assholes and elbows

Geoffrey Nunberg: “You rarely, almost never, hear a woman being described as an asshole for doing to a man what a man would be called an asshole for doing to a woman. So, I think that there are lots of cases where we ought to call women assholes in the name of gender equity, where we don’t.”

Witness Bill Clinton, the liberal counterpart to Ronald Reagan, a fuckwit of the first water promoted to irreproachable moral authority, all the better to rub in the imbecility of his adherents. Yet Margaret Thatcher, his Tory equivalent, gets called an asshole orders of magnitude less often.

But never mind gender equity. Only women have cunts. Both men and women get called cunts. Both men and women have assholes. Only men get called assholes. Where’s the logic?

fowler on pedantry and purism


Henry Watson Fowler
10 March 1858 – 26 December 1933

Pedantic Humour. No essential distinction is intended between this & Polysyllabic Humour; one or the other name is more appropriate to particular specimens, & the two headings are therefore useful for reference; but they are manifestations of the same impulse, & the few remarks needed may be made here for both. A warning is necessary, because we have all of us, except the abnormally stupid, been pedantic humourists in our time. We spend much of our childhood picking up a vocabulary; we like to air our latest finds; we discover that our elders are tickled when we come out with a new name that they thought beyond us; we devote some pains to tickle them further, & there we are, pedants & polysyllabists all. The impulse is healthy for children, & nearly universal—which is just why warning is necessary; for among so many there will always be some who fail to realize that the clever habit applauded at home will make them insufferable abroad. Most of those who are capable of writing well enough to find readers do learn sooner or later that playful use of long or learned words is a one-sided game boring the reader more than it pleases the writer, that the impulse to it is a danger-signal—for there must be something wrong with what they are saying if it needs recommending by such puerilities—, & that yielding to the impulse is a confession of failure. But now & then even an able writer will go on believing that the incongruity between simple things to be said & out-of-the-way words to say them in has a perennial charm. Perhaps it has for the reader who never outgrows hobbledehoyhood; but for the rest of us it is dreary indeed. It is possible that acquaintance with such labels as pedantic & polysyllabic humour may help to shorten the time it takes to cure a weakness incident to youth.
    An elementary example or two should be given. The words homoeopathic (small or minute), sartorial (of clothes), interregnum (gap), or familiar ones:—To introduce ‘Lords of Parliament’ in such a homoeopathic doses as to leave a preponderating power in the hands of those who enjoy a merely hereditary title./While we were motoring out to the station I took stock of his sartorial aspect, which had change somewhat since we parted./In his vehement action his breeches fall down & his waistcoat runs up, so that there is a great interregnum.
    These words are like most that are much used in humour of either kind, both pedantic & polysyllabic. A few specimens that cannot be described as polysyllabic are added here, & for the large class of long words, the article Polysyllabic Humour should be consulted:—ablution; aforesaid; beverage; bivalve (the succulent); caloric; cuticle; digit; domestics; eke (adv.); ergo; erstwhile; felicide; nasal organ; neighbourhood (in the n. of, = about); nether garments; optic (eye); parlous; vulpicide.

    Pedantry may be defined, for the purpose of this book, as the saying of things in language so learned or so demonstratively accurate as to imply a slur upon the generality, who are not capable or desirous of such displays. The term, then, is obviously a relative one; my pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education, & someone else’s ignorance. It is therefore not very profitable to dogmatize here on the subject; an essay would establish not what pedantry is, but only the place in the scale occupied by the author; & that, so far as it is worth inquiring into, can better be ascertained from the treatment of details […].

    Polysyllabic Humour. See Pedantic Humour for a slight account of the impulse that suggests long or abstruse words as a means of entertaining the hearer. Of the long as distinguished from the abstruse, terminological exactitude for lie or falsehood is a favourable example, but much less amusing ad the hundredth than at the first time of hearing. Oblivious to their pristine nudity (forgetting they were stark naked) is a less familiar specimen. Nothing need here be added to hat was said in the other article beyond a short specimen list of long words or phrases that sensible people avoid. Batavian, Caledonian, Celestial, Hibernian & Milesian for Dutch, Scotch, Chinese, Irish. Solution of continuity, femoral habiliments, refrain from lacteal addition, & olfactory organ for gap, breeches, take no milk, & nose. Osculatory, pachydermatous, matutinal, diminutive, fuliginous, fugacious, esurient, culinary, & minacious, for kissing, thick-skinned, morning, tiny, sooty, timid, hungry, kitchen, & threatening. Frontispiece, individual, equitation, intermediary, cachinnation, & epidermis, for face, person, riding, means, laughter, & skin. Negotiate & peregrinate for tackle & travel.

