Archive for July, 2017

THE SPEECH OF TRUTH

July 31, 2017

2017-07-31TruthTaras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, once predicted that his country would be lullabied into sleep by ‘evil people’ and then woken up to discover that it had been robbed and was on fire. The ‘evil people’, for Shevchenko, were Russians. Two hundred years after the poet’s prediction, another enemy, alongside Russia, is rising in Ukraine’s way: this time, Ukraine catches fire again and the arsonist is radical liberalism. Liberal ideology, with its values, language and censorship is becoming more and more tangible here in Ukraine. Liberal concepts are being implemented on the level of government, through well-financed organizations and with an active support of the media. They also impinge on the Ukrainian law.

Of late, the notion of ‘hate speech’ encroaches on the Ukrainian press. Demurely, the word combination is translated from English into Ukrainian as ‘speech of hostility’ (‘мова ворожнечі’), and is mostly a means to silence the truth. Since the times of classical liberalism, its advocates had insisted that they opposed censorship and upheld freedom of expression, of thought and of conscience. Not admitting that their censorship is a censorship, they cry wolf and lay all faults at the door of those who call things by their true names. With the ‘hate-speech’ label, liberals denounce any idea that contradicts their dogmas. If I, as a Christian, say that homosexuality is a sin, they say I use ‘hate speech.’ If I say that immigrants from Asia and Africa must respect the people and the laws of a country which welcomes them, but not go brazen, the liberals call it ‘hate speech.’

In the Ukrainian context, the liberal-minded journalists say we can’t call our soldiers fighting the Russian troops in Donbas ‘our heroes’, just as we can’t call the Russians or their allies in Donbas “aggressors’, ‘invaders’ or ‘terrorists.’

Should the doctrine of liberalism be implemented (which is actively done in a number of industrialized countries!), people may get disarmed in the face of Evil and lose their ability of adequately evaluating events. On the other hand, being the backbone of the modern civilization, Christianity teaches that it’s wrong to be ‘overcorrect’ where you should be categorical. In Matthew 23, Jesus does not mince words when he addresses the Pharisees:

“…you hypocrites…you, blind guides… You blind fools! …inside they (the Pharisees) are full of greed and self-indulgence… You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness… “ And further: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Please, notice: not ‘alternatively devout’, but ‘brood of vipers.’

 My feeling is that these words are spoken today and about what is happening now.

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POLITICALLY CORRECT AND TOTALITARIAN

July 30, 2017

2017-07-30George Orwell-3One of my friends’ comments on yesterday’s blog has made me write a few more additional lines on political correctness. As a post-graduate student, I spent some time studying languages of totalitarian regimes. A very helpful source was Victor Klemperer’s Tagebücher (Diaries) and his book The Language of the Third Reich. There existed no similar investigation of the language of Soviet Communism (no philologist in the USSR would even dare to start writing this kind of book), so I decided to do the research “for myself.” One day I bought a kilo ( 🙂 !)of Russian newspapers in a street kiosk and sat over them for about a week. What I found out, with all my numerical calculations, long rows of political terms written out, their synonyms and antonyms, etc. was the striking resemblance between the Russian political language of the 1970s and the German language of the Nazi times, as it was described by Klemperer. Here are some conclusions that date to the period some forty years ago.

  1. The communication model with the totalitarian language has the format of a monologue. Nobody can question the choice of the word if the word has already been used in the official media.
  2. The direction of the communication is “from top to bottom” (“fathers” know better, so you speak how they speak)
  3. “Old” words with added new meanings and new symbolism have claims to absolute truth.

Two conclusions follow: 1) censorship and self-censorship are coming in. People feel awkward, or are even afraid, to formulate their thoughts in a way different from what is being prescribed. Freedom of expression is constrained; 2) language patterns imposed on readers/listeners turn into an aggressive force altering people’s consciousness.

Of course, the ‘politically correct’ vocabulary has its own peculiarities, but as far as I can see, some traits of the totalitarian language mentioned above are present in it too. Here’s one more quotation from Victor Klemperer’s book: “What had the greatest impact was not individual speeches, articles, leaflets, posters or banners… (The totalitarian language) penetrated into the flesh and blood of the crowd through individual words, expressions and sentence forms drilled into people by relentless repetitions and accepted by them mechanically and unconsciously.”

