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Something up my sleeve

I always enjoy finding new noun-as-verb usages, ((“Unspeak”, of course, went the other way.)) and where better to look for super-directional linguistic practice than the Guardian‘s style Briefing?

There are various levels of excitement in fashion, with that for Prada at the very top end of the scale. News that the label is launching a made-to-measure shirting service has left members of the Briefing unable to fully function. ((The confession that members of the Briefing are “unable to fully function” in the face of this shirting news is no idle self-flagellation, as they subsequently prove: “This clutch is fabulously eyecatching, original and rather on trend with it’s adorned surface.” ))

“Shirting”, as I found out during my intensive research on the matter this morning, was already a noun meaning material for shirts, but it seems to be used as a verb here, which is new to me: the deal is that Prada’s “shirting service” will make you a shirt, ie it’s a service that shirts.

As you can imagine, I rapidly became very excited at the extra possiblities of to shirt. To observe of a man that you like his shirt, you might say “That’s a well-shirted fellow”; to make a peremptory demand for a shirt, you could sneer “Shirt me!”; in promising you a new garment, a tailor might announce “I’ma shirt you, motherfucker”. ((It’s interesting to note other garment-names that can’t be retooled in the same way, since they are already taken as verbs: sock, skirt, vest. (I suppose to shirt is most analogous with to dress, but inevitably more specific.) And what of the seemingly special case of to trouser, which doesn’t mean “to furnish with trousers” but “to put into one’s trousers”?))

I would only add one proviso to the global adoption of to shirt that I am confident is about to take place: one ought to make sure that a sartorial context is obvious. You wouldn’t want shirting to be understood as a combination of shirking and shitting — eg, calling in sick to work with a pretend case of diarrhoea.

What other nouns shall we turn into verbs, readers?



Let you finish

First, this. ((Via Ste.)) What catches the eye here is the silent “correction” in the transcription of what Kanye West actually said at the MTV awards: it wasn’t “I’m gonna let you finish” but — well, how to write it? This site offers “Ima”, “Im’ma”, “I’mma”, “Im a”, “I’ma”, and “Imma” (as well as a few “I’m gonna”s and even the odd forlorn “I’m going to”). Meanwhile, Hey Zeus in comments here offers the stylishly lowercase “imma”, and the (fascinating!) etymological investigations of Ella at Cherrier and Mark Liberman at Language Log prefer “Imma” and “I’ma”, respectively.

“Imma” is one of those usages that conservative wordfondlers love to rant is destroying the English language as we know it, so I’mma use it myself from now on just to annoy them. But it would be nice to settle on a standardized orthography! What do you think, readers?

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.


Not to be taken literally

Toxic dumping: just a metaphor!

British oil trader Trafigura has suddenly agreed to pay compensation to 31,000 people harmed by its 2006 dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. Trafigura had previously insisted that its waste was “absolutely not dangerous”, but now internal emails obtained by the Guardian (pdf) show that its employees knew it was dangerous.

Trafigura’s official response to the leak is intriguingly creative. First, of course, it claims that the emails have been taken “out of context“, but not satisfied with this boilerplate denial, it goes further: the emails, it adds, are “not to be taken literally”.

This plea has impressively wide-ranging applications. Have the police found chat transcripts of how you planned to blow up that public monument that exploded, or your diary of exactly how you murdered thirteen people who were found dead in a park? Well, you retort smugly, such things are not to be taken literally. You were merely indulging, as is every citizen’s right, in some literary jouissance, playing innnocently with allegory and synecdoche!

Plus, Trafigura does have a point. After all, one of the emails says:

We need to get some good info regarding the above to try to plan the handling better and avoid choking on this stuff.

The employee’s desire to “avoid choking on this stuff” is, surely, not to be taken literally — after all, they weren’t actually planning to drink their own toxic waste.

What else ought not to be taken literally, readers?


