Friday, March 20, 2015

Stephen King scores a grammar win

Stephen King, novelist and resident of Maine and (sensible man!) Florida, has refuted the Maine governor’s claim that King had left the state to escape oppressive taxes.
"Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green," the best-selling author told a local radio station. "Tabby and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given."
For me, that boldface sentiment is the news here: In its long quotation history, it has rarely been rendered grammatically. “From whom much is given, much is expected” – from John F. Kennedy Jr. -- is just one mangled example. You'd think a Bible quotation would get some respect, but it turns out the human mind has a hard time supplying the right number of prepositions and pronouns to say what this maxim intends.

My Globe column on the construction, from 1997, is paywalled, but never mind -- it’s quoted in Language Log’s extensive treatment of this Kennedy family favorite in all its crazy permutations. Check it out, and you’ll see why I say King deserves a grammar medal.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The problem with your "no problem" problem

NPR has been annoying and depressing me, lately, with its lowest-common-denominator approach to language watching. The new standards editor, Mark Memmott, kicked off the peevefest -- NPR's "Grammar Hall of Shame" -- a month ago, with a post about mixing up I and me (and, yes, an invitation to share your well-worn peeves once again). Now comes a post on the NPR blog, under "culture," that repeats the same old complaints about responding to "Thanks" with "No problem." 

Hoping to detour NPR off this well-trodden low road, I've been tweeting them earlier articles on "no problem," including mine from 2007 and Ben Zimmer's (which quotes and links to Erin McKean's). In case those aren't enough to demonstrate that this horse is, if not yet dead, at least thoroughly beaten, I'm also posting my first effort on the subject. (It appeared in the Boston Globe way back in October 1997, and is thus behind the paywall.) 

I know: Peevers gonna peeve, as long as they can get a few amens from the flock. But here's the truth: You don't like "no problem" because it's newish (only 40 or 50 years old). So you roll it around your brain thinking up ways to construe it as dismissive, inadequate, brusque. Pretty soon you're accusing some (probably) young person -- one who did something deserving of your thanks -- of being insufficiently appreciative of your gratitude. I don't think "no problem" is usually rude, but recasting it as an insult? Definitely rude.

The Word 
Different strokes for different primates
(October 26, 1997)

When it comes to everyday pleasantries, it doesn't take much to turn us unpleasant.

"That's not what I asked him!" complains the hostess whose offer of a drink is refused with, "I'm fine."

"Who is she to tell me to have a nice day?" grumbles the shopper irritated by a cashier's sendoff.

And "No problem," to some thankers, sounds like a grudging substitute for "You're welcome," even though such deprecating responses -- de rien, de nada, nichevo, it's nothing -- are common around the world.

The real problem with no problem and other linguistic innovations is not what they say, though. After all, nobody minds being bidden good morning, no matter how bad the day's news or weather (though the occasional joker will play on the gap between convention and reality by responding, "What's good about it?"). No, it's the very novelty of the wording that irritates. It forces our attention on phrases that should be seamless conventions, slipping by unnoticed as they oil the hinges of daily discourse.

One reason may be that such ritual words are not quite language, but something more like a verbal gesture. In his new book, "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," British psychologist Robin Dunbar proposes that speech evolved as a substitute for contact: Its purpose is not conveying facts -- "there's a herd of bison down by the lake" -- but extending the reach of the grooming behavior that cements relationships in other primate societies.

By using conversation, instead of stroking and louse-picking, to demonstrate friendship and seal alliances, says Dunbar, humans gained a survival advantage. We don't have to spend hours of each day in physical contact with other members of our tribes, but can "groom at a distance," nurturing relationships via conversation while we travel, hunt (or shop) for food, lay bricks, nurse babies.

Dunbar's hypothesis offers comfort to anyone who has ever felt guilty for gossiping instead of turning the talk to global warming or transportation policy. Some two-thirds of all conversations, he says, are about other people, not abstract issues -- a reflection of the basic biological purpose of speech. His theory also suggests why an unexpected response to a conventional greeting might upset you: Like a sudden pinch from a grooming partner, it startles instead of soothes -- just rubs you the wrong way, so to speak.

There's evidence for this view in contemporary advice columns, too, which are filled with tales of relationships wrecked by untimely displays of verbal originality. In stressful situations -- bereavement, pregnancy, divorce -- the human animal seems especially prone to misunderstandings, which is why Miss Manners and her allies urge us to rely on standard-issue comments, the verbal equivalent of "there, there," at such times.

In other eras and places, of course, the rules were far more explicit. The discussion of "U" (for upper-class) and "non-U" language habits in the book "Noblesse Oblige," edited by Nancy Mitford, created a sensation in the '50s, as readers on both sides of the Atlantic studied the subtle clues (say house, not home; vegetables, not greens) by which class would tell.