George Orwell, the author of the famous Animal Farm and 1984 wrote in one of his essays on language: “”To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison… (And) if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Orwell understood the responsibility of political writers in free countries to advocate free uninhibited speech. This involved not only intellectual honesty and the ability to face the truth, but also clear communication through the good use of language. Orwell offered advice on how this is to be done. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. … It is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can…

My personal encounter with the totalitarian (you may also call it ‘politically correct’) language, as it was practiced in the former USSR, may be of some interest too. The first time I went to the U.S.A. was in April 1977. We were a group of Soviet educationalists who visited a few American schools, like Columbia University in the city of New York, Georgetown University in Washington D.C., the University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois), University of Wisconsin (Madison) plus some elementary and high schools. The trip was done as part of the cultural program signed earlier by President Nixon and President Brezhnev and it lasted about two weeks. All of us (ten people) represented different pedagogical universities from across the Soviet Union, but there was also a party functionary from the Ministry of Education who, I guess, was with us to supervise our ‘behavior.’ One evening (that was in Washington D.C.) all of us were sitting in a hotel room exchanging our impressions of the day, and someone said something about how many high school students from many parts of the country lined up at the White House to see the American President’s official residence. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: “And we, in the Soviet Union, line up to see Lenin in his mausoleum.” The party functionary looked grimly at me and, after a pause, said solemnly, “ Lenin’s mausoleum is NOT the White House.” A hush fell over the room. Now it sounds funny. At that moment, it wasn’t funny at all.

PC

July 29, 2017

peanutsThe Wikipedia disambiguation page listing articles associated with the title PC has about a hundred of such shortenings – from Port Charles, an American daytime TV soap opera, to Partido Comunista, to Personal Computers, and all the way down to the Proto-Celtic language. I’ll be writing about Political Correctness.

In the second half of the 20th century, an increasing number of people became concerned to eradicate what they thought to be prejudice (especially language prejudice) in areas of race, gender, sexual affinity, ecology and personal development. Many of those concerned were members of progressive or activist groups (e.g. advocates of minority rights), especially at universities. The movement grew, it attracted not only hard-line extremists but also moderates. As a counter-reaction, it drew upon itself the antagonism of conservative academics and journalists, so that by the 1990s the new trend in society  and, consequently, in language was being referred to, pejoratively, as political correctness (PC).

Anyone who used the ‘politically INCORRECT’ vocabulary risked severe condemnation by PC activists. Organizations, fearful of public criticism (and even litigation), avoided using a language which might be interpreted as ‘offensive.’ The word black, for example, was banned in all possible contexts, including such instances as blackboard in the classroom and the black pieces in chess. The generic use of man (= a human being) was widely attacked. Mentally handicapped people were to become people with learning difficulties. Disabled people were to be differently abled. Third World countries were to be developing nations, distinctly unattractive or unpleasant to the eye (said of a person) was aesthetically challenged. <Deborah’s new boyfriend is a bit aesthetically challenged, but she loves him, and that’s all that counts>. And in the ‘young’ academic literary world there was a movement against the ‘unhealthy’ influence exercised by such ‘sexists’ as DWEMs (Dead White European Males) – Shakespeare, Goethe or Moliere.

In the early 1990s many people started reacting strongly against the terminological absurdity, which was sometimes also called ‘linguistic McCarthyism.’ Really, there were cases cited of academics who had criticized the PC position and eventually were losing their courses or their promotion.

The arguments continue. The opponents of PC say that before the language is changed, social conditions should change, while the PC proponents insist that the language charts the way to such changes.

Another stumbling block in the way of those who are supporting PC is that, with time, new replacements become unacceptable too, so there’s a need to look for more replacements again and again. It has been seen with such sequences as negro to black to Afro-American to African-American. On the other hand, a survey of black Americans conducted in 1991 by the black-oriented Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies revealed that 70 per cent of all black Americans prefer to be called black notwithstanding the present-day vogue for the politically correct African-American.

