13 01 2012

Interesting question, by David Rowe,  in today’s online The Punch: Is it unAustralian to barrack for the other team? It derives from the old chestnut – the Bradman question – that was designed for new immigrants way-back-when and much discussed in the media.

I quote: “ At issue was the necessary national cultural knowledge for an aspiring citizen contained in the test-prepping document Becoming an Australian Citizen.  Here the reader learnt that Australians like sport and are proud of their achievements in it (especially in cricket) and that `Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest cricket batsman of all time’.”

The Bradman question has gone by the wayside, but the “nation-sport nexus” continues. At the very minimum, governments seem to think that new immigrants need formally to be advised that Australians love their spectator sports. As if that itself were not daily, and everywhere, obvious. As if, too, it’s necessary for their adaptation and acculturation (if no longer “assimilation”).

My concern here, as ever, is the use in the title of the word “barracking” and a simple pondering thought about when the term might be deployed for whatever purpose in the circus of US  presidential pre-election fever.

From where we stand now, it seems rather inevitable.

Love is Blinds

19 03 2011

There’s a shop up the road from my place that sells window coverings – like blinds, awnings, venetians etc. I haven’t been in there but from the street it seems that’s what they’re on about.

More than its content,  what attracted my eye, from quite far away actually,  was the name of the shop. It’s called LOVE IS BLINDS.

What a lovely nest of intertexualities and grammatical incongruences, which combined, appeals very nicely to my kind of brain.

Let’s unpack it.

First off, there’s the snowclone –  a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as “a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (from Wikipedia). A good example of a snowclone is “X is the new Y”  eg “grey is the new black”.

Of course much more is available  via Google on this subject, but the basics are that like metaphors, snowclones allow the new to be understood in terms of the already-familiar. Any good teacher knows that the brain is particularly conducive to receiving new information via old (or already-established) information. I like to think of this as the old information opening the gate(secret key?)  to allow the new information in.

Let’s return to LOVE IS BLINDS. Here the snow clone is the construction “Love is…”  There are many of these:  love is blind, love is great, love is kind, love is (means) never having to say you’re sorry… etc etc. There are even  “love is” websites (just Google “love is”).

Now, usually when the template is in its simplest form, we have Noun+Verb”to be” + adjectival complement eg Love is blind. Here, though, the shop owners have come up with a variant – changing “blind” as adjectival complement to “blind” as a noun (ie the thing you hang on your windows), here rendered plural (“blinds”).

This links in to my second point, which is to highlight the numerical incongruence. By now we’re moving a long way from the notion of love as blind (or causing deception or misunderstanding), to love as in lovely, and as associated with the commodity known as “blinds”. It’s clever because while many words could be used to describe blinds, calling  them the equivalent of “love” is a pretty big ask. So it’s an oblique, humorous, and even modest, way of speaking very positively about the product on sale.

Third, the actual grammatical aberration stimulates another snowclone, exemplified in the phrase “Toys are Us”, itself an amazing example of erroneous English that took off and kept on growing (eg Babies are Us, Cars are Us, Bald is Us, Genes are Us, Designs are Us etc etc). Why is it erroneous? Good question – I’ll return to this in another post. For the moment I want to suggest that  the snowclone  (“X are us”) is intimated in the LOVE IS BLINDS epithet, probably because of the format (noun+verb”to be”+noun) and also because of the plurality/agreement issue.

You see, underlying all of this is the fact that we tend in English to want, with copular verbs like “to be”, to ensure that the bit before the verb shows some agreement with the bit after the verb. In Latin this is a sacred rule, and formal English often tries to emulate Latin (eg the rule about not splitting the infinitive). Obviously in LOVE IS BLINDS we lack agreement in number: as an abstract noun, “love” tends to be rendered singular, while “blinds” as a common noun is undeniably plural.

Similarly, with “Toys are Us”, the correct form would more likely be “We are Toys”, or “Toys are We”, the latter probably rejected because of the rather un-seductive homophone “wee” (urine). In any case, appealing to the majority  (less-grammatically literate folk), “us” is far more user-friendly, and conveys the intended message which is:  Trust us,  we know about Toys!

All of these previously absorbed templates are activated to some degree in the process of comprehension, interpretation and inference. This is what makes communication so intensely interesting while also so intensely fraught –  or capable of capsizing at any moment.

