March 2008 Archives

Overused book-review words

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Bob Harris blogs his "Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing." By which he means words that appear too often in book reviews.

Aside: I immediately assumed that the title was a reference to George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monologue, also known as "Seven Dirty Words," and sometimes misquoted as "Seven Deadly Words." Turns out I'm not the only one who associates the phrase "seven deadly words" with Carlin; as of this writing, if you Google the phrase (in quotation marks), a Carlin monologue is the first result. At any rate, whether or not Harris meant to refer to the Carlin monologue, his "seven deadly words" are kind of the opposite: they're words that he sees as overused.

And I'm puzzled by almost all of the ones that he and his readers list, because they pretty much all seem perfectly reasonable to me. Perhaps it's just that I don't read very many book reviews?

I may be a little defensive about this, too, 'cause several of the words (such as "compelling" and "intriguing") are words I use all the time.

Anyway, mixed in with the distaste for certain words being used too often, I detect what I think is a certain attitude toward writing in general. Harris starts it off by quoting Wilson Follett (author of Modern American Usage: A Guide and other books) as saying "The best critics [...] are those who use the plainest words[....]" A commenter refers to a word as being "a product of laziness and lack of imagination"; another refers to "great deal of sloppy, lazy writing going on"; another quotes The Elements of Style as referring to critics using words "whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning"; another says reviewers should use more "language every person can relate to."

All of which makes we think that perhaps what's really going on is a complaint about use of words that the objectors see as hifalutin. Reviews, the argument would appear to go, should be written in plain language so that plain-speakin' plain ol' folks can understand 'em.

Which I totally disagree with. I'm not saying book reviews should be hard to understand, but to me, nearly all of the words these folks are complaining about are pretty ordinary words that have pretty ordinary meanings. Is "readable" really meaningless? Are metaphorical descriptions, like "luminous," really so awful? Is the use of the word "smart" to describe a book really so cryptic? They don't seem so to me.

(The one criticism in the list (of those I read) that does seem useful and interesting to me is the idea that male reviewers often refer to a particular feminist poet's work as "engaging"; that sounds to me like potentially the same kind of politically problematic attempted praise as referring to an African-American as "articulate." On the other hand, there are plenty of other contexts where "engaging" is perfectly good praise.)

I suppose part of my reaction is that I have a poor ear for cliches. There are several phrases that I use regularly and see nothing wrong with but that critique groups have told me are cliches to be (yes) eschewed. So maybe overuse just doesn't bother me; maybe I'm deaf to that (um) nuance of language and usage.

And, of course, lists of pet peeves don't have to be rational.

Speaking of rational, I have to object to the other part of the quote from Follett: "[...] and who make their taste rational by describing actions rather than by reporting or imputing feelings." Really? Reviewers are supposed to have rational tastes, having nothing to do with their feelings? I apparently don't live in the same world of reviewers as Follett and Harris; I often rather like learning about a reviewer's feelings about a work.

gayelle

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Two lesbian friends of mine alerted me tonight to a new word: "gayelle."

It's a fascinating attempt to coin a new word. The people over at gayelle.org (a.k.a. sapphicchic.com) are claiming, apparently seriously, that because the word "lesbian" is now old-fashioned and has negative connotations, it's time to replace that word with a new, hip, sophisticated, 21st-century word. And the one they came up with is "gayelle"--"the feminine form of gay meaning homosexual."

Also, the word "bisexual" contains the word "sex" and used to be sometimes used to mean "hermaphrodite," so the gayelles have decided (with the help of a little intersex-phobic phrasing like "freak of nature") that bisexual women should have a new term as well. They somehow came up with "sapphysapphia" (although their explanation fails to explain why they think that term should have anything to do with being interested in men too), which word they note is composed of only six different letters; if you put those letters in alphabetical order, you get "ahipsy," which they've altered to "hipshe." So, all you bi-dykes, better get used to calling yourselves hipshes from now on. (And presumably non-bi women aren't hip.)