I’m already accustomed to the new use of pronouns in contexts like: “If the person from the insurance company calls, tell them I’ll call them back tomorrow.” But quite recently I discovered a new type of somewhat baffling passage:  “… I’m Schiller, I’m from Germany, I’m a super-senior, English and Philosophy double major and my pronouns are he/him.” The last remark about the pronouns was an answer to the question a newcomer was asked: “What pronouns do you use?”  As it turns out, people who clearly look to be one gender may identify as a different gender than you would assume. When someone has a different gender identity than you would assume, it’s politically correct to speak about such people using the pronoun they prefer for themselves. (PHEW! )

I must admit, though, that baffled I was a little earlier. I knew about Bradley Manning, an American soldier. HE was imprisoned for disclosing to WikiLeaks lots of classified documents. After four years in prison SHE was pardoned by President Obama. I hadn’t followed all the details about Manning in prison and at first I thought the change from HIM to HER was either a typo or that was a different person. The matter is that, while in jail, Bradley Manning became a transwoman who, after being sentenced in 2013 said SHE had had a female identity since childhood and wanted to be known as Chelsea. There was one omission in the transition, I think. Not only the first name should have been changed, but also the last name – from MANNING to WOMANNING. That would have been more politically correct :-).

As a supplement, there follow a few terms which are the ‘baby-boomers’ of the political correctness period:

sexist – discriminates against one sex, typically, man against women

racist – discriminates against a race, typically, whites against non-whites

ableist – an able-bodied person who discriminates against those with physical or mental difficulties

ageist –discriminates against those of a particular age, typically, the very young or the very old

heightist – discriminates against those of a certain height, typically, against very short people

fattyist/weightist – discriminates against overweight people

heterosexist – discriminates against homosexuals of either sex

alphabetist –discriminates on the basis of the first letter of a name ( a person who says it’s unfair to arrange people’s names alphabetically in a list of names, because it allegedly  gives an advantage to those whose name begins, say, with an A – e.g. in a pile of job applications)

JARGON: PART TWO

July 28, 2017

Print

  1. By way of experiment, I have tried to un-jargonize a medical text and a legal one (please, be careful with using the word “unjargonize”: I’ve coined it only now and only for this occasion). I fact, this method demonstrates how inexact and wordy such “adapted” texts can be. The jargon proves to be much more concrete and effective in conveying the message.

Example #1

Medical Jargon

This passage contains medical jargon such as nasal, congestions, alpha blockers and anti-depressants. Perhaps only those in the medical community would fully understand all of them.

Certain medications can cause or worsen nasal symptoms (especially congestion). These include the following: birth control pills, some drugs for high blood pressure (e.g., alpha blockers and beta blockers), antidepressants, and some medications for prostatic enlargement. If rhinitis symptoms are bothersome and one of these medications is used, ask the prescriber if the medication could be aggravating the condition

(Robert H Fletcher and Phillip L Lieberman)

 

The same text un-jargonized:

Some medicines can cause or worsen diseases of the nose (especially its clogging). These medicines include birth control pills, some drugs for high blood pressure, those which bring down depression and the medicines which help with prostatic problems. If you feel that the problems with your nose are getting worse, ask the doctor who prescribes the medicine if this condition could be the result of your taking the medicines mentioned above.

 Example # 2

 Legal jargon

The text is full of modern legal jargon starting with putative, lawsuit, alleging, privacy laws, equitable, injunction, etc. that a layman could only understand with the help of his lawyer.

In August 2008, nineteen individuals brought a putative class action lawsuit in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Facebook and the companies that had participated in Beacon, alleging violations of various federal and state privacy laws. The putative class comprised only those individuals whose personal information had been obtained and disclosed by Beacon during the approximately one-month period in which the program’s default setting was opt out rather than opt in. The complaint sought damages and various forms of equitable relief, including an injunction barring the defendants from continuing the program

(MAREK v. LANE, Supreme Court Order)

The same text un-jargonized:

In August 2008, nineteen persons sent a complaint to the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In the complaint they also said they were an organized and registered group. They stated that Facebook and the companies that had participated in Beacon (the Facebook Ads system that collects and publishes activities of its users from external websites) allegedly violated various federal and state privacy laws. The complainants had become Beacon victims because their personal information had been obtained and disclosed by Beacon during the approximately one-month period in which the program’s default setting was said not to be activated. The complainants asked for various kinds of compensation for damages, insisting also that the program should be stopped.

 

2. A Cornish poet, novelist and critic Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) did the opposite: he jargonized a literary piece, this time Hamlet’s famous To Be or Not To Be:

Hamlet’s soliloquy (Shakespeare’s original)

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

 

Hamlet’s soliloquy jargonized (literary criticism jargon):

1/ To be, or not to be–that is the question:
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion;

2/ Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them

the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according to which variant is elected: to mentally suffer the disfavor of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of bringing them to a conclusion.

