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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· The Volatile Truth of Our Words ·

"The volatile truth of our words," writes Thoreau in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, "should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement."

As a logger, charged recently with dodging the literal residue of certain Texas longhorns, I thought to clarify my stance. In his "Conclusion," Thoreau properly marks the problem with exquisite delicacy, in a very stylish passage my readers may well appreciate:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make [Thoreau writes] that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright [an Ox] can understand, were the best English.

You who've read Texas-Style Bovine Epistemology might now appreciate Thoreau's larger point. What with "cows" and "bulls" running about, it's only natural, I suppose, that the upshot of the matter is this:

As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression [Thoreau continues] may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cowyard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings, New York: Bantam, 1962, 343-44.

So let us all repeat now, even Barbara Bush, extra-vagantly enough!

"The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement."

Is not Thoreau's "cow" at least an example of one "Mission Accomplished"?

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· Teacher, Scholar, Father — Sir James's Modest Accomplishments ·

I've come this Father's Day to the end of another academic year. Submitting grades after attending a relative's graduation party Saturday and watching graduates receive their degrees Friday night, I had earlier been grading essays, giving finals, and tidying my office. But more memorable still has been some reading in Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003), especially about James Murray, the famous teacher-scholar-father alluded to above.

Murray was, you should know, at fourteen a Scottish school dropout who, by life's end, at last received the coveted Oxford D. Litt. (honorus causa) he so surely deserved. Since my relative is now starting a new well-paying job, consider England's most famous lexicographer's job application — at age twenty-nine — to the British Museum library. His letter is not bad for an autodidact's:

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages and literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes — not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I posses that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquantance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius. As quoted in Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford UP, 72-73.

As Winchester adds dryly, "Murray's application was not successful," but as he also avers, by life's end Murray's children's quite stellar careers had compensated him well for his bumpy start. Here is his third son Wilfrid's rightly matter-of-fact account:

Harold, the oldest son, Exhibitioner and First Class Graduate of Balliol, was author of the Oxford History of Chess (1913) and, at the time of his retirement, a Divisional Inspector under the Board of Education. Sir Oswyn, GBC, the fourth son, Scholar, triple First and Honorary Fellow of Exeter and Vinerian Law Scholar, was Secretary to the Board of Admiralty from 1917 until his death in 1936; Jowettt, the youngest, was a Scholar and Triple First of Magdalen and became a Professor in the Anglo-Chinese College at Tientsin; the second, Ethelbert, was at his death in 1916 Electrical Engineer for North London in Willesden; the fifth, Aelfric (Wadham College), took orders and became Vicar of Bishop Burton; the writer, also a Balliol Exhibitioner, was for 21 years Registrar of the University of Cape Town. Of the five daughters Hilda, the eldest, was First Class Honours student at Oxford, Lecturer in English at Cambridge and Vice-Mistress of Girton College and has publish several works; the second, Ethelwyn (Mrs. C. W. Cousins) was married to the Secretary for Labour of the Union of South Africa; the youngest, Gwyneth, (Mrs. H. Logan), a Girton First Class graduate, was married to a Canadian Rhodes Scholar who became Principal of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in British Columbia; the remaining two, Elsie (Mrs. A. Barling) and Rosfrith, were both valued assistants for long periods on the Dictionary staff. From Wilfrid G. R. Murrary, Murray the Dictionary-Maker, Cape Town: Rustica Press, 1943, as quoted in Winchester, 80-81.

Apparently they don't make Victorian fathers like they used to, but lest you think Murray took any undue credit, consider Murray's take on his great philological work — in a quaint, modest style we're too apt to sneer at nowadays:

I think it was God's will. In times of faith, I am sure of it. I look back & see that every step of my life has been as it were imposed upon me — not a thing of choice; and that the whole training of my life with its multifarious & irregular incursions into nearly every science and many arts, seems to have had the express purpose of fitting me to do this Dictionary . . . So I work on with a firm belief (at most times) that I am doing what God has fitted me for, & so made my duty; & hope that He will strengthen me to see the end of it . . . But I am only an instrument, only the means that He has provided & there is no credit due to me, except that of trying to do my duty; Deo soli gloria. From a letter to the politician Lord Bryce, 15 December 1903, as quoted in Winchester, 134.

Naturally, Murray's saving grace could be strictly parenthetical, but it's quite apt — for all times, I think — to induce some needed "fear and trembling."

Of course, I say this for all those still working on degrees.

 · The Mortarboard is Honorary ·

For a more extended take on Murray's work, you might also read James Murray and The Oxford English Dictionary.

