And don't forget, if you're looking for a present for your loved ones this Thanksgiving... or Hanukkah... or Christmas... okay, really, it won't be out till February 11th, so it'll have to be Valentine's Day... then consider a copy of ALONG THOSE LINES: THE BOUNDARIES THAT CREATE OUR WORLD
Less tryptophan than turkey!
Fewer fire hazards than a menorah!
Way less commercialized than Christmas presents!
Earlier today I looked out the back window and saw that my Yankee Flipper feeder had become the center of a yard bird frenzy. My usual visitors--Tufted Titmouses, particularly, but also Carolina Chickadees, American Goldfinches, House Finches, and the occasional White-breasted Nuthatch--were flapping around the dogwood with great energy. Joining them were a few woodpeckers--a Downy and a boldly-capped male Red-bellied--and even a couple larger songbirds. I caught white flashes, so before I even had the binoculars up, I was fairly sure they were Northern Mockingbirds. What the heck were THEY doing hanging around a feeder full of sunflower seeds? Mockers are much more likely to go after insects and other small prey; they're just not feeder birds. This didn't make any kind of--
That was the moment the gigantic brown bird flew up from the grass where I couldn't see it. It settled on a dogwood branch for a few minutes, with mockers and titmice and woodpeckers all chanting and circling and occasionally flying in from behind to scratch or peck hastily it.
It was an immature Red-Shouldered Hawk. And it was almost certainly eating one of my feeder birds.
Is it wrong of me to want it to come back?
Last night we did this:
Today we do this:
http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/wfs.portal#Click here at 2:00 this afternoon
to hear yours truly and partner Greg Jacobs bringing you all the action from the South's oldest continuous football rivalry, WFS vs. Episcopal.
Sometimes the Internet is good to me.
I have been waiting, for some time, to find an interactive map of the US that I could color-code. Why? Because I'd like a visual guide to my continuing quest to see a life bird in all fifty states.
Today, thanks to one of the kindly members of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Golden Horde, I found such a map here
And if you want a look for yourself, behold:
The 35 pink states are states where I have logged at least one life bird as of this writing; the seven blue states show where my birding attempts have so far gone for naught; and the eight green states are those I have not yet visited.
It's comforting to know that I'm sitting at 70%. And that I can now see it for myself in a snappy graphic display. Thanks, Julie! And thanks, blogger/photographer Jeremy Nixon! 1:49 PM
It's been a busy October, which is why I haven't done a lot of updating here, but the impending arrival of November has moved me to post 31 things I could have written about in the last month. In no particular order:
1. If they'd done nothing else in their careers, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick would still deserve to be stars for playing Brad & Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
2. I've responded to two separate polls about Virginia's upcoming election. I have a feeling my responses threw off the curve somewhat.
3. We don't get trick or treaters. Something to do with living on a U.S. highway in the middle of nowhere, I presume.
4. Old musical buddies Bryon Settle (Elmo & PC, Pressure Boys, LUD, Killer Filler), Ed Butler (Hindugrass, Sidecar Social Club) and I are planning to do a cover of the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love." Someday. Honest.
5. I've been re-reading Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern trilogy (and am now going through the concurrent Harper Hall trilogy), and while I can certainly take issue with some of the writing, damn, the world-building is remarkable. It's one of comparatively few created worlds where I'd kind of like to live.
6. My "Who's That Girl?" playlist, which features songs with women's names in the titles, is currently 145 songs long. And I don't think it's exhaustive.
7. The first song on the list is actually Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." But still.
8. It's been a good fall for warblers and other migrants; I've logged all kinds of non-resident birds coming through the area, including the high-impact Rose-breasted Grosbeak seen in my last entry, Scarlet Tanager, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-and-White Warbler, Palm Warbler, Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall.
9. I read a fair number of comics, but I have to say that John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew
is unique. There's simply nothing remotely similar. A black-comedy science-fiction/horror buddy cop story about an FDA agent who gets psychic impressions from anything he eats? Nope, nothing like that anywhere.