Pleased to meet you, the only greeting addressed in the essay that inspired the book, "is a very frequent non-U response to the greeting How d'you do?" Professor Alan S. C. Ross declares. "U-speakers normally just repeat the greeting; to reply to the greeting (e.g. with Quite well, thank you) is non-U."

In our big, babbling democracy, it's not so simple. That kid who says "No problem!" may be contentedly non-U -- or just hipper than thou. (In any case, we should be getting over our no problem problem by now. William Safire, the New York Times' word maven, reported in 1974 that no problem was already being bandied about in the USSR.)

As for those other irritating phrases, patience is recommended. They will either fade away, or become as natural as 'Morning and 'Night. In the meantime, take care, and have a nice day.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Use it or lose it: A New Year's plea

If I could make New Year’s resolutions for other writers, this one would head the list: Don’t use a word and then tell your readers what a worthless word it is.

Don't do what New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott did in his April 2013 obituary for Roger Ebert: "He was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate bit of jargon was invented."

Or what Teddy Wayne did it in the the NYT's Future Tense column in February, writing about his holiday from technology: "I also briefly experienced the famous 'fear of missing out,' a.k.a, annoyingly, FOMO." 

Don't do as author Evgeny Morozov did when he complained, in a May NYT book review, of the ubiquity of  "the ugly, jargony name of Big Data." 

Or as columnist Maureen Dowd has twice done, using (while deploring) the political sense of "optics." In January 2013, she said the shortage of women in the Administration was "more than an 'optics' problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment." In October 2014, she wrote that "the White House thought [a female Secret Service head] would be good optics  -- that most egregious word." (But not egregious enough to omit.)

Why the desperate need to distance themselves from neologisms? Maybe these writers -- all, as it happens, from the pages of the New York Times -- were trying to head off criticism from Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s usage watchdog. By preemptively criticizing the jargon, they can have it both ways: They get to use a trendy expression and simultaneously disavow it. (Pro tip: If you really don’t think a word should exist, don’t give it currency in the New York Times.)

But I think there’s anxiety, not just distaste, behind these disavowals. If language is your expertise, you don’t want to be the last one to notice a lexical fad has run its course. Hence the preemptive apologies: Just in case this is old hat, I already hate it!

Scott, in fact, has waffled on "platform agnostic." He used it without comment in 2007, when he was quoting the New Yorker. And seven months after he called it "unfortunate jargon," it was back in  his good graces: In fall 2013, he wrote of filmmakers determined "to figure out, in a post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era, what the art of cinema might be."

MoDo, meanwhile, used "optics" without apology in 2009 ("what his aide Anita Dunn calls 'the optics'"), again in 2010 ("Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some …wince" ), and in 2012 (Dominique Strauss-Kahn "ignored the bad optics"). But three times was her limit: Only months later, "optics" had become that "irritating cliche."

This looks suspiciously like journalistic FOMO -- fear of missing out on the moment a popular term turns has-been. But there's a simple remedy: Call the word passé whenever you use it, and nobody can beat you to the punch. 

This isn't just a journalistic worry. Lists of peeves, like the annual banned words list from Lake Superior State University, always include slang and jargon with plenty of miles left on them (curate, anyone? Or takeaway?). The word-banning enthusiasts, though, are always ready to tell us our favorite phrases are so over, if only we laggards had the wit to see it. 

But grownup journalists shouldn't be playing that game. If  "optics" or "FOMO" offends your sensibilities, it's usually simple enough to skip it, rather than make it an occasion to flaunt your taste. There are enough people out there who pride themselves on their language peevery. They don’t need encouragement from professionals.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You say cannoli, I say cannolis

I'm posting this 17-year-old Word column (now paywalled in the Boston Globe's archives) in response to Mark Allen (@EditorMark on Twitter), who just tweeted about panini, which I somehow overlooked when writing about similar Italian plurals. It appeared on Sept. 14, 1997, just a couple of weeks after Princess Diana died in a Paris car that was being pursued by paparazzi. I haven't updated the usage research, except to verify that we (the English-speaking public) remain far more comfortable with the double plural cannolis than with biscottis

Do paparazzi prefer cannoli?
The paparazzi are under a cloud these days, scorned around the world for their unsavory trade and its role in Princess Diana's death. But for the word paparazzi, there's a silver lining: All that attention is reawakening English speakers to the fact that paparazzi is a plural, with a very presentable Italian singular form.

The word, as we all heard during the post-crash coverage, was coined by Federico Fellini, who gave the name Paparazzo to the celebrity-chasing photographer of "La Dolce Vita." What inspired the choice is more mysterious: Some accounts mention an annoying childhood friend of Fellini's by that name; one suspects the influence of pappataci, a sand-fly. "It translates literally as Daddy Rocket, though it may owe something to the verb razzolare, meaning to scrape or scratch around in debris," ventures a New Zealand newspaper columnist.

As the paparazzi furor burned on, our collective mastery of the word improved. There were a few three-p papparazzis and at least one reference to a paparazzi -- as well as an Internet mourner's poporatizee and a newspaper's unfortunate contraction, paps -- but most writers got it right.