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· Historical Drudge Report — Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary ·

"Lexicographer*, a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

So did Samuel Johnson after eight years of hard work mark himself aptly in his great Dictionary published on April 15, 1755. Though its appearance came late by six years, what's the difference, especially for those given to lasting work? For when it's done well, work can bring official or even officious credit-takers to account. Consider Johnson's way with Philip Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield):

 · Samuel Johnson's Dictionary · Is not a Patron, My Lord [he pointedly sneered], one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

You've got to admit, Johnson had style (Grub-Street honesty, I'd call it). But he was also attentive to what it takes to work truly in others' debt. Consider how he wrote of John Milton's Paradise Lost, considering that Johnson's dictionary was not our first:

The highest praise of genius is original invention [Johnson judged]. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem, and therefore owes reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the strategems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writing nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favour gained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is ardous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first. Samuel Johnson, 'Life of Milton,' Lives of the English Poets, 2 Vols. (London/New York: Dent/Dutton [Everyman's Library]), I, 113-114.

Of such work, one sees no private or personal account taken just for itself, however much one sees the real measure of its judicious certainty. Maybe it's for this reason that Adam Kirsch, by chance writing in Slate in 2003, happily concluded with this thought:

Finally, Johnson's own writing is a model of style. Instead of Fowler or Strunk and White, writers might want to turn to Johnson for lessons in good writing — above all, how to convey the most information in the fewest and clearest words. Johnson's dictionary may not be perfect, but it's still the greatest work of literature in the reference section.

*"I am not so lost in lexicography," Johnson also wrote, "as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven."

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· Home on the Range of Texas Gobbledygook ·

Rumor has it I'm celebrating my second anniversary. I started sawing these occasional posts from stylish logs of literacy precisely two years ago today. Though I haven't clearcut any northern forest yet, and surely haven't chain-sawed Presidential timber hereabouts, I do take pride in having opened a space in the wilderness for a cabin. It's my virtual "Home on the Range."

I begin this way because I'm into sawing Texas old-growth today, not George W. Bush's (though his Prairie Chapel Ranch does produce some), but Maury Maverick's. Maverick's the New-Deal Democrat who invented the apt political term "Gobbledygook."

  · Yes, Tom, The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living ·

I just learned this in Michael Lind's Made in Texas: George Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (2003). Grandson of that famous Maverick whose unbranded calves became connected with deviant politicians, then independent individuals, Maverick lambasted empty political language in 1944.

He said later that bureaucratic language reminded him of a Texas turkey, "always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of gook." His revolutionary temperament is apparent in one of his proposals: "Anyone using the words 'activate' or 'implementation' will be shot." Michael Lind, Made in Texas: George Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, New York: Basic Books, 2003, 21.

Though I'd not endorse Maverick's move, its moral equivalent does seem appealing. I say this today in a charitable spirit of voter education. Consider, for instance, Jocolo's thoughts over at A Writing Teacher's Blog yesterday:

Bob Scholes reports on a national study of reading by the National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk (pdf). The most sobering statistic he cited: In 2002, of all adult Americans, only 12.1% read any poetry of any kind that year. Now I understand why George Bush keeps getting decent poll numbers.

Despite Laura Bush's librarian-like efforts to encourage good reading, I think George Bush will never fully understand what the great Canadian Northrop Frye once more seriously had in mind for genuine literacy. Frye wrote in his book The Educated Imagination (1964) this thought, perhaps anticipating the President's famous seven-minute reading, on September 11, 2001, in Florida:

Direct and simple language always has some force behind it, and the writers of gobbledygook don't want to be forceful; they want to be soothing and reassuring. I remember a report on the classification of government documents which informed me that some documents were eventually classified for permanent deposition. . . . We can see here how the ordinary use of rhetoric, which attempts to make society presentable, is becoming hypocritical and disguising the reality it presents beyond the level of social safety. Northrup Frye, The Educated Imagination, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964, 143-144.

Well, I must conclude with one more Canadian voice, that of the late Bernard Lonergan, from his great book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). A brilliant theologian, Lonergan is like the Rev. above, praying, bless his soul, for that Presidential turkey on the right.

But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality.

Thus, insight into insight brings to light the cumulative process of progress. For concrete situations give rise to insights which issue into policies and courses of action. Action transforms the existing situation to give rise to further insights, better policies, more effective courses of action. It follows that if insight occurs, it keeps recurring; and at each recurrence knowledge develops, action increases in scope, and situations improve.

Similarly, insight into oversight reveals the cumulative process of decline. For the flight from understanding blocks the insights that concrete situations demand. There follow unintelligent policies and inept courses of action. The situation deteriorates to demand still further insights, and as they are blocked, policies become more unintelligent and action more inept. What is worse, the deteriorating situation seems to provide the uncritical, biased mind with factual evidence in which the bias is claimed to be verified. So in ever increasing measure intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living. Human activity settles down into a decadant routine, and initiative becomes the privilege of violence. Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Vol. 3, eds., Frederick E. Crowe an Robert M. Doran, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1992 [1957], 8.