10. And yes, I tweeted that fact to artist Rob Guillory. He favorited it.
11. After all my posts about my disillusionment with Orson Scott Card, it will probably come as no surprise that I'm not planning to see the film version of Ender's Game
. I simply can't bear the thought of giving him any more of my money or increasing his audience in any way. If you wish to go see it, I won't try to stop you... but I might ask that you donate the cost of your ticket to the ACLU or some other LBGT rights group.
12. It's an increasingly common question, what with his increasing fame, so I'll answer it here, officially: yes, I know Clark Gregg. We went to junior and senior high together, and have played soccer, music, and characters together. We're not the best of buddies by any means--we fell out of touch after he graduated from CHHS, a year ahead of me--but I am entirely delighted to see how he's turned a supporting role in a single film into a franchise, and it's great to see a guy my age taking off into a new phase of his career.
13. I'm still doing the webcast thing, announcing the events of Woodberry's football and soccer games for another week or so. (Our season finale is Saturday, November 9th, at 2:00 p.m., when WFS faces archrival Episcopal High School in Alexandria for the 113th consecutive playing of The Game.) A click on this link
will take you to our broadcast portal, where you can listen to past games on demand, or catch 'em live while you still can.
14. Caramels. I can withstand the temptation of damn near anything else, but not caramels.
15. Neither of my fantasy football teams is doing especially well, but I have to feel that the Fighting Coelacanths are having a streak of rotten luck. I have the third-highest scoring average in the league; unfortunately, I lead the league in points scored by opponents. Too bad there's no defense in fantasy ball...
16. The Red Sox won the World Series again. You have to figure the Cubs fans are about to plotz.
17. Kelly and I did actually manage to get out for a movie recently. We saw Gravity
, figuring it'd be a good one to see on the big screen, and yow, good choice there. I enjoyed a lot about it--Bullock's performance, for one thing, in a role that could have easily gone awry--but the technical side of the film was simply amazing. I've never seen a free-fall environment rendered so realistically, or so beautifully.
18. Ian's coming home this weekend, so we'll get a chance to work as a family unit for a couple of days. After a non-stop series of trips to Richmond in September and early October, it's been nice to have a little time off the road, but we've missed the kiddos.
19. Oh, if you were wondering, I endorse the Democratic slate in Virginia this year. The GOP is officially not getting my vote until the grownups get control of their party again. They invited all these yahoos in, so they can damn well kick them out.
20. Danny Elfman collects royalties on EVERYTHING you sing on Halloween.
21. I've been trying not to admit this, but I have a bad feeling we need to buy another bookshelf.
22. After all this time, and all this frustration and stress, there's still one thing I really look forward to every year: teaching my American Poetry class about "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Sometimes there's really only one or two kids who get it, but for them, it's just electric. And for me, too.
23. I'm fifty years old and still vaguely disappointed that the economy doesn't work like the one in Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?
24. I made a deal with Kelly: that I'd finish watching the second season of her beloved TV series Supernatural once she finishes reading one of two things: John Crowley's remarkable, beautiful, sprawling modern fairy tale Little, Big
, or Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's SF-feminist comics adventure Y: The Last Man
. She hasn't picked which one to start yet, but I'm really eager to talk about either one with her; I suspect she may go for Y
because I showed her that Agent 355 is both a kick-ass bodyguard and a pretty awesome knitter.
25. There are some wildly popular foods I just don't get. One is corndogs, which we had for lunch today. The other is candy corn, which... well, yeah, you see why it was on my mind.
26. There are papers I should be grading. I've been able to say that every day this month.
27. Having finished his three shows in September and October, Dixon immediately rushed out to audition for more. He's playing a character named Insanity in a show called Pun (n): A Play On Words
on November 22-23, then playing a depressed teenage version of Charles Schulz's Schroeder in Dog Sees God
on December 6-7 (both at VCU's Shafer Alliance Lab Theater
.) In 2014, he'll appear as Billy in the VCU Mainstage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
(Feb. 13-15 & 20-22 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 16 & 23 at 3:00 p.m.) before essaying the role of Hamlet in David Davalos' Wittenberg
from March 28 to April 19 for the Henley Street Theater
. I sure hope he's going to class.
28. I read another Edith Wharton novel, The House of Mirth
. I may have liked The Age of Innocence
better, but not by much.
