiority of black people regardless of what they do. The proper analogy would be if the staffer had, with Brown's tacit approval, referred to her with a word beginning with c and ending with t. That is a word generally applied only to women, and with an implication of total, bone-chilling, ice-cold dismissal of female individuals in general.
For the little that it's worth, I agree with McWhorter on this. For the demographic record (which shouldn't be necessary--an argument should stand on its own merits, but some may consider this important), McWhorter is a black (he objects to "African American") male, and I am a white male.

The final paragraph of McWhorter's post reads,

For Whitman, Brokaw, or anyone else to claim that Brown's aide's private usage of whore in the sense he intended is equivalent to someone calling Cory Booker a nigger is, well, politics. Just as when some pretend that blacks and whites are using "the same word" when wielding the N-word--or others pretend that someone like Dr. Laura referring to the N-word is the same as using it--we're all playing a kind of game, unaware of it only in a willing kind of way.
Doc Laura Schlessinger. There's one for you. I agree with McWhorter on this, sort of. Schlessinger did refer to the N-word instead of using it. But it was still extremely stupid. Linguists make the distinction between mention of a word and use of it, and it may be useful in scholarship, but in the real world it often isn't. Imagine you're a parent of a child, and you say to your child, "I don't want you to say 'fuck you.'" You probably can't imagine saying that, since you can't imagine being that stupid. The child is going to say, "But you just said it, hee hee hee hee hee hee hee." And you, in this imagined scenario, are going to reply, "Yes, dear child, but I mentioned it, I didn't use it."

In August, there was some hoohah at Language Log about mention vs. use. Geoffrey K. Pullum, whose posts I admire when they're not way over my head (my fault for my head being so low), quotes Shirley Brown, the first black Liberal Democrat to be elected to the Bristol, England, city council, who said to Jay Jethwa, a Conservative member of the council who is of Indian descent
In our culture we have a word for you … we have a word which we use, and I'm sure many in this city would understand, it's coconut. And at the end of the day I just look at you as that. And the water's either worth throwing away or drinking it.
Pullum adds,
Jethwa was upset; she knew very well that the coconut reference was about being brown on the outside but white inside (and she said she felt it insulted not only her but white people too). She also recognized the metaphor of the often discarded coconut water as suggesting that her remarks were worthless.
Brown was charged with aggravated racial harassment. Pullum comments,
The linguistic point is that Mrs. Brown did not use the term coconut. Although the Guardian sub-head said she "called [her] Asian opponent a 'coconut' during heated debate", she didn't. There was in fact no heated debate: she read prepared remarks quite calmly. And she observed that in her own culture there was a word for people like Jay Jethwa, and said what the word was, and said she saw it as an appropriate one in the context.

It's a small point, but there is a linguistic difference between telling someone that there is a word roadhog for people like them who drive aggressively and ignore other drivers' rights and safety, and actually saying "You're a roadhog." It's the difference between use and mention of the word in question. [Pullum's italics and boldface]

There was a lot of backing-and-forthing in the comments on this post, with a lot of did-not-did-so discourse. She did call her a coconut, says a commenter; she did not, replies Pullum. And then another commenter, and Pullum's re-reply. I take Pullum's point, but it seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. "We have a word for you. It's coconut. I just look at you as that." Maybe we can add another differenceless distinction. Brown called Jethwa a coconut. Note that I'm not saying Brown used "coconut," only that she called Jethwa a coconut. One may call another a coconut either by using or by mentioning the word. This would, I believe, satisfy both Pullum and the commenters who disagree with him. Given that nobody used use in the first place. Note too that the Guardian's subhead that Pullum objects to uses call instead of use.

Nevertheless, I agree with McWhorter, based on my reading of the Schlessinger transcript, that the doc wasn't using the word. She was mentioning it. I think she should have been busted for stupidity instead of racism. (Not to mention abusing her callers, but that's off topic here.) (Not that this blog has any opinion on abusing people, although I, its author, may [some may consider this yet another distinction without a difference].)

But I think that McWhorter himself recognizes that the difference between mention and use isn't always meaningful. Recall what he said about the female equivalent of the n-word: that it is "a word beginning with c and ending with t. That is a word generally applied only to women, and with an implication of total, bone-chilling, ice-cold dismissal of female individuals in general." Like McWhorter, I can't mention this word, let alone use it. The distinction between mention and use seems sometimes to disappear here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Careful readers of this blog will note--heck, I noted it, and I'm not even a careful reader of this blog--anyhow, they'll note that the post about Mr. Breakfast has the title "Verbal Stuff I Like," when the correct name of the series is "Verbal Stuff That I Like." And that in that very post I mention "the Verbal Stuff I Like series" (twice) while in the Raymond L. Weiss post I mention "the 'Verbal Stuff That I Like Series,'" with quotation marks and a capped "Series," not to mention that "That" is in it. Oops.

Yes, I do need to get a life.

Verbal Stuff That I Like: Euro Edition

This all started when, industrious welkin that I am, I found "peanut fondu [sic]" in a manuscript I was working on. The sic was the author's, not my own, and I had to check the Oxford English Dictionary to see whether the sic was called for. The OED says that fondu is an erroneous spelling, which seems like a pretty nondescriptivist tude. So I did a full-text search in the OED for both fondue and fondu, and in the foodie sense fondue sure did preponderate. Not that either one appeared all that often. And isn't it my opinion that if a spelling occurs often enough to get mentioned as erroneous, that's also often enough to make it a legitimate alternative spelling (not that I'd necessarily use it (stop giggling!, I'm being serious!)!)? It sure is.

But anyhow. Here's one of the exemplary quotations I found that includes fondue. It's not an exemplary quotation for fondue (although maybe it should be, but for "Euro-, comb. form, " definition A.1.c. ("Forming the names of types or genres of music originating in or associated with (continental) Europe").

2002 Big Issue 17 June 33/2 Ok, trance isn't everyone's cup of rave gravy, in fact, there is a whole tranche of Euro trance that makes fondue look dairy-free.