Want four more years, anyone?

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· Unto This Last ·

No, today's title today isn't a fashionable allusion to John Ruskin, though you might think so. It's my reference, rather — a day in advance of its glad approach — to the end of my quarter.

"What do you mean?" Well, at term's end, I count down the days remaining in my classes always like this from fancy to plain:

  • Antepenultimate Day: Not the last day of class, but the third day from it.

  • Penultimate Day: The second day, naturally, from the last day of class.

  • Ultimate Day: The very last day of class.

  • Final Day: The day that any class takes its final.

  • Last Day: The day my own grades must go in.

I'm glad today to say I'm nearing "This Last."

Of course, if you missed Unto This Last, luckily I do happen to have a makeup quiz.

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· Write, Right, Wright, Rite ·

I'm up to my neck in homonyms today. I'm not, I confess, considering San Francisco-style weddings, or anything subject to pending constitutional amendment. Rather, as Shakespeare says, I'm giving myself to the marriage of minds, minds truly fit to the task of forming written words "stylishly." As I tell my students, it's a smart, fourfold task.

"Write, Right, Wright, Rite," I tell them. They get a kick, of course, out of my injunction since I can pose as a sadly repeating, redundant, reverberating punster. Whenever they all get around to asking what I mean, I simply say, "Check out my definitions":

  • Write, (rīt), v.t., to form or inscribe (words, letters, symbols, etc.) on a surface or screen, especially with a pen, pencil, or computer.

  • Right, (rīt), adj., specifically in accordance with fact, reason, or some set standard; being correct in thought, statement, or action.

  • Wright, (rīt), n., a worker, maker, creator; a person who makes or constructs: used chiefly in compounds, as, cartwright, or, even, word wright.

  • Rite, (rīt), n., any formal, customary observance or procedure, often expressly or implicitly religious.

Here I'll make my way straight to my principal point, which, if you think about it, is but the plain styling of a single sentence: Do Correct Work Religiously.

 · Jonathan Swift · Naturally, the full conversion of all workers to the work is at times difficult, though they do take to it when (with Jonathan Swift) they maybe see its sharp point: "proper words in proper places."

I should perhaps let you decide what our busy bee ("at right") is doing.

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· Presidents' Day Thoughts on Christopher Lasch's Plain Style ·

I've been reading Christopher Lasch's volume of writing advice, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Printed for graduate history students at the University of Rochester (1985) and published in paperback by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2002), the book lives up to its apt title. I heartily recommend it.

Plain Style, edited with a helpful introduction by Stewart Weaver, catches well the late historian's political savvy. Christopher Lasch, author of books like Haven in a Heartless World (1977) The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), addresses the fuzzy imprecision of public discourse today, going to the heart of rhetorical-political concerns George Orwell raises in his great "Politics and the English Language."

According to Weaver, Plain Style "is something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy." Weaver's allusion is no mistake, for Lasch holds to Orwell's belief that, as Orwell's own "Politics" makes clear, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" — that "an effect can become a cause . . . A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."

To second Orwell's claim, I thought to share Lasch's sharp styling of the thought in one spirited paragraph from his third chapter, "Characteristics of Bad Writing" — a paragraph entitled "Abstract Language":

 · Christopher Lasch · Abstract Language   Bad academic writing [Lasch writes] avoids concrete (literally solid or coalesced) words and phrases as assiduously as it avoids the active voice, and for the same reason: it seeks to convey an impression of scientific precision, of painfully acquired learning and scholarship, of Olympian detachment from the commonplace facts of everyday life. It prefers phenomena to things or events, socialization to growing up, orientation to position or location. Abstractions are often indispensable, of course (as are forms of to be). Sipped in small amounts, they may even have a slightly intoxicating effect, not inconsistent with verbal clarity. Over-indulgence, however, leads to slurred speech and eventually destroys brain cells. Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, ed. Stewart Weaver, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, 78; Weaver, above, 3-4.

Lasch's own happy take on Orwell tells. Beyond one tipsy academic, though, it's worse to see America's sober-sided politicians from the President down reeling so clearly now under the inebriating influence of such abstractions as "The Axis of Evil" and "Strategic Outsourcing." You'd maybe think that they would foreswear such stuff, rhetorically as well as politically.

A justly temperate nation might, I would suggest, ask them to try.

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· "We Hold These Truths" on the First-Person Plural ·

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial 'we,'" Mark Twain once said — apparently ending discussion on the pronoun "we." We beg to differ here, since whatever I might say plurally you might of course interpret singularly, and vice versa. One doesn't have to be George W. Bush to know as much since, whether Texan or not, you-all and we-all are both, of course, "plural."