29. I bought a bag of Tootsie Pops for Halloween (we give bags of candy to our advisees at school) and discovered that they have pomegranate flavor pops now. I have no earthly idea what that would even taste like.
30. Speaking of advisee candy, I decorate each bag with a horror-related pun on each student's name. This year I was quick to settle on Draculee
(with a vampire), Brandonstein
(a patchwork man), and Grave
(for Grey, with a tombstone), but my last advisee gave me trouble. His last name is Park, and that had me working through variations on Army of Parkness and Park Shadows, but nothing clicked... until I drew a zombie on the bag and labeled it The Parking Dead
31. As you might have guessed, Kelly's working tonight. I wonder if she'll bring home any candy... 8:25 PM
*The trip to Richmond and back has become familiar to Kelly and me in recent years, but never quite so familiar as in recent weeks. We drove to Richmond and back on Friday the 20th of September (to see the first night of Dixon's Ramapalooza standup comedy) and again on Saturday the 21st (to see the second night.) On Saturday the 28th, we drove down to see him host and perform in the Ramapalooza sketch comedy performance and returned home, only to wake up on Sunday the 29th and head back to Richmond to celebrate Ian's birthday. We did that with brunch at Kuba Kuba and a little shopping, and then Kelly and I swung by Trader Joe's on the way home. I returned to Richmond on Friday, October 4th, to broadcast Woodberry's 24-14 win over Collegiate School, and Kelly and I will head back on Monday October 7th in order to see Dixon's performance in The Submission
Mathematically, then, that breaks down to six trips to Richmond and back in sixteen days. Maybe we should make the boys come home to see us next time.
*Speaking of Ramapalooza, the sketch portion was just as much fun as the standup portion, and we had the chance to see Dixon deliver still more of his standup in his role as host; yes, as per Saturday Night Live, he got to deliver the opening monologue, but he was also a big part of a number of sketches. He was one of a pair of suburban men who kept inserting the word "bro" into everything they talked about, as well as a wannabe super-hero trying out for the Justice League: "My name is Altar Boy. My body has the power to resist puberty and I can repress memories. All of them." His best sketch, in my opinion, was the final one, in which he spent the whole time wearing a full-body pink pig suit. He was playing a high-schooler who had been named mascot for his school and had fallen completely into the role of Hammy, the Hamilton High School Ham. And yes, that means he hadn't taken off the suit in two years.
A click here will take you to an interview with Ramapalooza director John Porter and some photos of Dixon and his cohorts Becky Granger and Elliot Duffy
. You can also click here to see a pic of Dixon with his standup night trophy and read a blurb about his win
from Richmond's Style Weekly
*Fall migration occasionally produces some interesting birding. I've turned up a few unusual sightings in my recent walks around campus, including first-of-the-year birds like the Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Nashville Warbler. Today, however, the bird came to us, as we were jolted out of a lazy Saturday afternoon's lolling about by a loud thunk against our living room window. A quick inspection revealed this young fellow sprawled in the greenery beneath the window:
If you don't have your field guide handy, you can take my word for it: this is a first-year male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, whose resemblance to his mother is strong, but whose pinkish wing linings reveal his youthful machismo. Kelly obligingly broke out her iPad and snapped this pic of the two of us during his brief period of recovery:
After catching his breath in the shrubbery for a bit, he flew off on his way southward. Maybe we'll see him at the feeder next spring; I saw what may have been his dad in our yard back in April, after all, and what may have been his mom turned up on Woodberry's campus only a week or two back.
*Our government is shut down. Y'all know me as a moderate fellow who is moved to rash acts only when the situation demands it, so recognize the seriousness with which I view the current situation when I say that for the foreseeable future, I am voting straight-ticket Democrat. Period. I'll hold my nose and cast a ballot for Terry McAuliffe, even. The Republicans in our government have lost all semblance of concern for anything other than their own power; from declaring the defeat of Obama their top priority to gerrymandering themselves into a House majority to furloughing 800,000 federal workers while declaring "I need my paycheck," the national leadership has officially set itself up in opposition to the votes, the desires, and the needs of most Americans. If they can flush this element out of their party and return to a rational, thoughtful conservatism, then we'll talk, but between Eric Cantor, Ken Cuccinelli, John Boehner and Ted Cruz, I'm ready to cut the whole lot of them loose.
