Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Language (page 1 of 2)

What a Chad

I get the Word of the Day from Merriam-Webster, the OED, and Urban Dictionary in my RSS feed every day, which usually make for a lively bunch.

Well, today, May 8, 2018, Urban Dictionary’s Word of the Day is What A Chad:

A phrase describing a stereotypical young urban white male, typically single and in his 20s. This phrase is usually used to denote stereotypical “Chad” behavior which is ususally derogatory.

The misspelling of “usually” means you know it’s a legit Urban Dictionary entry.

Dictionary on display

This morning I looked at my bookshelves and noticed my three volumes of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. I haven’t cracked them open since I got them from Half Price Books a few months ago. I was so excited to get them so I’d have an accessible and thorough way to tap into the dictionary’s mighty powers, but, lacking space for exhibition, they’ve just languished on the shelves.

Then I saw that my standing desk—a hefty wooden podium acquired from a library rummage sale—was unusually lacking my laptop. Taking this as a sign, I cracked open Volume 1 and let it breathe:

It immediately looked like it was meant to be there. I like using that space for computer work, but I think I’ll give this a try for a while.

Inherit the Words

I was helping my parents clear out their bookshelves in advance of their living room being painted and in the process stumbled upon some interesting artifacts. Among the books, family photo albums, and LPs that had stuck around unplayed for decades, I spotted a small University of Wisconsin notebook. I opened it to find in my mom’s handwriting a list of interesting words and their definitions she started in college:

My mom’s late father also kept a list of new and interesting words he encountered in Time magazine and other reading. I couldn’t help but laugh because I do the same thing, only my list is digital. There are even several words in common between her list and mine. There’s clearly a juiced-up lexicographical chromosome in the gene pool.

I took the notebook home with me because I want to transcribe my word list into it and start adding new ones to keep the tradition alive. Now I wish I’d started my list of words on paper, because I think the order in which I discovered them would be more interesting than an alphabetical list.

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

DDC 450-499: A grossly unfair linguistic ellipses

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 450 Italian, Romanian & related languages
  • 460 Spanish, Portuguese, Galician
  • 470 Latin & Italic languages
  • 480 Classical & modern Greek languages
  • 490 Other languages

Here’s the deal: I started trying to find books in each of the above 10-spots but was having trouble finding 3 that weren’t straight up dictionaries or the usual dry if practical phrase books for each of the sections’ languages. And then I didn’t post on TMHTD for a while out of benign neglect, so then I decided, Why don’t I just lump all these disparate languages together into one post so I can catch up and offend people all over the world? The end.

So yeah, we’re hopping on a redeye to fly over all these beautiful countries and their beautiful, complicated, storied languages, but hey, look out the window! There’s Barcelona and Rome and Athens and whatever the capital of Romania is!

The Dew3:

Madre: Perilous Journeys With A Spanish Noun
By Elizabeth Bakewell
Dewey: 465
Random Sentence: “Uncultivated weeds reaching for the sky, taking over the one ground field with entropic gusto.”

Hide This Italian Book
Dewey: 458.3421
Random Sentence: “Stefania e una botte (Stefanie is a barrel).”

Carpe Diem: Put A Little Latin in Your Life
By Harry Mount
Dewey: 478.82
Random Sentence: “Tom Cruise is the little big man of the screen.”

Every Book Its Clean Reader

I was ready to scoff at the makers of Clean Reader, an app that blocks swear words from being seen on ebooks. Jared and Kirsten Maughan offered rationale for their app in the FAQ:

The number one argument against Clean Reader is essentially that an author is an artist and they put specific words in specific places for a reason. Therefore we as the consumers of this “art” should consume it exactly as it was presented by the author/artist.

