Under the Language Microscope

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas, Juan van der Hamen, 17th century (Instituto Valencia de Don Juan)

No irregularity, no solecism is too picayune to escape the insolent linguist’s busy beavering, which leads to officious palaver such as this about matters too minute to merit attention from the practical person. Even in the days before I could call myself a “former” linguist the phrase “grammatically correct” was deprecated by a certain scholarly constituency, much as the phrase “politically correct” is deprecated, or at least considered pejorative, by many today.

I tried recently to come to terms privately with what Pee Cee as a term of derision connotes, and worked my way through the following possibilities: complacent elitism, stodgy broadmindedness, stubborn tolerance of differentness, quixotic openness, naive politesse, empty etiquette observance, unexamined adherence to ritual and decorum, senseless sensitivity, queasy avoidance of vitriol and vituperation, overemphasis on the rights of others, obstinate altruism, fact-obsessed truth-seeking in the face of super-obvious opinion, and I don’t remember what else. None of it resolved the paradox of blameworthy correctness for me, so I resolved to simply set the phrase aside for now. I’m happy to do likewise for the Gee Cee phrase.

A photograph appeared in the news of a bartender printing a message on a chalkboard outside his establishment on the Mississippi coast as Hurricane Gordon approached: “Ain’t afraid of no rain.” This is a superbly expressive utterance, entirely correct for its time and place and circumstance. It draws on one of many viable dialects that are alive and well among English speakers. The old “double negative” is much maligned, but renders service that the “proper” expression doesn’t. “I can’t get no satisfaction” was a perfect lyric by the Rolling Stones to communicate young men’s frustration everywhere over lack of “girly action.” I caution my dog Bess every morning not to give way to an inopportune act of elimination in some remote reach of the house before I take her out: “Bess, don’t go do anything anywhere.” As negatives go it’s severely correct for the dialect I use, but “Don’t go do nothing nowhere” would be a linguistically acceptable alternative (though not Gee Cee).

Here’s the specimen that got me thinking about the double negative: The Voice didn’t appear to have a strong sense of identity anymore, in part because the New York that it covered — downtown, the underground, bohemia and its ephemera — didn’t exist anymore, neither in a physical sense nor as a state of mind.
(Tricia Romano, “Last Rites for the Village Voice, a Bohemian Who Stayed On Too Long,” NYTimes, 9-5-18)

I would have written “didn’t exist anymore, *either* in a physical sense *or* as a state of mind.” If the double negative isn’t a lapse, it might be justified as stylistic license to lend greater emphasis. I’m not sure that argument would have great weight in this context, though.

The second specimen that got my attention has nothing to do with the double negative: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie star in their third season of comedy sketches. At times eccentric, frantic and always unpredictable, Fry and Laurie are a comedic tour-de-force who push the envelope with their brand of smart, irrelevant humour, memorable characters and their fantastic musical numbers.
(Amazon Prime)

I did a double take on “irrelevant.” I’ve enjoyed several seasons of these wonderful sketches, and they’re eminently relevant for me. The person who puffed the series may have intended “irreverent.” It’s a fun slip.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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7 Responses to Under the Language Microscope

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    Yup, somebody meant to write “irreverent”. Quite likely they made a typo, spell-check offered an alternative, and they assumed it was the corrected form of the word they intended, and not another word. This has happened to me enough times that I’m well aware of the phenomenon. And editor should have caught that.

    I see political correctness, apparently, very differently than you do. I would say its #1 characteristic is hypocrisy. Not broad-minded at all, nor tolerant of difference nor dissent, it’s become a religion via which heretics are punished, censored, and banned. Fact-based?! The whole problem is that it has foregone conclusions and talking points that could fit on a bullet-list poster. It tells you what you are supposed to believe, or else you are excommunicated. Consider how utterly humorless it is, and the death of comedy. In the present, PC has taken over the religions right as the greatest enemy of art in the West; is responsible for the most acts of censorship, banning, destruction, thwarting of art and persecuting artists. Not a good sign.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JMN says:

      I see what you mean, and it’s a perspective I didn’t account for. My speculative run-through of possible meanings of PC was a little tendentious and self-indulgent. I can think of an example that supports your view — I suspect you know of it: Just recently the University of Texas in Austin displayed a large painting of a gathering of hooded KKK figures. I only saw it in a photo, but it’s a monumental, striking picture. I think it was commissioned. The article detailed the painstaking, exhaustive campaign that the university undertook prior to opening the exhibit in order (it would seem) to forestall negative reaction to the imagery depicted, to the act of exhibiting it, etc. The artist himself has spoken of his good intentions. Even so, blowback has ensued according to the article. As I say, I think that the fact that the university found it necessary to cushion itself supports the view that PC is inimical to art. I don’t disagree. While I’m here, I’d welcome your perspective on another point, perhaps vaguely related. I posted a follow-up the other day about the “don’t monkey this up” episode that made news for a moment in the Florida governor’s contest. My opinion about whether or not the phrase was a “dog whistle” is of little consequence, but in that post, with some trepidation, I included images of three very old postcards from a little keepsake trove passed down from my great grandmother. For me, they represented a bygone (?) negative stereotype of black persons that was very real in their time and keeps cropping up. To provide context I was careful to note the cards’ date and provenance, hoping that otherwise they spoke for themselves as evidence that there are racist skeletons in our cultural closet that can still rattle when certain language is used no matter the professed innocence of the user. It may be that I didn’t provide sufficient rationale for showing those images, or that I wasn’t explicit enough in saying they didn’t represent my own views. Undoubtedly it can be hard for a visitor to “like” something that contains ugliness. Did you happen to look at that post? I think it’s from last week.


      • Eric Wayne says:

        Hmmm. Let me go look up that post. In the mean time (as if you aren’t reading this all after-the-fact), I didn’t know about the KKK painting, which is undoubtedly a thorough protest against the history of white supremacy in America. Nobody in their right mid would put up a painting in any was supporting racism.

        OK. Looked at the images. You were pretty clear in saying, “I’m afraid such nonsense continues to crop up stubbornly in our place and time.”

        However, there may be no way to address such issues safely. Liberalism isn’t what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a hyper leftist. Today’s strain is more radical.

        This is certainly (along with Trump) one of the most divisive, and “toxic” subjects on the Internet. I covered a lot of the problem of overzealous take-no-prisoners social justice in the art world in a somewhat ambitious and risky article from June of last year: https://artofericwayne.com/2017/06/07/censoring-and-burning-art-in-the-name-of-progressive-morality/

        Liked by 1 person

      • JMN says:

        Well said. I relish and appreciate the conversation. I’ll read your June article with great interest.


      • Eric Wayne says:

        You’ll need a cup of coffee and some free time!

        Liked by 1 person

      • JMN says:

        I have a supply of both!


      • Eric Wayne says:

        You still may need to abort the mission. I don’t know if you are familiar with my feature length articles. I wrote one the other day that’s around 15,000 words. I think this one was even longer.

        I end up spending days writing these things, and even the people who finish them will say that it took more than one sitting.

        So, don’t feel compelled to commit. You may want out a few paragraphs in.

        Liked by 1 person

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