*I finally did something I've been meaning to do for some time: I finished Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
. Zowie. I finally got around to reading The Age of Innocence
a few years back and was bowled over, but it took me a while to get going with the story of Lily Bart. I'm very, very glad I did. I do sort of wonder if I would have liked Wharton this much if I'd read her when I was younger, but if I hadn't, I'd have to say that saving her for later was a wise choice. I also took a look at the scripts of two excellent comedies that I'm considering for the black box show I'm directing this winter, and I think tonight I'll be cleansing my palate with some good old-fashioned mainstream superherodom: a new collection of Batman & Robin
by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. It's coming on the heels of one of DC's periodic "alternate-world purges," as critic R. Fiore once referred to the company's attempts to rejigger its continuity, so I'm not hugely optimistic, but maybe something will click. Or maybe I'll find myself thinking that Dick Grayson was lucky to get out of the Peter Pan booties when he did.
*And tomorrow: a trip to CHARLOTTESVILLE for a change! An outing with my advisees! A chance to eat sushi! Even a visit with my mom! But yeah, we're headed back to Richmond on Monday.12:46 AM
Want to pre-order PC's new book, Along Those Lines (coming on February 11, 2014)? Just click the link!
We have become very fond of Virginia Commonwealth University over the years. Ian entered in the fall of 2009 and graduated (B.A., History, with an anthropology minor) this past May, and his brother followed him in 2011 after being accepted as a performance major in the theatre department; Dixon should earn his B.F.A. in May of 2015. Both boys have loved the experience of living in Richmond, and we've certainly enjoyed visiting them there, but with the theatre department in particular, Kelly and I have become very confident that the institution is offering not merely a clear understanding of the subject area's theory, but of its practice as well. Dixon has been trained in standard areas such as acting, movement, and voice, but he's also had the chance to get involved in a lot of theatrical productions, both on the VCU mainstage (where he has played Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
and Frederick Fellowes in Noises Off
) and elsewhere.
The main "elsewhere" has been the Shafer Alliance Lab Theater
, an older and less well-appointed theater where students can produce experimental and/or original works, or as the department puts it, works "focused primarily on the essentials of performance in a creative and impartial manner." Dixon's first role at VCU was in a SALT production of The Elephant's Graveyard
, and last year he appeared in three SALT shows: Fuddy Meers
, directed by student Connor Scully; Wake-Up Call
, an original play written by his housemate Elliott Duffy; and Risked (originally titled Awake, with the World Above Our Heads
), which he co-wrote and co-directed with another housemate, Maxwell Moore. This year he'll be appearing in two Richmond community shows (FOR WHICH HE GETS PAID, not that his mother and I are excited about it...): Stage B's October production of The Submission
, and the Henley Street Theater's spring production of Wittenberg
, in which he plays Hamlet.
But to start his junior year, Dixon was given an intriguing opportunity by the powers that be at Theatre VCU: the school's first mainstage production of original comedy: Ramapalooza
. In this show, stretching over two weekends, students (and employees, and alumni) get to perform standup (last weekend, September 20-21) and sketch comedy (this weekend, September 27-28).
Standup performances were set up as a contest to find "the Funniest Ram on Campus." Open auditions, held a while back, resulted in a slate of 16 standup comics appearing in five-minute segments on Friday night. Among them were three juniors: Dixon, Elliot Duffy, whose whimsical, cerebral, and occasionally disturbing sense of humor was on fine display, and Becky Granger, whose deadpan delivery worked beautifully with her sometimes-surreal material (very different from the good-natured ingenues she played in Wake-Up Call
). Given the not-so-enviable task of starting the second act, Dixon performed very well, delivering five minutes of often self-deprecating humor ("I'm the least physically intimidating person in the world.. I'm the person you would WANT to meet in a dark alley... 'Hey, I've got a gun!' 'You're ADORABLE!'"). He also mused on the possibility that the busty Asian women in his internet pop-up ads really ARE somewhere out there waiting for him to click.
