Another Word That Ends Things

In the preceding post, I discussed a word that famously stopped everything else in the news cycle for a few days and then mused about how people manage when they overuse such magical words until they have no further powers left in them. Yesterday, I heard of another word that brings abruptly dire consequences: Literally. No, I mean it. This one word can get you kicked out of a bar in New York (at least until it finally, truly gets demolished soonly). In some ways, this is no surprise, since much has been written about the abuse of this one word (such as in Forbes, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe, to name a few venues). Somehow, however, it escaped Lake Superior University’s Annual List of Words to Banish (We’ll miss you “covfefe”–it was fun while it lasted).

Everyone has their line in the sand. At one point early in my professional life, I had such a special ire for “FYI” that I crossed it out whenever it appeared in front of me. For my husband, it’s any time a server says “Absolutely” or “No Problem.” Under his breath, he’ll mutter “It better NOT be a problem. It’s your job, pal. And ‘Absolutely’…that belongs in some swank bistro where they charge twenty bucks just for saying it. In case you forgot, this here is Pizza Hut!” Or put another way, “Right away, Sir” will do.


The Word to End All Words

Since this is a blog about writing and often reflects on how words are used, I could not resist this topic (especially since it is everywhere in the media just now). By now, many readers will be familiar the word heard round the world (i.e. Our president’s blunt descriptor of a couple individual countries and an entire continent during an immigration policy presentation). Some news outlets struggled with how to specify the term without breaking broadcasting rules or local ethics laws or mortally offending customers. NPR devoted a segment to the decision-making process for how they reported the word (at first without saying it). Reactions varied from outrage and condemnation to accusations of “excessive pearl-clutching.” More than one of the online comments on the various news stories wondered out loud “What is the big deal? Have people never heard this word before?”

The “big deal” in this situation is context. If you are an ordinary person standing in the grocery line with your six pack and smokes during your time off and you utter this word (perhaps to describe that other city from whence hails the rival sports team or maybe just the store itself), it has little consequence. If you deploy it in a meeting at your place of work to describe the office (particularly the bathroom), it might be okay, depending on who is present and the code of conduct in the workplace. However, for many workplaces, if you are using the referenced word to insult clients/patients/superiors/etc., you should be planning in the back of your head for how to fit your fan, photos, extra shoes, hoarded snacks, and pet rock into your car, because you aren’t coming back. The president’s utterance of the word at the given time and place more resembled usage in an office meeting than in the local supermarket. In my office, as a fellow cube-jockey, he would have been in the parking lot with a security gaurd at his elbow before he could finish the sentence.

To be fair to the president, he denies use of the specific word, though he concedes use of unspecified “tough language.” He also took the time to deny having said nasty things about one of the offended countries (though sparing no comment about the whole continent he dissed). His followers explain that he was frustrated by the quality of the proposal laid before him and expressed his concerns candidly in ordinary “kitchen table talk.” This defense weakens in light of the fact this was not a kitchen table or a locker room where he was speaking.

There is plenty written about the wider consequences of the time and place chosen for the utterance in question. I am more interested in the singular power of the word to bring the conversation to a halt. The user of a strong word signals by its introduction that all listening and consideration has come to an end and the recipients do indeed stop listening once it has been introduced. Thereafter, the post-mortem discussions will all be about the word and the user, not the substance of the meeting. The abrupt disintegration of the immigration conversation left pundits asking on the radio this afternoon,”But what does the president really want? That’s still unclear.” Given the president’s reported distaste for the content of the discussion, he was likely pleased with the general outcome. Residents of the disparaged continent (and former residents, such as myself and my spouse) did not take pleasure from the incident and, consequently, relations with that part of the world were weakened. Those of the president’s party who chose to express their own displeasure noted that the wording was “unhelpful,” which is true if the goal is to get to a viable policy solution (since the word has shut the process down at this point).

Let us return to the grocery line. I stood in such a line at a local supermarket once with a pair of young men in front of me and several families with children in parallel lines and behind me. The two men were conversing about a mundane topic but decorating their pauses with variations of a particularly potent four-letter invective, using it as teens in my era used the word “like.” Out of boredom and lack of interesting magazines to peruse, I measured the general frequency of use, finding the word present at least twice in every sentence.

The observed conversation led me to ruminate about the question of what these folks do when they are in genuine need of a nice strong exclamation. What do they say when they drop hammers on their toes (zounds? shazbot? dang?)? What do they say when they find out their roommate barfed on the bathroom floor and left the mess for others to clean up (blimy? goodness? jeepers? )? What about when they really want to tell someone (like the roommate who barfed) off? Go fly a kite? Curse words lose their snap with overuse, like a rubber band. Once robbed of their utility, they cannot be deployed to shut anything down, only to provoke laughter. Curse words, as noted above, also cause people to stop listening. I don’t recall what the young men in front of me were discussing because one word in various forms blocked it all out.

In my own writing, I avoid use of cursing, not because I am averse to using such words myself but because of the way they are generously sprinkled in other writers’ works as if to impress. One may argue that in order to be authentic and have characters who talk like “real” people, you need curse words and lots of them. After all, weren’t the men in line in front of me talking freely and naturally in an unrehearsed manner? Yes, it is true that some people swear profusely. It’s also true that I rarely hear such words in my work place (except the cafeteria, where people from other companies gather and some like to let loose at lunch), even though I know there is at least one true artist of the vulgar present (having heard the worst in other venues). Natural dialogue in our normal workaday context does not use strong words as punctuation and we find it works a lot more smoothly that way. For that matter, curses are uncommon in my family life as well. All of us are keeping our powder dry for that one shining moment when only the right words will do. We all know (because we are still employed) that it’s not likely to be at the conference table.