 

3/ To die, to sleep–
No more

The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death;

4/ and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished

and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter;  so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance  of a multiplicity of conveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature. (from: Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916).

 

3. And the finishing touch to the theme of jargon. The following aid to an academic article was circulating anonymously in the 1970s. Anyone wishing to produce an acceptable paper for a folklore journal, the author contended, had simply to construct sentences from the columns below, in the sequence Section 1- Section 2 – Section 3 – Section 4. The prank demonstrates how easy it may be to pretend that a scholarly loaded theme is presented though the final conceptual outcome is next to zero.

Section 1
1. Obviously,
2. On the other hand,
3. From the intercultural standpoint,
4. Similarly,
5. As Lévi-Strauss contends,
6. In this regard,
7. Based on my own field-work in Guatemala,
8. For example,
9. Thus, within given parameters,
10. In respect to essential departmental goals,
Section 2
1. a large proportion of intercultural communicative coordination
2. a constant flow of field-collected input ordinates
3. the characterization of critically co-optive criteria
4. initiation of basic charismatic subculture development
5. our fully integrated field program
6. any exponential Folklife coefficient
7. further and associated contradictory elements
8. the incorporation of agonistic cultural restraints
9. my proposed independent structuralist concept
10. a primary interrelationship between systems and/or subsystems logistics

 

Section 3
1. must utilize and be functionally interwoven with
2. maximises the probability of project success while minimizing cross-cultural shock elements in
3. adds explicit performance contours to
4. necessitates that coagulative measures be applied to
5. requires considerable further performance analysis and computer studies to arrive at
6. is holistically compounded in the context of
7. presents a valuable challenge showing the necessity for
8. recognizes the importance of other disciplines, while taking into account
9. effects a significant implementation of
10. adds overwhelming Folklorist significance to

 

Section 4
1. Propp’s basic formulation
2. the anticipated epistemological repurcussions
3. improved subcultural compatability-testing
4. all deeper structuralist conceptualization
5.any communicatively-programmed computer techniques
6. the profound meaning of The Raw and the Cooked
7. our hedonic Folklife perspectives over a given time-period
8. any normative concept of the linguistic/holistic continuum
9. the total configurational rationale
10. Krappe’s Last Tape

 

JARGON: PART ONE

July 27, 2017

2017-07-27Jargon-cartoonJargon is a use of specific phrases and words along with their specific arrangement (syntax) in a particular situation, profession or trade. These specialized terms are used to convey meanings accepted and understood in that field. Jargon is somewhat unintelligible for other people who do not belong to that particular profession. Specific terms were developed to meet the needs of the group of people working within the same field or occupation.

What is positive about jargon?

The reality is that everyone uses jargon. It is an essential part of the network of occupations which make up society. All jobs present an element of jargon, which workers learn as they develop their skills. All hobbies require mastery of jargon. Each society grouping has a jargon. The phenomenon is universal and valuable. Jargon promotes economy of expression. It is also the chief linguistic element which shows professional awareness (“know-how”) and social togetherness (“shop-talk”).

Jargon is something we take pleasure in. We enjoy the mutual showing-off which stems from a fluent use of terminology, and we enjoy the in-jokes based on the terminology of the field we belong to or know about (there many jokes linked with the occupations of IT-workers, businessmen, doctors, musicians, etc.) Moreover, we are jealous of this knowledge. We are quick to demean anyone who tries to be part of our group without being prepared to take on its jargon. And we resent it when some other group, sensing our lack of linguistic awareness, refuses to let us in.

What is negative about jargon?

Very often jargon is negatively evaluated. The main reason stems from the way jargon can exclude as well as include. When the subject matter is one where we are implicated, and we think we have a right to know, and the speaker (the writer) uses words which we hardly understand, we condemn the speaking (writing), labeling it courtese, legalese, beaurocratese, parliamentese, tech-speak (plus many more “speaks”), gobbledygook, etc., thus calling public derision upon it.