The three celebrity judges, all standups with ties to the local comedy scene, selected eight finalists who would appear on Saturday night and do TEN minutes each. Host John Porter handed out roses, Bachelorette-style, at the end of the show, and Dixon, Elliot, and Becky all ended up clutching flora.
On Saturday, having worked desperately to polish (and possibly create) some bits for a longer segment, Dixon once again came out at the start of Act II and killed. One of the only performers who repeated absolutely nothing from Friday, he focused this time on existential horror. My favorite line: "I prank-called the suicide hotline. I said 'I'm fine' and hung up." I was laughing throughout, and his final bit about the educational film he claims he saw in anatomy class (a close-up of sperm cells wriggling, followed by a cut to a scientist, rising up from the microscope to announce "These sperms are MINE!:) was so good that my head was actually starting to ache. This is not something that happens often; usually when I laugh so hard my head hurts, I'm watching something that is not merely funny, but professionally
funny--Louis C.K., or Eddie Izzard, or the hive-mind of FLOGG riffing on an NFL playoff game during the Christmas holidays. To have one of your offspring produce such delightful agony is a highly gratifying thing.
Dixon was happy just to make it to the finals, but by the end of the show there was no doubt in my mind that he had the best set of the night. Still, there was the possibility that my viewpoint was biased, and that the comics in the judges' chairs might not agree. John Porter brought out the results and announced that the second runner-up was.... Elliot Duffy. The first runner-up was... Becky Granger. And the Funniest Ram on Campus, winner of the coveted horse's ass trophy, a giant dry-mounted print of a fifty-dollar bill, and an ACTUAL fifty-dollar bill, was... Dixon Cashwell.
He was surprised. Not just because he won, but because he now realized that he would have to serve as the host of the Sketch Comedy show going up on the following Friday. (And he's already in some of the sketches, as are Elliot and Becky.)
Perhaps oddly, though, I wasn't surprised by his win, and not just because I agreed with the outcome. I am delighted when Dixon does well, and I can certainly be surprised by the way in which he does well, but I've reached the point now where I have complete confidence in his abilities as a performer. A lot of that is his inborn talent, no question, and his work ethic in theatrical matters is enormous as well, but there's no question that his success owes a great deal to the education he's been getting.
In short, thanks, VCU. Please accept another tuition payment in recognition of my satisfaction with your product.
And if any of you are in Richmond this weekend, I think I can guarantee a good laugh.
Hey, kids! You can pre-order PC's new book, Along Those Lines (coming on February 11, 2014), with a click of this link!
In 1943--seventy years ago--a Hungarian Jew named Laszlo Biro did something significant: he patented a new writing tool. If you've spent time around England, you may be able to guess what it was: the ballpoint pen. Popularized by World War II RAF pilots, who found its more viscous ink better for writing at altitude, the so-called "biro" rapidly replaced the more delicate and expensive fountain pen as the dominant writing implement. So cheap and easily available is the ballpoint that the typical home or office may have dozens of them lying around, and the loss of one is a matter of no import at all, while the gift of a fountain pen--and the loss of one!--is estimable indeed.
The fountain pen, about a century old when Biro filed his patent, was a combination of two technologies: a reservoir of ink and a strong steel nib. The former was the big news, getting rid of the need for the writer to dip his pen into an inkwell repeatedly. The latter had been around for about a generation, having been developed in England in the 1820s to replace the venerable quill pen, which was made from the wing feather of a bird (preferably a goose). The quill itself had been around since the Middle Ages, when it replaced the even older reed pen, largely because it held a point longer. But until 1822, all had to be dipped.
Basically, a considerable period of human history saw writing being done with a vegetable device, until it was discovered that an animal-based version of that same device was more durable. After a millennium or so, an even more durable metal version was invented and used for about a century. And then, about seventy years back, a completely new technology for putting ink on the page was developed.
Durability, as you can see, was a major concern for generations of writers, and to extend the life of their pens, they developed a writing technique known as cursive, which allowed the writer to keep the point on the page, rather than forcing it against the page repeatedly. By the 17th century, a fairly standard form of cursive had developed in the English-speaking world, and it made its way into the classroom soon after; my ancestors learned it in their various schools, and when I entered third grade in the fall of 1971, I too was taught the basics of how to join my letters together. I struggled with the task for several years, but in seventh grade, facing the need to take class notes at some length for the first time, I switched to a faster, more legible style of writing: printing.
