The Vocabula Review

November 2008, Vol. 10, No. 11 Sunday, May 1, 2016


Eviction Notices John Kilgore
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"Shibboleths" will be a work of principled dilettantism, dedicated to the idea that language and literature provide surprisingly good handles on anything else one wishes to grasp. Starting from my own homely, boisterous, undisciplined discipline — academic "English" — I will make brief forays into adjoining territories, intent on discovering what Rhetoric may have to contribute to discussions of culture, politics, psychology, and things in general.

Among the many sad jokes that age plays, I have recently been noticing this one: the English language seems to me ever more brilliant, majestic, artful, and wise; but the users of the language grow always more clumsy, unschooled, and mistaken. "Abuse of the language," that bęte noire whose very existence I once breezily denied, has come to seem a fact gross and incontrovertible, unmistakably there in half of what I hear and a quarter of what I read — or in one hundred percent of what I read, when I am grading student papers. I feel outnumbered, outflanked, depressed. The country cousins, who gradually moved into the family castle over the past few decades, have now taken to playing paintball in the ancient and ornate rooms.

Take diction. To select just one grievance from a phonebook-sized dossier, how is it that sucks has migrated with such unseemly haste from the realm of the offensive to that of the joshing, the au courant, and the cutesie, so that "That sucks" now merits a knee-jerk laugh in any company, much as "Bummer!" did two decades ago? Clearly, those of us for whom the phrase still evokes memories of Linda Lovelace are now in the minority. I take scant comfort from the thought that a host of other ordinary, innocent terms are likewise rooted in scatology or anatomy or the libido: seminal, jazz, rock'n'roll, vanilla, copulative verb, pencil, and so on. The speed with which sucks has been drained of its shock value strikes me as a thing darkly portentous, like the strip-mining of a hill. Like all old men, I think, Lord, what are we coming to? Meanwhile other terms that were once perfectly polite have migrated in the other direction, falling under the shadow of political incorrectness, acquiring a certain zing in the process.

Of course, complaining of diction is like hunting ants with a rifle. But I can't help myself. When did settle become an intransitive verb meaning "to compromise dishonorably"?

"What did you think of Jill's new man?"

"Frankly, I think she's settled."

"Oh, George! How dreadful!"

Such symptoms are everywhere. Why have newscasters begun changing rightly to rightfully, unctuously adding an extra syllable that carries unmeant overtones of litigation? Why do most people in my small town use when and whenever interchangeably, and confuse lie and lay every time? Admitting that blog, as a noun and even a verb, seems to fill an indispensable semantic need, why can't anyone invent a less ugly term? And dear Heaven, what can it say about the culture that we have let athleticism survive to its fifteenth or twentieth birthday, rather than strangling it and the self-important sportscasters who foisted it on us? When did the bureaucratic solecism "advocate for," as in She advocates for Exxon Mobil, go viral, so that the fine old verb is now obliged to wear the ungainly preposition in all weathers, like a flak jacket impeding its embrace of the direct object?

Personally, I advocate for peace with honor.

He advocated for replacing the windows.

For that matter, when did go viral infect my own idiolect, and why can I no longer seem to find a synonym?

Alas, I can remember the halcyon days when suspect, as a noun, seemed mildly uncouth to my elders, but perfectly expressed what all right-thinking people meant by it. Sergeant Friday approached the suspect cautiously. What dismaying excess of scruple brought on the subsequent bloat of alleged suspect, and when can we expect suspected alleged suspect? As for that more recent catchphrase, person of interest, it is so hideously arch that on hearing it I know at once, without further proof, that the grizzled sheriff who said it is wearing women's panties.

Speaking of suspects, my very favorite catchphrase from the War on Terror is suspected terrorist, as in, "American planes struck deep inside Pakistan today, killing seventeen suspected terrorists." To appreciate the cleverness of this, you need only compare the lead-footed alternative: "killing seventeen people whom we suspect were terrorists, probably." Where wet work and body counts are in question, any lawyer can tell you, it's wise to shift the emphasis away from the subject and verb, on down the line to the direct object. With the wave of a laser-pointer, suspected terrorist converts inconveniently human entities into eligible targets. It seems to be their own fault, almost by their own action, that bombs are falling on their heads. After all they most certainly would be terrorists, now, and the friends of terrorists, if they had survived.

Game changer. Like everyone else, I enjoyed the first ten thousand repetitions of this. The subtle near-rhyme is pleasant, and the sports metaphor apt for the addictive drama of this amazing election. But now the phrase deserves a long vacation, out in the wilds somewhere, with the Republican party. And it can take with it the American people, a confection that I am sick to death of hearing praised for its boundless sagacity, in defiance of every sort of proof that in fact it is fallible, overweight, uninformed, poorly educated, selfish, lecherous, violent, crime-ridden, and under-insured.

