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A stale image

How not to write

Noted obituarist and music critic Oliver Kamm is these days also a guru of prose composition, attempting to correct others’ style and lay down laws of writing in a regular column called “The Pedant”. ((As far as I am aware, the only not-instantly-disposable example of stylistic prescriptivism is Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English, which is at least written by someone who was himself a superb maker of sentences, and is also very funny.)) This week he “informs” his readers:

A cliché is a stale image that a speaker or writer grasps for support.

Of course, a cliché is not necessarily an image of any kind; but, more amusingly, “a stale image” is both a cliché and a stale image.

Kamm also advises, mysteriously:

Punctuation marks belong in grammar

“gram;mar”? “g:r!,r”?

What are your favourite nonsensical writing tips, readers?



Employing Unspeak

I asked whether there existed a word for “disinclined to work” that was value-neutral or positive, as opposed to the negative “work-shy” or “lazy”, the sneering joke-malady “ergophobia”, etc. ((I don’t think that either “playful” or “ludic” count, since one may of course have a playful attitude to work — or, for that matter, a laborious attitude to play. (See Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens.) )) I still haven’t found one, but more light browsing of the very wonderful HTOED does seem to support the view that there has long been a general semantic association between a disinclination to work and actual stupidity or even madness. As one obvious example, idle has been used to mean “not based on reason”, “frivolous”, “empty-headed”, and even “madly foolish” or lunatical (1599), as well as disinclined to work, fond of not exerting oneself, or simply workless (1848–). ((I was also pleased to have the OED disprove a brief suspicion passing through my mind that “shiftless” had passed from meaning “without work” to “lazy”: in fact, it derives from the old sense of shift “faculty of resourcefulness”, so shiftless first meant “helpless for self-defence; void of cunning or artifice”. As they were wont to say in 1562, “god defends the shiftles sheepe”. Oh sure, until it’s lamb-chop time.))

I also wondered about the connotations of unemployment (1888–), which arguably implies that if one is not used by another person, one is of no use altogether (even if one would be happy to employ one’s time in various activities for which no one is offering payment). A better term for the state of not-having-a-job, perhaps, is the happy find unwork (a one-shot from 1854). Why didn’t that catch on, I wonder?



Thoughts as missiles

In the TLS, Stefan Collini conducts a magisterial demolition of the UK government’s chuckleheaded new university research-assessment criterion of “impact”: ((Previously discussed here.))

The OED definition of “impact” points to the central problem: “The act of impinging; the striking of one body against another; collision”. In the proposed exercise, what is being sought is evidence that one body (universities) is striking against another body (not-universities, here referred to as “society”). Nothing more than that: a mechanistic model. But the real ways in which good scholarship may affect the thinking and feeling and therefore the lives of a wide range of people, including other scholars (who are, after all, also citizens, consumers, readers . . . ), is much subtler, more long-term, and more indirect than the clacking of one billiard ball against another.

I am bound to approve of this paragraph’s method in particular, but the whole thing is excellent.



From work-shy to workaholic

I have just acquired a copy of The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and though I can’t pretend to have grokked the classification scheme in the hour I have spent with it so far, it is a thing of beauty. Consulting it with regard to our discussion about professionalism, I happened upon this pair of entries, in which a sweeping historical narrative is poetically condensed: (n.) Attitudes to work

solidarity 1885– · work-shyness 1904– · ergophobia 1905– · work-mindedness 1960– · technophobia 1965– · Luddism 1967– · workaholism 1968– · technomania 1969– · Ludditism 1971– · technofear 1980– (adj.) Attitudes to work

laboursome 1551–1620 · workful 1854– · work-shy 1904– · work-minded 1954– · Luddite 1957– · workaholic 1974–

Interestingly, professionalism does not appear as “an attitude to work” in HTOED, ((Browsing through the various cognates of “professionalism”, I did learn that professional has been applied to monks, and that the practice of calling tools or equipment professional dates from as long ago as 1955.)) but I think that is really the contemporary sense we were after in the case where a boss asks an employee to “be more professional” — what is being demanded is not mere skilfulness in doing the job, but an attitude towards the job. You will not only do this, the boss instructs, you will commit more of your being to it. It seems to me at least possible, however, that such psychic totalitarianism is likely to lead to an increase in ergophobia (delightful word!) and thus turn out to be self-defeating?



Ask the Unspeak™ Community™

An reader writes:

A colleague of mine has emailed to ask my thoughts on “professionalism” and also ways in which she could be more “professional”. I’m struggling because without defining the former, I can’t make suggestions on the latter. Now, this is all complicated rather by the fact that the email was prompted by my colleague’s manager setting her such an odd task as a “development objective”. I can only assume that this “development” is also in terms of professionalism rather than, say, moral or physical development.