Take, for instance, these uses of the first-person plural "we":

The Principal Uses of the Pronoun "We"

  • "We" as a familiar rhetorical agent, including writer and reader ("We must, of course, both agree").
  • "We" as the spokesperson for a group, "the editorial we" ("We [The National Review, The Nation, AARP] endorse presidential candidates").
  • "We" as a representative of a group, possibly excluding the reader ("We Republicans," "We Democrats," "We Geezers").
  • "We" as humankind ("We are all doomed").

Now don't get me wrong. Like President George W. Bush, we might, by law, be pluralized someday into office — moving from obscurity into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through a rare vote count in an election. But anyone might still agree that we might have a long way to go, especially when measured stylistically by the most honored of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Consider, for instance, these two paragraphs from a student essay on "The Gettysburg Address" — an essay analyzing President Lincoln's subtle shadings of the plural pronoun in his dedication of a battlefield cemetery (a rhetorical task sometimes, I think, of necessity falling upon presidents):

Lincoln's second paragraph not only locates the ceremony temporally and geographically in the midst of "a great civil war" and on "a great battlefield of that war," but in relation to an ambiguously specified "we," a pronoun referring to a much larger audience than that physically present. The word is enormously complex, for its most obvious referent initially shifts from all the citizens of the nation only to those present in Lincoln's audience. To illustrate, the first instance of "we" in his second paragraph ("we are engaged in a great civil war") refers to the nation as a whole, while the second, third, and fourth instances ("We are met on a great battlefield," "We have come to dedicate . . . ," and ". . . we should do this") refer only to Lincoln's own battlefield audience.

Admittedly, Lincoln's contraction of pronominal reference is a subtle one, yet his subtlety is what effectively blurs the referencing of "we" so that, on the one hand, "we" — the audience — might be present not just at the ceremony but at a genuine war (the great "testing"), and on the other, so that "we" — citizens — might also be present at the ceremony (hearing Lincoln's words and sharing his grief). The effect of such pronominal contraction is essentially to mythologize the ceremony, to make it much larger than life, to expand its importance beyond that of any single ceremony, any single battle, perhaps any single war. Obviously, Lincoln's final sentence ("It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this") becomes thereby a powerful, sympathetic acknowledgment not only of his own mourning, but also that of his audience and that, equally, of his entire American nation.

Having heard George W. Bush's lengthy State-of-the-Union speech last week, we might ask if anyone serves us now as a good president, editor, or "tapeworm" even. Happily, with Thomas Jefferson still, we might all fittingly say: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . "

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is, of course, our challenge.

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· New York Bound ·

I will soon be off to New York. I thought you should know. I should say that style calls me there to don the garb of a word judge — a one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, and (yes) six-word judge, too. Once in Here, Here: Where Have You Been There? you saw me stuck by a "T'ree" when back from New York. Some eight months back, that was.

So now I thought to fess up to the real truth: I meant a T(h)ree! A hard word for me to say then or now, here or there. It has to do with what Dave Blum down on Wall Street calls "a group of folks, some here and some there, who like to talk in one-pulse words." Here is what he says of us (more than just a few, too) in a short piece called "In Praise of Small Words."


May I have a small word with you?

I want to tell you the tale of a group of folks, some here and some there, who like to talk in one-pulse words. There are no more than a few folks so far — a cult, in a way — but you will want to play their game once your hear more. I shall tell this tale in words of one pulse, if I can. So, please bear with me — it will, of course, be short and sweet. Dave Blum, 'In Praise of Small Words,' Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's 'Middle Column,' ed. Ken Wells, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, 254.

Of course, Blum is a Wall-Street news type — a guy who has no clue that just one word we may all say is "seven" (as we may all say [when in real need of a buck or two or three], one small last word, too: you guessed it, New Jersey).

Well, I'm off on a big jet soon. Your guess is as good as mine where I'll be.

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· Extreme Unction ·

If you're looking for religion today, you've come to the wrong place. My title implicitly says as much already. Only wine happily escapes the pejoratives of an "unctuous style" — certainly not preachers, undertakers, and others given to lubricious applications of high spirits. And I should know.

I pressure-pumped shingle oil on my roof Saturday. Ugh! Talk about extreme unction and dirty hands! The experience was doubly compounded by Coppertone Sunblock #15, too. Even Dialectizer would have trouble doing justice to my "redneck."

Which is why I thought to share a short poem from Down Under. You'll appreciate Jeffrey Sears' aptly high umbrage — like mine, Saturday — at what he calls Rubbery Words.

Think of what modern petrochemicals have done for such substances today and you'll understand.

Meantime, I've a new category to start called "Diction."

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