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Harsh, but fair?

Your Humble Blogger has often complained about reviews that are more about the wit of the reviewer than about the thing being reviewed. It’s the curse of Dorothy Parker; her stuff is clearly about her, but then she is actually more entertaining than many of the books she reviewed (which were often enough chosen for that purpose). Her generation of imitators had no such excuse. On the other hand, I admit to chortling at a really nasty, vicious pan. Ben Brantley, in this morning’s Times (regreq), begins with the premise that To Everything There Is a Purpose, and concludes that the purpose of Good Vibrations, the Mamma Mia of the Beach Boys, is “to make all other musicals on Broadway look good.” The best (and nastiest) part is the first three paragraphs, culminating in suggesting not that the performers are enjoying it more than the audience, but that the performers are somewhat less pained by it. Later, he excuses himself from mentioning any of the performers names, since they “aren’t really to blame”.

Ooh, it’s a cold morning on West 49th Street.

Thank you,


Reviewing seems much like commenting on a blog in that respect -- some commenters are aiming to participate in a discussion, some are aiming to tear down others, and some are looking to promote themselves. (I suppose the same could be said about the bloggers themselves, who are acting as reviewers of the web, of the world, or of themselves.) What I've really enjoyed about your blog is the sense that all the commenters are participating in a discussion.

I started reading Language Log because of your mentions of it here, and it's amazing how different the tone is when no comments are allowed. Despite there being several contributors to Language Log, and even occasional follow-ups on a topic that suggest a willingness to interact with the outside world, the absence of a comments feature makes the writers seem more arrogant and snarky than they probably intend to be. While they tear down mass media, testing companies, politicians, and publishers, they do not allow public corrections from others in their forum. In some ways, I don't mind; the inability to comment has saved me from posting some rather pointed criticism of various pieces of theirs recently.


January 31, 2005
The multi-purpose linguist

Yesterday's NYT op-ed column by Maureen Dowd is far more interesting for reasons other than this one, but consider the following passage:

"After the prisoner spat in her face, she left the room to ask a Muslim linguist how she could break the prisoner's reliance on God. The linguist suggested she tell the prisoner that she was menstruating, touch him, and then shut off the water in his cell so he couldn't wash."

I've gotten used to the term 'linguist' being used to mean 'interpreter', especially lately; I understand it when 'Arabic linguist' means someone who can translate to and/or from Arabic and 'Iraqi linguist' means more specifically someone who can translate to and/or from Iraqi Arabic. (Note that it's usually assumed and/or understood that English is on the other end of the translation.) Now obviously, a really good interpreter has more than just a dictionary-and-basic-grammar-level understanding of the languages to be translated; they also tend to have a good understanding of the different customs of the people who speak those languages. And so here we have a 'Muslim linguist' -- the idea being that this linguist has an understanding of Islamic customs and can thus be called upon to share this cultural knowledge just as conveniently as they can be called upon to translate (to and from Arabic, presumably, but who knows).

I kinda wish this linguist had said, "What are you asking me for? I'm just an interpreter," and kept their big mouth shut.

Sure, because there's only one way to understand how an adjective like 'Muslim' might modify a noun like 'linguist'. It couldn't mean a linguist who is a Muslim -- there wouldn't be an easy way to make fun of that since the paragraph would then make sense. Ambiguity in the syntax/semantic interface has apparently been solved, and I feel somewhat disappointed that nobody told me. A Muslim linguist is a linguist who speaks Muslim, just like a woman linguist (a dominant category in linguistics yet dreadfully underrepresented on Language Log) is a linguist who speaks woman.

I think it's good that I can't post to their site, because I'd have to be more tactful. But I worry a bit that a trusting reader on their site might believe that the posts on Language Log are well-considered or authoritative, and there's no way to warn them.

I do wonder about readers on such sites. My usual sense is that of course a blog, even by a group of professionals, won't be well-considered much less authoritative; I understand that lots of people are more ... trusting? gullible? than I am. Or perhaps I should say that lots of people are seeking well-considered authority, and perhaps willing to find it where it is not.
On the other hand, the Language Log boys aren't in it for snarkiness and arrogance with places like Eschaton and Kos which allow comments. But as you point out, they may well be more snarky and arrogant than they intend, where the others are snarky with intent. Or, perhaps, I'm just cross because my last two emails to Language Loggers have been ignored. Or because Francis is pulling away from me in the Language Log namecheck stakes, eight to four. But did they promote Bunny Day? I think not.

"oh stewardess! i speak jive."

Maybe if I had called it "Lagomorphapalooza".

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