Cradled in his palms

The genius of Dan Brown

Oh, so apparently some guy named Dan Brown has written some new book? The extract soon gets to the point:

The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms.

Mmm, beautiful. “Cradled in his palms”. One can feel the reverence with which the initiate is delicately holding this human skull. But tell us more about the skull, Mr Brown!

The skull was hollow,

That is useful information, for now I am no longer visualizing one of those solid skulls?

like a bowl,

Even better — hollow like a bowl, not hollow like, I don’t know, a syringe, or an asteroid hollowed out by aliens. The image is now irresistibly vivid! A human skull, hollow like a bowl!

But wait, Mr Brown, why are you telling us that this particular skull is “hollow, like a bowl”? Are you subtly setting up the idea that the skull contains some liquid?

filled with bloodred wine.

Ah — now this is why Dan Brown is Dan Brown. A lesser author would have been satisfied with a lesser liquid — having the human skull (hollow like a bowl) contain, I don’t know, some gazpacho soup or Ready Brek. No one but Dan Brown could have thought of filling the human skull (hollow like a bowl) with “bloodred wine”. ((Later on we are told that “The crimson wine looked almost black in the dim candlelight”, but that’s the lighting director’s problem, so fuck you.)) It is an image of menacing ingenuity, through which Mr Brown is really beginning to establish a kind of superior Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom atmosphere.

The author then types on with some description of a big room, but it is no shame for us to admit that his best work is already accomplished: the concept of an initiate holding a human skull (hollow like a bowl) filled with bloodred wine and cradled in his palms is a kind of chorus that insists on being heard again, and it is not long before the reader is thus pleasured:

The initiate had been told every room in this building held a secret, and yet he knew no room held deeper secrets than the gigantic chamber in which he was currently kneeling with a skull cradled in his palms.

A skull cradled in his palms. Imagine! Almost as though it were a human infant. I must admit my eyes glazed over again after this at the further description of the big room and whatever, but only because I was aching to see what the author would do with his inevitable third treatment of the concept “skull cradled in his palms”. I was not disappointed:

Steeling himself for the last step of his journey, the initiate shifted his muscular frame and turned his attention back to the skull cradled in his palms.

Only a second-rate writer would vary such a winning formula. The first-rate writer knows the true value of incessant repetition. Indeed, I suspect this stunning symbol-sequence, “skull cradled in his palms”, must owe its majestic power to some actual black sorcery, because when I had finished reading the entire extract, I found myself cradling my own skull in my palms?


Morally akin to

Of Basterds and idiots

Among the tangential pleasures of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds has been the tsunami of perfectly dunderheaded things said about it by the serried ranks of idiots who comprise the transatlantic critical-opinionista corps. Feeling uncharacteristically charitable as I am, I will not here dwell on Johann Hari’s attempt to wound Tarantino with what he fondly (but, predictably, erroneously) supposes is the lance of “postmodernism”. Instead, I suggest that we think about the “criticism” of the film made by Jonathan Rosenbaum, ((Via this excellent reading of the film. (Thanks to Daniel F.) )) who says that Tarantino’s work

seems morally akin to Holocaust denial, even though it proudly claims to be the opposite of that

Hmm, really? Okay, let me get this straight. Inglourious Basterds, you say, seems morally akin to Holocaust denial. But of course, it does not constitute Holocaust denial, does it? Rather the opposite, in fact: the entire film only makes sense as long as the director is able to assume a knowledge of the actual truth of the Holocaust in his audience. This seems to be what Rosenbaum is grudgingly admitting when he concedes that the film “proudly claims to be the opposite of that”. He (as he must) acknowledges that the film in no wise denies the Holocaust, but indeed depends on the truth of the Holocaust for its effects (“proudly” or not — and for my part, I have seen no publicity for the movie, still less any internal evidence in the movie itself, that is crassly self-congratulatory in this specific regard). So what on earth can be meant by Rosenbaum’s insistence, nonetheless, that the film is “morally akin” to a crime that it objectively does not commit?

