Archive for the 'language' Category

Two Mentions

It was nice to read this on a New Yorker blog and this on Words Without Borders.


Writing for Guernica

Interview with Luc Sante

I recently interviewed Luc Sante for Guernica Magazine.

Conversation With Dustin Beall Smith

I recently interviewed my good friend Dustin Beall Smith about an essay of his — “Shade: A Letter From Gettysburg” — that appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Sun. I’m not up for buying the space upgrade necessary to offer direct access to the audio files of the interview, so I thought I’d post a link to the files on this neglected blog.

Most of the questions I asked Dusty were generated by students in my writing classes at NYU. You can download the interview here (note: there are two .mov files in the .zip file, as we got cut off). Well worth a listen even if you haven’t read the essay, the first few paragraphs of which can be read here. It’s a kick-ass essay.

Mistakes Were Made

There’s a kick to be had out of the phrasing of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ mea culpa with regard to the White House’s involvement in Justice Department firing decisions. “I acknowledge that mistakes were made,” he said during a news conference yesterday.

Mistakes were made. How many English teachers have used Nixon’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the Watergate cover-up to teach their students the pitfalls of the passive voice? (It’s worth noting that former national security advisor and secretary of state Henry Kissinger used similar phrasing if not the passive voice in his 2002 acknowledgment that the administrations in which he served might have played some role in war crimes committed in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South America in the 1960s and 1970s: No one can say that he served in an administration that did not make mistakes.)

You’d think Gonzales would know better than to use Nixon’s language in this setting. Or maybe you wouldn’t think that.

The passive voice in politics: something bad happened, but the perpetrators… next question!

A good time for some Life in Hell


Sub-Urban Word of the Day

A few months ago, I signed up for Urban Dictionary’s word of the day. I already subscribe to’s word of the day and while I find it edifying and all that, I figured too much might not be a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong: is the bomb. It reacquaints me with words I pretty much know (the phonetic spellings sometimes reveal that I’ve been mispronouncing words and the definitions often reveal that I’ve been misusing words, so many words); it introduces me to words I’ve never before heard or read. And the sources from which gleans examples of featured words used in context: totally eclectic and intriguing. Take yesterday’s word of the day — profligate — and the second of four examples of the word in use:

Life had to be challenged, attacked every instant, with reckless speed in a Ferrari, with profligate spending, with unrestrained sexuality, with artistic ambitions as monumental as they were impractical.

— Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini

I should have known better, but before reading this short excerpt, I’d had no idea Rossellini was such a stud. No, I can’t say with certainty that the excerpt refers to Rossellini, but hopefully my point isn’t lost. All I’m saying is that offers a good service that trolls far and wide for some great examples of words in use — examples that give me a sense of the possibilities of language, of connectedness to other writers and ideas, of the depth of the English language.’s word of the day. It’s good stuff.

But it’s pretentious good stuff and if you’re interested in language and writing, it’s probably wise to have one ear tuned to the OED (let’s imagine for a minute that is an arbiter on the order of the Oxford English Dictionary, though it’s not) and the other tuned to the IRT — tuned, in other words, to the subway, the street, the language as it is actually spoken rather than as it should, according to dictionary editorial boards, be spoken. The difference I’m referring to is the one over which descriptivists and prescriptivists sometimes argue — in the world of lexicography, descriptivists being those who think dictionaries should describe how the language is used and prescriptivists being those who think dictionaries should prescribe how the language ought to be used.

I don’t remember the first time I turned to Urban Dictionary, but I do remember one of the first times. I didn’t know what hyphie really means (not sure what’s dorkier — not knowing or looking it up) and didn’t expect to find a definition in any of the standard dictionaries. Urban Dictionary came through and in fact the definition that has earned the most votes of approval of the eight definitions posted to date makes for a good example of what’s so fantastic — or what used to be so fantastic — about Urban Dictionary. Here’s the definition:

1. hyphie

West Coast/Bay Area’s way of being crunk

What’s great about this definition is that in order to find out what the urban word in question means, neophytes have to turn yet again to UD to find out what the hell crunk means (I’m not entirely out of it, I knew crunk). At its best, Urban Dictionary is self-referential like that. I’m guessing that’s why when contributors add definitions to the site they are prompted to post synonyms and associated words, as well as tag words that appear elsewhere in UD. Ideally, Urban Dictionary describes — liberally describes — a whole new language, one that the OED can’t much help decipher and one that only UD itself can unlock.