I suppose these same people would hate going to dinner with me at a restaurant.  I’m not a fan of blue cheese.  Some friends of mine love it.  I’ve tried to learn to like it, tasted it several times in several different settings and dishes.  To me it tastes like furniture lacquer.  When I get a salad at a restaurant and the chef thinks the salad is best served with blue cheese on it, I will spend a significant amount of time trying to find and remove every piece of blue cheese.  Then I’m able to enjoy the salad.  In the restaurant world the chef is the artist.  He has spent his entire professional life trying to create masterful pieces of art to be served on a dish or in a bowl.  Is the chef offended when I don’t eat the blue cheese?  Perhaps.  Do I care?  Nope.  I payed [sic] good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right.

So many things going on here: authorial intent, censorship, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read… But the strangest thing is that I kinda agree with the Maughans.

I believe in authorial intent (which we can extend to creator’s intent) inasmuch as I recognize an author typically has any intention for her writing and interpretation of it. But as it pertains to the reader’s or consumer’s experience with the creation it matters not at all. It sits entirely outside the bounds of the creation, and it can’t go home again. Authors do not have the right to be right. They don’t even have the right to be read.

Can you imagine if restaurants no longer allowed substitutions or omissions of dish elements? Or if CDs didn’t allow you to skip tracks? I suppose they could, but as a customer I’d feel mighty condescended to, as if the artist’s interpretation were the only valid one and that we all needed to shove it down, no questions asked, no matter how gross it tastes. You can’t read at whim and for pleasure with your nose plugged.

I’m a librarian who firmly believes in openness and intellectual freedom. I get it: this reeks of censorship and nannyism and is symptomatic of the pervasive “trigger warning” epidemic. That’s why I’ll never use the app. (I’m also an adult without kids who doesn’t mind a few well-placed swears in my reading.) Most libraries have content blockers installed on the kids’ computers. Is that censorship? Definitely, but a kind most people are OK with, and for good reason.

The computers for adults are another story. Many libraries, like the ones I work at, have no restricting software on the computers but reserve the right to expel a patron for viewing explicit content; others install the blockers everywhere and take a hardline approach to internet viewing.

However…

What’s on the naughty list? The software libraries have allows for blocking specific domains, certain keyword searches, and really any site it deems inappropriate according to the code of conduct established by the administration and approved by the library board of trustees. Clean Reader is just two people, free to define for themselves what “clean” means. And they do:

The “Clean” setting only blocks major swear words from display. This includes all uses of the F-word we could find. The “Cleaner” setting blocks everything that “Clean” blocks plus more. “Squeaky Clean” is the most restrictive setting and will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.

Pretty opaque. A Washington Post story about the app says it “automatically obscures the F-word and all its remarkable permutations, along with the S-word, different names for deity, racial slurs and, Jared says, ‘anatomical terms that can be a little racy.'” Add to this the execution of the app, which covers curses with a grey box and a blue dot. Tap on the dot and the app reveals a sanitized alternative: heck for hell, dang for damn, etc.

They’re having it both ways. They say “no changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book,” but by inserting the Maughan-approved words into the narrative, even indirectly, they are altering the work. That’s a no-no, even in the name of shielding Little Maughan from words she’s gonna hear eventually.

And there, as they say, is the rub. Unless I knew my artistic sensibilities were identical to one Mormon couple from Idaho, why should I trust them to decide which words and phrases are kosher and which aren’t? Since the app was founded upon the belief in individual choice, shouldn’t users get to choose what makes their blocked list? Heck, make some money off it: charge a buck for access to the Master List and a few more for editing powers. Even if the ability to modify the list isn’t possible, a better understanding of what qualifies as Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean is.

Update: Cory Doctorow wrote about Clean Reader a few weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t read it before writing this because I would have just linked to his post:

It’s a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don’t believe in free expression. That doesn’t mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things [like Clean Reader]. It’s the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.

Hat-tip to the five laws of library science for the post title.

Irregardless Is A Word, But A Bad One

Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”

Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.

This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.

Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.

How beautilul.