Advertising, political or military statements have been especially criticized in recent years by the various campaigns for Plain English. In these areas people very often use jargon to hide realities, and this fact is a ready source of amusement. A lie is a lie, which can be only temporarily hidden by calling it an “inoperative statement”, or “an instant of plausible deniability.” Nor can a nuclear plant explosion be suppressed for long behind such phrases as “energetic disassembly”, “abnormal evolution”, or “plant transient.” Or let’s just see how many are the ways of getting the sack. The following expressions were all used in the 1990s by businesses which were having to “let people go.” Maybe, the employers thought that the jargon would somehow provide justification for their policy, or perhaps it would reduce the trauma for the ex-work force. In such cases jargon is taking on the role of euphemisms:

career change opportunities, coerced transition, decruitment, dehiring, deselection, destaffing, downsizing, executive culling, force reduction, indefinite idling, involuntary separation, negotiated departure, outplacement, personnel surplus reduction, redeployment, redundancy elimination, release, rightsizing, selective separation, skill-mix adjustment, vocational relocation, voluntary severance, voluntary termination, work-force adjustment, work-force imbalance correction.

DEGRADATION — CAN YOU FIX IT?

July 26, 2017

2017-07-26shakespeare-twitter-cartoonTextbooks dealing with the English vocabulary never avoid the theme of sense degradation. The classical examples are the words which at present signify things and ideas both positively and negatively colored, and in which the negative connotations are comparatively recent creations: busy (engaged in activity and meddlesome, prying), to execute (to put into effect and to put to death), to fabricate (to make and to concoct in order to deceive), fancy (imagination and capricious liking), a story (an account of an event and a lie, an anecdote), etc.

In many cases the degraded meaning of a word ousted its primary meaning long ago: villain (a wicked person, a scoundrel, before – a farm laborer), knave (a morally worthless person, before – a boy), rascal (a mean, dishonest fellow, the original meaning – a common soldier, a person of the lowest class).

In today’s blog I’ll try to focus the reader’s attention on some recent examples which I came across while studying English texts.

In the first place, a meaning of a word can degrade when it is put in an inappropriate context. As an example, here are two sentences:

  1. She blubbered and told me about her luckless life and brine spouted from her eyes.
  2. She sobbed softly and told me about how unhappy she was, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

My question is: which of these two sentences do you think a modern writer would be most likely to use if he wished to cause the reader to respond sympathetically to the given character? Definitely, it’s the second sentence. The words blubber, luckless, brine and spout sound sort of ironic. Although, if used in proper contexts, they would be quite acceptable (the child seemed to be blubbering something about a lost ring; a potassium chloride brine; water spouted from the faucet).

Sometimes words can be “compromised” because of their modern associations with wrong concepts that came from astrology, alchemy or earlier medicine. In the 18th century, the lexical unit white-livered (or lily-livered) stood for lack of courage. Actually, it has preserved this meaning until now. But nowadays, the medical notion that a deficiency of bile causes a pale liver and, as a result, lack of vigor or courage, has proved to be wrong, and the word white-livered degraded to a stronger definition cowardly <the people of Britain are sick and tired of white-livered politicians who claim to represent us>.

The following example is more complex. In the two sentences 1) He’s innocent as a lamb and 2) He is an innocent, the adjective innocent in the first sentence means guiltless. The same meaning guiltless, free of sin which a NOUN could have, might be applied mostly to a CHILD, and what’s more, very often in the biblical or lofty sense (the massacre of the innocents). Incidentally, a few popes of Rome carried the name Innocent too. But in our example (the second sentence), the noun an innocent refers to an ADULT and means a simple-minded and/or slow-witted person, a simpleton. The word an innocent in this sense has developed along the same line as the word silly (originally: blessed, happy, blissful, holy, and then, through the meaning helpless, defenseless – to the meaning foolish, feeble-minded).

A real discovery for me, as I was reading for this blog, was the usage of the form drank, which is the past simple verb of to drink, in the function of the past participle. The following example is taken from the prestigious Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/exploring-magical-worlds-ayahuasca-drinkers-316215)

Except about half the audience, by a show of hands early on, had drank ayahuasca—an Amazonian brew that causes one to vomit and to have intense visions for hours, and which many say has incredible healing powers, leading to recovery from illnesses no other treatment touched, like depression, drug addiction and even psoriasis.

My research into the problem has revealed that drank as the 3rd form (the past participle) of the verb to drink  is listed in some dictionaries and is used widely as such. The reason for the shift is that, in users’ minds, there exists mistaken identification of the participial drunk with the adjectival drunk (inebriated, intoxicated with an alcoholic drink), and speakers may feel awkward saying something like I have drunk too much water.