On the one hand, I'm tempted to mock them. To me (and to the lesbian friends who mentioned "gayelle" to me), the terms sound silly and goofy and not even remotely hip. (One of my friends suggested that "Gay-El" sounded like a resident of Krypton; the other noted that "gayelle" is only one letter off from "gazelle.") Also, the gayelle folks say that "The word lesbian is antiquated" as evidence that we should stop using it, while they say (in a positive tone) that "Sappho" is "A well known name from antiquity" as a reason to use that; really, none of their arguments in favor of their new coinages make much sense to me.

On the other hand, language does change, and new coinages and new uses sometimes do catch on. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that people were still lamenting the loss of the perfectly good word "gay" to those awful homosexuals who'd appropriated it.

One thing that kinda bugs me politically about the "gayelle" thing is that it's kind of the opposite of reclaiming a word. The queer community has, to some degree and in some contexts, reclaimed a variety of words (including "queer") that used to be fairly universally derogatory; I'm a little sad to see people saying "that word is sometimes used derogatorily, so let's stop using it." (Interesting that the word "dyke" doesn't appear anywhere on their site.) Then again, this kind of language change happens all the time too, when once-polite words become derogatory. And for that matter, I myself have spent time agitating (mildly) for a new coinage; I invested a fair bit of energy into the gender-neutral pronoun "ta" in the '90s, before switching to gender-neutral "they."

I'm also mildly politically bothered by the gender politics I see in "gayelle." By creating a feminine form of "gay" (and why not "gayette," anyway?), they implicitly suggest that the word "gay" is exclusively male (which is, to be fair, how many people use it)--but they also suggest that the word for a homosexual woman should be a derivative of the word for a homosexual man. Wouldn't it be better to come up with a word that's not derived from an exclusively male label?

One more issue with "gayelle" is that the word's already in use. Googling for it, or looking in Urban Dictionary, reveals that the current most popular uses (at the time of my writing this entry) are:

  • A community TV station in Trinidad & Tobago. (Which at first I thought was a queer station, given the slogan "At Last We Own Television" and the current top-of-page ads for "The Freedom Walk" and (in pink) "Gayelle The Channel presents ... Phagwa 2008.") (I'm thinkin' if women are going to start using "gayelle," then men should switch to "phagwa.") (Yes, I know that Phagwa is an ancient Hindu festival. I'm being culturally insensitive for the sake of a joke; sorry.)
  • A Caribbean term for a cockfighting arena (I kid you not). Okay, cockfighting or stickfighting, but "cockfighting" is funnier in this context.

I'm left still uncertain whether this whole "gayelle" thing is in fact a joke, in which case my hat's off to the people who put it together. But the site is very straight-faced (as it were), and they're apparently even running radio ads on queer radio, which suggests to me that if it is a joke, it's a very elaborate one.

(Note: I'm pretty sure that some people who don't know me are going to encounter this entry, so I should note that (a) I'm a bi man, so I don't get to tell lesbians what they should call themselves, and (b) I use terms like "queer" and "dyke" casually and positively; no derogatory connotations should be inferred.)

partisan shoutfests

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This morning, I read a couple of articles about a White House aide being caught plagiarizing.

Then I read a piece by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, eulogizing William F. Buckley. It contains this sentence:

Buckley disdained the kind of partisan shoutfests that too often pass for political debate on our TVs today.

And then I turned to a New York Times article by Eric Konigsberg about Buckley's TV show Firing Line. It starts with this question:

The relationship of William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” to the partisan shoutfests that pass for evening political exchange on television nowadays?

I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call plagiarism here. I can imagine two different people coming up with those sentences independently, and anyway it's only one sentence of similarity; the articles are otherwise entirely different.

But it still strikes me as odd. I thought for a moment that perhaps "partisan shoutfests" was a common/standard description of political TV shows, but a Google search for the phrase (in quotation marks) turns up only eight occurrences of it on the web, of which four are copies or quotes of the Konigsberg piece, and one is the vanden Heuvel piece. The remaining three don't have any other phrasing in common with the sentences in question.

Anyway. I probably wouldn't have even noticed this, much less commented on it, if plagiarism and copying hadn't already been on my mind. But given that it was on my mind, I thought this was an interesting enough item to post about.

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