Still, the paparazzi variations are a reminder of the general lawlessness of our language in the matter of adopted plurals. We can choose seraphs or seraphim, tableaux or tableaus, depending on our taste and our dictionary. We've kept alumni and alumnae in their Latin forms, but we've domesticated stadiums and forums.

When the language is Latin, of course, there are no current speakers to object to the anglicizing process. English plurals also form rapidly on words in less familiar languages, since we can't hear anything amiss when we add -s to words like the Bantu marimba or Swahili safari -- two nice examples from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.

But Italian plurals are all around us, in movies about mafiosi, in music lovers' concerti and libretti, and most of all, in our diet -- in the restaurants and cookbooks where we find penne and tagliatelle and risotto con funghi.

Even these well-known words aren't easy to master: We still haven't agreed on lasagne vs. lasagna. The pastas alone would have defeated English speakers long ago, if they hadn't been so cooperative about functioning as collective nouns. So our noodles are plural, but our spaghetti is construed as a singular, and we never give a thought to a raviolo or a gnocco.

And on the dessert menu, there's some delicious evidence of the pluralizing process caught in the act, with all its cultural baggage on display.

When we order cannoli and biscotti, we generally use the same word whether we want one or half a dozen -- a cannoli, we say, but most of us feel enough of the plural force that we also say three biscotti. Some people, however, make the plural even more so, ordering six cannolis.

"We are used to it," said Enza Merola of Maria's Pastry [in Boston's North End], admitting that she has adopted the usage she hears and dropped the Italian singulars: "I would never say to a customer, 'one cannolo?' "

In print, however, cannoli and biscotti meet different fates. A search of the Globe archives, though not exactly rigorous science, shows that the plural cannolis is 20 times as likely to be used in a cannoli connection as is the plural biscottis in a similar spot.

Why the gap? I suspect it's a matter of cultural context. Both desserts are old favorites, but biscotti made a comeback as a trendy treat over the past couple of decades, while cannoli remained the ultimate in creamy, messy indulgence.

The new biscotti are clearly cookies for grown-ups -- dry, brittle, sophisticated. And the new biscotti people notice things like singulars and plurals in their favorite food languages. Hence biscotti holds on to its plural feeling, while cannoli cheerfully drops the distinction.

All conjecture, yes. But there's support for it in a new catalog from J. Peterman, who's now hawking not just clothes but rugs and china -- including a floral biscotti jar for $150.

The jar itself is labeled Biscotti. The ad copy calls it a biscotti jar. But in the headline, it's a Biscotto Jar. And the reason for that, you can bet your chocolate cannolo, is to let readers know that J. Peterman, il principe of pretentious prose, is one of them -- a master of the singular of biscotti


A year later, in August 1998, I finally caught up with a footnote from The Economist that revealed the probable source of  papparazzo. 

The first of the paparazzi died last month, less than a year after the crash that killed Princess Diana and set off a worldwide debate on the hit-and-run photographers' ethics -- and the origins of their name.

Tazio Secchiaroli, a Roman "street photographer," had been Federico Fellini's model for the celebrity-chasing character in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," everyone agreed. But why had Fellini named his character Paparazzo? Was it related to razzolare, to scratch around in trash? Influenced by pappataci, an annoying sand-fly? Was it, as one reader of this column suggested, a Riminese dialect word for the part of the chicken sometimes known as the pope's nose?

While the rest of us were scratching our heads, some amazingly well-read source tipped off The Economist that the true Paparazzo could be found in a 1902 travel book; thus, the London weekly's post-crash coverage included a footnote informing us that Fellini's scriptwriter "took the name from `By the Ionian Sea,' a book by George Gissing. Coriolano Paparazzo was the proprietor of the hotel in Catanzaro where the British poet had stayed." Gissing was in fact a novelist, and the magazine gave the wrong date for his trip, but the squib was still a coup -- especially the smug last line, which noted that "Gissing's book is still on sale in Calabria, in an excellent Italian translation."

To mark Secchiaroli's departure for the great darkroom in the sky, Michael Quinion, proprietor of the World Wide Words Web site, revisits the history of paparazzo in his most recent newsletter. His account looks like the last word on the word, if not on the subject. Concludes Quinion: "I can only wonder at what the late Signore Paparazzo, the keeper of that hotel in Catanzaro, would make of the coincidences that led through an English writer’s recording of a brief stay there, and the accidental encounter with it by an Italian scriptwriter, to the borrowing of his name as one of the more pejorative in the English language."*

Skeptics who'd like to meet this Signore Paparazzo can find him via the Internet, too. Among the surprisingly numerous Gissing-related Web sites -- even discounting those that use him only as a limerick rhyme -- there's one with the full text of "By the Ionian Sea." In the original English, of course, not the excellent Italian translation.

*The language in this paragraph has been altered slightly, reflecting updates to Quinion's blog post since the original publication.