In any case, the anomalous non-agreement of LOVE IS BLINDS is likely to fix the name in one’s mind, and arguably, this is the whole purpose of advertising. Disappointingly perhaps, for the shop at least, when I recently decided to buy some venetian blinds for my study, I first did think of the LOVE IS BLINDS shop, but then was seduced by the sale being advertised in a well-known department store. Ultimately, perhaps, the hip pocket will always win out, even over grammatical fascination.

Foreskins – an unusual point of harmony

9 03 2011

There aren’t many topics that bring Jews and Moslems into the unfamiliar territory of agreement. But there is one, and it’s just come up again, in San Francisco, where Jewish and Moslem groups are mobilizing and strategizing about how they will rally against proposed new legislation that will seek to criminalize male circumcision. It’s a topic where both faiths see eye to eye, as the riualized custom has a deeply embedded history, with cultural, community and religious associations.

You may well be thinking – what is my interest here? Am I trying to suggest that if agreement can be so easy on the delicate matter of the foreskin, then surely allegedly intractable points of contention in the Middle East might also be potentially open to agreement?

Short answer: No. In fact, my interest is less political than linguistic. I note that the leader of the anti-circumcision group in San Francisco is a self-described “intactivist”  – an activist in favour of well, staying intact.

It’s a clever word: like the Pro-Life lobby, it harnesses the positives (intact-ness), rather than promoting the contrariness (anti-abortion; anti-anything). It finds a “nice” way (if somewhat indirect, but that comes with the territory of euphemism) to avoid the word “circumcision”, which is very, well,  in-your-face.

It does make you wonder what name the anti-intactivists will come up with, to lend their cause support and energy.


14 07 2010

Diplo-speak – the public language of diplomacy –  is a particular sub-set of language (I hesitate to use the term dialect) that operates on at least two fronts: for those in-the-know; and for the rest of us.  In many ways, it resembles a code, able to be deciphered by some; closed to others. As I’m not in-the-know, I can speculate only on what the terms of diplo-speak might mean.

For example, when relations are said to be “cool”, that’s very different to their being “warm”. Similarly, relations might be said to be “thawing”, and this suggests that earlier, they’d been very much colder. “Chilly” fits in there somewhere, as does “cordial”. I’m not quite at the point of drawing up a gradient with the various terms notched onto it. I’m a little confused about the extreme ends of the gradient for they seem to suggest similarly bad relations – very “chilly”, and very “heated” both seem to be one or two steps from calling off diplomatic relations.

The Middle East is a great site (not exclusively so, of course) for the exploration of these and related terms. Remember when they used to refer to being “on track to peace talks”? And later, those same peace talks were placed “on the horizon”, which is a good deal further away than on the “track”.

It probably bespeaks the current temperature that now the language has moved from cold/chilly/warm to more geological terms like “rift”, “shift” and “fissure”. Recent talks between Obama and Netanyahu appear to be warm-ish, but the very effort displayed by both parties to give this impression somewhat undercuts the impact. Apparently, the meeting between the two heads of state was “almost tainted” in the lead-up by a leak that claimed a “tectonic rift”  separated the two countries. “Rift” was later adjusted to “shift”. Subsequently, US officials added:  “there is no fissure”.

So, we’re out of temperature metaphors for the moment and into geological ones. It would seem, from the gradient implied above, that a “rift” is more serious than a “shift” which is more serious than a “fissure”.

Does any of it matter? Only in so far as we all deploy and react to language to mediate our understandings of events.

Even apparently minor features – such as the seeming disfluency  of a momentary self-correction – may have more significance than we know. Obama is on record as having said:

“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements. .. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

The disfluency occurs in the first sentence:  “.. threats that are levelled against us – against it -…”. This “us” revised into “it” seems like a slip that might suggest that Obama aligns his country’s interests with Israel’s. As such, it’s reminiscent of the famous Kennedy Ich Bin ein Berliner speech. Such a reading would have the amendment – “against it” – serving as a phrase in apposition, adjectival in function, adding non-essential information.

On the other hand, is it in fact what it appears to be – a self-correction? Meaning – don’t think we’re aligned, because we’re not.

Can we know? Do those in-the-know know?

If there’s one abiding feature of diplo-speak, it is its slipperiness,  the wiggle-room factor. Essential for later deniability.