But things seem to be changing over at Urban Dictionary and what strikes me as a great democratic, descriptivist experiment is becoming bogged down by rules, political correctness, and extensive oversight. There are now editors who review contributions to the site. Sure, just about anyone can sign up to be an editor. But not all contributions even make it to the editors; some submissions are cancelled by the UD Stasi before they get to the editors. In UD’s defense, its editors did let through a definition of a term describing those in charge of submission cancellations: check it out.

In any case, Urban Dictionary is getting less democratic — and its new practices seem to be more than just a response to site misuse (e.g., using the site to talk smack about unfamous people). No, UD is slowly cleaning up and making pretty — and becoming less anarchical, less rebellious — less urban — in the process.

If the new (I’m not sure how new) editorial practices aren’t a clear sign of UD’s turn, subscribe to the site’s word of the day listserv and see how unbelievably staid, mind-bogglingly boring, and nauseatingly cute the emailed daily words are in comparison with old UD postings of the hyphie variety. Yesterday’s UD word of the day? Not dickwad, not krump, not R. Kelly’s Grandma, not p poppin.

Yesterday’s Urban Dictionary word of the day was Zoom Zoom Zoom. Here’s the leading definition:

In conversation it is an expression which follows a particularly good but lighthearted insult in order to emphasize the caliber of the remark. It is similar to the way that a person would use the word burn. Though the phrase itself was first made popular by the Mazda auto commercials, this particular usage was popularized in the popular television show “Scrubs”, where it is often accompanied by a short “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom” dance.

Mazda commercial? “Scrubs,” a popular television show, as a popularizing source? Sounds pretty suburban to me.

Profligate has a hotter definition than Zoom Zoom Zoom — there’s no getting around that. The comparison is unfair. But still: there’s something about the meaning of profligate and the examples offers — there’s a sexy kind of restraint there. It’s a restraint that makes Zoom Zoom Zoom and UD’s punctiliousness (er… I think that’s the right word) — as heard in the phrase “in order to emphasize the caliber of the remark” — sound especially off-key. (Burn earns UD points in the self-referential category, but not enough to compete with Mazda, “Scrubs,” and the overall tenor of the definition.)

Maybe this is the difference I see illustrated in March 1st’s words of the day: knows what it is and Urban Dictionary has forgotten it’s an urban dictionary.

N’Kisi the Highly Articulate Parrot

It seems appropriate that for this, Bim and Bam’s inaugural post, I should draw attention to N’Kisi, an African grey parrot with a vocabulary of 950 words (and maybe by now more). My motives are often a mystery to me and I have a hard time remembering anything but simple recipes and exceptionally good sex, so I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this 2004 BBC story on N’Kisi. Never mind my motives. I have two points. One is that N’Kisi is a parrot. My first pets were Bim and Bam. They were parakeets (the connections astound here at B + B), one blue and one green, the first of a long line of pets to committ suicide or at least die in what appeared to be a very willful manner. A suspect sort of carelessness has been the defining trait of most of my pets, and Bim and Bam are no exception. Bim squeezed his little parakeet head between the cage wires and broke his neck. Bam flew behind the refrigerator and fried on its hot irons. Welcome, the few of you who haven’t left me for the BBC, to Bim and Bam.

I had another point and it has more to do with N’Kisi, but maybe some to do with Bim and Bam too. N’Kisi is articulate enough to be a wiseass. Reports the BBC:

When he first met Jane Gooddall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, he said: “Got a chimp?”

When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented, “You got to put this bird on the camera.”

What I like about N’Kisi is that he appears to possess enough intelligence to adapt a human point of view toward animals’ state of bondage. See, I’m not even as articulate as N’Kisi. What I’m trying to say is that it’s almost as if N’Kisi recognizes that he and fellow animals are objects of human curiosities and maybe cruelties, and knowing he can’t beat people, he joins them in their eccentric interests (chimps, cameras) and maybe even goes so far as to mock them a little. If N’Kisi were human, he would make these comments out of the side of his mouth with his arms crossed. N’Kisi is the guy who has few or no interests but pokes fun of yours. In the world of people, that guy is usually a character, a pretty interesting if somewhat frustrating friend and someone you might enjoy getting a beer with but wouldn’t talk to about your deepest, darkest fears. In this case, that guy is a parrot.

I don’t like beer much, but I like a glass of wine or a good strong drink. Which brings me back to Bim and Bam. Or doesn’t really. N’Kisi got me thinking about Bim and Bam and how much they knew about how much their lives sucked and what role that knowing played in their demise. And what about the turtle that walked off the third-floor balcony and the beta fish that jumped out of its bowl? Maybe they all knew. Maybe they didn’t and I tend to anthropomorphize and am therefore a sucker for a story like N’Kisi’s.

Bim and Bam Have a Chat