I feel that this weasel phrase of militant aesthetic disengagement, this trump-card of unearned moral superiority, “morally akin to Holocaust denial”, is something of a pinnacle of idiotic economy in the cultural criticism of our time. What it really seems to mean is:

I know this film isn’t denying the Holocaust, yet in some unspecified way it makes me feel bad and angry, so I will say that it is somehow like denying the Holocaust, although even I can see that the film, far from denying the Holocaust, is entirely predicated on the Holocaust’s truth; but nonetheless, I don’t like it, and the strongest expression I can think of to signal my dislike of this movie that I don’t understand is to accuse the film of being a bit like Holocaust-denial, because, y’know, Holocaust denial is a really bad thing, and this is a really bad thing too, so you know whatever?

There may be a way to shorten this exegesis-translation further, but that’s the best I can do right now, which surely indicates that “morally akin to Holocaust denial” is some sort of masterpiece of intellectual car-crash linguistic compression, cleverly engineered to make idiots sound like superior human beings. What do you think, readers?


Miscarriage of justice

Framing Lockerbie

A Private Eye reader writes, in the current issue:

Your article “Libyan Takeaway” (Eye 1243) states that the UN observer at the trial in the Netherlands and some of the British victims’ families believe there has been a miscarriage of justice. The article, however, makes it clear that there was a perversion, not a miscarriage, of justice. The late Paul Foot’s special report gives it much greater detail.

Can we not call a spade a spade rather than a garden implement? A perversion of justice or a stitch-up — either will do.

It is true that “miscarriage” and “perversion” carry very different implications. “Miscarriage” is strictly impersonal, and invokes a chance failure of the system. A “perversion” of justice, on the other hand, requires one or more perverters, with intent to pervert. Perverting the course of justice is a crime; while a miscarriage of justice is just something that unfortunately went wrong. Of course, since perverting the course of justice is a criminal offence, it is not strictly justified to conclude that there has been a perversion in the Lockerbie case until such time as there has been identification and conviction of actual perverters. ((Background to the Megrahi case can be found in Hugh Miles’s 2007 article for the LRB, and also in Paul Foot’s “Lockerbie: The Flight from Justice”, for which Private Eye’s website wants £5. Of course I would never suggest that you go and see whether it is also available elsewhere.))

A propos of which, might it have been possible for news outlets reporting on the case over the summer to refer to “the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing” rather than “the Lockerbie bomber“?



Tech feature naming fail

In technology news, Motorola has announced that, at some time in the future, it will allow you to buy a new portable telephone that it will have made? I know, I know, exciting enough already, but wait, there’s more: it’s called “the Motorola CLIQ with MOTOBLUR”.

MOTOBLUR? A motorized system for taking out-of-focus pictures? That will take the guesswork out of it, I suppose.


You lie!

Old-school calumny

So there was Obama talking about his health plan in Congress, and Republican Joe Wilson gets a rush of blood to his head and yells “You lie!“, thus causing much exciting controversy. But what is most intriguing about it is how it is phrased. Wilson didn’t shout “You’re a liar!” or “You’re lying!” or “That’s a lie!”, all of which would seem to be more natural modern alternatives. Instead he chose the deliciously archaic and formal “You lie!”, which only needs the addition of a “sir” — “You lie, sir!” — and a slap in the face with a white silk glove to constitute a challenge to a duel with muskets. (A further possible implication of Wilson’s choice of words, I suppose, is “You lie habitually.”)

In any case, Democrats getting all huffy about it all over the blogoicosahedron are, sadly, playing right into the Republicans’ hands, since — as George Lakoff could probably prove with quantum physics — the frame of the subsequent argument is the proximity of the notions “President Obama” and “lying”, which is all the South Carolingian doofus could have hoped for in the first place.

How do you prefer to accuse someone of lying, readers?


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