Another word which is suffering semantic degradation nowadays is the word fix. The main factors that contribute to its “suffering” are, firstly, its colloquial character, secondly, the multitude of its meanings, and, thirdly, it being used, practically, by all layers of society, including lower populace (in my previous blog I mentioned that the usage of bloody by lower classes could be a reason for the word bloody acquiring a profane meaning). Alongside “normal” passages, I came across quite a number of contexts when the word was used for an underhand or illegal arrangement (collusion resulted in tax fixes for gamblers, to fix a race), a difficult situation, (we’re in a terrible fix), a threat or vengeance taken on (that’ll fix him good), or even an injection of a narcotic. In its ungrammatical form that came from the Southern dialects of the United States, the verb to fix invaded regular grammar. “To be fixin’ to”  means on the verge of or in preparation for doing a given thing. It follows a form of the verb to be and consists of the present participle of the verb fix followed by to: They were fixin’ to leave without me. Describing future events fixin’ to can refer only to events that immediately follow the speaker’s point of reference.  One cannot say We’re fixin’ to have a baby in a couple of years. The use of fixin’ to as an immediate future is very common in African American Vernacular English. Although this expression sometimes appears in writing as fixing to, in speech it is usually pronounced fixin to.

GOOD WORD, BAD WORD… GOOD AGAIN

July 25, 2017

When taking the course of English and American literature at the pedagogical university (then institute), we, students, jokingly said that in every Shakespeare’s tragedy or historical play there are “buckets of blood. “ True, the literal use of the word blood or bloody was common in Elizabethan drama, and the phrase “O most bloody sight” (from Julius Caesar, III.2) is one of many Shakespearean similar quotations. Somewhat later, since the 1670s, the word bloody was used in British English as an intensifier with the basic meaning of very. The word enjoyed “respectability “ until about 1750, whereupon it was heavily TABOOED (see my previous blog) for the next two centuries. Why it became profane has never been satisfactorily explained. One theory has associated it with the rowdy behavior of the young bloods of the Restoration period (drunk as a blood); another claims a figurative development, meaning the blood is up (so that bloody drunk would mean ready for a fight). There are etymologies deriving the word from the contraction of the oath by our Lady (biblical reference). The contracted form by’r Lady is common in Shakespeare’s plays, and Jonathan Swift, a century later, writes both it grows b’r Lady cold and it was bloody hot walking today, suggesting that bloody and by’r Lady had become exchangeable intensifiers.

Anyway, the word started being used, more and more, by lower classes as a swear-word, and, probably, this became crucial why it was labeled vulgar in Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755. It should be reminded that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was normative, i.e. it prescribed, not only registered, the usage of words, so the characteristic vulgar was like a curse that remained with the word for the next 173 years until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928. Bloody was called a horrid word and printed as b—-y.

On the opening night of Shaw’s Pygmalion in London in April 1914, the actress Patrick Campbell, as Eliza Doolittle, had to say the line Walk! Not bloody likely!, which created public outrage, leading to a fad for using a pseudo-oath Not Pygmalion likely! and euphamistically naming bloody the Shavian adjective, i.e. the adjective planted by George Bernard Shaw into “decent society.”

The word became a major social issue only in Britain. It gained no popularity in America. In Australia it was used as a simple intensifier without pejorative associations so frequently that it was called the “great Australian adjective.” With time, the usage of bloody became more liberalized in the British media too. Before WWII people were still fined for using the word in public, but in 1941 The Times printed it in full (!) in a poem containing the line I really loathe the bloody Hun (a German soldier).

The word’s progress towards respectability has been steady since then, though Prince Charles’ comment in 1989 that English was taught so bloody badly that he had to correct mistakes of his secretaries in documents, received less publicity for WHAT he said than for HOW he said it (the Prince is the guardian of Queen’s English, isn’t he?). The associations of some 200 years die hard, and many people never use the word in public, feel embarrassed if someone does so, and (in Britain) complain to the BBC if they hear it on air before 9 pm.

Regarding my position, as of a non-native English speaker, whether TO USE OR NOT TO USE the word, I’d rather wait for the next fifty years ( 🙂 ) before I start using it in oral or written speech. “You are foreigners who speak English, so make it flat”, my university professor preferred to say.

BANNED FROM LANGUAGE

July 24, 2017

2017-07-24A taboo is a word that is prohibited from being used. Originally a taboo was prohibition of an action. When in 1777 the explorer James Cook observed that some aborigines of the Pacific islands did not eat certain foods and asked them why, they answered those foods “were a taboo.” In fact, the prohibition to use certain lexical items varies in strength and does not apply to ALL groups of people. Usually, speakers avoid using taboo words in polite society, either because they feel such words embarrassing or offensive. The possibility of harm may be genuinely thought to exist in the case of notions to do with death and the supernatural, or there may be a vague discomfort deriving from a half-believed superstition.