Vulnerable Transgender Fetuses

Aside from being a great name for a grunge band, the title of this post contains three of the seven “forbidden words” recently communicated to the Centers for Disease Control by their leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are: diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based. I don’t know about you, but I like my public health interventions to be science-based. They tend to work better that way.

Some pundits mentioned the book “1984” as being especially resonant in this case on the subject of societies where words are forcibly expunged in order to manipulate perceptions of reality and control people. There is a whole world of dystopian science fiction built on the same concept. To be less bleak, one can think of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” sketch and reflect that all of them are said regularly now on cable and the internet, if not (a least one or two) on broadcast television itself. There must be something about that number seven. Perhaps it’s like the number three, so important to oral history and legend as a mnemonic device (3 pigs, 3 bears, etc.).

Actually, I think more of just one word, “Enciente,” the word used to refer to Lucille Ball’s pregnancy during the run of her popular sitcom in the 1950’s. The networks at that time forbade use of the proper English terminology for the condition but they couldn’t get around the fact that the actress was going to have a baby. They had worked so hard to assure that the on-screen couple stayed in their proper twin beds in enveloping pajamas only to have the illusion that they were affectionate but not sexually active be blown apart by the inconvenient truth. They couldn’t erase the reality of a fetus’ existence by choosing to sound French (’cause…everything sounds better in French?…Sacre merde) anymore than the U.S. government can by wiping out the term by which it is called.

Over and over, commentary (e.g. this piece for a Canadian news agency) on the seven words banished from the CDC over the last few days has highlighted the point that what words we use (or refuse to use) signals to our employees, our constituents, our policymakers, and the rest of the world what we consider important and worth doing. In the case of ‘science’ and ‘evidence with regard to ‘health’, leaving these two out of our discourse says to a world that is watching for our example (and those looking for our weaknesses) that what has long been known as the soundest approach to protecting and strengthening the well-being of our population is no longer our priority. Pretending this approach is no longer useful or important doesn’t make it so.  If nothing else, this episode has been an excellent lesson in the uses and abuses of official language.



Homage to Dotage

A recent article reporting the results of a survey for one word that summarizes our current president also noted that North Korea’s leader (or at least the translator who brought his words to us) managed to find a word that has fallen out of use in American English but quickly captivated its audience: Dotard. The same newspaper helpfully suggested several other lesser known insults to deploy in reply. This reminded me of  the “Shakespearean Insults” widget I once had on a web homepage (in fact “dotard” was used by Shakespeare). Political cartoonists have also had some fun with the idea of a war of words that taps into the vast reservoir of underutilized ammunition. If I had any hope of remembering all these great words, I would surely assist in preserving them like antique seeds in a seed bank.

As for the original article, I was interested as a qualitative researcher in the results of this experiment and the way they were graphically summarized. The most common word selected was “Strong” but the percent of respondents who selected it was not especially high (9 percent), indicating a low level of agreement. However, when the words were grouped by their connotations, negative words (some barely publishable) clearly dominated. I found that for myself it was difficult to come up with a word to summarize all that I think and feel on this subject. This may be because I am inclined to be over-wordy or it might be that I don’t think very fast on my feet. Whatever the cause, I salute those who managed to find one single word to do the job.


She Shrugged and Tossed Her Curls

Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.

While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.

Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?

The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.

Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.

More Horrible News

No, it’s not Donald Trump winning the presidency. My only comment on that is related to a post on another blog where I noted that Rachel Maddow sarcastically exhorted our governor to “stay classy” but my advice is for him to “stay funny.” Someday historians will unearth articles about Paul LePage and Donald Trump and conclude they are fiction of a dark humor type, because in the abstract they can sound very much as if someone made them up. I have no doubt Mr. Trump will be entertaining as president and hopefully it will be in a good way.

Mention of Mr. LePage brings me to Maine’s best-known horror writer (heck, best-known writer, period), Stephen King who tweeted a super-flash fiction story that went: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Donald Trump and he ran for president. Some people wanted him to win.” Some of those people were probably comedians and late-night show hosts.

I am more interested in what Time magazine published last week in their innocence of the pending dramatic twist in the election. Never mind the cover story or various editorials. My eye fell hard on their ‘chartoon’ entitled “Horror-Movie Plot Generator.” Besides the fact that this piece is a few weeks too late for Halloween (but just in time for, well, election day), I was struck by the inclusion of this item in the “contextual” column: In Maine.

I don’t know if we Maineiacs should be honored or insulted by such a mention. This is the only specific place name on the list. It may be a tip of the hat to Mr. King and/or the many stories he has written that take place in Maine. It may be wise-acre homage to our governor. It might just be a random whim. It’s just interesting that someone thinking very hard for at least 20 seconds thought of this as one of the most recognizably scary places, right up there with “a hospital,” “an old house,” and “the woods.”

Anyway, at least now you have another helpful tool to get you out of that rut and start writing about…Newlyweds in space butchered by an ancient evil thing…

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.