These are trifles and epiphenomena, things that I should probably not get all that exercised about. But either my speech-sensors are faulty, or the language is also suffering far deeper, darker, more systemic troubles. Someone needs to call 911, fast, to report a pronoun emergency. Was everyday speech always such a hash of it's, they's, me's, he's, she's, some's, one's, them's, you's, his's, their's, mine's, and theirses? Were speakers ever more neglectful of antecedents, more fuddled and conflicted about basic distinctions between objective and subjective, singular and plural? It is not just my students who pester me on this score, but everyone. "It's not the same way as the other one but more like the three we did before step two," my wife says, and I glower, overcome by noun starvation, referential vertigo, and jealousy over her superior ability to read unreadable directions.

No doubt the pronoun problem was always there and I failed to notice, being a quicker hand, in my youth, at eliminating errant hypotheses and arriving at the thing meant. Improving the clarity of pronoun reference has always been a regular task in the composition classroom. These days, though, political correctness seems to be pushing in the opposite direction, and indeterminacy has become something of a norm. In the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, an AP article on "public reaction" offered the following sentence:

"Just because people visit a whorehouse doesn't make them a bad person," she helpfully told the Baton Rouge paper, The Advocate.

Helpful, indeed. Unmistakably a woman speaking about a man, this charitable witness throws the nightie of evasion over the elephant of gender difference, neutering and pluralizing our errant Guvnor to "people," "them," and "person." If the known default settings in such cases are XY for the john and XX for the harlot, our informant cheerfully declines to remember. Who can complain of such natural tact? And yet the composition teacher in me mutters, a man visits, and HIM, dammit!

It has never been easy to reconcile the simplicity of the handbook rule — "pronouns must agree in number and gender with their antecedents" — with the complex realities of speech and writing. But either things have gotten worse or my tolerance of ambiguity has dwindled, like other kinds of flexibility that depart with age. My wistful memory assures me that students used to slip in the solecistic them or they only when faced with legitimate doubt (is The League of Women Voters an it or a they?) or boxed in by the new imperative to eschew the "generic he" — an overly maligned convention, in my view, which now seems to be quietly re-insinuating itself in the practice of many feminist writers. In any case, students these days positively go out of their way to confound pronoun agreement.

The guy who really wants to impress their girlfriend should send them flowers, which seems more personal.

Americans always expect his or her government to be on their side.

Some bailiff presented their subpoena to him and I.

Himmel! Leaving aside other confusions, such incapacity to distinguish one from more than one can portend nothing good for the republic. I suspect it as a contributing factor in our American innumeracy in general and the mortgage loan crisis in particular. ("Fifty percent of my salary for thirty-three years? Sounds reasonable!") Certainly it has much to do with the decline of the apostrophe, a mark now so arbitrarily scattered through student papers that it were best removed entirely, with a single search-and-replace operation. And the same deep structural confusion must have been a chief cause of the frenzy of subject–verb disagreements I noted in the election eve coverage.

A half dozen states on the East Coast has voted already.

The issue that mattered most to most voters were the economy.

Several precincts there is the key to victory.

In brief, woe and wreckage are everywhere. Once the system of pronouns collapses, the distinction between plural and singular will be next. English will become one of those languages wherein context alone allows one to distinguish between "this fish" and "all the fish in the universe." Soon afterwards articles will vanish, and then the distinction between the abstract and the particular, and perhaps the very possibility of generalizing about anything. English will become a language in which it is not possible to do anything but curse, which is all the comedians on the Comedy Channel seem to be doing anyway.

Also in Vocabula:

You laugh, no doubt, you young whippersnapper, you parvenu, you unwelcome new tenant in my beloved language. Descriptive linguists love to point out that all through the ages, curmudgeons like me rant and rant about the collapse of language, but that language always survives, apparently as vital and ingenious as ever, continually renewing itself in the very speech acts that are also wearing it down. "Creation is destruction," as Guy Deutscher puts it in The Unfolding of Language. So language continuously evolves but never loses its magic, and the human capacity to make meaning, limited only by individual talent and intelligence, never really declines one iota.

Such thoughts are comforting, to be sure. But even paranoids have enemies, as the sixties' cliché put it, and though there is no proof that English or any language is declining, there is also no proof that English or any language is not declining. We used to believe that Nature itself was infinitely self-repairing, till bitter experience and much reflection taught us the wisdom of conservation. Perhaps it's time to begin thinking about language a little more as we think of wetlands and oil shale and Yosemite: as a resource not quite infinitely exploitable. In any event, no one can live the sunny, quasi-scientific truth that speech always survives on some terms. After age thirty or so, linguistic change will inevitably be experienced as net loss, in the nature of the case. The only home you ever knew is taken away, and there you are on the curb, permanently. Bummer.

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John Kilgore


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  Recently retired from the English faculty of Eastern Illinois University, John Kilgore lives in Charleston, Illinois. He plans to gather a number of these Vocabula essays into a collection, Don't Shoot the English Teacher.

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