As a child, I grew in the countryside with rigorous rules of social behavior, and I was taught by adults not to use invectives, not to swear and, in particular, not to use the word “devil” (Ukr: не черкай!) because it was believed that you call the spirit of evil every time you mention the name. Words associated with death were also carefully chosen. People were said to “have gone to (meet) the Maker”, or to “have given their soul to God.” Even domestic animals did not “die”, they “were gone” (корова пропала – “the cow is gone”). When many years later my English friend discussed with me some family matters in the presence of his wife, he said, “For example, when Jeanette (his wife) dies, the house will be inherited by…” A bit baffled, I asked, “How can you say so about Jeanette?”, to which my friend said, “What’s of it? I will die, you will die, she will die…”

The prohibition on use may be explicit, as in law courts (“contempt of court”), the Houses of Parliament (“unparliamentary language”), or the broadcasting media (words officially banned until after a certain time in the evening, so children are less likely to be exposed to them). Most commonly, it is a tacit understanding between people, which occasionally becomes explicit in the form of comment. Right before, or immediately after uttering a taboo word, the speaker may say something like “Pardon my French”, “Ladies present”, “Wash my mouth out” or “God forgive me.”

There are various ways of avoiding a taboo item. One is to replace it by a more technical (scientific) term, as commonly happens in medicine. Another, common in older writing, is to part-spell the item (bl—–, d—-n). The everyday method is to employ an expression which refers to the taboo topic in a vague or indirect way – a euphemism. Here are some examples of euphemisms: casket (coffin), fall asleep (die), under the weather (ill), not all there (mentally unbalanced), bathroom (toilet), be economical with the truth (lie), adult video (pornography), let you go (sack), industrial action (strike), in the family way (pregnant), expectorate (spit), tired and emotional (drunk), refuse collection center (heaps of rubbish).

There are quite a number of euphemisms in political language: “n-word” to stand for an offensive “nigger”, Roma (for the name “Gypsies” that started being felt as pejorative). The most recent is, probably, post-truth politics (roughly, propaganda). In 2016, this word was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year, because of its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit and U.S. presidential election.

 

 

CONNOTATION, OR COLOR GIVEN TO THE WORD

July 23, 2017

1960s BABY WEARING GLASSES LOOKING FOR A WORD IN BIG DICTIONARY (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

The word connotation (from Medieval Latin connotare) was first registered in English in 1530. Com/con means “with” and “notare” stands for “to mark.” As such, the word meant to signify in addition to the main meaning. The character of a connotation may be best seen from the following two examples:

1.What is the difference between walk, run, spurt and amble? All the words have at least two components in common: 1) to move and 2) by taking steps. The components which make the words different are: at normal speed (walk), at high speed (run), at high speed and with a sudden increase in speed (spurt) and slowly/leisurely (amble).

2.What is the difference between retire, leave and split? No difference in literal (denotational) meaning. The meaning is the same: to go away. The words are contrasted by how formal/informal they are. Retire is formal (the guests retired to their respective rooms), leave is neutral (no one was allowed to leave the room), and split is labeled in dictionaries as slang (a mobster who suddenly split town).

The difference of the second type is called connotational. Connotations are not explicitly seen in words, but are identified from contexts and situations in which they are used. Linguistic connotations are marked in dictionaries by such characteristics as archaic, obsolete, poetic, informal, colloquial, slang, jargon, etc. However, very often connotations (also called overtones) are personal, even when they are shared by large groups of people. So, for many people, bus has such connotations as cheapness and convenience; for others, discomfort or inconvenience; for many children it connotes school, and for many American adults it has a political overtone (because of the 1960s policy in the USA of bussing children to school as a means of promoting social integration in ethnically divided urban communities).

When a word is highly charged with connotations, we commonly refer to it as loaded. The language of politics and religion is full of such loaded expressions: capitalist, fascist, radical, liberal, bureaucracy, democracy, dogma, pagan, orthodox, sect, fundamentalist. The language of science and law, on the other hand, attempts (not always successfully), to avoid vocabulary which is connotative. In general, the more a domain or topic is controversial, the more it will contain loaded vocabulary, providing people with lexical ammunition they need to reinforce their point of view.