Why was I able to do this? Because unlike my grandparents' school, mine had ballpoints. Ballpoints can be lifted and pressed onto the page repeatedly, as hard and as often as you like. They're not so fragile that they require a whole new system of writing, and you don't risk wiping out a huge chunk of your dad's salary if you misuse or misplace one.
I did not use a fountain pen or dip pen until I was 14 and got interested in calligraphy; for everything I wrote regularly--notes, letters, and school assignments--ballpoints were the pen of choice, and my go-to writing tool until I started typing papers in college. There my work was primarily done on an old IBM Selectric, but by graduate school it had become apparent that I'd have to learn to work on a computer. I didn't do it willingly, but I learned how word processing was done and have never looked back. Everything I have published (and the vast majority of what I have written) has been written on a computer since I finished my M.A.T. in 1989.
A brief digression: In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, which wasn't the first actual automobile, but was the first to gain widespread popularity. It was almost exactly 70 years later that I took driver's education and earned my license. My driver's ed curriculum, I should note, did not involve the Model T; I learned to drive in an Oldsmobile with an automatic transmission, a V8 engine, seat belts, radial tires, and a host of other features developed since the Tin Lizzy's day. And I certainly didn't spend any time learning how to handle the transportation system on which most people relied BEFORE the Model T's introduction; what purpose would there have been in requiring me to learn the proper operation of a buggy, or the care and feeding of a horse? We didn't have a buggy, and we certainly had neither a place to keep a horse nor the means to take care of it.
But today, I hear cries from many quarters bemoaning the loss of cursive writing. In 2006, only 15 percent of the students taking the SAT wrote their essays in cursive, and in response to such alarming statistics, the state of North Carolina has considered (among its many recent attempts to turn back the clock) legislation to require the teaching of cursive in schools.
What do I say in 2013 in response to the impending extinction of cursive?
Exactly what I would have said in 1978 if the state of North Carolina had tried to force me to learn the proper use of the buggy whip and curry comb:
"Your horse is pretty, and I'm sure it's very nice, but for all but a handful of people, it's completely obsolete. In fact, even the technology that replaced
your horse is obsolete now."
Sorry, folks. At some point, your school days have to stop being the model for the current generation's school days. Or do you want their history lessons to end before D-Day as well? 1:08 AM
For someone who is, let's face it, rather self-absorbed at times, I'll confess that I don't do a lot of self-Googling. I don't know why, really; lord knows I use Google quite often. (It's my Firefox homepage for a reason.) But today, as Kelly and I sat enjoying our coffee at the Raven's Nest following a morning of veggie-fondling at the Culpeper Farmer's Market, she surprised us both by running a Google Image search not of her own name, but mine. And this popped up:
Yes, that would appear to be the cover art for Along Those Lines
(though it might just be a placeholder). And if you click on that link, you'll discover that the book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com (as well as BarnesandNoble.com
), with a publication date of February 11, 2014.
Uh, thanks for that, Kel. Good to know.
To me, the definitive essay on definitions was written by David Foster Wallace. In "Authority and American Usage" (which originally appeared in Harper's
Magazine but is now collected in Consider the Lobster
), Wallace dug into what he called "the seamy underbelly of US lexicography" in order to review a book by Bryan Garner called A Dictionary of Modern American Usage
. That book, now published as Garner's Modern American Usage
, inspired Wallace to consider the dilemma of the dictionary.
The dilemma's horns are known as Prescriptivism and Descriptivism, and they are long and pointy indeed, offering two very different views of what a dictionary is. The quick and dirty version of that difference is that Prescriptivists want dictionaries to show how the language should be
, while Descriptivists want dictionaries to show how the language is
A dictionary that establishes hard, fixed, and clear definitions is the dream of the Prescriptivists, who are sick of hearing people use unique
to mean unusual
rather than one of a kind
, and who find I could care less
a tooth-grinding error in logic and rhetoric. In their view, the dictionary is the place where the rules of meaning are captured and displayed, allowing a reader to look up an unclear or unknown word and have the pure truth shine upon him. The chaotic mishmash of non-standard words, phrases, and usages can be controlled only through the cold, antiseptic scalpel of the dictionary, separating English from non-English, accuracy from error, use from misuse. The dictionary, to the Prescriptivist, is an autocrat. No matter how frequent or widespread a word's misuse may be, say the P-folk, it remains a misuse unless the dictionary's authority is behind it.
