Thursday, November 21, 2013


English has borrowed the German oxymoron "Schadenfreude" with a bit of schadenfreude of its own: "It takes the Germans to come up with a word like that!"

Here's another German oxymoron that English needs to steal: "Verschlimmbesserung," literally, "worse-bettering." This is when you try to improve something but just make it worse. So next time you come across this phenomenon, use this German word to refer to it: "That's typical verschlimmbesserung!" Or "he verschlimmbessered my article with his prescriptivist editing!"

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Grammatical norms and social discipline

My nephew Alex wrote me a note on Facebook:

I found this sentence in the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem that I thought you might appreciate (context: a short history of social normalization and standardization): "On commence par les normes grammaticales, pour finir par les normes morphologiques des hommes et des chevaux aux fins de défense nationale, en passant par les normes industrielles et hygiéniques."

To which I responded:

And the grammatical norms that are established in contemporary English as the beginning of this disciplinary process necessarily have nothing to do with how people actually speak the language. Necessarily, because it's not about helping people to speak correctly but about establishing arbitrary authority that people must obey without thinking through the grounds of that authority for themselves. The grammatical rules that are part of public discourse can thus become shibboleths people use to celebrate their own conformity with arbitrary power and to discipline those who do not conform to such power.

Hey, I can still talk the talk!

(Why post this here? Because if I leave it on Facebook, it will disappear down my timeline. If I post it here, it will disappear down my blog, but I will always be able to find it again.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Quotation or statement

I may be a descriptivist when it comes to language use, but that does not mean there aren't features of how people use language that I find annoying—that is, I have my peeves, too. The difference between me and a prescriptivist is that I'll give up my peeves if I notice that people are actually using words in a way that seems odd to me (as in my pondering the contemporary use of "geek", where I don't say that people are using the word incorrectly, but just that I don't quite get how they are using it).

So one pet peeve of mine is how people use the word "quotation." For example, a student writing about Hitchcock's "Rear Window" just began a sentence by referring to "Jeff's quotation about how 'sometimes it's worse to stay than it is to run' ..." My peeve is that the student is quoting not "Jeff's quotation" but "Jeff's statement". That is, Jeff is not quoting anything when he says that; he's saying something in his own words.

Similarly, I see things like this, in a discussion of Einstein's comment about God not playing dice: "Einstein's quotation was meant to convey his belief that the universe was not randomly designed." Again, Einstein was not quoting anyone, so it seems odd to me to refer to his remark as his quotation.

So that's my pet peeve, but when I'm grading a student's paper that uses "quotation" where I would prefer "statement," "comment," or "remark," I don't correct it, because it's my impression that that is how the word "quotation" is being used these days.

Perhaps I'll get a comment or two now telling me I should mark it as a mistake, but I'm really just wondering if others have the same peeve about this use of "quotation" or not. The usage is surely common enough that it is completely innocuous to many people.