    Purism. Now & then a person may be heard to ‘confess’, in the pride that apes humility, to being ‘a bit of a purist’; but purist & purism are for the most part missile words, which we all of us fling at anyone who insults us by finding not good enough for him some manner of speech that is good enough for us. It is in that disparaging sense that the words are used in this book; by purism is to be understood a needless & irritating insistence on purity or correctness of speech. Pure English, however, even apart from the great number of elements (vocabulary, grammar, idiom, pronunciation, & so forth) that go to make it up, is so relative a term that almost every man is potentially a purist & a sloven at once to persons looking at him from a lower & a higher position in the scale than his own. The words have therefore not been very freely used; that they should be renounced altogether would be too much to expect considering the subject of the book. But readers who find a usage stigmatized as purism have a right to know the stigmatizer’s place in the purist scale, if his stigma is not to be valueless. […]

—Henry Watson Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition,
Oxford University Press, 2009 (1926), pp. 426-427, 444, 474-475

stirred, not shaken

Citing Orwell to the effect that the mixing of incompatible metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying”, is a hackneyed excuse for failing to think independently. Mixed metaphors are as venerable as Plato, whose dialectic gently draws forth and leads up the soul sunk in the barbaric slough of the Orphic myth, in the Republic 7.533d. Likewise, in Timaeus 81c-d, when the root of the triangles that form the elements of living creatures grows slack owing to their having fought many fights during long periods, they are no longer able to divide the entering triangles of the food and assimilate them to themselves, but are themselves easily divided by those which enter from without. Most notably, criticasters have agonized over Hamlet echoing the proverbial Greek usage of “thalassa kakon” in proposing “to take arms against a sea of troubles”. Thus Alexander Pope proposed amending “sea” to “siege”, whereas William Warburton advocated the reading “assail of troubles”. For my part, upon being confronted with such noisome cavils, I repeat the immortal battle cry of Sir Boyle Roche: “Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”

strange sex some may have known

     “Molte son le volte che li muscoli componitori de’ labbri della bocca movano li muscoli laterali a sè congiunti, e altrettante son le volte che essi muscoli laterali movano li labbri d’essa bocca, ritornandola donde da sè ritornare non po, perchè l’uffizio del muscolo è di tirare e non di spingere, eccetto li membri genitali e la lingua.”

—Leonardo da Vinci, De vocie, in Edmondo Solmi, “Il trattato di Leonardo da Vinci sul linguaggio «De vocie»”, 1906

“There are many occasions when the muscles that form the lips of the mouth move the lateral muscles that are joined to them, and there are an equal number of occasions when these lateral muscles move the lips of this mouth, replacing it where it cannot return of itself, because the function of muscle is to pull and not to push except in the case of the genitals and the tongue.”

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, translated by Edward MacCurdy, 1939

     “I tell you that one?…I tell you about the Polack who thinks Peter Pan’s a wash basin in a cathouse?…The difference between erotic and kinky? Erotic you use a feather, kinky you use the whole chicken?”

—Elmore Leonard, Stick, 1983

     I write about what people do to each other. It isn’t pretty.

—Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files, 1992

     HANNAH: Sex and literature. Literature and sex. Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.
BERNARD: Ah well, yes. Men all over.
HANNAH: No doubt. Einstein—relativity and sex. Chippendale—sex and furniture. Galileo—‘Did the earth move?’ What the hell is it with you people?

—Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, 1993

At the outset of an eponymous 1832 novel, Honoré de Balzac caused Louis Lambert, his precocious Swedenborgian hero, to air out his doctrines of meaning:

—Souvent, me dit-il, en parlant de ses lectures, j’ai accompli de délicieux voyages, embarqué sur un mot dans les abîmes du passé, comme l’insecte qui flotte au gré d’un fleuve sur quelque brin d’herbe. Parti de la Grèce, j’arrivais à Rome et traversais l’étendue des âges modernes. Quel beau livre ne composerait-on pas en racontant la vie et les aventures d’un mot ? sans doute il a reçu diverses impressions des événements auxquels il a servi ; selon les lieux il a réveillé des idées différentes ; mais n’est-il pas plus grand encore à considérer sous le triple aspect de l’âme, du corps et du mouvement ? À le regarder, abstraction faite de ses fonctions, de ses effets et de ses actes, n’y a-t-il pas de quoi tomber dans un océan de réflexions ? La plupart des mots ne sont-ils pas teints de l’idée qu’ils représentent extérieurement ? à quel génie sont-ils dus ! S’il faut une grande intelligence pour créer un mot, quel âge a donc la parole humaine ? L’assemblage des lettres, leurs formes, la figure qu’elles donnent à un mot, dessinent exactement, suivant le caractère de chaque peuple, des êtres inconnus dont le souvenir est en nous. Qui nous expliquera philosophiquement la transition de la sensation à la pensée, de la pensée au verbe, du verbe à son expression hiéroglyphique, des hiéroglyphes à l’alphabet, de l’alphabet à l’éloquence écrite, dont la beauté réside dans une suite d’images classées par les rhéteurs, et qui sont comme les hiéroglyphes de la pensée ? L’antique peinture des idées humaines configurées par les formes zoologiques n’aurait-elle pas déterminé les premiers signes dont s’est servi l’Orient pour écrire ses langages ? Puis n’aurait-elle pas traditionnellement laissé quelques vestiges dans nos langues modernes, qui toutes se sont partagé les débris du verbe primitif des nations, verbe majestueux et solennel, dont la majesté, dont la solennité décroissent à mesure que vieillissent les sociétés ; dont les retentissements si sonores dans la Bible hébraïque, si beaux encore dans la Grèce, s’affaiblissent à travers les progrès de nos civilisations successives ? Est-ce à cet ancien Esprit que nous devons les mystères enfouis dans toute parole humaine ? N’existe-t-il pas dans le mot VRAI une sorte de rectitude fantastique ? ne se trouve-t-il pas dans le son bref qu’il exige une vague image de la chaste nudité, de la simplicité du vrai en toute chose ? Cette syllabe respire je ne sais quelle fraîcheur. J’ai pris pour exemple la formule d’une idée abstraite, ne voulant pas expliquer le problème par un mot qui le rendît trop facile à comprendre, comme celui de VOL, où tout parle aux sens. N’en est-il pas ainsi de chaque verbe ? tous sont empreints d’un vivant pouvoir qu’ils tiennent de l’âme, et qu’ils lui restituent par les mystères d’une action et d’une réaction merveilleuse entre la parole et la pensée. Ne dirait-on pas d’un amant qui puise sur les lèvres de sa maîtresse autant d’amour qu’il en communique ? Par leur seule physionomie, les mots raniment dans notre cerveau les créatures auxquelles ils servent de vêtement. Semblables à tous les êtres, ils n’ont qu’une place où leurs propriétés puissent pleinement agir et se développer. Mais ce sujet comporte peut-être une science tout entière ! Et il haussait les épaules comme pour me dire : Nous sommes et trop grands et trop petits ! “Often,” he has said to me when speaking of his readings, “often have I made the most delightful voyages, carried along by a word down the abysses of the past, like an insect floating on a blade of grass consigned to the flow of a river. Starting from Greece, I would get to Rome, and traverse the extent of modern ages. What a fine book might be written of the life and adventures of a word! Doubtless it has received various stamps from the events that it has served; it has revealed different ideas in different places; but is it not still grander to consider it under the triple aspects of soul, body, and motion? To regard it in the abstract, apart from its functions, its effects, and its actions, is it not a matter of falling into an ocean of reflections? Are not most words colored by the idea they represent externally? To whose genius are they due? If it takes great intelligence to create a word, how old does it make human speech? The combination of letters, their shapes, and the look they give to the word, are the exact reflection, in accordance with the character of each nation, of the unknown beings whose memory survives in us. Who would philosophically explain to us the transition from the sensation to a thought, from the thought to a word, from the word to its hieroglyphic expression, from the hieroglyphics to an alphabet, from the alphabet to written eloquence, whose beauty resides in a series of images classified by rhetoricians, and forming, as it were, the hieroglyphics of thought? Was it not the ancient mode of representing human ideas as embodied in the forms of animals that determined the shapes of the first signs that the Orient used for writing down its language? Then has it not left its traditional traces within our modern languages, which have all inherited some remnant of the primitive speech of nations, a majestic and solemn tongue whose majesty and solemnity decrease as communities grow old; whose sonorous tones ring in the Hebrew Bible, and still are noble in Greece, but grow weaker under the progress of our successive civilizations? Is it to this time-honored spirit that we owe the mysteries lying buried in every human word? Is there not a certain fantastic rectitude in the word TRUE? Does not the compact brevity of its sound contain a vague image of chaste nudity, of the simplicity of truth in all things? The syllable exudes an ineffable freshness. I chose the formula of an abstract idea on purpose, not wishing to pose the problem with a word that should make it too easy to the apprehension, as the word FLIGHT for instance, which is a direct appeal to the senses. But is it not so with every word? They are all stamped with a living power that comes from the soul, and which they restore thereto through the mysterious and wonderful action and reaction between thought and speech. Might we not speak of it as a lover who draws from the lips of his mistress as much love as he gives? Thus, by their mere physiognomy, words call to life in our brain the beings whom they serve to clothe. In the way of all beings, they have but one place where their properties can fully act and develop. But perhaps the subject comprises a science to itself!” And he would shrug his shoulders, as if to say, “But we are too high and too low!”