The D-folk, however, see this whole worldview as ludicrous, not to mention anti-democratic. A Descriptivist will point out that a dictionary is an after-the-fact creation, an attempt to impose restrictions on something that already exists; English is centuries older than any English dictionary. Moreover, there are dozens of different English dictionaries (88 of which have their own Wikipedia pages) written by scores of people and published in nearly as many places around the world. Which one should be the ultimate arbiter of what a word means or how it is properly used? And what's to be done about the variations of English? Who's to say whether the correct English spelling is the British gaol
or the American jail
? For a Descriptivist, no book has the authority to invalidate the speech of hundreds of millions of users. No, the best a dictionary can do is to record the ways in which those users interact with their language. There are no misuses of words--only varying uses. The dictionary's job, in the Descriptivist's ideal, is to capture, as fully and completely as possible, the many and varied ideas of the English-speaking world. In other words, Power to the People.
And on which of these points do I perch uncomfortably? You'll probably be unsurprised to hear that I fit between them. Why am I there? The metaphor I sometimes use is that of the human body. Prescriptivism alone is too rigid; it is inert, calcified, motionless. On the other hand, Descriptivism alone has no structure; it is unmanageable, gelatinous, shapeless. One is a skeleton; one is a jellyfish; both are pretty useless. Unless a language has both a rigid structure to hold up the floppy parts and a fluid musculature to move around the stiff parts, it's not going to be able to dance.
That said, some may be shocked to find a trained teacher of English pitching his tent
closer to the Descriptivist camp. Why? Well, at a fundamental level, it must be conceded that languages exist independent of dictionaries; the idea that the latter can have any kind of universal authority is simply laughable, despite the best efforts of lexicographers and their publishers. Languages exist even among the illiterate, or those too poor to own a dictionary, so on a practical level, there is no way for a speaker of English to have a complete and perfect knowledge of the contents of any dictionary, leaving the determination of how to use many words entirely up to the speaker.
And honestly, that's healthy; languages must change as the world in which their speakers live changes. New concepts, new technologies, and new terms of art are being created all the time, and a language that cannot deal with those creations will be dead before long. When computers became widespread, for example, we needed a convenient term meaning "to gain access to," and the verb "to access" was born. Nor is this any kind of johnny-come-lately development; English had no words for New World foods, creatures, or cultural practices until the 16th century, but we've now had 500 years to get used to eating potatoes, photographing bison, and smoking. Waiting for dictionaries to provide official approval before using such terms would be unwieldy at best, and the truth is that dictionaries are reactionary anyway; no matter how widespread the need might be, a lexicographer would be disinclined to redefine the verb "to smoke" as "to inhale the fumes of burning tobacco" unless there were already quite a few English speakers using it that way.
With all that said, however, I find myself mourning a recent development in lexicography, one noted in this widely-read Guardian piece by Martha Gill
: a number of dictionary makers, most notably Merriam-Webster, have added a definition for the word literally
, and the new definition, paradoxically, is "not literally."
The new definition, indicated by Google here
, is "Used to acknowledge that something is not literally
(emphasis mine--PC) true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."
The tongue-in-cheek headline of Gill's article ("Have we literally broken the English language?") is an indicator of the exaggerated trauma this development has caused for many grammarians. The Week
is even sniffier, announcing its own article as "How the Wrong Definition of 'Literally' Snuck into the Dictionary."
(Note: if you're going to get pissy about people using "wrong" English, you should be aware that "snuck" rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way as the past tense form of "sneak." In fact, my MSWord spellchecker doesn't recognize "snuck" as a word. So nyaah.) Why the fuss? Because the word literally
means, y'know, "in a literal fashion." Something is literally
true when it is true in a word-for-word, honest-to-gosh, no-kidding, straight-up actual sense. If something is figuratively true, or true in a manner of speaking, or metaphorically true, or true in some variety of bullshit Obi-Wan way, it's not literally true. In fact, it's the opposite
of literally true. And that's a problem.