In 1948, the philosopher Bertrand Russell cited some examples of what he called “emotive conjugation” on the BBC radio program The Brains Trust. The scholar illustrated people’s tendency to describe their own behavior more charitably than the behavior of others. He said that our estimation of the same human qualities correlates with the conjugation of the irregular verb “to be”:

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed // I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing // I have recognized the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

In the 1980s, this biased evaluative approach was employed by Bernard Woolley, a protagonist of the British sitcom Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister.

It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.
………………………………………………….

That’s another of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he’s being charged under section 2A of the Official Secrets Act. 

The idea prompted the British periodical, The New Statesman, to set a competition for its readers. Here are some of the published entries:

I am sparkling, you are unusually talkative, he is drunk // I am a creative writer, you are a journalistic flair, he is a prosperous hack // I daydream, you are an escapist, he ought to have a psychiatrist.

Many other triplets could be devised: slender, thin, skinny // frank, blunt, insolent // overweight, plump, fat …

That’s what connotations are mainly about…

POETRY DEFEATS EXPECTANCY

July 22, 2017

2017-07-22Dylan ThomasA stylistic impact of a literary text is often achieved through a deliberate breaking of collocational conventions (see my previous blog). Dylan Thomas was a poet who relied on this device, also called defeated expectancy, to create a poetic effect. The predictability of collocations, as they are used in common speech, was violated by Dylan Thomas again and again. This can be vividly seen at the beginning of his poem After the Funeral, which he wrote in 1939, after his aunt’s death.

After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep,
Shakes a desolate boy who slits his throat
In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves,
That breaks one bone to light with a judgment clout’

The poet expresses contempt for hypocritical mourners, calling their funeral speeches mule praises, and those mule-like attendees have sail-shaped ears, and they walk muffle-toed to keep up with the atmosphere of the funeral, and they are happy to hear a nail being driven into the coffin (tap happily of peg in the thick grave’s foot/=coffin) because it’s not them who are being buried but someone else. They wet their eyes with their own saliva to create the impression that they are crying, they cast their gazes demurely down (blinds down the (eye)-lids) and wear black veils as a token of mourning (the teeth in black), and pretend to wipe away tears with their sleeves (salt ponds in the sleeves).

Compare the above phrases to what is used in mundane speech:

mules bray (but not praise), objects can be sail-shaped (even buildings, like the famous hotel Jumeriah in Dubai) but hardly the same can be said about ears, muffle-hooved may be used all right (the sand muffled the hoof-leaps), but usually not muffle-toed, thick may be sooner linked with sauce or soup (though we understand that the grave may also be thick with earth that fills the pit), the blinds are down on windows, not on eye-lids and the black is worn on faces, not on teeth. The salt ponds are found in deserts, not in sleeves.

Of course, there’s more to the analysis of the poem than just going through broken collocations. In the quoted stanza at least two biblical images may be traced: spittled eyes (contrasted with “Having said these things, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes” in John 9:6), and a judgmental “clout” of the boy, who is  Dylan Thomas’s second self. The matter is that, according to the Christian doctrine, it’s sinful to make a judgment about one’s close and own, so the boy’s negative reminiscence of his aunt (“a judgment clout”), which “breaks one bone to light”,  bars her from her heavenly destination (not one of Jesus’s bones was broken during the crucifixion, verifying that his death was sacrificial).

Those interested in how Dylan Thomas himself reads the poem, may be referred to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWDka2dZMKQ

Incidentally, those who read Russian may compare the original poem with Vasiliy Bataka’s translation. I must admit that my interpretation does not completely coincide with how the translator understands the poem. Anyway, probably herein lies the charm of poetry. It’s always PERSONAL…

После похорон    После похорон похвалы – бесплоднее мулов, которые //  Хлопают ушами, как паруса на ветру.  // По новому столбику кладбищенского забора // –  Самодовольный стук. Глаза притворно мокры,  // И солоны рукава, а ресницы – как шторы…  // Утренний чвяк лопат отчаяньем сотрясает  // Мальчика, который перерезает себе глотку тем,  // Что над тьмой могилы сыплет сухими листами  // Стихов. Но разве что одну незаметную косточку  //  выведет он этим к спасенью, когда  // Молоток Судии, и колокольчик Страшного Суда  // Возвестят приговор.


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