22 06 2010

In an earlier post, I cited the very convoluted language of an Acting Police Superintendant following the tragic death of a Chubb security guard in an attempted robbery. He said:

It is my unfortunate position at this point of time to advise that I have been informed that that security officer is now deceased and his family has been notified of the circumstances.

I’m wondering why anyone would use such convoluted and distancing language for the purpose of making this announcement.

As a post-scriptum to this, I’ll mention the following item  from Dr Neil James, Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation, author of the excellent work Writing at Work (Allen&Unwin, 2007). He gives his ‘Policespeak’ version of Little Miss Muffet:

A child or young person answering to the name of Muffet  was observedin proximity to a tuffet in the act of consuming produce described as curds and whey whereupon it is alleged that an offender of the appearance of a spider loitered in a malicious manner in the vicinity of said juvenile
causing her to proceed rapidly from the premises in an agitated way.

At this point in time…

11 06 2010

I heard this on yesterday’s TV news, following the tragic, fatal shooting of the Chubb security guard:

Acting Superintendant:

It is my unfortunate position at this point of time to advise that I have been informed that that security officer is now deceased and his family has been notified of the circumstances.

I’m wondering why anyone would use such convoluted and distancing language for the purpose of making this announcement.

Westchester Widow

20 05 2010

Unpacking Personals: Westchester Widow

This advert appeared in the Personals  of The New York Review of Books, October 8-9, 2009, Vol LVI, No 15.

Westchester widow seeks friendship with man, 75-85, who loves Mozart, especially the Marriage of Figaro. Contact etc.

Google tells me that “Westchester County is a suburban county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and has a diverse population…” There’s another such place in Pennsylvania, but it’d be less likely, all things considered. Being an outsider, I’m not sure what socio-economic cue “Westchester widow” would give off for an insider, but I’d guess (it’s only a guess) something like “of comfortable, independent means”. It feels rather formulaic – like she’s giving out her gender (female), her marital status (widow) and socio-economic class. And if she’s travelling down to the Met for her regular opera fix, she’s likely to have a healthy bank balance. Note she’s seeking “friendship”, a loose term if ever there was, especially so since the advent of electronic social networking, though I doubt our widow is using it in the Facebook sense. “Friend” can suggest with or without benefits.  All things considered, it probably means companionship –  “a person to attend opera with”. Given that the few words of a Personals ad are all the space she has to present herself and her quest, what does her love of Mozart say about her? Because we surely have to infer that she herself feels the love of Mozart that she wishes her quarry to have. Does she perhaps identify with Mozart’s Countess, sadly recalling a philandering husband,  urging all to be festive and merry, while an accompanying solo oboe almost weeps as she sings? What might all this, the passions as well as the tensions, convey to her would-be companion?  Note too how few stipulations she has: all he has to be is elderly and love Mozart, especially Figaro. What if he loves Mozart, but not particularly Figaro? Would he have a chance? What would a love of Figaro actually mean, in terms of human characteristics? What if he had such characteristics, but still didn’t love Figaro? Is a love of Mozart able to be faked? My issue with this ad, apart from the above ambivalences is: surely an elderly widow of refined musical taste would in reality harbour more must-haves and must-not-haves than what she’s stated? What if he has all the requirements… plus nose hair? Unlikely, I’m informed by one-who-knows, who says a love of Mozart and the presence of nose hair are mutually incompatible.  What if he has all requisites, but  also a police record (say, for axe-murdering)? The essential question, then, becomes: At what point of personal unpleasantness does the love of Mozart etc cease to forgive all else?

Oh what a difference a preposition makes!

29 04 2010

29 April 2010

Passing by a beautician’s shop. Sign on the counter : MAKE WRINKLES DISAPPEAR. (Then in smaller letters…) for 8 hours. Was $120. Now $100.”

I thought to myself, hmm,  that’s not bad. Get rid of your wrinkles over an 8-hour time frame. I wonder how long you remain wrinkle-free?  That’s when I gave some further attention to the preposition and realized that I’d misread it (the smaller print didn’t help). It wasn’t ” MAKE WRINKLES DISAPPEAR in 8 hours” . It was “MAKE WRINKLES DISAPPEAR for 8 hours”.  Oh what a difference a preposition makes!