Thus Balzac extends etymological naturalism of Cratylus into the realm of Romantic aesthetics. In keeping with his observations, etymological creation continues in our days. Accordingly, in a muchly discussed article published by The New York Times on 5 November 2006, James Gleick testified:

Much of the new vocabulary appears online long before it will make it into books. Take geek. It was not till 2003 that O.E.D.3 caught up with the main modern sense: “a person who is extremely devoted to and knowledgeable about computers or related technology.” Internet chitchat provides the earliest known reference, a posting to a Usenet newsgroup, net.jokes, on Feb. 20, 1984.

In a Usenet message dated 10 January 2004, OED lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower confirmed the policy of “accep[ting] Usenet quotes as archived on (formerly) DejaNews or (now) Google Groups, in certain circumstances.” Hence a specimen of OED draft entry dated March 2003, which reflects such acceptance in language unfit to print in our newspaper of record: Beware of Rodents!

r.i.p., c. l.-s.

De la constellation initiale du poème, formée par les amoureux et les savants, les chats permettent, par leur médiation, d’éliminer la femme, laissant face à face—sinon même confondus—“le poète des Chats”, libéré de l’amour “bien restreint”, et l’univers, délivré de l’austérité du savant.

The cats, by their mediation, permit the removal of woman from the initial assemblage formed by lovers and scholars. The poet of “Les Chats,” liberated from love “bien petit, bien restreint,” meets face to face and perhaps even blends with the universe, delivered from the scholar’s austerity.

—Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, “« Les Chats » de Charles Baudelaire”, L’Homme, 1962, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 5-21, at p. 21

продукт элитарного взращивания

[info]aptsvet:
Любой реальный язык есть продукт “порчи”, а не элитарного взращивания.

[info]larvatus:
Французский язык является продуктом элитарного взращивания со времён кардинала Ришелье. И если можно поиздеваться над тщетными потугами вытеснения англицизмов типа email и software туземными новообразованиями типа courriel и logiciel, несомненно, что литературный модернизм от Бодлера до Бекетта обязан своим существованием именно этому академическому аскетизму.

[info]aptsvet:
В каком-то смысле верно и заслуживает особого внимания. Тем не менее, не мне одному кажется, что французская модель надзора за языком не идеальна. Русская, кстати, с нее во многом скопирована.

[info]larvatus:
Ежели верно и заслуживает внимания, зачем тогда стулья ломать?

[info]aptsvet:
Во-первых, в силу иных убеждений. Во-вторых, там тоже не так просто, многие нынешние авторы прилагают все усилия, чтобы не скатиться в язык Расина.

[info]larvatus:
И первое и второе понятно и оправдано. Но всё же, Ваше заявление, что любой реальный язык есть продукт “порчи”, а не элитарного взращивания, полностью опровергается вышеуказанным исключением.

[info]aptsvet:
О, я могу привести контрпримеры еще лучше—эсперанто, например, не говоря уже о строго формализованных языках программирования. Литературному французскому до этих эталонов далеко. Но я все же берусь предсказать, что узус победит норму и во французском, а польза его контролируемой эволюции для меня неочевидна.

[info]larvatus:
Контрпример эсперанто, не говоря уже о строго формализованных языках программирования, в контексте разговора о реальных языках проходит под рубрикой лёгкого издевательства, если не злостной софистики. Я не спорю с Вашими предсказаниями победы лингвистического народничества и восприятиями неочевидности пользы контролируемой эволюции. Меня удивляет лишь кульминация Вашей полемики заведомо ложным утверждением.

[info]aptsvet:
Лучше все же взглянуть в начало, в исходный пост. Ситуация в эпоху классической латыни, особенно серебряной, была во многом сходна с нынешней французской. Индукция имеет свои минусы, но лучше инструмента у нас нет.

[info]larvatus:
Самый лучший инструмент—это правда. Индукции здесь не стояло. В противном случае, мы бы всё ещё существовали в пещерах.

[info]aptsvet:
Пещеры тут ни при чем. Мне кажется, вы путаете мою неприязнь к лексической регламентации с отрицанием речевого этикета, на который я ни в коем случае не посягаю—наоборот, постоянно сетую на его кризис в сегодняшнем русском языке. Тем не менее, к грамматическому роду кофе он никакого отношения не имеет.

[info]larvatus:
Я пишу не про отрицание речевого этикета, и тем более не про грамматический род слова кофе, а про вполне реальный язык, являющийся продуктом “элитарного взращивания”.