Given that the obvious inference is that the manager clearly sees some lack in her subordinate (that I haven’t seen), my primary concern is that my colleague’s request for my thoughts displayed such levels of restraint and composure that she looks a model of professionalism when judged against what I suspect my reaction would have been. But that apart, what is professionalism? I would appreciate advice from readers on how to define professionalism without sounding like a Human Resources barbarian.

Without Unspeak’s help, I may simply have to rehearse my too-obvious reading of “Bartleby the Scrivener” where the unprofessionalism of B and colleagues in the Dead Letter Office was prompted, I’ve always thought, by stultifyingly dull work and inhuman mismanagement.

Good question! It reminds me, by the way, of a related annoying phenomenon: the rampant deflation and curious redirection of the word professional in the sphere of commercially manufactured objects or immaterial products, which themselves are described as professional, even though it is a vicious insult to thought and language to suppose that a computer (“Macbook Pro”) or a software program (“Logic Pro”) or a tennis racquet (“Wilson Pro Staff”) or a filter coffee maker (“KitchenAid Pro Line”) can be professional.

Of course the promise here is really about the elevation of the user’s status by use of such objects: if you buy them, you will become more professional, no longer (as the usual demarcation in commercial product lines has it) a mere consumer, as though professionals do not consume things — as though, indeed, there are not such persons as professional consumers, ie restaurant critics. ((The enjoyable hybrid term prosumer is not, I think, meant to apply to restaurant critics, but then again, why not?))

But all that brings us back to our initial question, addressed to you, eminent readers. What is professionalism?


Pigeons rustled

Like painting — but with words?

In the New Yorker, one of the most amazing first sentences I have read this year:

Pigeons rustled in the beams of the Staten Island Ferry terminal as Rebecca Miller, the writer and director, ordered a soft pretzel.

I have no idea what the rest of the article says, because every time my eyes attempted to scan further down the page they were wrenched back by this prosaic sorcery, whose surely unprecedented arrangement of English words had me mesmerized for what seemed like hours, but might in reality have been seconds?

There is so much going on in this sentence that I can only scrape the surface of its eldritch machinery in a kind of ape-like wonder. The bookending pseudo-chiasmus — pigeons rustledsoft pretzel! The devastating bathos of that foodstuff! The vivid contrast between the peremptory harshness of ordered and the doughy vulnerability of the soft pretzel! The haughty vagueness of the job description! (“Rebecca Miller, the writer and director” — oh yes, the writer of what again? The director of what? In what forms does she practise? I don’t know and maybe I never will!)

Perhaps most hauntingly: the implication that it was our heroine’s ordering of the bathetic foodstuff that actually caused the pigeons to rustle — as though Miller is some kind of pigeon whisperer.

I feel like quoting the whole thing again, just to bask in it:

Pigeons rustled in the beams of the Staten Island Ferry terminal as Rebecca Miller, the writer and director, ordered a soft pretzel.

This sentence might actually be inexhaustible in its delicately bonkers kitsch poetry. Once one has succeeded in composing such a marvel, one must be sorely tempted to retire?



Lexeme of the twelvemonth

Oxford’s “word of the year” is the verb unfriend. ((Apparently last year it was hypermiling, which I’d never heard of. It just goes to show?)) Certainly, as a promoter of new un— usages, I am obliged to find unfriend attractive, though I suppose if it is to last in the language it will need to pass into ordinary speech describing offline behaviour. (“We used to be close, but he fell into a new crowd and unfriended me.”) Maybe it already has.

As usual, the shortlist also included some highly perishable Stupid Novelty Words (funemployed, deleb, intexticated), as well as a few that might turn out to have more staying power than the winner: paywall, ecotown, tramp stamp, and sexting?

What is your word of the year, readers?


Igon Value

The Malcolm Gladwell problem

Via Language Log comes news of Steven Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell, containing the following analysis:

Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

It turns out from LL’s investigations that, when the piece in question was originally printed in the New Yorker, that magazine’s legendary editors corrected Gladwell’s booboo to read “eigenvalue”; yet it has reverted to the nonsense “igon value” in his new collection of “essays”.

A mystery nonetheless remains: what on earth did Gladwell intuit that an igon value had to be, such that he didn’t bother to check? A number that has disappeared? (Middle English i-gon: past participle of i-go, meaning, um, go.) A technique named after a Basque mathematician called Igon? Or perhaps he thought an Igon Value was a moral standard among members of the Igon commune in Pyrénées-Atlantiques?

I have never read a whole book by Malcolm Gladwell. Have you, readers?


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