Regarding Language

The American People

Recorded on January 16th, 2017

I have a theory that there is a directly proportional relationship between how often someone uses the phrase, “the American people”, and how full of shit they are.

Just look at this transcript from the 1/15 Face the Nation interview with Mike Pence. He used the phrase six times within 15 minutes. (To be fair, John Dickerson used it one time.) It is a lazy way to hint that “well, my argument is unassailable because we’re talking about the American people here for crying out loud.” Using it reveals that the speaker knows he or she is wrong on some level.

Respectively

Recorded on December 24th, 2016

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I started reading High Fidelity magazine around 2nd or 3rd grade. Dad left them lying around the house (i.e., the bathroom) and I learned about tape equalization, wow & flutter, turntable rumble, FM multipath interference, and speaker placement. Every month, they had a whole section where they’d announce new products. These weren’t reviews — they were little photos and blurbs like:

Shure announces new cartridge lineup. The V-15 Type IV and M44-7 are moving magnet cartridges and will sell for $179 and $129, respectively.

(I completely made up those specs and prices, btw.) I thought “respectively” meant something more like “respectfully”, as in, “Well, these are the prices, and we all agree that this stuff is expensive to design and manufacture, so have some respect for the pricing”. I only learned years later that the products listed corresponded in order with the prices that followed, which is what the word “respectively” is for.

Rude Interviewers

Recorded on December 23rd, 2016

One consequence of learning more about the world as it burns is that I’ve been listening to even more interviews, mostly on radio and podcasts. The single most grating thing (besides the lies of Trump and his transition team) is hearing interviewers repeatedly say to their subject, “Tell us about…”, “Walk us through…”, or the worst, “Talk about…”, as if they had some command over the person who has agreed to answer their inane questions. These hosts may as well be ordering in a restaurant, bellowing “I want a steak”, or “Gimme a large pizza and a Coke”. No “please”, no “may I”, no requests, just self-important rushing to the next blank talking point, with a goal of gracelessly getting an efficient answer, and to hell with manners.

I was born in the south, which has its problems, but we learned to speak to people politely, not to yell. To ask — not dictate. Instead, how about you treat your on-air guests with a little respect and actually ask them questions instead of barking orders at them? You could say, “What was life like when…”, or “Would you tell us about…”, or “Could you describe for us…”?

Yes, I’m angry.

Hair’s Breath

Recorded on December 18th, 2016

When I was little, I would mis-hear adults say the phrase, “hair’s breadth” as “hair’s breath”, thinking that made perfect sense, since a hair’s breath would be pretty small and would look like this:

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George Orwell Predicted Trump

Recorded on August 12th, 2016

This passage from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language reminds me of Donald Trump every time he opens his goddamned mouth. Beware of him, and of any proposed leader who won’t speak or write clearly, because it means they won’t think clearly.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

Duolingo for Learning a Language

Recorded on July 25th, 2016

Some really smart friends of mine were talking excitedly about the Duolingo app this past weekend. All I needed to hear was “iOS app for language learning” + “doesn’t cost $200” and I was sold. I finally got a few minutes to download it this morning. After getting two minutes into the skills assessment section of the French module, I was hooked. I found that I remembered just enough vocabulary words from my five years of middle school and high school French to start making me feel pretty smart. I haven’t even finished the assessment, but I’m excited to get back into it and see where some actual lessons lead.

It’s embarrassing that I’m 45 years old and I know practically zero Italian, German, and Spanish. Maybe this will be a shortcut to some bare-bones knowledge. We’ll see!

Words I Don’t Like

Recorded on March 30th, 2016

From my “words i don’t like.txt” file, which really does exist:

  1. Buns (as in, not the bread kind)
  2. Chi-town*
  3. Frisco
  4. Hotlanta
  5. Listicles
  6. Mouthfeel
  7. Nuptials
  8. Penis
  9. Philly*
  10. Tummy
  11. Tush (but the ZZ Top kind is ok)

I know I’m going to think of 11 more as soon as I post this.

*Goddamn, I really hate those two the most.

We’re Going to Really Split This Infinitive

Recorded on February 24th, 2016

I have a complaint. It’s very hard to document or point to examples of, because the construction of it is so close to legitimate language that it would be like Googling the word “the”. My complaint is people who stick the word “really” between “to” and an essentially unmodifiable verb:

  • “We’re going to really see where we go with this.”
  • “We’ll try to really define the problem.”
  • “I encourage you to really talk to your manager.”

Sometimes they leave the “to” out and just slip the “really” in there for fun:

  • “We’re really talking about what ‘design’ means.”
  • “She really built the first sustainable business in that space.” (Ugh, sorry. I’m just making shit up now.)

I could find better, dumber examples if I tried harder. Or, if I wanted to sound more important, I could try to really find better, dumber examples, because I want you to really read what I’m really writing here.

See where it breaks down? It’s a crutch word, in a crutch-like formation when you’re afraid to stop talking. It sounds awful. It’d be far better to fill that space with “uh” or “um”.

I have no allegiance to un-split infinitives, either. “To boldly go”, “To go boldly”, whatever. If putting an adverb in the middle is wrong – and there’s still debate on that – I say it’s fine as long as it helps the next word. It’s adding “really” in an attempt to make your boring verb sound innovative, noble, or novel that irritates me. It doesn’t do anything. You either listen or you don’t. You either see, define, or build, or you don’t.

This is the new “leverage” or “move the needle”, but it’s worse. Because it’s less obvious, it can infect any unsuspecting, innocent verb, robbing it of any shred of power. It’s inevitably followed by a raft of additional instances of “really”. Listen for them and they’ll be there. Once people start with it, they can’t stop themselves.

You know what to do: Banish the phrase from your language.