Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.


Language games

Max Goss complains about Random House telling him to use more 'sensitive' language:

Apparently Random House uses something called an "Offensiveness Quotient" to determine how to categorize certain dictionary entries. We learn from the "O.Q. Chart" that, among other things, harelip and cripple "indicate a lack of sensitivity," ... and that housewife and Miss are "taken as showing mild disapproval or lack of respect."

Random House's Editorial Director says, "Our first duty as dictionary publishers is to describe accurately what words in fact do exist in the language." I guess their second duty is to tell us when we lack sensitivity and recommend better words than the ones we might be inclined to choose.

Neil the Werewolf responds:

Max does the conservative thing where you criticize politically correct language reforms. Really, I think a lot of the terms he rejects are better than the ones he likes ... Overall, I'm pretty happy with the trade society has made over the past few decades. I have no desire to use language that perpetuates unwholesome stereotypes.

Max's response to this response:

My point ... is that it is not the place of a dictionary maker to tell me whether my uses of various expressions lack sensitivity or should be replaced by "better" ones.

These posts got me thinking about an article I read a few years back--April 2001 to be (somewhat) exact--by David Foster Wallace called 'Tense Present' (published in Harper's), which introduced me to the dark side of contemporary lexicography--the 'Usage Wars.'

(David Foster Wallace is my favorite fiction writer going away. His most famous work is his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, a 1,088 page epic about drug addiction, Quebecois separatism, mass media, corporate hegemony, and tennis. Just as good are his short story collections Oblivion and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, as well as a book of essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.)

Apparently, the Usage Wars pit Prescriptivists--those who argue, like Neil, that the purpose of dictionaries ought to be impose certain norms or standards on language--against Descriptivists, who, like Max, believe that a dictionary's job is to document the language as it is actually used, not to tell us how to use it. And like most wars, it isn't pretty. Wallace:

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? ... Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?


We regular citizens tend to go to The Dictionary for authoritative guidance. Rarely, however, do we ask ourselves who decides what gets in The Dictionary or what words or spellings or pronunciations get deemed "substandard" or "incorrect." Whence the authority of dictionary-makers to decide what's OK and what isn't? ... simply appealing to precedent or tradition won't work, because what's considered correct changes over time. In the 1600s, for instance, the second-singular pronoun took a singular conjugation — "You is." Earlier still, the standard 2-S pronoun wasn't "you" but "thou" ... Who's to say which changes are natural and which are corruptions?


You'd sure know lexicography had an underbelly if you read the little introductory essays in modern dictionaries ... But almost nobody ever bothers with these little intros, and it's not just their six-point type or the fact that dictionaries tend to be hard on the lap. It's that these intros aren't actually written for you or me or the average citizen who goes to The Dictionary just to see how to spell (for instance) meringue. They're written for other lexicographers and critics, and in fact they're not really introductory at all but polemical. They're salvos in the Usage Wars that have been under way ever since editor Philip Gove first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster's Third. Gove's famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster's Third endorsed OK ... was this: "A dictionary should have no traffic with ... artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive." These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.


"Correct" English usage is, as a practical matter, a function of whom you're talking to and how you want that person to respond — not just to your utterance but also to you. In other words, a large part of the agenda of any communication is rhetorical and depends on what some rhet-scholars call "Audience" or "Discourse Community." And the United States obviously has a huge number of such Discourse Communities, many of them regional and/or cultural dialects of English: Black English, Latino English, Rural Southern, Urban Southern, Standard Upper-Midwest, Maine Yankee, East-Texas Bayou, Boston BlueCollar, on and on. Everybody knows this. What not everyone knows — especially not certain Prescriptivists — is that many of these non-SWE [Standard White English] dialects have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars, and that some of these dialects' usage norms actually make more linguistic/aesthetic sense than do their Standard counterparts.

Wallace brings these issues to bear on the topic of Neil and Max's discussion: 'politcally correct' terminology:

... pussyfooting has of course now achieved the status of a dialect — one powerful enough to have turned the normal politics of the Usage Wars sort of inside out.

I refer here to Politically Correct English (PCE), under whose conventions failing students become "high-potential" students and poor people "economically disadvantaged" and people in wheelchairs "differently abled" ... Although it's common to make jokes about PCE (referring to ugly people as "aesthetically challenged" and so on), be advised that Politically Correct English's various pre- and proscriptions are taken very seriously indeed by colleges and corporations and government agencies, whose own institutional dialects now evolve under the beady scrutiny of a whole new kind of Language Police.

From one perspective, the history of PCE evinces a kind of Lenin-to-Stalinesque irony. That is, the same ideological principles that informed the original Descriptivist revolution — namely, the sixties-era rejections of traditional authority and traditional inequality — have now actually produced a far more inflexible Prescriptivism, one unencumbered by tradition or complexity and backed by the threat of real-world sanctions (termination, litigation) for those who fail to conform. This is sort of funny in a dark way, maybe, and most criticism of PCE seems to consist in making fun of its trendiness or vapidity. This reviewer's own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but confused and dangerous.

... With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language's political symbolism ... — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE's central fallacy — that a society's mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it's nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative ... delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There's a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact — in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself — of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo than traditional ... prescriptions ever were. Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth, I would be delighted to watch PCE progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as "low-income" or "economically disadvantaged" or "pre-prosperous" rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates on corporations ...

As a practical matter, I strongly doubt whether a guy who has four small kids and makes $12,000 a year feels more empowered or less ill-used by a society that carefully refers to him as "economically disadvantaged" rather than "poor." Were I he, in fact, I'd probably find the PCE term insulting — not just because it's patronizing but because it's hypocritical and self-serving. Like many forms of Vogue Usage, PCE functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the selfish interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups renamed.

The entire article (which is really worth reading if you're interested in this kind of thing) can be found here.

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