DDC 440-449: Foux Du Fa French

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 440 Romance languages; French
  • 441 French writing system & phonology
  • 442 French etymology
  • 443 French dictionaries
  • 444 Not assigned or no longer used
  • 445 French grammar
  • 446 Not assigned or no longer used
  • 447 French language variations
  • 448 Standard French usage
  • 449 Provençal & Catalan

You thinking what I’m thinking? I hope so. Like it or not that’s what I think of when trying to speak fake French. That guttural huh huh huh is probably what the French hate the most about the French stereotype, though I don’t know any French people so I’m just gonna assume that’s true without confirming like a good cultured-enough American. #patriotism

I kid. I’d love to visit France one day, and if I do get that chance I’d likely bone up on the language beforehand using these books:

The Dew3:

Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze “tout Le Monde” With Everyday French
By Eugene Ehrlich
Dewey: 443.21
Random Sentence: “Ferme ta gueule! (shut your trap!)”

Say Chic: A Collection of French Words We Can’t Live Without
By Françoise Blanchard
Dewey: 448.2421
Random Sentence: “One suspects that the valiant Crusaders would not have been pleased.”

The Story of French
By Jean-Benoit Nadeau
Dewey: 440.9
Random Sentence: “Merchants in Sudbury still hesitate to put simple signs saying Bonjour on their doors.”

DDC 430-439: Polyglöts Ünite

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 430 Germanic languages; German
  • 431 German writing system & phonology
  • 432 German etymology
  • 433 German dictionaries
  • 434 Not assigned or no longer used
  • 435 German grammar
  • 436 Not assigned or no longer used
  • 437 German language variations
  • 438 Standard German usage
  • 439 Other Germanic languages

Based on the material available in this section, I’d venture to say that while Germanic languages aren’t the prettiest ones out there, they are often the most interesting. There’s the umlaut-loving Swedish, the melting-pot Afrikaans, the Tolkien-like Icelandic… I’ll never have enough time to learn them all, but were I to undergo a superhero origin story, I hope my heroic alter ego would be a polyglot.

The Dew3:

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods
By Michael Wex
Dewey: 439.1
Random Sentence: “Men, women, and children: they drink, they fight, and they screw.”

Swedish: A Complete Course for Beginners
By Vera Croghan
Dewey: 439.782421
Random Sentence: “Vad kostar tomaterna?”

Colloquial Afrikaans: The Complete Course for Beginners
By B.C. Donaldson
Dewey: 439.3682421
Random Sentence: “Ek het vanoggend brood gekoop.”

DDC 420-429: Nouns and Pronounce

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

This Is How We Dewey:

  • 420 English & Old English
  • 421 English writing system & phonology
  • 422 English etymology
  • 423 English dictionaries
  • 424 No longer used—formerly English thesauruses
  • 425 English grammar
  • 426 No longer used—formerly English prosodies
  • 427 English language variations
  • 428 Standard English usage
  • 429 Old English (Anglo-Saxon)

While I know a little Spanish, English is (obvs) my primary language. And what a weird language it is. I’m so glad I didn’t have to learn it later in life, because in some ways it makes no sense. Especially pronunciation: this well-known poem illustrates that well. But because it’s second nature to me, it’s hard to tell how English stacks up against other languages vis a vis difficulty in grammar and pronunciation, logical spelling, and poetic beauty. I certainly enjoy writing in English, though I often wish all those silent letters—like in its buddy French—could die. Isn’t tho much better, prettier, and more sensical than though? That superfluous ugh is just… Ugh….

The Dew3:

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop A Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech
By Ralph Keyes
Dewey: 422
Random Sentence: “Rutabaga is funny. Potatoes aren’t.”

Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words, and Management-speak Are Strangling Public Language
By Don Watson
Dewey: 428
Random Sentence: “You are trapped in the language like a parrot in a cage.”

An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition
By James Lipton
Dewey: 428.1
Random Sentence: “So, Mr. Safire, how about a phumpher of schwas?”

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