Imagine that I'm standing in a flooded basement and talking to my plumber on the phone.
If there are merely a few pools of water that don't even come over the tops of my shoes, it is not
accurate for me to say, "The water is knee-deep in here!. Can you send someone now?" At the very least, I
would be exaggerating, or at worst, deliberately lying. If I were to do so, I might well cause the
plumber to drop another emergency to come deal with the relatively minor problem in my basement,
If several inches of water cover the floor, I might say, "The water is knee-deep in here!" This an exaggeration, sure, but the gist of the statement is in line with the reality, and the plumber gets a reasonable sense of the situation he'll face: a floor that is completely flooded and getting worse.
If the water is up to the hem of my shorts, it is completely appropriate for me to say, "The water is knee-deep in here."
In fact, I could even emphasize how
accurate I'm being by saying "The water is literally
knee-deep in here." That adverb tells the plumber that I'm not exaggerating at all; I'm providing a description that is as close to the actual truth as I can make it, thus giving him a sense of the situation that is as accurate as possible.
But now the problem: if my plumber knows the new definition of literally
, then when I call the water "literally knee-deep," he cannot have any idea what I mean. I might be 100% accurate, or I might be exaggerating; heck, I might even have a bone-dry basement. The addition of the word literally
to my sentence has provided no information to my plumber at all; in fact, my sentence is now less
clear to him than "The water is knee-deep in here" would be.
The word literally
now cancels itself out. By definition.
I know, I know, these dictionaries are merely reflecting the changing nature of the language, not causing it. And besides, English isn't mathematical or logical by nature, so it is foolish to expect mathematical or logical order from it. In English, a positive statement can, with the right tone, become a sarcastic negation--yeah, right--and a double negative can get across its meanings perfectly well, and ain't nobody out there who should deny it. The beauty and utility of English is unquestionably enhanced by our adoption of words, usages, and meanings that extend beyond the restrictive boundaries of a dictionary entry, and in general it is wise to recall the words of Derek Jennings, who noted that English accrued over time, like the rings of Saturn, and that every attempt we make to impose order on it at best a bit tardy.
But I can't help recalling Wallace's take on the matter, because what he saw in Bryan Garner's book was nothing short of a master stroke--a cutting of the Gordian knot, or perhaps the slipping of an oversized camel through the needle's eye between Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. As he saw it, Garner was not setting himself up as an authority figure, passing down judgment on the reader's use of language, nor as a nonjudgmental collector of uncategorized specimens of English. Instead, as Wallace put it:
[T]he author presents himself not as a cop or a judge but as more like a doctor or lawyer. This is an ingenious tactic... Garner, in other words, casts himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism. After all, do we call a doctor or lawyer "elitist" when he presumes to tell us what we should eat or how we should do our taxes?
In other words, according to Garner, when it comes to English, the dictionary maker is not the judge; the only judge is the audience. Lexicographers, grammarians, English teachers, and random internet pedants of all stripes can do nothing but offer their opinions about the best ways to use words, and if those opinions are persuasive, people will adopt them into their own writing and speech.
In that regard, the argument over literally
has already been settled; clearly there exists a population of English speakers for whom literally
works best as a word meaning figuratively
, rather than in actual fact
. Words such as really
have traveled this route already, so I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad that they have a new companion.
At the same time, however, I can't help feeling a little down. Literally
was a good word, a useful word, one that provided a nugget of meaning that often helped me express an idea a bit more clearly, or come more rapidly to an understanding. Now I feel as though it's been taken from me. Maybe it was inevitable, but I find it just as hard to be fatalistic about the life of a word as I do the life of a species. Intellectually I know every species becomes extinct in the end, just as every human life reaches its limit at some point, but that doesn't help me feel better. Our world has already lost the Black Rhino, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Dodo; maybe they weren't great losses, and maybe some other creature is already making use of the ecological niche each once inhabited, but they were losses nonetheless. And now I go on into a world that, for all practical purposes, has lost something else.
And I do feel we have lost something. Literally.